North Palisade via the U-Notch — Page 7

North Palisade - Climbing the 5.4 Corner above the U-Notch

VII. Two Pitches of Rock

A lingering question about technical rock climbing has been on my mind for some time now (years, in fact), and at long last, as we reach the top of the U-Notch, it is about to be answered.

That question is concerned, certainly, with what I'll find in the climbing to be had above the U-Notch, but it is also very much concerned with what I'll find in myself. The chimney or corner or crack system that we will now climb is generally described as being two pitches high and of a difficulty rating between 5.2 and 5.6 on the Yosemite Decimal System.

North Palisade - Atop the U-Notch

Atop the U-Notch

North Palisade - Rock Climbing

Neil Leads the Start of the Climb

North Palisade - Climbing above the U-Notch

Climbing above the U-Notch

North Palisade - Rock Chimney

Looking Up

North Palisade - Exposure

Looking Down

'Two Pitches,' in this context, refers to two lengths of a standard 60 meter climbing rope, equaling roughly 300 vertical feet of climbing. The precise meaning of the various delinations of Class 5 climbing is more difficult to quantify.

For years now, I have wondered what Class 5 alpine climbing looks and feels like. I have climbed Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route, Russell via the East Ridge, Williamson from the West Chute.

I have walked, climbed, skied, and scrambled all over the Southern Sierra, yet 'til this day, I have never put myself on the end of a rope at the base of a Class 5 climb and contemplated progress upward. And so I realize there are two parts to my question:

First, I quite naturally wonder whether North Palisade's two pitches will largely resemble the third and fourth class rock I've seen elsewhere—or whether it will prove to be something new entirely.

Second, in the event that in fact I'm about to enter a new realm of mountaineering, I wonder what it will feel like.

Question One answers itself as soon as I spy the continuation of our route: a vertical wall of rock towering above us, pushing up and out of sight. That wall stands as an absolute barrier to a solo Andy. Were I alone, this is the point where I'd stare dully at the rock, find a few choice curses, and then go home.

But I am not alone today.

Neil clips me to a belay anchor at the base of the climb and offers a few last-minute instructions. Just like that, he's climbing upward, and I'm feeding him slack.

The whole business, to be honest, feels a tad surreal. I am aware of the grandeur of this route, which has taken us already up the remarkable ice and snow of the U-Notch Couloir and now challenges us with bare but brightly-colored granite.

Yet also occupying my thoughts is the alarming knowledge that what goes up must also come down.

Rather than putting all our energies into getting home safely, we are instead pushing in exactly the opposite direction: higher, farther, deeper. I try to focus on the task at hand. Neil, as before, soon passes up and out of sight. I am alone at the belay station, feeding slack, watching coils of rope slowly slip upward through my belay device with a quiet, zipping sound. The full length of a rope pitch, indicated by these passing coils, is quite large, I realize.

It seems to take forever, this business of rock climbing.

And then the rope nears its end. I call a warning up to Neil: "Fifteen feet!" Some unknown time later, I hear his voice shout down to me. It's my turn. I unclip from the belay and put my hands to the rock. This much is clear right away: I have accumulated enough experience as a scrambler and a small-time boulderer to manage climbing at the 5.2-5.6 difficulty level. My confidence ticks up a tiny bit.

As I quickly gain height above the rocky ground of the Notch, I notice something else: the rope negates, at least in part, my sense of exposure. Rather than being forced to constantly peek down and assess the consequences of a mistake, I can instead ignore what is happening below and focus instead only on the rock that immediately surrounds me.

Every ten or twenty feet or so, I come across a protection piece (such as a cam or stopper) set by Neil. It is my job to remove these from the rock and clip them to my harness. Here, in these interruptions of flow, I find myself more aware of the growing void below, and I try to distract these thoughts as soon as possible by returning to the business of the rock.

next: The Summit Ridge