Royal Arches, Royal Arches Area 5.10b or 5.7 A0
Avg time to climb route: 7-10 hours
Approach time: 10 minutes
Descent time: 2-3 hours
Number of pitches: 16
Height of route: 1400'
OverviewWith more than 1600' of climbing, Royal Arches is the easiest long route in Yosemite Valley. Short, 5.6 moves are mixed in with long stretches of 3rd and 4th class circuitous climbing. The only hard section, a 5.10b traverse, is easily bypassed with a fixed pendulum. That said, Royal Arches is committing and has benighted more than a few climbers. The climbing varies from 3rd class walking on large ledges and 5.4 friction to 5.6 finger and hand cracks. The climb is well protected except for a few easy friction-climbing sections.
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HistoryIn 1936, with both Cathedral Spires climbed and the virgin Lost Arrow defining the impossible, the Valley pioneers reconsidered the walls. Pinnacles had real summits, places where no one had ever trod, yet there weren’t too many more lurking about. Some walls were out of the question, like El Cap and Sentinel. Others proved unattractive or had no obvious crack systems. An exception was the shining wall above the Ahwahnee Hotel, just left of the Royal Arches. If a few key features could be linked, a thrilling route might lead to the rim.
The enormous, layered arches left of Washington Column spring directly out of the forest and curve upward until they fade out horizontally close to the rim. So prominent are these onionskin-like features that the Indians had several names for the formation. “Scho-ko-ni” referred to the arched shade of an infant’s cradle; and “hunto” meant an eye. Morgan Harris, a zoology junior at UC Berkeley, was obsessed by this area and lounged for hours near the recently-built hotel, studying the face with binoculars. He knew the main Royal Arches couldn’t be climbed—clearly, that was for a future generation. But just to the left lay lower-angled terrain, studded with trees, devoid of overhangs and blessed with cracks.
One attempt in torrid weather failed, and Harris spent a week in a hospital recovering from sunstroke. After yet another attempt, Harris, Ken Adam, and Kenneth Davis succeeded on October 9, 1936. The climbing on the route was not especially tough, but the routefinding and rope techniques proved daunting. One new procedure, called by Harris a “swinging rope traverse,” overcame a blank section. (Later this technique became known as a “pendulum.”) Harris, wishing to cross a smooth slab in order to reach a narrow ledge some 20 feet to his left, climbed straight upward about 25 feet, placed a piton and had his belayer lower him from it. Then, held tight by the rope from above, Harris began running back and forth across the wall, straining to reach the narrow ledge and finally succeeding.
Later, after yet another pendulum, the trio reached what they described as “an old tree-trunk,” a feature soon to become famous as the Rotten Log. This 25-foot-long, foot-thick dead log bridged a deep chasm, affording a unique method of reaching the other side. Harris had spotted this golden trunk from the Valley floor and hoped it would be strong enough to hold his weight. It was, although it vibrated crazily as he led across it. The three men reached the rim a few hours later, having completed the Valley’s longest route.
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