I've learned over the years, that the best adventures you'll ever find yourself getting into, the ones that end up pushing you the furthest beyond your personal expectations, typically start as some random conversation with just the right person, over some route you think you might want to try, but really have no expectation of actually ever doing.
Over the July 4th weekend, I found myself, yet again in that very situation with Alexey, on the seldom visited Basket Case...
I don't remember when it was, or even the conversation itself. Perhaps it began as some random conversation across a flickering campfire, or a fleeting thought half way up some route on a belay ledge. Either way, I must have uttered the words "we should climb that sometime" somewhere along the line.
I do remember the bug placed in the back of my mind after reading Doninis tale of the first ascent of Basket Case. I've never been one of those people who climb for the movement or pure challenge. It's always been about the lure of the unknown, and Basket Case has been a big question mark in the back of my mind for more than a decade. So despite any fears and apprehention I may have, I always try to remember, the first rule in traditional climbing, is to always start by saying, YES!
So as it were, spring was freshly over and summer was just popping up. I hadn't heard from Alexey in months when I recieved an email out of the blue. Before I even opened it, I somehow already knew exactly what it contained. We're going to climb Basket Case, and my curiosity and anticipation was more than compelling me to say "hell yes"!
We decided to climb it over a two day weekend. One leisurly day in to camp, the next day climb and walk out. Simple right? Not really. You see, I'd spent all spring growing tits clawing my way up polished slab routes. I'd tapped in more bolts than I've placed hand jambs in the past several months, much less even looked at an offwidth. Now I'm supposed to drag my ass through some henious looking approach and up a route with a notoriously obscure reputation, sporting a 5.11??? offwidth and miles of other wide questionmarks???
Well, sounds good to me. It was actually just what I had been looking for. Something to wear them tits down and build the callouses back up on my knees and back. Besides, what could go wrong? It's only 7 or so pitches and I figured we could link at least a couple.
So I got two days to get this done. We decide to opt out of the alpine start and hit the trail just a little later (3:00PM
). I'm late as usual and my gear is naturally in a giant knot in the back of my truck from the prevous weekends adventures.
We set off and make the leisurely 4 mile hike to the back side of North Dome. A nice hike if you've never done it. Certainly much easier than bushwacking your way down around that nightmare decent from North Dome and down the gully back to the Valley, FYI. Anyway, we find a nice flat camping spot, build a fire, sort and prep our gear then settle down for the night. Alexi's out like a light. Me, not so much. Too much redbull and a flat air mattress makes for a long night. Why the hell I didn't bring any booze is beyond me. Lesson learned.
We wake up in the morning at a leisurely pace giving plenty of time for breakfast and a much needed dose of coffee. We prep our gear, stash our bags and go in alpine style. Gear, topo and water, that's it. Oh, and Redbull.
The approach trail seemed obvious, but it turned out to be neither. You rummage through bushes from clearing to clearing and head away from Basket Dome. After a while we finally found the right gully. It looks really bleak from the top but is rendered not too bad with a little help from a bush belay provided by the flora that chokes the start.
Pretty soon it opened up to a nice damp all hands on downclimb on loose rock. No biggie, I accidently trundled the big block already, so ya'll are good to go.
Approaches are always overlooked in the descriptions of hard routes. Someone mentioned the approach was only 3rd class. Does this look like third class to you?
As we continued "3rd" classing it, I suddenly found myself on one of the most exposed and totally sandbagged approaches I'd encountered yet. We decided to rope up on this little bit of exposed 3rd class.
We soon found ourselves at the base of the route, looking up at the gaping maw above. This thing is awe inspiring to say the least.
The first pitch as the book describes it was trivial. Not really much harder than the approach, I don't consider it even part of the route proper, just the end of the approach.
The real first pitch started out as a perfect splitter fist crack. The kind of fist crack you dream about when climbing other fist cracks. Nuff said.
I mean, wow. Take another look, just for posterity.
We had brought two BD #3's and an old #3 1/2 friend. Unfortunately for me, one of the wires broke on a #3 and this picth is all 3's for about 50ft until it opens up and rounds out with a nice O.W. I got a piece or two in down low but was so afraid to leave my only #3 behind I actually ended up with it at the anchor. This pitch seemed quite burly and was but an omen of things to come.
Remember that #3 I was afraid to leave behind as pro? Good thing, cuz this is a Donini route after all, and so naturally the only option for an anchor required a blue #3. Pay no attention to that green .75 over there. That thing was crap in crap rock. Big blue was all that was holding this belay afloat.
Alexey got the next lead where he ended up linking pitches 2 & 3. I'm glad he did because it gave me time to tape up. Normally I never tape. In fact, I haven't worn tape since the first time I climbed outside a decade ago. But I got a sinking feeling of whats to come and I've learned my lesson the hard way before.
This pitch started out as a nice squeeze before going into a pleasurable lieback, but it's no gimmie. After an exposed traverse you'll find yourself on a near vertical 1 1/4 crack rated 5.9 in the book that ends at an uncomfortable stance. Vertical + 1 1/4 + 5.9 = ??? You do the math.
I started up the next pitch with a bit too much ambition. The start said 5.10 and I figured I could easily blow through it. Wrong!!! After a few false starts and some choice words I found myself in a perfectly vertical 4in crack. Solid .10d offwidth that seemed like it went on forever. Too small for my knee and too wide to get a fist to stick, I was burning more energy than I wanted with no features in sight for a rest. Working my way up in millimeters, and completely spent, there appeared a small meager edge where I could barely squeak out a rest. Not enough of a rest to recover, just enough to survive for a few moments and collect my thoughts. I remember thinking, "this is the hardest thing I've ever climbed" while looking up at another 15ft of offwidth. Completely spent I was ready to give up and hang on some gear. Being in this state is a physically painful event. It's like trying to hold your breath in a sea of air, when all you need to do to stop the madness is give up and breathe in.
By now I was bleeding all over. I could feel the raw spots on my ankles through my TC pros, and I could hardly stand the gobies I was getting through the tape on my hands. Just then, the crack steepened and I knew I was hosed. Luckily, it also widened up just enough to where I could get my knee in and squeak out a painful no hands rest. Knees = stacked hands to me. As long as I could get my knee in and stack, I can rest and move up with a manageable amount of effort. Stack, move, lock knee, stack, fight to unlock knee, move, lock knee, stack, fight to unlock knee, get stuck, arm bar, free knee then re-set it, stack, move, lock knee. This went on for the last 15ft until the crack abruptly widened. Exactly like the crux of Midterm except vertical to slightly overhanging. I was barely able to beach whale flop myself into this holdless void where I remained for quite some time choking back vomit and gasping for air.
I was barely able to snap these couple photos while recovering before looking up and seeing that there was still an unknown distance of squeeze chimney which was much too wide for any gear I had with me. Chimney as far as you can see.
Shimmying my way up, I finally left my #6 about 30ft up totally tipped out at an angle so it would stick and so I no longer had to lug the worthless paperweight with me. The belay ledge couldn't have come soon enough. An hour plus of that sh#t and I was totally done. Problem was, it was basically a body belay backed up in some of the crunchiest rotten rock you ever saw. Not to mention, it was another Donini belay. Dammit!!!
The View sure was nice though.
Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the overhanging hand/fist crack above me. Trust me, it's quite a spectacle to behold. It was either that or a rotten carpet covered flairing chimney to the left. I had some trouble getting established in the overhang but found some bomber hands in the rotten rock. Pulling the lip was full on 5.11? which lead into yet another 5.10 something offwidth. Luckily there was a double crack over the lip where the green chimney merged back with the crack I was in and I could get some gear in. This is the point where I was totally spent, running out of water with raw oozing arms and low on motivation.
I'll let the photos do the talking on that pitch.
Alexey took the next and supposed last pitch. There are two options one could take. The guidebook suggests going left but the right variation looked like the more direct option to us so up we went through a tight squeeze chimney that seemed like it went on forever. By now the backs of my arms were a gooey mess, my ankles and knees were raw and I'd been out of water for over an hour.
This thing looks easy I know, if it were on the ground it'd probably be a popular route for offwidth noobs to cut their teeth. But sitting on top of this route it's nothing less than a monumental effort to get through.
Finally we were on top, or so we thought. A long easy pitch of low angle rock and bushes led to a nice level spot where we could finally unrope. Totally out of water with the light soon to begin fading it was time to get off this thing. As we made our way up, unfortunately we ran into a large drop off with nowhere else to go. It was a demotivating heart sinking feeling but there was no sense in whining about it. We downclimbed a few hundred feet through thick bushes until we could make a sketchy traverse across a slab to another gully on the left. This gully fortunately led to the miles of slab where we could finally hike up to the top of the dome and back down the other side to camp.
I don't even remember how long we were on route. Seemed like it took us forever. I was completely taken by surprise and caught off guard by the sheer unrelenting difficulty of this route. I've climbed RNWF of Half Dome in 12 hours car to car and I think these 5 pitches took longer from base to summit.
Humbling doesn't even begin to express the feelings this route provokes.
It's an incredibly beautiful route with every pitch having something to offer, some new challenge to overcome, testing every technique in wide you have to the max.
Basket Case is a quietly overlooked Yosemite mega classic lurking in the shadows in my opinion.
It is the "Astroman of Offwidth"!