South Face C2 5.8

  • Currently 5.0/5

Mt. Watkins

Yosemite Valley, California USA

Trip Report
Mt Watkins South Face September 2013
Tuesday October 1, 2013 9:35am
Because we consulted SuperTopo regularly during our preparations for our effort to climb the South Face of Mt Watkins, we would like to share a brief of our experiences in the w/c 16 September 2013. For starters: we did not succeed. And we had a great adventure.

On Day 1 we carried our water to the base of the fixed ropes. Based on a gallon a day per person, 3 days on the wall plus 1 day for approach and descent we carried 5x2 gallons, which was under 40 kg. One 5 gallon tank sprung a leak and we left it next to the trail for pick up the following day. The remainder of the water we hid at the base of the wall at the start of the fixed ropes. At the base some gear was suspended in trees. We picked up several empty and crushed one gallon water tanks (the type you buy at Curry Village) and carried them back to the Valley. All this was a 4 hours up and 2 hours down trip;

Note that Tenaya Creek had water, but it was only accessible after 30 minutes backtracking from the base of the wall (you could hear it running under the rocky creek bed earlier, but not reach it). You must purify it;

Back in the Valley we had a closer look at the trashed water containers and clearly noticed bear claws. We now feared for our own water stash and decided to carry extra water just in case, plus purifying tablets;

On Day 2 we carried our hardware (based on Erik Sloan’s 2013 gear list; see, a 70 m 10.5 mm climbing rope and 70 m 9 mm hauling line, our wall food (nuts, dried fruits, M&M’s, some treats) and personal stuff (warm clothing) plus the extra water. We did not bring a portaledge, only short mats, sleeping bags and a two person GoreTex bivouac sack. No hammer. We distributed all this over two manageable haul bags of ca. 20 kg each. Our leaking water container had indeed been attacked by a bear (big claws and teeth in it and of course completely empty). This bear followed our smell trail. Our second stash of water was unharmed (big sigh of relief). All in all we had 35 litres left, which we deemed enough;

Jugging the fixed ropes was easy enough, hauling the two heavy bags over the vegetated slopes was a nightmare. They got stuck all the time in trees, below overhangs, in cracks, below ledges and you name it. We eventually decided to bivouac on a very nice ledge between the 5.5 and 5.8 dihedrals. Out of reach of bears, unless they learn how to jug ropes;

Day 3 begun with a short discussion on the certain feeling of going to die during this climb and then saw us further battling with the haul bags up the fixed lines. Seriously hard work and very time consuming. The state of the fixed lines varied; one had clearly been cut by rock fall and then tied back together. We reached the comfy ledge below the technical wall, set up camp/dumped our stuff, climbed the ‘easy’ dihedral (very nice) to rappel station # 1 (2.5 pitches from plush ledge) and started the rappels to belay 2;

Do note that these are not rappels at all (as SuperTopo suggests), but very delicate tension traverses on tiny, tiny features. Half way between rappel station # 1 and rappel station # 2 is an old bolt. Harding’s work? (this bolt not on SuperTopo). Clip this as directional and also to prevent you from hitting into the dihedral when you slip. Then continue to rappel station # 2 and a further tension traverse to belay 2;

Once on belay 2, we fixed back to the plush ledge with two 70 meter ropes (maybe possible with 65 m as well). There is an intermediate bolted belay (belay 1?) below belay 2 on the first shoulder of the easy dihedral that makes fixing easy (this belay not on SuperTopo). Bring a spanner to tighten the new bolt, we did it by hand. Back in the sleeping bags at nightfall.

Day 4 saw us jugging the fixed lines and hauling to belay 2, where we started on pitch 3 at 0900 hours. We had to make Sheraton Watkins (pitch 8) before nightfall to have a real chance of finishing the climb. Unfortunately we were too slow, taking two hours to reach belay 3 (no bolts, only tree). At this speed we would never reach Sheraton Watkins on time. Very reluctantly we decided to bail, rapping three 70 meter lengths to the plush ledge. Depressed night.

Day 5 we packed up, dumped our now excess water, rapped the 9 pitches of fixed ropes (passing the knot) to the foot of the wall with the bags on our backs, and walked out of Tenaya Canyon. Back at Mirror Lake at 2 pm it started raining like there was no tomorrow. Streams formed everywhere, including in our tent at Upper Pines where our comfy inflatable mattresses floated around amongst our soaked stuff. We slept in the car.

Next day we awoke exhausted and saw snow on Cloud’s Rest. We learned that the 0 C/32 F isotherm had dropped to 8000 feet during the night. Had we continued climbing on Day 4 we would have been on the traversing terrain between pitch 8 and 11 in the rain or in bivouac at Sheraton Watkins or at belay 11 in the rain/snow. Not a good place to be, given the cracks and nature of Mt Watkins. Clearly a cold front had come in. But that is wisdom in hindsight;

Tenaya Canyon is a magical and beautiful place, far away from the Valley crowds. We were there with full moon. Before the moon would come over the Cloud’s Rest ridge, the moonlight would hit the upper part of Mt Watkins and then creep down until the whole canyon was lit (you could read a book). Hauntingly beautiful;

You are all by yourself and on your own. No other people or human sounds. This is maybe the best part of this climb. Be prepared for it and be able to self rescue. We took out a Wilderness Permit to sleep on top of Mt Watkins/on the descent;

Cell phone coverage is surprisingly good. Use this to get sms-updates on weather report from a friend. Use the Park Ranger’s weather forecast for this, or another serious source. Our forecast of 20% chance of rain turned to 40% over the week without us being aware;

The trail to the foot of the wall/start of fixed ropes in Tenaya Canyon takes four hours from Upper Pines with loads. The trail is clear (cairns), and although you sometimes loose it you will always pick it up. Follow it until it dead ends on the bank of Tenaya Creek (nice white stones ‘beach’ with obvious fire ring). Then pick up a smaller trail (left or North) through the ferns towards the foot of the wall, scramble a bit and you are at the base of the wall/at the fixed ropes (10 minutes from white beach).We do not recommend camping in the canyon due to the bear;

The base of the wall had fixed ropes all the way to the big comfy ledge where the technical difficulties start (pitch 1 on SuperTopo). This is 9 pitches (some short) of fixed rope on sloping terrain. The terrain is not particularly easy, regardless of what SuperTopo suggests, and slipping with a heavy load while soloing is lethal here. Rope up and belay if fixed ropes are gone;

Two to 3 hours for the fixed ropes to the plush ledge (as SuperTopo gives) is not very realistic with loads, unless you are a superhero. From the start of the fixed ropes to the plush ledge with full loads will make for a full day, especially so if you start from the Valley;

Best strategy seems: go as light as you possibly can, always erring on the safe side of caution. Hike up water (and maybe some gear) to plush ledge jugging over fixed ropes. Do not haul. Descend to Valley. Return next day with rest of gear and jug to plush ledge (do not haul) and fix to belay 2 (or maybe 3 if you bring extra 70 m of rope). Blast off on day three. Anyone who makes it to the summit can count on our deepest respect. This is a serious, committing and beautiful climb;

A more time consuming strategy could maybe be:
o Day 1: bringing water all the way up to plush, return to Valley
o Day 2: bring all food, some material to plush, return to Valley
o Day 3 rest day
o Day 4: bring last stuff up to plush, bivouac there.
o Day 5: fix to 4, rappel back to plush, leave material up at 4, maybe a few gallons of water
o Day 6: jumar up to 4, drop two ropes, continue to Sheraton Watkins
o Day7: to 11, fix to 12/13
o Day 8: out
o Day 9: walk to Olmsted point and hitch/drive back to Valley
o After: pick up any luxury stuff from plush, plus two ropes

For some perspective on our observations: we are 52 and 47 with between us over 35 years of climbing experience in the European Alps, technical rock climbing and on big walls. In between commitments to families and jobs we trained hard to be fit and technically apt, including getting over jet lag after flying in from Amsterdam by working out of SF for almost a week before we got to Yosemite.

Doug Scott or Dougal Haston once said about climbing mountains: “Come back alive, come back as friends, come back with a summit”. We scored 2 out of 3.

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About the Author
MarinusWisselink is a climber from the Netherlands.

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Trad climber
  Oct 1, 2013 - 08:54pm PT
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  Oct 1, 2013 - 10:25pm PT
I agree that jugging with packs is faster than trying to haul on low angle terrain with trees.
That sounded very unpleasant.

In my experience, a standard big wall pace with hauling is 4 aid pitches per day. On the Nose, you can get 10, because of some easy free climbing pitches and easy aid.
On your day going to Sheraton Watkins, the last 2 pitches (7 & 8) look like they might go relatively fast (5.9).
Pitches 3-6 look like standard aid pitches, which is one day right there by my measure. Add in hauling the first 2 pitches and those last 2, and it looks like a very long day.

Was there a reason it took 2 hours to do pitch 3? Was it the hauling?
Did you haul each bag separately, so the follower had to wait until
the first bag was hauled and the second one was started before starting to clean?
Having a second haul line could solve this, and also allow you to fix p3 on the previous day.

It looks like a tough wall, due to the low angle hauling with heavy bags. Have you done El Cap previously?

  Oct 1, 2013 - 11:19pm PT
Good effort & good story, thanks.

Trad climber
the Box
  Oct 3, 2013 - 02:48pm PT
...enjoyed reading your report. :]

Thanks for sharing.

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
  Oct 3, 2013 - 03:01pm PT
Something may be lost in the translation?

Good effort guys, but I'm confused about all the back and forth. I thought surely you must be trying to free every move?

In 92, we went a little heavy, and had no intention of freeclimbing everything, but we went once, to the base, no fixed ropes, started climbing and didn't come back.

Maybe I didn't read closely enough. Why are we talking about day 7,8 etc?

We did:
Day One: Valley to base.
Day two: Base to Sheraton Watkins.
Day three: S.W. to Pendulum
Day Four: Pendulum to summit to Snow Creek
Day Five: Snow Creek to Valley

Sorry if I missed something by not reading thoroughly.
Are you coming back?

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Oct 3, 2013 - 03:57pm PT
Day 3 begun with a short discussion on the certain feeling of going to die during this climb
Thank you for including the phrase quoted above in your TR. That made it very easy for me to identify with your effort.

I hope you get a chance to come back again and finish the route.


Big Wall climber
the Netherlands
Author's Reply  Oct 9, 2013 - 10:01am PT
Thanks for all the feedback and reactions.

To answer some questions:
 On Day 4 we hauled with one line, bags attached under each other.
 On the scruffy buttress (Day 3)we tied one bag to the haul line the minute we got on belay and hauled to belay, then attached the second bag and hauled that. Follower would guide these.
 It was not the hauling that slowed us down on Day 4, but our climbing speed. We jugged and hauled the 2 fixed pitches (approx. 130 meters) in under two hours. Then climbing to belay 3 took two hours as well. Normally we climb faster.
 Two years ago we did Never Never Land, but had to abandon due to both of us breaking fingers (what are the odds?). In the early 90's my partner did The Nose, Zodiac, more stuff on El Cap, some stuff on Washington Column and then also Regular North West on Half Dome in a day.
 The day 7 and 8 stuff refers to a possible and really leisurely timeline. We did not do that. Nor consider it.

Are we coming back? I do not know. Maybe we are just getting old :)

Social climber
An Oil Field
  Oct 8, 2013 - 10:52am PT
Ahhh. You should have never come down. Going slow is OK, as long as you are moving.

If you don't give up, you will make it on walls.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
  Oct 8, 2013 - 05:34pm PT
Sounds like it was a combination of things.
I'd say it's more than "not giving up".
You have to have enough speed to make it between the bivy ledges on this route before you get too tired that day.
And you need enough water to cover your schedule.
And the weather and amount of water affect your speed and tiredness.
I know other good climbers who have bailed from that route.

It may be similar to attempting the Nose in high August heat - it's very hard to even haul all that water to Sickle; even worse to Dolt.
But if you are fast enough to do it in a day, you can avoid the hauling/water interaction.
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Mt. Watkins - South Face C2 5.8 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
Photo: Nabeel Atique