Tommy Caldwell texted me that he was in the Valley and psyched to climb. He had just finished his work for the season on Free Mescalito (he'll be back in the fall with Kevin Jorgeson for the send attempt). So we thought about what would be a big fun adventure. Neither of us had climbed Mt. Watkins so that was it. We started hiking at 5:15 and after 45 minutes came to the first crux: crossing Snow Creek. I was worried that the water would be too high to cross and even brought a topo for Washington Column's South Central route. Fortunately, if you walk up a few hundred yards, a tree fell over the river. The log was wet making it a little scary to cross over the rushing creek - maybe rate 5.0 X.
We more or less stayed on course and were at the base of the route around 8. All the 4th class for the first 1000' had fixed ropes which made it go super fast. By the way, there are some 5.8 sections in that "4th class". Be prepared.
We showed up at the base of the first pitch ready to go around 8:15. Right then the sun hit us and I went digging for the sunscreen. Ooops, that didn't quite make it in. "Well," I said to Tommy "It's not like we are some of the two whiter people around, and at least we are not on the most sunny and south facing wall in Yosemite." Luckily Tommy had his boating hat and I decided to where a hooded fleece as much as possible… better to sweat than fry.
Tommy cruised the free variation on the first pitch, a very slick and very polished 5.12a slab. Then, fortunately the climbing was in the shade for the next 6 pitches. Tommy kept cruising until we got to Sheraton Watkins. This is a big ledge, but most of it is very sloping. Probably only two people can sleep super comfortably on it.
At this point, it was probably my turn to take over the lead. However, a year of not climbing anything taller than 30' had left me pretty soft. I was going to slow us down a lot. Also, I realized that if Tommy kept leading, he had the chance to onsight free climb the whole route on lead. Something I didn't think had been done yet. So he kept leading.
We finally got to the crux pitch. a sustained traversing hard 5.12 pitch. When I jugged and belayed on his one day link of The Nose and Freerider. I had been quiet when he struggled on the crux pitch up high. I didn't know if he wanted me shouting encouragement or if he just wanted to concentrate on the balancy technical granite. But after that climb, he said the encouragement was always appreciated. So on the Watkins crux, I cheered him on. It was cool that the pitch was so traversing because it meant I could watch him figure out each of the three tricky cruxes (and not just stare at his butt way above me). Each time he got to a hard section he would start breathing a little harder, chalk up a lot, feel out the moves, and then send. When he fired the last crux on the pitch we were both super psyched. I figured he now had the onsight of the route in the bag.
Then, 5 pitches from the top, on the last hard move of the climb Tommy broke a hold and fell. Turns out, even if he had not broke the hold, it still was a really hard move. If you are taller than 6 feet. it is probably hard 5.11. But if you are shorter, Tommy rekons it is a V9 all points off dyno (see video below). It took him about 20 tries but he finally stuck it.
The finish of the route was awesome. Steep and sustained 5.10 cracks to one of the best top outs out there. Very similar to Wall of Early Morning Light top out where you pull a big roof and BAM, time to unrope.
The summit was awesome. Great weather, great views, winter wonderland in all directions.
But after a 15 minutes of the descent, we realized that we had way underestimated the snow pack. It was DEEP and everywhere. I was worried we would miss the snow creek bridge, so I had us walk way too far north before cutting west. The result was a post holing adventure!! You can see more photos of how much snow was in the High Sierra here
But, we eventually got back to camp just as it was getting dark. Daylight ascents are the best!! Especially when beer and hot food are awaiting (thanks Becca, Katie and Patrick)
Some overall thoughts on the route:
We thought it was just going to be an ok climb with great views in an adventurous spot. But Tommy found the climbing WAY better than he expected. It's a really classic route with a lot of good pitches. And 95% of the climbing is 5.10d or easier.
This is a really fun climb to do in a day. It looks like it would be really not fun to haul. Not only is there a big approach, and 1000+ feet of 4th class just to get to the start of the route, there are a bunch of traversing pitches up high that are not fun to haul. And then there is the descent.
So how hard is it to do in a day? It's a little harder than climbing Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and easier than climbing the Nose. However, I feel like I can climb The Nose fast if I am in solid 5.10c Yosemite leading shape. I think I would want to be in solid 5.11b Yosemite leading shape before doing Watkins just because many of the 5.10d pitches are at the end of the route and really sustained and steep. Overall, if the Tioga Road is open, I highly recommend finishing the descent in Tuolumne if you can just because it makes it such a more cool adventure (and saves your knees).
2 sets Black Diamond Camalot C3
2 sets Black Diamond Camalot C4 to 4"
1 set Black Diamond Stopper
1 set NEW Black Diamond Offset Nuts (not released yet]]
9.4 mm x 60mm Blue Water Dominator
10 Black Diamond Oz Quickdraws
30 Black Diamond Oz extra biners
10 Black Diamond Dynex Runner
Black Diamond Padded Gear Sling
Black Diamond Chaos Harness
La Sportiva TC Pro
La Sportiva Ganda Approach Shoe
Patagonia R1 Hoody
Black Diamond Speed 40
Patagonia Surf Brim
Patagonia Capilene T-Shirt
My Set Up
CAMP Quartz CR3
Petzl Ascension Ascender
PMI Fingerless Glove
Spectra Daisy Chains
Petzl Quickstep Aiders
Mad Rock Hustler Approach Shoes
Patagonia R1 Hoody
Patagonia Traverse Pant
Wild Country Alpine Shield Helmet
I also brought offset aliens, cam hooks and aiders for me if i was going to aid climb (but never used them)
What I would also bring next time and what i would recommend for all people not free climbing that 5.11 and harder sections
1 Black Diamond Talon
1 Black Diamond Grappling Hook
2 Moses Tomahawks for hand placements just in case