Trip Report
Widow's Tears 2019
Sunday March 3, 2019 10:12am
Widow’s Tears Trip Report 2019

Widow’s Tears is not just a long ice climb. Its 1000 foot approach, multi-hour post-holing off trail descent, and ephemeral nature makes it an adventure climb, in which mountaineering skills are as valuable as those for technical ice. Because it lasts only a week in the rare years it forms, conditions are unpredictable and unknown prior to the climb and likely run the gamut over the years—either it’s forming or it’s falling, there’s nothing in between. The setting is spectacular, an amphitheater of rock, with the waterfall cascading from the back right corner.
Widow's Tears
Widow's Tears
Credit: Eliza Kerr
I’ve wanted to do Widow’s Tears for decades. California is constantly in drought, providing little snow pack in the high country to supply water to seep and freeze. But not this year. I figured with an above average early rainfall, a cold snap could make it form. In mid-February we experienced just that. My son Daniel and I got our gear ready, rushed up to The Valley, and … nothing. Interestingly, most photos of Widow’s Tears show no ice on adjacent rock, kind of like Canadian-style all winter-long falls, the ice in sharp contrast to rock nearby. Not this year. We had ice all over the place. There was 1” ice in a thousand gullies in Yosemite. But not enough to form the Tears, or even Silver Strand which forms far more readily. And then it warmed up. Since we were there, we decided to scope out the approach as a full family, Debra, Daniel, and I slogging through deep snow the wrong way up. Below see details for the right way up.
Wrong Approach
Wrong Approach
Credit: mmelvin

Three days later I went back to The Valley. I had heard it might be forming even as temperatures were warming. On February 23rd it looked just thick enough. I asked Daniel to come back up, cancelling work for the week. He arrived the 25th and we planned to do the route the next day.

At 3AM on the 26th it was already 45˚ in El Portal. We were warm even before we started, which made us feel there was little chance at best. It took us until 4:45 to leave Bridalveil Falls parking lot. We walked the quarter mile up the road to the old highway, donned some technical snowshoes I had borrowed from my good friend and multi-epic partner Tom McMillan, and started hiking. Five hundred feet past the second drainage we headed up into the woods. We cleared the woods in dark, tromped up the snow slabs into the alcove and up the snowfield to the rock. Water was running under a lot of the ice, but it looked thick enough. High up I could also see holes with water, but it looked as if ice there could be avoided by going right. We decided to go for it.
Route Base
Route Base
Credit: mmelvin
Pitch one was easy, WI3. I hoped that one rope length would take us to the obvious ledge system, stupid optimism in play, although without it would we even be here? I belayed where the terrain got even easier.
Pitch #1
Pitch #1
Credit: mmelvin
The second pitch could be done WI4 straight up, but going left made it more like WI3, which we took. My first choice upward was halted as ice ran out beneath snow. I backtracked 20’ and went for another narrow wet gully with a tricky move or two leading to the large ledge. I’ve seen a bunch of photos in which there was no ice to the left of the easy entry falls. But I’ve also seen photos showing a traverse. Basically, if there’s a traverse in the climb there’s only one place it could be, and that is to get back right after veering left on pitch 2.
Pitch #2
Pitch #2
Credit: mmelvin
Our third pitch was deep snow for a full 70 meters, no protection available or required. I’ve seen photos where people traversed right over rock. This year the snow made this pitch super easy.
Pitch #3
Pitch #3
Credit: mmelvin
The rest of the route is 900 feet of various ice straight up under the amphitheater corner, which can be done nicely in four long pitches, the longer the pitch the better the belay stance. We had a 70 meter rope, and wouldn’t have needed an 80, but we stretched all of the last three. We had 11 ice screws on our rack, with 3 old backups in the pack for retreat, which with the long pitches we used. We took 5 cams and a couple stoppers, but never had an opportunity for any rock gear. Nearly all the ice we encountered was highly aerated, causing us to veer onto steeper ice to get decent screw placements. 700 of the final 900 feet are WI4 or WI5, depending on how “blue” the ice is, or how easily one can climb the middle of the falls where the water is running. A lot of accounts suggest short ice screws, where we really needed longer ones. I would suggest an assortment.

Probably the most common crux pitch was our fourth, or the first of this vertical section. It started off with an easy slab to cauliflower ledges before getting steep for 40’ of WI5, then easing off for a belay about 180’ up. This was the best ice on the route. Because it is a pinching point of the falls, it’s probably often the steepest ice.
Pitch #4
Pitch #4
Credit: mmelvin
By now all the walls around were sounding off, ice constantly falling, mostly small ice releases whose noise was amplified by the amphitheater. If un-nerving, none of it was coming down Widow’s Tears, so we felt safe to continue.
Pitch #4
Pitch #4
Credit: mmelvin
The fifth pitch was easily as hard as the fourth for a couple dozen feet before easing off with a traverse left to an even easier ramp, ending on a big ice bump a full 70 meters out.
Pitch #5
Pitch #5
Credit: mmelvin
The sixth looked far easier than it was, with lots of rugosities, having a section of slightly overhanging WI5 ice of maybe 30’, also a full 70 meters to a point that we could see the last of the route, quite a bit less steep. As I set my sixth pitch anchor, Daniel yelled “ice.” I looked down to see him crouched into the wall and ice all over the place, having come from the left of the falls at the very top of the wall. Daniel said he wondered if this would do him in as he watched it launch toward him. The ice had come from the left, and fallen to his right, rupturing a part of the large knob he had just finished belaying from, causing water to start flowing out of the snow. In any case, he was alright and proceeded to climb the pitch. Daniel’s one of those partners, where, if you’re going to die freezing slowly on a ledge, you’ll be happy and joking as you do it. With little ice experience he took no aid and motored on up, fast, efficient, and fun to climb with.
Pitch #6
Pitch #6
Credit: mmelvin
The final, 7th, pitch was easy, WI3, ending in snow to the top. Thirty feet back is a poor little tree that I stretched for a belay, although a snow belay would have been plenty safe.
The Top
The Top
Credit: mmelvin
We started the first pitch about 7:45, and topped out at 4:45, hoping we had daylight to find a trail. Basically we got lost for an hour or so and eventually came upon some snowshoe tracks. Figuring that anyone out there was going to the road eventually, we followed it as it wandered all around, up and down, having fun in the woods (fun for them, nightmare for us). Four hours later it finally joined a beaten snow path, where we turned right and slogged another two hours east.
Debris Field the Next Day
Debris Field the Next Day
Credit: mmelvin
I went up the next morning to retrieve Tom’s snowshoes. The whole amphitheater had been avalanching from the upper ledge, to the base, on down and over the slabs and into the woods. I watched and darted to the base to find only one snow shoe. Being more observant on the descent I was able to find two more in the debris. Guess I owe Tom a snowshoe. If someone finds one, I’ll send them the other. I think the route probably only lasted in a climbable form for a couple days. Because of its variety, the ice was really fun to climb. And the setting was spectacular. Other than the one ice fall, it wasn’t particularly dangerous, just adventurous because you don’t know what you’ll encounter.


  Trip Report Views: 3,204
mmelvin
About the Author
mmelvin is a trad climber from san francisco.

Comments
E Robinson

Trad climber
Salinas, CA
  Mar 3, 2019 - 10:23am PT
Wildness. Thats so cool to do bold things with your son. I'm jealous...my kids said "no way" to adventureneering with me :-)
mcd

Trad climber
  Mar 3, 2019 - 10:42am PT
Great job guys!!!
here's a shot of ya'll from valley
shipoopoi

Big Wall climber
oakland
  Mar 3, 2019 - 11:04am PT
Mark, that is a great trip report. climbing something like that, a coveted and rare ascent of widow's tears , with your son must seem like a dream come true. shipoopoi
briham89

Big Wall climber
santa cruz, ca
  Mar 3, 2019 - 11:29am PT
Way to get it done!
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

climber
Out Of Bed
  Mar 3, 2019 - 12:14pm PT
!++
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Mar 3, 2019 - 12:40pm PT
Well done lads
Inner City

Trad climber
Portland, OR
  Mar 3, 2019 - 01:49pm PT
What a fantastic adventure and a well-told TR.
Thanks and Congratulations
johntp

Trad climber
Punter, Little Rock
  Mar 3, 2019 - 02:37pm PT
Nice! TFPU!
phylp

Trad climber
Upland, CA
  Mar 3, 2019 - 02:38pm PT
Congratulations! That's fantastic!
WyoRockMan

climber
Grizzlyville, WY
  Mar 3, 2019 - 02:44pm PT
Sweet! Thanks!
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Mar 3, 2019 - 03:05pm PT
Nice climb...nice account...good job!
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  Mar 3, 2019 - 03:49pm PT
That was awesome.
the Fet

climber
Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La
  Mar 4, 2019 - 10:20am PT
Great stuff. Great pics. What an adventure!

Curious if anyone knows, does YOSAR have expertise for rescues in these conditions? Lots of rock stars make up YOSAR, but ice climbing of this sort in California is a rarity.

Edit to add: I only ask because I of course put myself in the writer's shoes and live vicariously, and wonder if a pillar of ice came down and one or both climbers were injured what would happen. Not that the writer seemed to be making any poor decisions. In contrary this was a grand adventure and I appreciate the words about the decision making process and whether to turn back.

I also liked the part about finding tracks to get back to the road, but the people who made them were wondering all over, having a grand time, while you just want a straight line to the road, that's a great tidbit to include and really makes you feel what it was like and we can all relate.
StahlBro

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
  Mar 3, 2019 - 05:41pm PT
Proud
Treezypoof

Trad climber
Cyberia
  Mar 3, 2019 - 05:52pm PT
Sweet. Thanks!
Brian Biega

climber
Truckee, CA
  Mar 4, 2019 - 07:30am PT
Way to go guys! Thanks for sharing!
ground_up

Trad climber
mt. hood /baja
  Mar 4, 2019 - 07:34am PT
another WOW !
i-b-goB

Big Wall climber
Nutty
  Mar 4, 2019 - 07:40am PT
Tears no more, very cool!
steveA

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
  Mar 4, 2019 - 07:48am PT
Great TR!

I climbed quite a bit with my son in the Valley, and elsewhere BITD.
Risk

Mountain climber
Marooned, 855 miles from Tuolumne Meadows
  Mar 4, 2019 - 08:21am PT
Incredible. Really nice shots.
lars johansen

Trad climber
West Marin, CA
  Mar 4, 2019 - 08:23am PT
Excellent TR with your son, Thanks-lars
Roots

Mountain climber
Somewhere Fun
  Mar 4, 2019 - 10:07am PT
Woot worthy!
BMcC

Trad climber
Livermore
  Mar 4, 2019 - 01:37pm PT
Nice pics and report.

Congrats on your getting on and up the Widows Tears!
tradmanclimbs

Ice climber
Pomfert VT
  Mar 4, 2019 - 02:52pm PT
Super Cool! Nice job!
EdwardT

Trad climber
Retired
  Mar 4, 2019 - 04:04pm PT
Kudos on an impressive climb.

Awesome TR. The pictures were great, especially the shots of pitches 4-6. Great perspectives.
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
  Mar 5, 2019 - 03:01pm PT
Great job guys, you FLEW up the route! VERY fast time. When there is a low layer of clouds, I feel like it traps heat in the Valley. Went ice climbing in such setting once and nearly payed for it. Ice in the valley is special but dangerous to play on when the temps are above freezing.
tradmanclimbs

Ice climber
Pomfert VT
  Mar 5, 2019 - 03:59pm PT
what an amazeing route. You must grab it just when the conditions are right . that means you must have your head in the right place and your body in shape and have a solid partner or be strong enough to solo. then you must also know your way around. Daunting for most and near impossible for an east coaster who has never been there. What is the elevation?? Heck I would not even know how to get there from the airport....
Todd Eastman

Social climber
Putney, VT
  Mar 5, 2019 - 04:21pm PT
Tremendous story and effort!

Thanks
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
  Mar 6, 2019 - 10:05pm PT
hey there, say, mmelvin ... thanks for sharing...


whewww... as to the snow shoe avalanche situation...

glad you all had a nice climb... :)
John M

climber
  Mar 8, 2019 - 10:52am PT
bumping this up to the front page.
Levy

Big Wall climber
Calabasas
  Mar 8, 2019 - 11:31am PT
Very cool you did that with your son!

The ephemeral nature of Widows Tears had made it quite appealing to me for many years, so I am stoked for you that you got it done!
Brandon-

climber
The Granite State.
  Mar 8, 2019 - 06:09pm PT
Excellent! You guys kicked ass!
tradmanclimbs

Ice climber
Pomfert VT
  Mar 9, 2019 - 06:30am PT
This climb seems like it might be one of the most coveted ticks for pure ice climbing.
David Trujillo

Trad climber
CA
  Mar 9, 2019 - 03:15pm PT
Awesome! Thanks for sharing Mark!
Bad Climber

Trad climber
The Lawless Border Regions
  Mar 10, 2019 - 07:39am PT
Ice bump. Fantastic.

BAd
Cassius

climber
Berkeley, CA
  Mar 10, 2019 - 02:40pm PT
Mark, you're still a badass mofo. And, really good photos.
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