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Direct North Buttress, Middle Cathedral Rock, Yosemite Valley


by John Long

December 29, 2001

Originally published in Climbing Magazine #118, Feb/Mar 1990

When Will Tyree invited me to climb the Direct North Buttress (DNB) on Middle Cathedral with him, I had been climbing for exactly six months. That didn't matter to him, though, because I was from Southern California, where all those ghastly face climbs are. I didn't tell Will I hadn't climbed any of them. I also didn't tell Will that, aside from The Trough (5.1) at Tahquitz, the longest climb I had yet accomplished was a two-pitch route on Arch Rock. Nor did I tell Will that he'd be doing most of the leading because I didn't know that until the fourth pitch, when I nearly lost my mind. This was before sticky boots, before EBs even. We wore Robbins boots -- shit-kicking, case-hardened, mortar-proof Royal Robbins boots. And we didn't carry a single nut on the rack. All iron. It was spring of 1970, and the DNB had the reputation as being the hardest long face climb in Yosemite; to our knowledge it had only been free climbed twice. The night before the climb we slept in the woods below Middle Cathedral, ostensibly to get an early start, though I suspect Will wanted to keep me under tight reins so I couldn't duck out. I slept well because I didn't know what I was getting into. I was 16.Will roused me before daybreak. Ten years my senior and vastly more experienced, he was not named Will Tyree at all; that was a moniker he'd poached from astrology, numerology, white magic, or some such pile in the cosmic junkyard that was so popular back then.

As we ate a spare breakfast of gorp and Rye Crisps, Will gazed up at the last visible stars and said everything looked right. I never did learn his real name. A short steep march through the pines gained us the base, with the great bulk of Middle Cathedral rearing high into the dawn. We skirted 100 yards right to an abrupt left-facing chimney system on the very prow of the North Buttress. As Will uncoiled the ropes, I gaped up and saw the top of the monolith--seemingly in the stratosphere.

"It's ... it's a ... pretty big cliff, Will," I stammered. "Yes. Very big."

Will was to lead the odd pitches. The topo showed a mantel on the third pitch as the hardest technical bit, and since this climb was Will's idea and all, we both felt he might as well lead the crux.

I followed the first lead, and the half-gallon water jug hanging around my neck made chimneying a real bastard. So I was glad to start leading the second pitch, glad until I ran into the oily off-width slot about 40 feet above. Thrashing and cursing, I didn't exactly admire the fixed ring-angle peg 25 feet below and was certain the 5.7 rating on the topo was baloney. "Just layback it," Will yelled up. I did, and got the spins as I groped to the belay stance 50 feet above. As Will followed I gazed up and couldn't reckon where the route went at all. There wasn't a chimney or a crack or anything but a dinky layback flake, and that ended after 30 feet. Will arrived and gave me the water jug, a Clorox bleach bottle. After we took our first sips Will admitted he should have rinsed the bottle out a few more times after finding it in the Camp Four dumpster.

He surveyed the wall above: "This is where Arnold backed off, that little chicken shit." Then he laughed so loud I swear I heard it volley off El Capitan, a mile across the valley. I thought Will had been gazing at the moon too much and, looking up, knew that whoever Arnold was, he was no fool. Will had tried this climb three times in the last month and each partner had backed off at this very stance. But just now Will scared me more than the climb and anyhow he was already halfway up the flake.

When the flake ended Will fulfilled my worst fears by traversing dead left, directly onto the bald face. He got to the crux mantel, fell a few times, and finally pulled up on the bolt to a wee belay stance. I could look straight up and across at him and see gray sky between his chest and the building-like wall, which just steepened and soared out of sight above. The sight of him dangling out there in no-man's-land gripped me to the bone. Will slugged in a piton and the rope came tight almost immediately.

"On belay, John," he called.

Meanwhile, hanging at my belay with 1800 feet of uncertainty overhead, I'd finally gained that threshold every aspiring climber confronts, at which he perforce determines once and for all if he's really cut out for this type of work. I could bail off and go back home. or I could press through the door and into the beyond, where the game is not simply fun, but for keeps.

And, even terrified as I was, I didn't want to go back home. I'd worn my bright blue Robbins boots to school just so I could field questions about them and admit I was a rock climber. I'd studied guidebooks while on the toilet. Unless I unclipped from that anchor and started laybacking I knew it had all been charades--but I couldn't unclip. Then stubborn conviction kicked in--I was a rock climber, goddammit ! Maybe not a bold one, but I wanted to be one, period, worse than anything else in the world, and though my knees were clacking like wood blocks I unclipped and started up the flake. I didn't even try the impossible-looking mantel, but simply yanked up on the bolt. When I got to the stance and saw its one anchor pin--a baby angle driven straight up--I grabbed the rack and raced for a good crack about 30 feet above. After blasting home three pitons, I told Will he'd better lead this pitch, lowered back down to the belay, and stared at the baby angle. "Are you with me, John?" Will asked. I could tell how much doing the route meant to him, but to his credit, it didn't mean so much that he'd drag me along by the ears, against my will. I took a sip of bleach and told him yes, I was with him. It was just that I didn't have very much experience and the climbing was so steep and scary. But if he'd lead I'd do my best to follow even if I had to hand-walk the rope. We still had what seemed like about 10 miles to go, and the only way we'd succeed was if a real climber took over, a climber like I wanted to become, a climber like Will Tyree. I told Will he was on belay, and he cast off.

I cleaned the baby angle with two blows and my knees set to knocking again. But once I got moving, and felt the gentle tug of the toprope, I settled in and soon realized why the DNB is one of the world's great rock climbs. Steep and amply fitted with holds that, if not terrific, are good enough, the route follows an almost invisible string of grooves, flakes, and thin corners, all connected with steep face climbing on rock ranging from flint gray to flame orange. Stray 10 feet off route and the way is insuperable; stay right on line and the climbing rarely lags under 5.8, with the odd 5.9 and 5.10 section to remind you that you're on the real McCoy. In an hour we gained the notorious undercling pitch, where Eric Beck had broken his arm during an early free-climbing attempt. When I pawed up to the actual undercling--a thin, razor-sharp flake leading dead left to Will's sling belay--he warned me not to fall because his anchors were "questionable."

Since he had called the baby-angle belay "fine," I reckoned he had no anchor at all now. But I was feeling more and more like a real climber so I shuffled straight across, feet up by my hands. When my foot popped near the end, Will gasped. But I made it okay. His anchor: a knifeblade waffled into a flaky seam down by his feet. Several pitches of superb face climbing led to a nasty flare in which even Will struggled. That tenth pitch took us to a big ledge system forming the lower right side of a U-shaped bowl, a prominent horseshoe scoop running the length of the North Face. We were well over 1200 feet up and relished the first opportunity in five hours to kick back and relax. The sun beat down hard and we polished off the last of the Clorox-water.

Will pulled out a crumpled photo of Middle Cathedral and we both smiled to see how far we'd come, though half again as much rock was still overhead. But the way was clear now: straight up a huge crack system formed by the left side of Thirsty Spire, a colossal tangerine pinnacle towering 1000 feet above and right. We talked about Frank Sacher and Beck, who had made the remarkable first free ascent of the DNB five years prior. Still, we figured that during the first ascent in 1962 Chouinard and Roper must have been free climbing for the most part, since the hardest climbing was out on the open face, in linking the nebulous corners and flakes. There was little if anything to nail out there. The two had probably just used the bolt for the mantel, as we had, and maybe tensioned across the undercling. Either way, they'd bagged a plum.

We looked around and across at El Capitan, which someday I hoped to climb. Will had, and assured me that I would, too. He knew the right things to say, and his invitation to lead the next pitch was just what I needed to regain confidence.

A long 5.7 pitch led to a cruxy 5.9 traverse into a bomb-bay shaft that rifled straight to the top, and in which I set up my sling belay. Will set off, jamming a grueling 5.9 hand crack deep in the corner above. Suddenly he yelled "ROCK!" From my belay in an alcove, I glanced up to see a medicine ball of granite ricocheting down between the corner's walls. I hunkered into the alcove and felt the concussion as the rock blasted off the wall. Slowly withdrawing my head, I saw a huge powder mark on the rock about three feet higher. Will seemed almost more scared than I, and after checking the rope for chops at the next belay, we started climbing really fast. But the route never let up. Even the 5.6 chimney pitch was a polecat, and the 5.8 slot on pitch 17 felt like 5.10--or as I imagined 5.10 to be. Finally we got to the Catwalk level just left of Thirsty Spire, whose name we now realized was no lark. The heat and bleach-water scorched our throats and our hands were cramping.

A fourth-class shoulder provided an escape off left, but despite our blinding dehydration we scrambled another couple of hundred feet to the top. Somehow Will found the summit cairn and a log- book inside an old can. "Our best climb," he wrote. "My only climb," I told Will. If I wasn't a real climber then, at least I knew I could have a chance at it. When we finally stumbled back down into the valley I felt as if I'd been jogging in Afghanistan for about two weeks. Despite the sling of pitons, the hammer, and the Robbins boots arrayed upon me, I plunged straight into the Merced river, swallowing, and didn't surface till my belly felt 10 months pregnant.

Five years later, Will Tyree figured prominently during the planning of the first one-day ascent of El Capitan. He took down mine and my partners' Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay's birth dates, and figured out the day when our Zodiac signs lined up in a power configuration. That same year I climbed another big route on Middle Cathedral with Will. Then he quit coming to the Valley and I never saw him again.

Middle Cathedral's Direct North Buttress (5.10c) is one of the finest long free climbs in America. Climbers encounter virtually every technique somewhere in its 2000 feet, though the most exciting sections entail steep edging and smearing, plus a knack for finding the easiest line. Questionable belays have been bolstered with pins or bolts. A collection of 15 nuts ranging from wires to three inch provides adequate, if not bomber, protection. Most parties complete the route in one long day. Aspiring teams should be fluent with minimal 5.10 terrain, sling belays, and route finding. The leader should be, anyway.

Author's Note :
John Long (aka Largo) made numerous difficult first ascents in his heyday as a member of the Stonemasters, an informal group of Southern California rock climbers active in the 1970s and early 1980s. He is the author of Gorilla Monsoon and How to Rock Climb, and currently works in Santa Monica as a script writer and film producer.

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