Yosemite Glacier Point Apron Rock Climbing Adventure
By John P. DeGrazio
Some leaders are born, some are made. I consider myself a born leader, always have. Sometimes it’s tough to be a leader in this world. Despite being picked on in grammar school, passed over for kickball teams, left out of the cool group in high school, uninvited by any fraternities in college, and on the receiving end of merciless verbal abuse at my first job on Wall Street; I always held my head high and persevered. My confidence was never shaken. I realized early in life that I wasn’t so much a leader in an alpha male sense. I always felt more like a beta wolf, strong and waiting for an opportunity. When the opportunity to start my own adventure company in Yosemite arose, I jumped on it and never looked back.
I have taken advantage of several other opportunities to display my leadership skills throughout the years. A new opportunity presented itself on Wednesday, and I am also comfortable admitting failure to meet that challenge. The task was to lead a pitch up a Yosemite Valley rock climb on the Glacier Point Apron called Harry Daley. It’s only two pitches and rated 5.8 so what could go wrong? Everything, I quickly thought in my head but decided to humor my climbing partner Gabe and tell him I’d give it a try. We just completed the first pitch rather easily, and my technical climbing skills on tradition crack climbs have vastly improved. Although I was a beginner climber at age 40, I have really enjoyed myself over the past few years. Which takes us back to yesterday. First, I have never led a pitch before. Next, the route was new to me. Did I mention I have never led a pitch in my limited amount of climbs?
After receiving a full tutorial on placing protection, setting an anchor, and how to use an ATC belay device (my standard belay device is apparently inefficient for leading), I was ready to go. I hadn’t crammed this much information into my memory in a long time. Who am I kidding? I am currently wracking my brain trying to figure SEO techniques and marketing strategies for this website so it actually only added to the current overload. The day was an important one to get away from the computer for a while while getting back on a rock to relax and take in Yosemite’s breathtaking scenery from above.
I signaled “Ok” as he put me on belay and took myself off the anchor. The next 20 vertical feet were extremely interesting. Hand jamming is one thing but reaching to your rack to find the right piece of gear while attempting to scale a roof on the first pitch you ever led that also happens to be the crux of the climb is an entirely different element. I placed one piece of gear but could not find anything resembling a hold to even attempt getting over this roof. I scanned the next 100 feet of the pitch for about three minutes and said to myself no flying way. Only I didn’t use the word flying. I thanked my climbing mentor for his trust in me and his willingness to motivate me, but I respectfully declined to lead the rest of the pitch with no regrets.
About 30 minutes later, I realized it was easily one of the best decisions of the last five years of my life. Gabe is a leader in every sense of the word. He exudes a confidence that borders on arrogance but is also able to show compassion and never looks down on someone (me) for not being able to complete what comes so naturally easy to him. Regardless of the situation, he always finds encouragement, even in moments of shame. This was not one of those moments, however. I had no shame as I watched him almost effortlessly complete the move I struggled with so mightily. He ambled up the pitch in like a spider on a wall in pursuit of its prey.
Now, it was my turn. “Climb on!” I heard Gabe shout. I put my hand into the crack, pulled down my thumb, and felt it lock perfectly to support me. I looked for the next hand hold and was disappointed. I could not find an effective way to support my body weight while swinging my legs above this waist-high roof. Flustered, I called up to Gabe for expert consultation. “Use your imagination” was his reply. No more, no less. He is a man of infinite climbing wisdom. I then gave up as my toes were sore and my arms were pumping. That’s the feeling you get when your trying to do that last pullup and your body won’t go anywhere. After about a minute or so, you finally let go. That’s where I was and I couldn’t figure out how to kick my left leg over that four foot roof. “Use your imagination he said” I thought to myself in my sarcastic New York tone. Climbing is about using your hands and legs together to take you to places you normally find unimaginable. One way to know your technique is failing is if you are overusing your arms. You must drive off your legs, and as you improve, you will be more reliant on your lower extremities which will leave you less pumped. My forearms and triceps were burning so I knew I was doing something wrong.
“Just pull me up” I replied. Our biggest successes are often borne out of failures, but I was feeling like a total failure as the slack left the rope. “Wait!” I thought. As I felt the force of Gabe beginning to pull I shouted, “I got this!”. “What if I splayed my right leg a couple of feet here?” Walking out to the right side of the roof with both feet, I swung my right leg over. My left leg followed, and I was lying horizontally on the rock with two hands stuck into tiny cracks that a mouse would have difficulty entering. Once over the roof on the lower right side, I began to smear my way back to the crag on the left. Smearing is basically trusting that thin piece of rubber on your shoe to hold all your weight on the slick granite with no toe holds. I first made a move like this on the Snake Dike of Half Dome. That one was more difficult so this felt, gulp, easy. Like most other things I tackle in life, it wasn’t pretty, but I got the job done. Once past this major obstacle, the rest of the pitch played out smoothly.
I had never climbed in a crack so narrow as hand jams turned into finger jams. The beauty of this climb is it teaches you to use more of your legs. Forces is a better choice of words. My technique improved dramatically throughout the climb but it’s still a bit inconsistent. I hit my stride and was having fun again. As the second man up the rope, you have to clean the placements which means you remove the gear he puts into the rock for our protection. To me, that’s responsibility enough. I also saw where Gabe stopped to place some of the cams would have been interesting for me to stop with one hand in the crack while fumbling for the right piece of gear without the ‘luxury’ of a top rope. “NFW!” I thought once again. About ten feet below Gabe I called out “and you wanted me to lead this thing?” We shared a laugh as I tied in to the anchor before rappelling down to begin our next climb.
Our next climb was only a 5.7 but easily had the best name of the day. The Grack was inviting. The rock was warm and the climbing was smooth as the granite between our fingers. The plan was for me to possibly mock lead a pitch but time was running out so we just breezed our way up and down. I finished the day with two more climbs under my belt and a lot more confidence. Although I’ll never be a big time climber in Yosemite, I do feel a strong desire to get better by learning new techniques with a focus on improving speed which will make it a little more enjoyable for Gabe. He is a very patient man. I was also introduced to offwidth techniques where the crack was so big you have to actually pull your hands apart as you ascend. It’s just another tool in my toolbox which although it is no longer empty, it does need to be filled a little more before leading either of these climbs. I will lead something eventually and will choose the right opportunity when it presents itself. Showing my daughter the photos from this trip, her first response was “That would be fun to do.” I guess I have work to do.