I flew into Fresno so we could stock up on supplies at the Grocery Outlet before driving back towards the valley. A drive he had done several times, since he started doing van life a few months prior. Given that the experience was new to me, I didn’t know which corner we rounded would reveal that iconic valley view of El Capitan and Half Dome, as he waited with baited breathe in anticipation of my reaction.
He had spent a few weeks in the Valley earlier in the season so he already had some potential spots scoped out to attempt to camp in the van. We ended up camping in what turned out to be an employee only lot, a risky move but by that time it was getting late and we had an early morning.
The First Night
I don’t usually take well to flights and had developed a cough, a strict violation of Rule #1: Be Quiet. At one point in the night I got up to get my Gatorade from front seat in an effort to sooth my throat. The Gatorade didn’t quite help and I continued attempting to swallow coughs into the night.
Suddenly there was a banging on the side of the van. My worst nightmare, I screwed up on the first night. We decided, against better judgement, to stay still and wait it out, but it wasn’t long before there was a flashlight shining on my head. In my inexperience, I didn’t completely close the front curtain when I was done drinking my Gatorade. I froze, and whispered for advice.
We decide to get out and talk the Ranger who, after a stern lecture, let us off with a warning and advised us to leave the park for the night and to not get caught again. We drove to just outside of the park to camp on the side of the road at El Portal for what remains of the night and attempted to find as level a spot that we could, before giving up and passing out.
Our first climb was Arrowhead Arête, first put up in 1956 by Mark Powell with his partner Bill Feuerer, and once regarded as possibly the most continuous difficult fifth-class climb in the country. We woke up before dawn, ate a quick breakfast, then drove all the way back into the park to Church Bowl in order to gear up near the approach.
Armed with only a description of the approach, and a peak at the objective through the trees, I started leading us up the trail. It wasn’t long before I walked up on a young rattlesnake sunbathing mid-trail. I was taken back, a first dose of the reality of the situation. I wasn’t in the city I had just left less than twenty four hours before.
Further down the trail, and after what were probably a couple wrong turns, we found ourselves at the end of a faint trail. We had an idea of what direction the objective was in, but couldn’t find a trail in that direction, so read of the description of the approach a few more times and then made a b-line in the direction of the Arete. After a series of tree belays and short roped down climbing, we finally arrived at the base of the Arete.
The Big Climb
Since my buddy Ryan was all dialed in, he lead all the pitches. The Arrowhead Arete is a bit of an unbolted adventure climb, you find your way up multiple crack systems, where there is some ambiguity where one pitch ends and the next begins. At one point, at about two-thirds the way up on an exposed section, we had our first route-finding road block.
The feature above us looked too loose to climb and above the expected grade, but nothing else looked like it would take gear. After attempting to read between the lines of the topo’s descriptions of the pitches, we decided it would be best to hang a right around a corner and hope something came into view.
It seemed like forever as he slowly scrambled his way over, making sure every move he did could also be undone. The cold wind was howling through the valley and the sun was setting, it was hard not to think about how miserable being benighted on the wall would be like.
Luckily, around the corner was a tree fitting the topo description. We made quick work of the remaining pitches, until we got to the knife edge traverse at the end of the route, our first time having to deal with a pitch that ended up being mostly horizontal.
We finished just as dusk was starting to hit and quickly began scrambling down the exit scree gully as fast as was safely possible. The rappels went smooth, with one spitting us out over the top of a huge cave phenomenon. As we abseiled, like a spider spinning the first strand in its web, it was as little unnerving to realize the fact we didn’t know what we were hiking over.
Practically falling down the loose dirt on the way down, part physical exhaustion and part mental, we stumbled out on to flat ground after what seemed like first time an eternity, getting back to the van right as headlamps were becoming necessary.
We finished the night by sleeping in line for a camping spot at Camp 4, so we could get reservations for the rest of the week first thing in the morning.