The Stairs of Kirith [sic] Ungol (TR), Tuolumne obscurities.

climbed August 5th 2009.

All in all it was a great trip.

Part I

I think it started years ago with me perusing '83 Reid and Falkenstein's Tuolumne guide in bed some rainy Seattle winter night and running across the "Stairs of Cirith Ungol" (spelled Kirith in the guide). I know the Tolkien Trilogy well enough to immediately recognize that this represented one of the darkest moments of the story, and that it probably wasn't a really auspicious name for a climb.

I just didn't care.

A few years of climbing on shattered rock on Cascade Peaks with the occasional huddling against cliff faces while rock ricocheted around me (OK, I actually cried), left me dreaming of wide open expanses of the silver and relatively solid granite of my youth. E.G..:

Aside from my fascination with the name, I was interested in The Stairs (of Cirith Ungol) because the first ascent was done by Loyd Price and B. Marsh. Loyd is a kick-ass dude with the 5th ascent of Salathe with Madsen and numerous firsts ( see Clint's list: , and more importantly he was friend/acquaintance of two deceased and much missed buddies of mine (Matt and Bruce Pollock). I think I met Loyd once, but Matt and Bruce talked of him often. The climb disappeared from the guide books after '83 Reid and Falkenstein. Anyway, given the date of the FA (1969) we figured that the 5.8 rating on the Stairs of might be a bit of a sandbag.

My two main climbing partners in California are Adlai (rope rocket) Leiby and Tony, and I go down to California at least yearly to do a trip with one or both of them. While planning the summer 09 trip, I wasn't surprised when Tony actually knew and was enthusiastic about climbing the Stairs, and we three made plans to try it for our summer trip. Unfortunately I got a stomach flu for the planned date, and could only come down a month later (Aug). Adlai was busy starting building a house and couldn't go on that later trip. I came down anyway and realized that it wasn't a totally bad thing that Adlai couldn't make it when Tony and I spent 1/2 of the drive from Berkeley to the Meadows talking about birding (Lewis's Woodpeckers and Green Towhees) and how to file and organize bird songs on a computer. Possibly, Ad would have found that conversation trying. BUT, could we get up climbs without him?

On the driving day we went up a new but obscure 5.6 climb on the formation behind Pothole dome. It had a short approach and a chimney section, and I was reminded again just how beautiful that area is (see above photo and below).

That night we packed for the next days's climb of the Stairs. You all can look up where it is, but the area is untrammeled enough that I'm going to make you work for it. Or ask Clint. Anyway there is no trail from the road to the face and it looked like the approach would take one to two hours. The unknown nature of the climb and approach made it all much more iffy than a standard 5.8 four pitch climb.

The next morning the weather was a little bit ominous, but we decided to give the Stairs a go and at least scope out the approach. We planned the climb as a carry over, i.e. car->base->summit->car, without going back the base again. In retrospect that wasn't really the best way to do it, given the chimney climbing with a pack and, in retrospect, easy descent. We were kind of confused about what-was-where given the years-old and somewhat contradictory information from Roper and Reid & Falkenstein. Tony figured out the real start of the climb, and I concurred after looking over a couple of alternative starts. We started left of the gaping maw pictured below in a splitter off the left edge of the picture. The lower portion of the route isn't pictured because it's either off the left edge of the photo (we're lame) or buried deep within the bowels of the mountain (we're sick).

The first pitch was the conventional gem of the route, but unfortunately we didn't take any pictures of it. It started up off a bench with a short (20'?) tight hands crack (5.8) followed by a mantel and then a traverse left. New gear allowed me to sew up all parts of that (Yes, I sew up 5.8 when I can.). I could have belayed right after the traverse, but I ran out the rope (60M) up steep unprotected pine needle covered dirt. The Cascades had me prepared for that. Tony came up and led the next pitch through more of the same to the base of the first chimney. At first that looked like it was just going to be easy block climbing.

But that was followed by the chimney pictured below. (photo taken by the second) I wasn't totally confident as I headed up it, but the chimney turned out to be protectable in a number of ways. I used two #3 Camalots in a flared crumbly crack and then was able to place smaller gear higher in better granite.

Exiting the chimney got me to the Bat-Cave.

Even though the belay wasn't exactly on-route, I just couldn't pass it up. Once again, I break the blue line where the route disappears into the mountain. Yeeha! Belaying there allowed me to be directly above the chimney if Tony wanted me to haul the pack, and I haven't come down with hanta virus yet. Tony didn't need me to haul and led out the next pitch. The pitch starts with an easy traverse in a beautiful location.

(ok the second photo is tilted, any correction I tried made it look worse).
From the belay I didn't realize, but one of the cruxes of the climb was moving up just around the corner after the pictured traverse. At least following with the pack, it contained the most difficult single move on the climb. After that was an easy block climbing chimney pitch to the end of the technical climbing. You could look down the top of the gaping maw just right of where the climb started. The maw should be called Khazad-du^m or Moria. It might even be a suitable descent route (Flee, fools flee!). [photo, may follow if there is interest] The scramble to the summit was pretty darn cool and circuitous, and we saw gray capped rosy finches to boot! On the summit we had great views and were happy.

We got back to they car by a reasonable hour and had dinner in the light!

Part II

We were pretty chuffed with ourselves for finding and climbing this obscure and slightly remote old-school climb on the first try without having an epic. It started raining the next day and the temperature was predicted to drop to 23F, so we had also luckily and inadvertently taken advantage of a weather window. We dropped down Tioga Pass to the Eastside and promptly saw a really cool bird that we had been hoping to find, a Lewis's Woodpecker. So everything was going too well.

The second climbing objective for this trip was Pratt's Crack up out of Bishop. Retreats without adversity don't make good stories, but I simply backed off. I felt totally no-hands-solid 10' up it, and I had more wide gear than I've ever carried in 40(! arg) years of climbing. But, I just wasn't sure that any but two pieces were of a usable size and didn't know if I could trust the wedged rocks in the crack. Ah, to be young again. I know there are people on ST older than I who would solo it, but not me. Tony took this pretty darn good picture, considering that my feet were only 8' off the ground at the time. It's a beautiful beautiful climb. Naw, more than that, it's a f*^king awesome line.