Pictures: Robert Breyer
Yosemite is home to one of the most concentrated collections of trad Crack climbs in the world. The route Astroman is arguably the most famous route of its kind and is just hard enough or easy enough to entice or inspire any seasoned or “wanna be” trad climber. It is the quintessential test piece and in 1993 Kevin Smith and I climbed this route under the most abysmal weather conditions. We were rained on and snowed on but the discomfort was way second to the suffering I experienced in the Harding Slot, the infamous 5th pitch. We had to bivvy without any warm gear after finding the final 10m of the route, the top 5.10c face, streaming wet with water. That night it stormed and snowed and there was a massive rock fall off the slopes of Half dome that nearly scared us to death. And the next morning we had to wait, frozen, fatigued and miserable until almost mid-day for the top 5.10c face to dry where Kevin, leading went off route and took a whipper. But we weren’t going to go down…..
On Sunday, 15 September 2008, exactly 15 years later – almost to the day – in near perfect weather except for a very sunny and hot lead of the 5.11b 6th pitch, I repeated the route with Clinton Martinengo who suffered as much as I did in the Slot all those years ago. He was so shattered that he bumbled down the descent at half pace, slept till 10h00 the following the morning and then slept most of the afternoon and right through the Bourne Identity blaring on the TV while I wrote this post.
Astroman was first climbed in 1958 the year I was born by Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt and Glen Denny as a sieged big wall route. There is ample evidence of old pins and pin scars. In 1975 or ’76 it was freed by Ron Kauk, John Bacher and John Long alternating leads with the other two jumarring. Ron Kauk then led all the pitches free the following year.
As is the case in so many Yosemite “free” routes there are several places of fixed protection and there are ample pin scars. However, unlike so many free routes, if not most of the hard free routes, there is not one move that is made easier by pin scars. The “changing corners” pitch has improved finger locks from pin scars but these are actually misleading as it is a stemming move and the finger locks don’t help at all and in any case they are rounded and poor. So it is one of the purest free routes in Yos. I noticed that a fixed bong peg that was in situ about 10m up the Enduro crack in 1993 had been removed when we did the recent ascent. It was very comforting to race up to the bong and clip it without having to place a cam from a very strenuous position.
In 1993, when I was Clint’s age, 34, Kevin and I got stormed off from the third pitch on our first attempt. We returned two days later but due to wet and cold conditions only started after nine am. We did the original 5.11c second pitch which has by far the single hardest move on the climb and Kevin failed on this on the day after having on-sighted it two days previously. I took over the lead and he did the Enduro pitch. I got the “slot” pitch which I thrutched up in complete terror and then it rained on us again and we had to wait an hour for things to dry.
I recall having great difficulty with the “changing corner” pitch but fared much better this time and worked it out quite quickly but Clinton didn’t find it easy by any means.
Clinton led the top 5.10c pitch which is barely protected by a mashy and poor cams but is not too hard in the context of the route.
But I succumbed to the “slot” this time. I had climbed the Enduro pitch in the sun and having been in the Valley for only 5 days and very little crack climbing under my belt I already felt wasted and decided to save my energy and hung on the rope. It leads me to conclude that the way to do the “slot” is to lead it. Getting going and into the slot is so tenuous that any amount of rope tension can help or confound your efforts. When leading it one places a cam in the crack in the back and it allows the weight of the rope to pull you in and up ever so slightly which is no hindrance and may be of help. When following, the rope tension, even a slight tug, pulls you outwards and away and is a real nuisance. Also your desire is stymied when following it whereas you are a lot more committed when leading it. So if you want to free the “slot”, lead it. And if you don’t believe me then read this article that incidentally appeared in a Booulder newspaper just 3 days before we did it (but I only got to read it after we did the route): http://www.dailycamera.com/news/2008/sep/16/weidner-size-matters-harding-slot.
Clinton’s comment when we finished the route was that Gosia would have to find someone else to do it with as he was never doing the slot again but we agreed that in 15 years time we would find a young 34 year rock jock to lead us up the slot. Maybe one of my kids? We’ll see….