I’m sure that this report will be ho-hum for many of the more experienced climbers on the board, but it was my first climbing trip to Yosemite and perhaps my perspective will provide someone with a bit of valuable information for planning their own trip.

My partner Mitch arrived at the Reno airport and we drove south to the park. Reno is certainly the closest large city and major airport to Yosemite; less than three hours to Tuolumne Meadows and I clocked 189 miles from the Reno airport to Curry Village. Be careful, though, as the Tioga pass can stay closed through June some years. Hint: fill up your tank before leaving Nevada, as the gas is 50 cents a gallon (at least) more expensive in California. Last chance Nevada gas is in Topaz, right on the state line. The small towns on the way south on US 395 provide very little in the way of culinary options, at least until Lee Vining, when you have the choice of a diner, a BBQ (decent), and the Mobil Gas station.

A bit on park logistics. Camping reservations are handled by NPS (national park service) at nps.gov. Hotel, lodge, and tent cabin reservations are handled by Delaware North Co., the concessionaire, at Yosemitepark.com. There are many camping areas in the Valley and one at Tuolumne. In the Valley, Camp 4 is walk-in (first-come, first-served), and they start handing out sites at 0830. In Tuolumne, half of the campsites are first-come, first-served, and half can be reserved. Generally speaking, the toll-free numbers for both Delaware North and the NPS had more up to date information on reservation availability for the immediate future (tonight and tomorrow night) than the actual registration desks in the park.

We had planned this trip for nearly a year. I knew that I could get campsite reservations from the NPS website at a specific date, nearly six months in advance of our travel dates. I couldn’t get on the NPS website when that first possible day rolled around, and finally called the NPS reservation number, about nine hours after the first possible moment. Every single campsite reservation in the valley had been taken in those nine hours. I was able to get Tuolumne reservations for only three of our four desired days. I was able to get a tent cabin at Curry Village as late as a week prior, but we were unable to get a tent cabin a few days prior (after our plans changed due to weather). Lesson: know the first possible moment for making reservations, and if you can’t get a reservation on the website, get right on the phone.

I would rather sleep in my truck just outside the park than stay in Curry Village again. It was dirty, crowded, noisy, and did I mention dirty (bathrooms, showers, overflowing trashcans, etc.)? No picnic tables for eating or cooking, dirty bear storage lockers, insufficient bathroom capacity, broken showers, and did I mention filthy?

There are several Forest Service campsites within 20 minutes of Tuolumne on the Tioga pass road, outside the park. We found one that still had campsites available at sunset, even though Tuolumne and the closer campgrounds were filled. There are also campgrounds near the other park exits, but I cannot personally attest to number or availability of campsites.

Now, on to the climbing. We arrived in the valley with the goal of climbing a big wall. Being big wall, aid, crack, and chimney neophytes, I had arranged with a guide who gave us two days of big wall, crack, and chimney instruction in advance of our climb. It was well worth the time. We climbed mostly in the Church Bowl area. The 5.6 Church Bowl Chimney route was a real wake-up—pure Yosemite chimney with no way to cheat with face moves.

We climbed Washington Column via the South Face route, V 5.8 C1. What astonished us was the sustained nature of the climbing. When I think of a 10-pitch route rated 5.8, I imagine that probably half of the pitches, at least, are easier. And of the pitches that are 5.8, most of each pitch is easier with perhaps a few 5.8 moves. Well, I learned that Yosemite is different. Every single one of these pitches was 5.8 or harder, and most of the pitches were sustained at their grade. We aided three pitches, and I also learned that there is no distinction between an easy, slabby C1 and a nearly impossible roof C1. This was the most challenging and sustained climbing I’ve ever done. It was excellent—every pitch served up a different challenge. From chimneys to offwidths to roofs to cracks, the route had it all. To give us a taste of how a leader thinks and moves leading aid, we mostly seconded the aid pitches via “clip cleaning” rather than jumaring. On day one, we climbed the first three pitches to the Dinner Ledge and planned to fix the next two pitches late the first afternoon. Because of difficulties (well, a flail-fest) on the Kor roof, we fixed only one pitch. We spent a relaxed night on the Dinner Ledge, sharing the evening with a team of two Colorado climbers and a gal from Santa Barbara soloing an adjacent route. We had planned to top out on day two and either hike or rap off. We didn’t top out until dark, and decided to bivy on top of the column. We rapped down via the Royal Arches rappel the next morning, 11 total raps.

We then drove to Tuolumne Meadows, for three days of climbing on our own. Though it’s famous for runout slab climbs on domes, Tuolumne has many moderate and well-protected climbs. I recommend the Supertopos guidebook over the Falcon book, though the Falcon book has more routes. The Falcon book is mainly a collection of rough topos, with very few verbal route descriptions, limited or no approach/descent descriptions, and too many question marks (i.e., routes marked 5.7 (?, ?)), which make one wonder if anyone actually climbed the route in question. The Supertopo book is quite detailed, some say too detailed, but I thought it useful for a couple of climbers on their first non-guided alpine adventure. Perhaps we’ll use only the aerial photo next time.

Our first day, still recovering from Washington Column, we climbed Northwest Books, a two-pitch 5.6 on Lembert Dome. The parking area is only minutes from the Tuolumne Meadows campground and the approach is about 10 minutes. We started after noon and had one party in front of us, but no wait and nobody behind. The climb was very nice with good pro and an ideal way to get acclimated to both altitude and Tuolumne granite. There are more difficult climbs on the same dome.

The next day, we climbed Holdless Horror, a four-pitch 5.6 on Dozier Dome. Again, it was well protected and provided spectacular views of Tenaya Lake and the surrounding domes. The Supertopos guide is a bit out of date on this dome, telling us that the approach was an hour through dense forest with no trail. We did bushwack, but only for 30 minutes, and found out from some other climbers that there is a path with cairns, and used it on the trip back to the car. The area has gotten more popular in recent years, and we met a party developing routes and marking trails.

Our final day, we climbed Cathedral Peak. This is a must-do classic for any climber. The summit is no bigger than a tabletop, with views of the Tuolumne high Sierra and a spectacular edge-on view of Half Dome. Plus, how could you miss a peak first climbed by John Muir? There are endless options for routes and super protection. We climbed the classic five-pitch (six, really, since we roped to the summit) 5.6 Standard Route. However, two Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides passed us on the right, climbing what they thought was a 5.7/8 route of their own creation. There are three “topoed” routes (5.6, 5.7, 5.7) and unlimited other possibilities. The classic pitch is number four, with a 5.6 chimney that starts as a squeeze and widens enough to tuck into and do a few chimney moves. There are face holds for the less chimney-inclined. The descent was challenging, with route-finding and steep slabs and ledges, but with a few rappels (I really dislike downclimbing 5.+ slabs), some talus scrambling, and descent back down a sandy climbers’ trail, we found our way back to the approach trail. The approach to the base of the climb was about 90 minutes, and the descent from summit to car about 2 hours.

In the valley, we stayed in Curry Village tent cabins. Tent cabins are overpriced at $75.90 per moldy, dirty, two-person cabin. Since there are no picnic tables for cooking, we ate at the Curry Pavilion buffet for breakfasts and the pizza shop or bar (burgers) for dinners. We did spend one night at Wawona NPS campground and ate a pricey ($25 per) but excellent dinner at the Wawona hotel. In the meadows, we camped and cooked. NPS campground fee was $18 per night, Forest Service campground was $14. Showers are available in Curry Village (bring flip flops or sandals, the floors are really filthy). Showers are also available in Tuolumne Meadows, but only between 12 and 3:30 (at the Tuolumne lodge), making them a bit impractical unless you are on a rest day.

The Yosemite Mountain shop, in Curry Village, is one of the best-supplied climbing and backpacking stores I’ve ever seen. If you forgot it, they probably have it.

We did bring, and use (in Tuolumne), double cams up to 2.5 BD camalots. I brought tricams instead of a second set of nuts, and actually found some good camming placements for them.

If you can’t climb for a day, the hiking is awesome. During one rest day in the valley, I hiked from the valley to Glacier Point and on to Sentinel Dome.

This was a great trip for our first taste of Yosemite climbing. I live only three hours from Tuolumne Meadows—who wants to go climbing?