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  • Writer's pictureMaddy Whittaker

South face of Mt. Watkins, Yosemite

18th-20th May, 2024. Steven Fortune and Maddy Whittaker


Mt Watkins is just as immense and impressive looking as El Capitan and Half Dome, yet it gets only a fraction of the fuss. Perhaps this is what made me so keen to climb it. With a four ish hour approach, this peak feels a lot more like an alpine adventure in the wilderness than climbing in the main valley. In fact, we even had the whole peak to ourselves! Sweet sweet serenity.


The Approach

Start by heading towards Mirror Lake. We started walking from Curry Village because of construction closing the roads. There's a well formed trail that leads a good distance up river. After that, you have to cross Snowy Creek and head on a sparsely cairned route through the forest for another hour or so. We have annotated the topographic map from Erik Sloan's guidebook with some extra detail that may be helpful (see above).


Above: Watkins reflected in Mirror Lake at first light.


Snowy Creek was in full raging flood. For a few moments, we wondered if the trip was over before it had even started. But a fallen tree 100m upstream offered a perfect bridge across the raging whitewater. I started feeling a bit more at home as I crawled across the log. This seemed much more like a classic kiwi approach than any of the other routes we'd done in the valley.

Above: Steve crawling across the tree bridge


To save weight on the walk in, carry minimal water. You can fill up in Tenaya Creek right before you cut directly to the base of the climb. Remember to bring tablets to treat the water.


Tactics

Steve and I decided to take a lighter and faster approach than the other big walls we had done. We planned to climb the route over two days:


Day One: approach and climb 8 pitches up to the Watkins Sheraton Bivvy ledge. Shiver bivvy here (no cooker, no sleeping mats or sleeping bags, just pop on a puffer jacket and sleep on the ropes).


Day Two: Climb the remaining 11 pitches and descend.


As a result of not taking bivvy gear, we could cut the weight right down. We both climbed with packs. The leader basically carried a water bottle, some snacks and their layers, while the second carried all the rest of the water and food, and their layers. We took 6L of water each for the two day ascent, although we drank a lot on the approach to make sure we were hydrated. This meant the second was essentially a packhorse, carrying about 11kg of water (leader carrying a litre), a few kg of food and a few kg of layers. This did make any free moves quite difficult to second, but it meant we didn't have to haul anything, which saved lots of time.


We took one 70m thick lead rope, and a tag line. The leader would reach the anchor, pull up all the slack in the rope, fix the lead rope, and then carry on leading, self belaying. The second would ascend the ropes in however manner they wanted (we had envisioned fix and follow using tractions, so the second could free climb, but with the heavy pack, the second mostly just jumarred). Once at the anchor, the second would put the leader on belay, and send the rack they had cleaned from the pitch below up to the leader, using the tag line.


Day One

Day one went to plan. We started heading up the fixed lines at about 9:30am. They took about an hour. We simuled the first two pitches, taking the easy variation, and then lowered the leader diagonally down to the anchor at the top of the 12a pitch 2. The lower was incredibly diagonal, with the potential of swinging into the jutting out rock feature which you simul up. There is a bolt halfway which you can clip the rope to. However, with one 70m rope, you can't quite reach the anchor of pitch 2. You can reach the ledge it's on, and can place some gear there, but then will need to pull the rope, and walk across the ledge to the anchor. It's important to keep tension on the rope for the second as they rap. Because there is not much spare rope (full 35m to reach the ledge), you cannot rap on a grigri. Use an ATC and prussik, and battle your way across. This rap was time consuming, and things were a bit simpler after that.


Below: Looking across to Steve, who is half way down the lower out to the top of pitch 2.


Above: Steve leading up the prominent crack system that you follow from pitch 3 up to the Sheraton Watkins bivvy (top of pitch 8).


We made the bivvy ledge before dark, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset on Half Dome, before commencing the shiver bivvy. The macpac pursuit packs have a thin foam pad in the back which you can unfold. So we used this over the top of the ropes for ground insulation. We tucked the packs over our feet for some extra warmth there. It was not the most comfortable night, but it was comfortable enough that we both got some sleep, and were ready to go at first light the next morning. One of the reasons for this style of bivvy, was also to demystify the 'shiver bivvy.' For me, doing a bivvy like this, in a more controlled manner, took the scariness out of the prospect of an unplanned bivvy in the future. Now I would know what it entails, and would know that I could handle it.



Day Two


One thing we quickly discovered on day two, was that the route was a harder than what we had expected. There was a lot more compulsory free moves than the El Cap routes we had done previously. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it meant we had to aid a lot more than we expected, and even when aiding, it was harder and slower than expected. Our speed dropped right down. The C1 pitch above the bivvy felt more like a C3, and took a few hours to lead. It became quickly evident that we would be topping out later than planned.


Left: Steve leading out from the bivvy, with first light on Half Dome in the background.



Above: Maddy starting out leading pitch 15 in the fading light, a 10d or C2 crack leading into an awkward flare.


I don't think we had realised quite how late the top out would be. Having started climbing at 6am, we were surprised to reach the summit at 3.20am, the following morning. Thankfully the full moon had enabled us to enjoy the epic exposure of the top out (think move on an arete with a sweet 2800 feet of exposure). It was absolutely outrageous, and a true highlight of the route. The pendulum was also a memorable feature, on pitch 13. We did find the 10th pitch (a 5.5 traverse), was indeed traversey, and necessary for the second to free (no fixed gear).


Below: 3:20am summit selfie after 21.5 hours of climbing.


Upon topping out, we decided to do another shiver bivvy for an hour or two, until first light, and then wander down. It was incredibly cold on top, with verglass forming on the slabs around us, near the melting snow patches. We were both pretty keen to get moving when it got light, slowly warming up as we gained the last bit of vert, on the sandy slopes at the top.










Descent



Steve and I were pretty tired for the descent. We hadn't had many hours sleep over the past couple of days, and had done a lot of climbing. But dawn over the snowy mountains around us was life giving. We meandered up the low angle slabs to the flat sandy tops of Watkins. There were some pretty epic trees up there, as well as the poo of some very large animals. Bears we wondered?? Mountain lions?? Our imaginations were running wild.

A friend of Steve had told us to not cut down to Snowy Creek, until the path down looked clear e.g. no Manzanita shrubs. We descended on the slabs on the very far left of the photo (where the sun is), after travelling along the sandy tops for 20 minutes or so. The trees were quite open, as shown in the image below.

After descending for a while, we reached a trail alongside the river, which we followed until it crossed Snowy Creek, and joined a more major track, which lead all the way back to the Mirror Lake track. The walk out is roughly seven miles, with lots of switchbacks.


Overall impressions


We think that we may have been the first party of the season to climb the route. This is mainly based off the large amount of vegetation in the cracks. We did a lot of gardening with a nut tool to dig out placements. This wasn't so bad for aiding, but would have been difficult if you were attempting to free the route. The anchors have all been replaced with solid bolts, and the pendulum is on bolts now, which is nice! Compared to stories of it being off one piece of old fixed gear in the past!


The route itself was spectacular: an aesthetic line, ending in splitter cracks and a heavenly top out. The swathe of rock that is Watkins is impressive, and there's a number of beautiful lines on the South Face, that lure you in. Soul Garden looked like it would be a great climb too (from looking across to its incredible crack systems). The aiding was engaging in places (definitely a bit sandbagged), and there was a significant amount of compulsory free moves to keep you on your toes. The views are out of this world, and you can spend your belays watching raptors tuck their wings in, and plummet 800m in a few seconds, hunting smaller birds. There was no sound of cars, and no other people, just the rushing river below. A treat for the body and the soul.


We had expected the route to be super hot. All the guidebooks had warned this, because of the South facing nature of the route. This wasn't our experience thankfully. The sun seemed to go off the route at about 3pm for us, and there was a cool breeze blowing most of the day, despite the forecast being for temperatures around 25 degrees celsius. I found myself jumarring in a puffer jacket at times, and with extra water at the top of the route!


While we did emerge from the route much hungrier and more tired than expected, it was an absolute alpine treat, and gave me a great alternative experience to climbing El Cap trade routes. I'd highly recommend to everyone I can, although be prepared to get your fingernails dirty in the less frequently climbed cracks in this area.


Gear list:


  • 70m thick lead rope

  • 60m tag line

  • 2 beaks (1 x #2, 1 x #3)

  • Cams: 2 each 0.3-1, 3-4 each 1-2", 2 each 2.5-3.5"

  • Full rack of totems: black - orange, including doubles in black and blue (the two smallest). A handful of offset cams in 0.1 - 0.5

  • Two micro cams (teeny tinies)

  • A rack of offset nuts

  • Nut tool

  • 2 camhooks (narrow)

  • 2 hooks (grappling, cliffhanger)

  • 12 quick draws (8 extended, 4 regular)

  • 2 anchor slings with carabiners for bolts + fixing

  • One normal leading aid ladder + one pocket ladder

  • Petzl evolv adjust daisies + carabiners each

  • Alfifi (adjustable fifi)

  • 2 jumars for the second

  • 2 footloops for the second

  • Microtraxions x4

  • Personal kit: grigri, ATC, prussik, (for PAS we used the petzl evolv adjust, which we both had), crack gloves, belay gloves, climbing shoes, approach shoes, s un shirt, mid layer, puffer jacket, helmets,

  • PLB and very small first aid kit including water treatment tabs

  • Sunblock + hat + sunglasses

  • Phones with topo of the route

  • 12L water carrying capacity

  • Wag bags for carrying waste out

  • Food

  • 40L macpac pursuit packs

  • Fenix Headtorch https://www.fenixlighting.com/products/fenix-hm65r-t-v2-rechargeable-headlamp?variant=41994762223670


Above: view towards Half Dome from the approach fixed lines on the south face of Watkins








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