Finding My Way Home: Climbing Mt. Starr King in Yosemite
Climber Beth Rodden made the first ascent of what is likely Yosemite’s single hardest traditional pitch: Meltdown, a 70-foot 5.14 crack at Upper Cascade Falls. Beth lives near Yosemite and loves to bake in between climbs and travels.
I normally hide from the heat when climbing. I feel like a raisin when the temperature gets into the 90’s, shriveling up and withering away. But this summer, I was more than happy to stick around Yosemite. With a fairly empty park because of the Hantavirus scare, it was a nice time to enjoy the shadier, higher climbs that I rarely visit.
My neighbors had been suggesting Mt. Starr King to me for years, probably due to my constant state of injury. They thought surely the 5.0 dome would be gentle on my injury-prone body. Their thinking was brilliant and one sweltering hot weekend in September we set off on an adventure.
I haven’t spent a ton of time in the southern half of Yosemite, mainly due to my singular focus on El Cap for nearly a decade. Walking out to Mt. Starr King was a gentle reminder on how beautiful the rest of the park is. High sierra domes and granite spires flank the background and vibrant green trees grace the foreground. After an hour or two of hiking and bushwhacking up to the base, we were standing at the bottom of the large, sloping white granite dome. The one suggestion that I took from them was to bring climbing shoes. I’m the furthest thing from a comfortable free soloer. In fact, I shouldn’t even put comfortable and free soloer in the same sentence when referring to myself. It should be more like terrified, gumby, petrified. Those words much more accurately describe what pulses through my body when I am without a rope. But, naively I thought surely a 5.0 was easy enough to handle.
I have been in situations a few times in my life where I wanted to beam myself out of them. One in particular was my first swim meet. I have already mentioned how horrible I am at competitive swimming, but during my first meet I had one of those times in life where I didn’t want to be there. Standing on the blocks, then bending over waiting for the beep to go off, it felt as if time stood still. My head down even with my shins, legs ready to blast off, I distinctly remember thinking, “I’d like to go home now.” I was surrounded by six-foot-tall girls, who moved like fast fish in the water. I wish that was the visual description people would describe of me, but it was more like floundering cat grasping to get ashore. I just prayed that the beep would never go off. That somehow I would be blessed and allowed to go back home, never to put myself in that terrifying position ever again. But alas, as the milliseconds felt like minutes, eventually the beep went off, something uncontrolled inside of me dove off the block, and I was swimming.
As we approached the “crux” of Mt. Starr King, I was comfortable and having the time of my life. Not a soul in sight, it felt as if we had all of Yosemite to ourselves.
“There’s a little tricky part right here.” My friend Randy said in a calm voice from above.
I smiled and said thanks, thinking that perhaps I might have to tighten up my climbing shoes. As I scrambled a little higher and felt the holds that I was supposed to move off of, that horrible frozen feeling crept back into my body. That same feeling that I had decades before at the swim meet. I froze, what the hell was I doing here? I chalked and re-chalked. Surely I must be missing a hold, how could 5.0 feel this hard? Where were the jugs?
“I want to go home,” I said to Randy in a calm state of panic.
“What?” He replied in confusion.
“I want to go home,” I repeated.
“Okay, well, you are going to have to do this move first,” he replied dumbfounded.
I felt like I was on those handholds for hours. Visualizing, chalking, breathing, trying to grasp what I had to do, all while wishing I were at home. Meanwhile, Randy was scrambling up, down, around, to the left, to the right, pointing out various sequences that I could try. I was so focused on not tumbling off the slab of granite that I could hardly focus on him running circles around me.
Finally, as if the beep went off at the swim meet, I just did the move. Nothing changed, no new hold appeared, no new sequence. I just sucked it up and went for it.
I’m sure I made 5.0 into at least 5.11 that day. I suppose my mom would be happy to learn that I am not made out to be a free soloer. I woke the next day to an entirely sore body, more wrecked than I can remember.
The view from Mt. Starr King is incredible. We had the summit to ourselves that day with 360 degree views of the high Sierra. After an hour lounging on the summit we slowly made our way back down, with Mt. Starr King slowly getting smaller in the background. As I crawled into bed that night a smile crept over my face, I was home.
PHOTOS courtesy Beth Rodden.