El Capitan Southwest Face » Sunkist » Sunkist, May 2011 - Threading the Needle Between Storms

Sunkist, May 2011 - Threading the Needle Between Storms

Ever since Gary Thunen and I made an early ascent of Son of Heart in 1986 I've been intrigued by Sunkist. Looking out and down from the Tonsillectomy Traverse at the A5 Arch and the golden headwall that the route was named for was super inspiring. Somehow though it was one route I just hadn't made it back to do.

"Slow forward" to this past month, 25 years later, and my buddy Tom Dickey and I decided Sunkist was the route to do, even with all the terrible weather the Sierras have had this past year. So, on a Friday afternoon we flew from Denver to Sacramento, rented a car, loaded it with about 250 pounds worth of gear, and headed towards the Valley.

Driving to the Valley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dXu0Nu2YBY

Our first stop was Schneider's house in Mariposa to regroup and pack. Unfortunately the weather report for the next week was looking a bit dicey, but I had a secret weapon. My buddy Jim Woodmency is a meteorologist in Jackson Wyoming, and an expert on mountain weather (check out his web site: www.mountainweather.com). He always gives me a dialed in weather forecast before trips, and his prediction was that we could likely just barely thread the needle and squeeze the route in - woo hoo!!

Credit: Gagner


Since there weren't any fixed ropes to Mammoth Terraces our plan was to climb Freeblast the next day, haul the day after, and spend that night, and the next one on Mammoth since it was suppose to rain and snow the day after we hauled.

The next morning we enjoyed a short "El Cap lieback" session before heading up the hill.

El Cap lieback before fixing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYqq36ouxqc

Sunkist follows a line up the center of the main shaded face on the left of this photo, to the left of the Shield, and just right of Son of Heart. It climbs a really spectacular panel of orange rock.

Credit: Gagner


Coincidentally my buddy Dave Nettle and his friend Karen were planning to climb a route, and settled on the Triple Direct, so we joined forces to fix down from Mammoth. Soon we were on top of the Half Dollar, enjoying a nice though slightly windy day.

On top of the Half Dollar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1U4l32-rNu4

The next day, Sunday, was a worker day, and even though the weather was suppose to turn bad, all we had to do was haul our bags 5 ropes to the top of Mammoth Terraces - something always best done in cool temperatures.

Credit: Gagner


Above us is the Sunkist headwall which we will reach in about 5 days. Lucky for us we get to Mammoth, get the ledge set up and settled in just as the rain starts. Woody told us it would rain that night, with rain and snow the next day (which was a Monday), but it would clear out Monday night. Evidently we shouldn't see any precipitation then until Saturday night - just enough time to thread the needle and make it to the top.

Storming on Mammoth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nukiTtWJmaY

Credit: Gagner


Sure enough it rained and snowed on Monday, but by late afternoon the clouds broke and we were able to get out of the ledge, stretch, and fix a pitch. I clean and rap down in the dark.

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


The next day is nice, so we pack up and climb another 4 pitches, along with our junk show, to where Magic Mushroom and Sunkist part ways. It's still light, but we decide to relax and enjoy the view before we get on to Sunkist proper.

Tom hauling after Cast Away Matey Pinnacle
Tom hauling after Cast Away Matey Pinnacle
Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


The next day puts us on the start of Sunkist. I get to lead the first pitch of the day past a loose block, with a pendulum and some traversing. One thing about this route is that there's a lot of traversing to get to the Sunkist headwall, but in the end it's well worth it.

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


We end up on this nice ledge and decide to fix a pitch to the base of THE slot. I'm looking forward to struggling up it first thing in the morning - it will be better than coffee.

Credit: Gagner


The next morning I take the bare essentials - three #4 Camalots, a #4.5, and a #5 - luckily I don't mind the wyde, and the pitch turns out to really be not that bad!!

Credit: Gagner


At this point you are pretty close to the headwall, and the rock is starting to really turn a burnt orange. Two more pitches get us there. Tom gets to lead the first of the three headwall pitches. This is what we've come here for - woo hoo!!

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


We're now bivied at the base of the main, long headwall crack. This single crack is somewhat similar to the pitch after the Triple Cracks on the Shield - steep, long, straight in, in orange rock, and in a stunning location. I get to lead this pitch first thing the next morning, and as advertised, it's a beauty.

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


The third headwall pitch leads us to the base of the infamous A5 Arch (now F1+, as in fixed something heads). Tom gets up on the pitch and is top stepping a #1 Pecker, which blows, and he takes a 40 foot upside down fall - he gets caught by another #1 Pecker right off the belay - bad form to fall on the belay mate, so glad you didn't. Man, I though he had ripped several placements, but it turns out that the slightly worked, and frayed, wires on three #2 Peckers broke, leaving the Peckers in place. Dang!! Tom gets back to the belay with a bruised rib, and I take over the lead, which is heads and Peckers for about 45 feet to a rivet ladder.

Tom looking down on me just before his big fall
Tom looking down on me just before his big fall
Credit: Gagner

 

Man the rock here is gorgeous
Man the rock here is gorgeous
Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner

 

Looking back at the A5 Arch
Looking back at the A5 Arch
Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


It's now Friday evening and weather is suppose to move in the next day. We're hoping it hasn't sped up, but we're unable to call Woody because my cell phone battery is dead. I decide to lead one more pitch in the dark to position us 2 1/2 pitches from the top so we can sprint to the top in the morning if need be.

The next day we wake up to threatening skies and know we have to punch it - so we're up early. I lead the next pitch, which puts us at a long, mostly free climbing pitch below the top - woo hoo!!

Credit: Gagner


Soon enough we're on top where the real fun begins.

Credit: Gagner

 

Credit: Gagner


And I kid you not - we got down to the road at 10:30pm. I catch a ride to the car, drive the loop, and arrive back at Manure Pile to pick up Tom and the bags at exactly the moment it starts to rain.

The next morning we awoke to three inches of snow in El Cap Meadows.

Credit: Gagner


Great route, great friend, and all the more satisfying since we barely threaded the needle between storms.

Thanks for reading....and WOO HOO!!

Route: 
Date: 
2011-05