Chapter from “Yosemite Epics” by Matt Johanson:
A classic by any standard, Astroman (5.11c) exemplifies climbing’s evolution in Yosemite and elsewhere. Warren Harding and Chuck Pratt used more than 200 pieces of direct aid on its 1,100 overhanging feet during their 1959 first ascent, an impressive and hard-fought achievement. However, in 1975, John Bachar, Ron Kauk and John Long climbed the intensely demanding 12-pitch route on Washington Column entirely without aid, shattering perceptions of what was possible in the vertical world. Astroman remains one of the most challenging free climbs anywhere due to its great sustained difficulty and unnerving exposure.
Attesting to that is Lynn Hill, no stranger to redefining the possible. The perennial competition champion became the first woman to climb Midnight Lightning and to free climb the West Face of Leaning Tower. Above all, her free ascent of The Nose, unprecedented for both women and men, made her name widely known even outside climbing circles. For a step in her evolution, Hill credits a daunting effort on Astroman in September of 1983. As she climbed with her boyfriend, circumstances required the 22-year-old to lead the intimidating route ill-equipped and in darkness.
Yosemite is one of the most spectacular, demanding and humbling places I’ve ever climbed. You have to have certain experiences to really learn what you’re doing there. Climbing Astroman was one of those times for me. Some of my friends like John Long and Ron Kauk had climbed it and talked to me about it. That climb is a legend and famous even all the way out in The Gunks, where my then-boyfriend grew up climbing. He was a fabulous 5.12 climber and always good at knowing the reputations of climbs, but in The Gunks the rock is so completely different. You hardly ever have to jam and you don’t need big cams. So he didn’t realize that he didn’t have the background for the route.
We set out on a sketchy day as far as the weather. It looked like it could sprinkle but not too soon, so we decided to go for it. We’d already climbed the first few pitches when I realized we didn’t have a full gear rack. At that age I wasn’t used to being the one in charge. I was always the youngest in the group, tagging along. I didn’t study the guidebook or pick out our routes or the gear. This time, it turns out we only had a couple of cams that were the right size and I realized we were going to have to run it out a lot.
When we got to the Harding Slot, it was his turn to lead. He didn’t know how to jam it and the crack spit him out. He got claustrophobic and couldn’t stand it so he came down. “You lead,” he said. So I took that pitch and then I just kept leading the pitches above that. I had to do some tricky balancing moves on some edges, pretty continuous laybacking, jamming and placing gear. It’s always more difficult when you have to stop to place pro. The section between the Harding Slot and Changing Corners is probably the crux. There’s a corner where you get out around the arête and start laybacking the other direction. We were supposed to trade leads but I was faster and we had to hurry because of darkness and the threat of rain; we hadn’t brought everything we would need to bivvy. He also complained of pain from his tendinitis.
And so here I am, exhausted on the last pitch in complete darkness. We didn’t have headlamps, of course. It was really hard to see where to go or how to place any gear. I had to feel by hand the shape of the crack. I climbed it again later and even in daylight it’s hard to find that line. It’s not easy to protect in any case, which is why it gets a scary rating, R. When I could place protection, it was so bad that it’s like it was there for decoration. I was so nervous, not only because it was run out and hard climbing, but also because it was over a ledge where a fall could cause a bad injury. That was the most intense part of the whole thing. “Don’t fall” was the theme in those days. That’s where I learned that first rule of climbing wisdom.
We get to the top and it’s starting to sprinkle. Without a headlamp, it’s too dark to hike down, so we found an overhanging rock for shelter from the rain. We didn’t bring much for warmth: he had an Anorack jacket and I had a cotton sweatshirt. We wrapped our rope around us. No food and no water. We’d only brought one liter of water for the day and I didn’t get much of that. I got so desperate that I tried to sip some running water on the rock face. We got down safe the next morning but I ended up getting a very painful bladder infection due to the lack of water. Then I had to figure out how to get medicine for that because it wasn’t like I had access to a doctor.
I don’t think we could have retreated. That would have been complicated. We had only one rope and we would have had to leave behind a lot of gear, which I couldn’t afford. I was a dirtbag climber and didn’t have rich parents to pay my way. So in a tough spot, my inclination was to figure out how to make due and get to the top.
The whole trip was epic on many levels. The climb was definitely more difficult than I had imagined. Yosemite climbs like that can be very sustained, with one pitch of 5.10 or 5.11 after another. Sometimes the ratings seem lower than the actual difficulty. Then there’s a more personal side of the story. He and I were moving in together. The fact that I had to kind of take over and do the hardest leading bruised his ego. So he was embarrassed and he had to deal with that. Climbing really is a good test for a partnership and that should have been a telltale sign of the future. He ended up breaking up with me and I had to find another place to live, though today we’re on friendly terms.
Obviously I learned to be prepared for level of equipment, food, water and warmth needed on a long climb like that. Bring more wide cams and enough locking biners. If you don’t bring enough gear, it always takes extra time. Be organized and know what you’re getting into. Ask questions of people who have done the route, somebody who has the intent to give you the correct information and not someone trying to sandbag you. Just come ready. I was young and not yet accustomed to taking more responsibility. That climb was my initiation from trusting without knowing and not being really critical to getting more organized and involved in every decision about a climb.
Watch out for ego. That’s a lesson that gets relearned all the time. Let’s just say it hasn’t always been easy in my position. Boys really don’t like it when girls do better at something better than them. There’s no logical reason, but they always feel like they should be better at everything. Guys don’t like to admit that they chickened out or couldn’t do it. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Sort out your motivations for doing things and keep desires in balance and perspective. Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Keep it real. That’s a lesson for all of us in life, I think.