Yak Check (5.10a)
June 12-13, 2009
I've wanted to climb Yak Peak since I first saw a picture of it in Alpine Select years ago. Yak Peak is an enormous granite exfoliated dome located just off the Coquihalla Highway east of Hope in British Columbia, Canada. I finally got the chance to climb it with my friend Andy King and although we ended up retreating 2 pitches from the top due to thunderstorms, we had a great time on this magnificent massif!
For some reason we drove up early Thursday morning. We crossed the border at Sumas with no problems and were soon converting km to miles and learning why there were so many signs along side the highway cautioning drivers to not drive drunk and to slow down. Not 15 miles on east highway 1, we came upon two crushed vehicles. Even with this vivid example of the result of too much speed and too little attention, drivers were back to speeding and weaving in and out of traffic again. Canada is a big country but you folks are paying WAY too much for gas and British Columbia is way too beautiful to race past it. Anyway, we camped out in the slow lane (still doing 5 over the Maximum Limit) and enjoyed the scenery. We stopped in Hope to pick up some groceries while keeping an eye peeled for the JJ Rambo museum.
Stocked up with hot dogs, buns, 6 pack of Canadian lager, ice, chili, chips, bagels, cream cheese, and candy bars we made one last stop at McDonalds to pick up some mustard and ketchup. Once we had everything we continued up the Coquihalla Highway towards our destination. We both exclaimed aloud as we rounded a corner and had a full view of our objective! WOW! Yak Peak represents well in print, but it's nothing compared to the real thing. We pulled over at an exit and got out the binoculars and examined our route. Near the top I spotted two climbers and we watched their quick progress up the last three pitches of Reality Crack.
The Alpine Select guidebook said there was camping across the highway from the rest stop near a gravel field. So while the two were climbing we drove around looking for a camp site. We didn't find a campground but we did find an access road on the south side of the highway just across from the rest stop and found some grassy spots that would do.
Having secured a spot to camp we continued down the highway and looped back to locate the trailhead. We pulled off the highway onto what looked like a forest service road but it dead ended in a clearing in the forest where there was a building for snow recording and analysis. We got out and walked around looking for the trailhead. While standing on a short embankment near the edge of a stream, a large boulder that Andy was standing on suddenly gave way and sent him falling. I heard a large crash and ran over to where I saw him last. Andy quickly scrambled back up but was wet from where the boulder had pushed him into the stream. Fortunately it had slowed down a bit before the bottom, but Andy's ribs were pretty bruised.
Having not seen anything looking like a trail, we got back into the car and continued driving down the highway. About a quarter mile (3/4 kilometers?) before the rest stop exit we spotted a car parked off the side of the highway with the BC plates that read, "MTN MAN". We figured that this was the climber's car so we walked around and Andy located a cairn marking the trailhead! So far so good. Now we needed to watch the climbers to see if they were going to rappel the route or hike down the back side. We got back in the car and drove to the rest stop. We watched the climbers top out and walk over to the prominent point above the climbing route. The true summit is further west but much farther. I was glad I had brought my new binoculars, a birthday present from my mother and father in law.
The two climbers hung out for a while then descended off the back side. So it appeared that they were going to be hiking down, rather than rappelling. Andy had sent me some pictures and a trip report of an ascent of Yak Check earlier this month where the party bivied on the summit and ended up rappelling the route. We would much rather prefer to hike down than rappel 15 pitches, so we were really glad to see today's climbers hiking down.
We filled our water jug up at the rest stop then drove back down the road and turned around to meet the climbers at their car. As luck would have it, the two climbers were already at their car when we pulled up behind them. They had seen our car behind theirs earlier and had thought it was a police car issuing a ticket for parking along side the highway. They were really friendly and we learned that the older gentleman was named Graham and had been a guide for 30 years and the younger gentleman who looked like he was in his early 20's was named Tyler. They gave us great beta for the descent and for what gear to bring and to leave behind. Graham mentioned that they were going to head into town for a beer so I offered them one of our lagers as a thank you for their information. Graham thought we were "all right, for Yanks". We learned that Graham was also a para-sailer and had climbed all over the world. We also learned that Tyler had lead all the pitches and they climbed the entire route in four hours! Tyler had climbed it before, but Graham had not. Really impressive, guys! With all the information we needed, we sent them on their way and we headed back to our camp site just as the threatening clouds that were building started to thunder.
Once the tent was pitched we cooked our hotdogs in my JetBoil stove. Yummy! It was only 5pm but I was really tired so I took a nap as Andy read the climbing guide books we had brought. After an hour or two I got up and we sorted our gear. We took a picture of all our gear in front of the tent with Yak Peak looming behind us. Classic! With our gear all sorted and packed, Andy took a short hike through the woods to the base of the cliffs on our side of the valley.
The earlier rain had let up but as we climbed into the tent to go to sleep we were concerned about our chances for the next day.
I didn't sleep well as the highway was only 1/2 km or so away and the trucks would use their noisy compression brakes as they descended from Coquihalla Pass. Five o'clock came early and I opened the tent door to see the top of our peak covered in clouds! We decided that we would hike up to the base and see how wet the rock was and then decide what we wanted to do. We agreed to bring our rappel rope just in case we came across a wet crack higher on the route and needed to bail. We got up and ate breakfast, broke camp and made the now familiar drive down the highway and parked at the same place Graham and Tyler had the day before.
The climbers trail wound steeply but clearly through the woods and was flagged somewhat excessively. About 40 minutes later we were at the base of the slabs. The rock was dry so we decided to give the route a try. We hiked up to a brushy rock with a shrub covered with flagging tape. Ok, so far so good. From here we scrambled up and right to a small bunch of trees where we saw some rappel slings. We scrambled up to a tree at the base of a right facing corner and Andy set up a belay. From here I climbed a 5.6 slabby crack up and then over left to a prominent ledge with a bolt. I clipped the bolt and continued traversing left towards the huge right facing corner that begins the route. I had just enough rope to reach the bolts. Andy took the next pitch and climbed left up some thin cracks and corner to reach the base of the hand crack (5.8). The third pitch continued up the hand crack past a partially stuck slung hex. It totally wiggled and moved down in the crack but once you tried to pull it out the lip of the crack would catch it. Maybe it's the Scottish in me, my aptitude for puzzles, or just my fondness for hexes but I spent a few minutes trying to get it out. Unsuccessfully.I continued up the crack to a clump of trees with a single old bold above and to the left. I was at the absolute end of our 60m rope, so I called off belay and built a gear anchor (5.6). Andy cruised on up and took off for the next short pitch which ended at two bolts at a ledge at the top of the huge right facing corner (5.7). Andy sent me off on the next pitch that climbed slabs up to a left facing corner which I tried to climb up only to realize that I was off route. I downclimbed the corner, cleaning my gear as I went and then climbed over the lip of the corner and climbed right, passed a fixed piton which offered the only protection on this somewhat runout pitch(5.8). The next pitch climbed right, continuing to follow the Yak Crack in an ascending diagonal direction. There was a bolt just above a strenous roof (5.9) which lead to more thin climbing above on decomposing granite which was similar to styrofoam. Nice lead, Andy! The pitch ended at two bolts below a steep roof.
The route so far had been very easy to find, other than my earlier mistake. Now I lead off right across some exposed ledges, up a right facing corner and then over it onto the face which lead up to another right facing corner. I burned the only two hand crack sized cams earlier on the traverse, so I didn't have much to protect the committing move over a 4 foot roof onto decomposed granite. I called down to Andy, "watch me!" and I made the move only to find a small, marginal crack where I could barely fit my #2 C3 cam. Trying not to focus on the lack of solid gear placements below me, I told myself "You don't need gear if you have solid feet!" So I focused on my feet and made my way about 20 feet up a loose right facing corner to the top where I found a lovely set of anchors(5.8).
Now the real fun begins. Yak Crack continues up and right while our route, Reality Check follows small ledges and thin cracks up and left to a cave just to the right of the tunnel flake. The tunnel flake is a huge flake that is attached on both sides creating a kind of super wide chimney. But first things first. Andy did a great job of finding the inobvious route that climbs up and then left to a a roof where you have to awkwardly undercling up left and then up to the cave with only smearing for feet (5.9). This short pitch is only about 50-60 feet long, but it's what you have to do in order to climb the next pitch safely. Andy was carrying our 60m, 8mm rappel line and his Trango boots in his pack so this made his lead even that much more impressive.
Andy belayed me up and I found him scrunched in a corner/cave with a 5 piece equalized gear anchor for the belay. I clipped in and we made the rack hand over. I could see that I would have to make an undercling move out left from the belay about 20 feet until I could get to the other side for my first piece of protection. Runouts really dodn't bother me as long as the climbing is easy. This wasn't easy. At least not for me. I moved out left from the belay, smearing for feet. The detached roof was about three feet off the wall and about 30 inches thick at this point so my hands were about at my waist level as I made my way across. So far so good. I figured that there would be a key hand hold where I needed it. Nope. I made the corner and started climbing up for about five feet then realized that the climbing wasn't getting easier and I still had no feet or handholds. I backed down the five foot section and wedged myself under the flake with my back against the wall and my feet smearing in a true chimney style move. My pack was preventing me from getting good friction so I tried to wedge my right shoulder against the roof. I could now drop my arms and get somewhat of a rest, while trying not to exhale too much causing me to lose my counter pressure. After a minute or so I tried again only to get freaked out again and retreating a second time to my "rest".
I was on a slab so if I came off I would slide down the wall until the rope caught me then I would pendulum under Andy and the belay. It wouldn't be a severe fall, but it would be a good ride. I have never fallen on gear and now 12 pitches off the deck, I wasn't too crazy about ending my streak. I knew that I couldn't reverse my moves back to the belay, so I changed my stategy and started up the vertical section again. This time at the top, instead of trying to continue to undercling my way across the horizontal section I climbed under the roof and chimneyed my way slowly across to the crack. I was so wedged in there and cramped that I had a difficult time accessing the rack and finding the right cam for the crack I was finally at. I got a small forged friend in and clipped it directly. WHEW. I immediately yelled "TAKE" and let Andy hold me while I simultaneously rested and placed a second cam. The next sequence would have seemed like a comedy of errors to anyone but me. I proceeded to Z clip, clip a runner to my rack, nearly drop my pack, hang on marginally placed cams, etc. When I would try to move up I found myself tethered to a sling attached to a piece below me. Frustrating to say the least.
After what seemed like an enternity (it was really *only* about an HOUR) into the pitch I finally made my way over the top side of the chimney/roof and found myself, bruised, bleeding and finally safe. I followed an easy ledge left and then up some narrower ledges to a bolted anchor up 12 feet on a right facing corner(5.9+). Andy must have had plenty of time to study the moves while he was belaying me because he cruised right across the roof, up the chimney, grabbed my pack and soon was at the belay. Or maybe Andy is just a very good, strong climber! I think it's the latter.
Andy took the next pitch and continued up the corner to some face moves. Dark clouds had been rolling in and now light rain was starting to fall. We could hear a few rolls of thunder in the distance and we were just beginning the crux pitches. At this point I was mentally and physically wasted from the last pitch, so I called up to Andy and asked him what he thought about bailing off the route and start our rappels. Hind site is 20/20 but if I had this to do again I would continue up considering how much trouble it was for us to make the next two rappels. Dark clouds were getting closer so we both agreed to start the retreat. Better safe than sorry was our mantra and I had flashbacks to Adam Greenstreet and my epic retreat off Donkey Ear Spires in a thunder/hail storm at night.
I lowered Andy off a biner he left on the first bolt he came to. Back down at the belay bolts, we untied from the climbing rope and Andy got our 8mm rappel line from his pack. With double ropes and bolted anchors, it shouldn't take too long for us to get down. We would probably get wet from the rain, but at least we wouldn't be in danger of getting hit by lightning at the top of the peak. I rappelled first and I kept my eyes peeled for bolts directly below but I never found them. The only bolts we had were the bolts at the intersection of the Yak Crack and Reality Crack routes which were a pitch and a half down and to the skiers left from where we were. Rats. I estimated I was about 5 meters from the end of our 60m ropes and we knew that the rappel could be done with 50m ropes. So I should be in the general vicinity of the bolts! After several minutes of searching, Andy called down and asked if I was in a safe spot so he could lower down to the roof/chimney and rappel off of it. Since I was at a nice 2 foot ledge with no bolts in sight I thought this was a brilliant idea. What could be more solid than a massive natural anchor? And it was much closer to the bolts we were trying to get to. There were some small cracks near the ledge I was standing on, so I had Andy slide down some stoppers on a carabiner to me.
Thanks Andy for the solid belays and the words of encouragment when I thought I was going to peel off and take the whipper of my life. Looking forward to our next international climbing expedition!