Trip: Yosemite Valley Ice - Widow's Tears
Great climbing partners always know how to get you out climbing. Three days after we got back from our Ouray trip I get a text from Josh saying:
“So serious question….
Silver Strand on the 27th
He didn’t even ask if I wanted to go, just knew I would be on board! Problem was Ginny and I had just made plans to go visit some friends stationed in Oregon the 25th-28th. I told him it would have to wait until the 30th-1st and asked if the weather would stay cold until then. His response was “hopefully it doesn’t get too warm”.
Now for an explanation of Silver Strand: It is located in Yosemite Valley and only forms up every couple years. It is rated WI5 and is approximately four pitches. It hasn’t seen that many assents and is a sought after climb when it is in. That was about all I knew about the climb when I agreed to go and still pretty much all I know about it.
Silver Strand from the Wawona Tunnel
I started to get sick on our previous trip and was still not feeling good. I tried doing some backcountry skiing with poor results. I was short of breath and even got light headed for a little bit. Ginny kept asking me to go to the doctor, but I kept putting it off because I didn’t want to be restricted to the house during my days off work. To be honest I questioned if I should be attempting this climb. I was nervous to say the least.
We agreed that we wanted to get down to the valley early and get a look at it and possible hike up to the base so we wouldn’t get lost in the dark on our early morning start. We left Sacramento around 7:30 for the three hour drive. Getting there around 11:00 we drove straight to the east entrance of the Wawona Tunnel to get a good look at it. It looked big, but doable. We drove to another area of the park to get a look at it, but in doing so we seen a climb called Widow’s Tears (WI5). We looked at both of the climbs from across the valley and they both looked huge, with Widow’s Tears obviously being longer. We decided to hike up to the base of Silver Strand and set the trail. We went back to the Wawona Tunnel and started up the Inspiration Point trail. After a few minutes we cut off the trail towards the climb crossing an old road. After a while we realized that it would be better to take the old road to just below the climb and head straight up from there. We headed back down to the road where I went to get the car and move it to the Bridal Veil Falls parking area and Josh would scout out the route to the base of Silver Strand.
View of the Valley from the Wowona Tunnel
It took him much longer than I figured it would and after a while I started to hike up to meet him. He said he went to the base of both Silver Strand and Widow’s Tears. All he really said was “Widow’s Tears looked doable and it took him 19 minutes to get from the base to where we met”. I asked if it looked doable, or doable for us without getting an answer.
Seeing that I knew little about Silver Strand before heading down to climb it I knew even less about Widow’s Tears except it was longer and came in less frequently. We talked about what we were going to do for several hours. Our biggest fear was to climb into crappy ice and not be able to retreat if we wanted. After dinner Josh said that he wanted to give Widow’s Tears a try. Hesitantly I agreed not really knowing what I agreed to.
We woke up at 5am and had breakfast, packed up our camp, and headed to the parking area. When we arrived there was a van in the parking area and a few explicative’s came out. We changed into our boots, grabbed our packs, and took off up the trail. Just before we turned off the old road to go straight up I noticed a headlamp up the hill. Knowing that whoever was in the van was also wanting to climb Widow’s Tears was disheartening. We continued hiking up hill towards the base. It took us about an hour to get there. Josh got to the base before me, as always, and was talking to two people from Reno that was gearing up to climb. I’ve always said I’d never climb behind another party while ice climbing, but for some reason didn’t put up too much of an argument when Josh said he’d still like to climb it. When the other party’s leader took off running up the first pitch, I figured they would be well ahead of us in no time. Josh and I solo’d the first pitch and the low angle ice between it and “the start of the real climbing”.
When we got to where we would rope up the other team’s leader was off to the right of the thin first pitch working his way up the rock. He was having difficulty getting gear in and was moving slow. Seeing as they were the first to the base of the climb they had the right of way and we intended to give that to them the entire climb. After a good while Josh asked if they minded if we started up the ice, but allowed them to pass latter on. They said go for it and up Josh went. Josh used just about every bit of rope (a common theme for both of us on this route) and took a little bit to set up the anchor. The other party asked if I would be mad if they started up the ice while he was building the anchor. Giving them the right away that they deserved for getting to the base first I said of course not. Josh got the anchor built and I headed up the thin start.
Josh on the first roped pitch
When I got to the anchor I took all the gear to lead the next pitch then waited for the other team’s second to get to the anchor and for them to move on. Their leader told me I could climb through and after waiting a little longer I decided to. I had a awkward traversing start to over where they set up their anchor then a short headwall before some easier ice. As I passed them and was slightly above I somehow slipped and one of my tools came out of the ice. I’m still not sure how it happened but all I could do is try and hang on to the one tool stuck in the ice. Somehow I managed to hang on, regain my composure, and continue the pitch. I came up just sort of a huge ledge and built an anchor and brought Josh up. He continued to the ledge where we took a short break.
Somewhere around pitch 3 or 4
I took the next short pitch off to the left of the flow as the section above was steep and I didn’t feel like leading it. Josh had an impressive lead on the steep curtain above and ended up building an anchor with a hanging belay to bring me up. Some how the next few pitched kind of blur together and I’m not sure how many we did or what the climbing was like, except that it was never easy climbing. When we got to where we thought we were two pitches from the top both of us were pretty worked and were cramping up in different areas of the body. My forearms and biceps were cramping and Josh’s calves. Josh had yet another impressive lead up some deceivingly steep ice up what we hoped would be close to the end. He brought me up and I took off gunning for the top of the climb. As it was about to get dark I remember thinking “don’t put in screws as it will just slow you down”, but then I would look down and realize I was 25+ feet above my last screw and would stop to put one in. If that last pitch would have been a single pitch climb someplace else I probably would have no problem soloing it, but after 11 hours of climbing I wasn’t too sure I’d make it. I ended up not making it to the top and Josh got the top out. It wasn’t much of a pitch as it was mostly snow covered ice and rock, but he was thankful to get it.
A few pitches from the top.
We were both exhausted and I even told Josh “fuck this sport, I’m selling my ice gear” as I was walking the flat ground to the final anchor. There wasn’t much of a celebration; just a limp wristed handshake and we started to pack up for the walk off. My feet were killing me, but we made it back to the car almost exactly 16 hours after we left. We chugged water and Gatorade and started the drive back to Sacramento arriving at 1:30am on New Years Day.
The next morning while doing research on the climb I found out that it has been called the longest continuous ice climb in the lower 48. It was first climbed in the 70’s and took three days to complete. My hat is off to those guys! I also found out that only a handful of people have completed the climb. I’m not sure how two average ice climbers were lucky enough to make it up such a climb, but we did it.
Several people have asked if it was fun and my answer is a simple “no”. In the few days after the climb I have told several people that I never want to climb it again. They have said oh you’ll look back on it as say it wasn’t that bad and you actually had fun. I honestly don’t think that day will ever come! Am I glad I did it? Yes, sort of. Will I ever climb it again? Possibly. Will I ever say it was fun the first time I climbed it? NEVER!
We brought too many 16cm screws as we were intending on climbing Silver Strand. would bring more 13's and even a few 10cm screws
Easy to find, just look for the big ice!