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The Steck-Salathe truly deserves its status as one of the "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America". Everything from the climbing itself to the many stories of adventure had on the north face of the Sentinel makes this climb a must-do for any aspiring Valley climber -- if not a route to be repeated again and again, it certainly should at least be seen as a rite of passage. The climb's reputation for being long, wide, and physical is well deserved, but the quality of that climbing, the position one achieves, and the overall sense of adventure the route offers should not be understated.
On the first ascent in 1950 Allen Steck and John Salathe reached the top of the Flying Buttress (the first half of the route) in two days, and took another three to reach the summit (Royal Robbins made the second and third ascents a few years later). Today the route is commonly done by free-soloists in the lesser part of a morning; but this is also the climb that nearly resulted in the deaths of Dean Potter and Timmy O'Neill (a fantastic account of their antics appeared in one of the climbing mags a few years back), and did take the life of beloved Derek Hersey. Most parties should expect a very full day even with a first light start, but fast parties could certainly make it down for dinner if they move efficiently and link pitches. Originally rated 5.9, the route has been upgraded to 5.10b which is much more like it. Nevertheless, the 5.10 sections aren't too bad -- it's all those 5.8 and 5.9 wide pitches that present the true crux of the route. There are many ways to pitch out this climb; this description describes my experience on it.
Approach by parking at the Four Mile Trailhead. Follow this trail for a long half-mile to a point on the trail where a narrow, tree-shrouded talus slope heads up into the woods. This is sometimes marked by a cairn, but it is fairly easy to find: if in doubt, continue east on the main trail for a minute or two to an obvious stream bed (sometimes dry late in the season) and then backtrack 100-200 feet to the talus. Head up a well-defined climber's trail in the talus until it eventually dead-ends at the base of the Sentinel at a steep, wide, west-trending ramp. This is a convenient place to rack up and stash the packs. Follow this ramp up until it eventually turns into a narrow system of catwalk-like ledges that weave back and forth up the north face of the Sentinel. This amazing passage (reminiscent of the approach to Hobbit Book in Tuolumne) gains about 1/3 of the height of the Sentinel via simple 3rd and 4th class scrambling. It's hard to get lost on this ramp system, and eventually it opens up to a small, loose area near the western edge of the face. Continue scrambling up until you reach the base of a significant right-facing corner with, yes, a wide crack. This is the start of the route -- you can't scramble any higher.
P1: A 60' right-facing corner with a wide crack in it. This can be negotiated with squeezing and OW skills, but I found it easier to lieback. 5.8, strenuous. I was glad to have a #4.5 Camalot (#5 C4). This leads to a belay stance which I skipped. Step right and continue up some 5.8 cracks to another stance and belay -- a long pitch.
P2: Climb a touch more 5.8 past some fixed gear, then easier terrain, then a brief finger crack, then wandering climbing up a gully system to some final wide cracks and a belay below the base of the Wilson Overhang. Another long pitch, 5.8.
P3: The Wilson Overhang. Climb up an ever-steepening chimney/corner system with a difficult to reach hand crack in the back. Eventually one must commit to either jamming and squeezing awkwardly or stemming out a ways with little pro. There are good face holds for doing the latter. Pull the overhang and climb easier ground up to a belay on a pedestal. This pitch is accurately rated 5.10a but is not the crux of the climb.
P4: Climb up an absolutely horrendous 5.9 squeeze and then traverse right and up to a belay at the base of a huge gully/chute system. Alternatively (highly recommended), skip the squeeze in favor of an unprotected 5.8 flake out right. The squeeze may very well be the crux of the route -- UGH.
P5 & P6: Climb one of many crack systems for the next two pitches up the gully/chute until it is possible to tunnel through the tip of the Flying Buttress to the left. This is a good area to simulclimb or pass other parties as there are many avenues. 5.8-5.10 depending on how you go. Belay at a rap station on the east side of the Flying Buttress -- this is the halfway point and after this retreat becomes more difficult. Do a short (40') rap off the anchor to another anchor at the base of a steep crack system. I guess you can also downclimb this section? Looked difficult.
P7: Ascend the steep and difficult crack system up to an obvious belay -- this is an interesting and challenging pitch. 5.9.
P8: Face climb up and right, then wander sharply back left and up to a belay below a long corner/slot that leads up into The Narrows. There are several fixed pieces protecting this pitch, but small/medium wires work well too. 5.9 and a somewhat heady change of pace from all the thrutching thus far. Don't worry -- its all thrutching the rest of the way from here.
P9: This corner to flare to chimney is rated 5.10b which would lead one to believe its the crux of the climb, but it goes quite well, especially if you're willing to leave the security of the gear in the corner and stem and chimney your way up it a little to the outside. The pitch links very easily into the next pitch, the Narrows, and this is what we did.
P10: The Narrows. If you skipped the 5.9 squeeze after the Wilson Overhang in favor of the 5.8 flake, then this is the unquestionable crux of the route. The Narrows was originally climbed by aiding up a bolt ladder on the outside of the slot, but ever since Robbins' ascents, the way to go has been right up into that hole. Approaching it, unlike Astroman's Harding Slot, is relatively easy. In fact, you can get most of your upper body into the Narrows while your lower body is still comfortably back-footing in the wider chimney below. The problem is advancing the next yard or so: One must drop one's feet and figure out some way to make upwards progress in a squeeze chimney using only body parts from the hips up. I managed this by using the back of my head on the back wall to pull my body upwards while simultaneously exhaling, then taking a deep breath to hold that position while I groped for a higher purchase with the back of my head. Hey, it worked. Gear for inside The Narrows really isn't necessary, but a fist-size cam (#3.5 Camalot/#4 C4) works well to protect the initial moves. For most of this you feel pretty alone with only the sound of your own gasping, and the tinkling sound of the hangers on the old aid bolts blowing freely in the wind on the outside of the slot, for company. Perhaps you'll wish you were out there hanging from those bolts, but perservere -- eventually things will start going a little more quickly. At last you can stem up out of The Narrows to an incredibly exposed position high on the upper face of the Sentinel. Peer down at the old bolt ladder, and the valley floor two thousand feet below. A few more feet of easy climbing leads to a nice belay. 5.9? Yeah, sure.
P11: At this point a stout looking pine tree appears way above. This actually is the location of the final real belay on the climb. Not much further, huh? Continue up a fun 5.7 chimney to a very cool belay at bolts on top of a chockstone.
P12: Continue up the chimney until forced to pull out left through a steep section at a hangerless bolt (plenty of gear to back it up). Belay where convenient. 5.8.
P13: Aim for the tree. Head up and left through a very steep, but short, section of hand or fist cracks (switching between them where necessary). Some of this rock is fairly low quality, but after one last little mantle into the dirt and pine needles, you can taste victory. Belay at the big tree.
P14: An easy pitch continues up the east-trending ramp at low 5th class, then steps around the corner and belays just below the summit.
Descent: Before attempting this descent for the first time, take into account the amount of daylight you have remaining. If it's dark already, consider waiting it out and beginning at first light. You should try to do at least the first two thirds of the descent in the daylight. Part 1: Follow a passage east through manzanita and boulders until it turns into a huge gully that heads down to the east. Follow the obvious trail along the southern (right) wall of this gully until it eventually begins switching back down the center. This gully is often loose and very steep at times and requires much care to follow the trail, which is the easiest path. At one point a rappel is reached, but this is not necessary -- there is a 4th/low-5th passage down just before reaching the rap, but it appears highly improbable from above. Eventually you will reach a stream which must be crossed to reach the second part of the descent. Note: This stream is the one that crosses the Four Mile Trail just after the talus on the approach; it is also visible (as water streaks/wet sections of rock) from Camp 4 when looking up at the valley wall just left (east) of the Sentinel. The stream is spring-fed and safe to drink from at this point on the descent -- a good thing to know when planning for how much water to carry on the climb. Part 2: After crossing the stream, begin heading north (left) on steep slabs. The easiest passage eventually forces you to the far east (right) side of the slabs as you're descending. The base of the slabs terminate in dense trees. Part 3: Continue scrambling down and east (right) along the base of the slabs to a non-descript point at which you enter the trees. Finding the path of least resistance is difficult even in the daylight -- expect some bushwhacking. You can more or less head north and west to reach the climber's trail and the Four Mile Trail, but if you left equipment at the base of the ramp, you'll have to cut sharply back west to reach that point.
Two each from TCU's to hands. One each 4 and 5 inch pieces (a #4 and #5 C4 are perfect). Wires.
|By andrew kulmatiski|
From: logan, ut
Oct 17, 2006
I'm curious to read your review. When i was there (04?) the bolts were missing from P11 and my 6'3" partner and myself (6'2") could not get through the squeeze - we went out the old aid line on the face. I've also heard the wilson overhang is now rated 10b, not 5.8. I'd have to agree.
From: San Jose
Nov 10, 2006
Josh, thanks for great quality of route description.
I absolutely agree that "P4: 5.9 squeeze " very well may be the crux of the all route, which I've never considered before I climbed it.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Nov 15, 2006
I'm glad I did it back when the Wilson Overhang was easy! I remember pitch 5 was originally rated 5.7, which was a cruel joke for those of us expecting an easy pitch. I thought the hardest pitch was the one after the rappel (pitch 7).
I led the Narrows and I thought it was only about 5.7. I'm a pretty big guy, and I remember being able to hold myself in by inhaling. This is kind of spooky at first, but a rather useful technique (as long as you don't get stuck!).
I can also attest that it is possible to get lost a pitch or two above the Narrows. Somehow we got too far left and out of the main chimney system here. This wasn't too bad, we were mainly worried we'd have to retreat and get benighted. We kept getting forced left and topped out way left of the normal finish. There was just enough light left for us to burrow down the manzanita tunnels.
|By Jay Knower|
From: Plymouth, NH
Nov 29, 2006
I actually cracked a rib on the first pitch. I was in full-on grovel mode, trying to belly flop onto (or past?) the chockstone and I heard a pop in my chest. It loosened up as we kept climbing, but I was hurting for the next couple of weeks.
This is one of the best climbs I have ever done. I didn't know how to climb chimneys and offwidths when I started, but by the end I felt like knew what I was doing. I still remember being in the Narrows with the back of my head on one wall and my nose touching the other wall. I don't think I'll ever forget it.
From: Oakland, CA
May 1, 2007
Excellent description, thanks for taking the time.
|By Tavis Ricksecker|
From: Bishop, ca
Jun 7, 2007
I don't remember the 9th pitch in the above description being the crux. I thought the Wilson Overhang much harder. While leading the narrows pitch, I got claustrophobic and wiggled my way toward the outside of the chimney until it widened into a full stem. Though less secure, upward progress was then easy! I clipped the old star bolts for pro (yikes) as I ratcheted my way up, the treetops a thousand feet below...
|By Sergio P|
From: Idaho Springs, CO
Jun 24, 2007
rating: 5.10a/b 6a+ 19 VI+ E2 5b
The pitch before the narrows (pitch 9 as listed above) has a large 4 foot hollow flake on the left face that is difficult to bypass. On the top left corner of the flake is a nice fist sized horn that is tempting to use. I feel that using this flake or horn in any manner could cause serious rock fall. Possibly a rope cutting, belayer crushing experience. Just be careful. I would also encourage the use of a helmet on this route. It does have sections of loose rock and the helmet will never be a negative issue in any of the squeeze sections.
|By Marc H|
From: Lafayette, CO
Jul 29, 2007
I was so eager to finish the Narrows pitch because I perceived it to be the last real hard pitch and it was getting dark, that I entered facing the wrong way and forget to hang my shoes and water bottle off a long sling. Needless to say, I realized the hopelessness of my inane variation and simply fetal'ed-up and took a little ride (after placing a #4 of course). It's a very interesting way to exit the famous pitch if you ever get the opportunity.
Other than that, climbing the Steck-Salathe is like participating in a cage fight, without training. You pretty much end up with a PhD in wide crack climbing, and the professor wields a huge club of granite during every course. Of course, it's a must do for any self-respecting climber.
|By Scotty Nelson|
Aug 1, 2007
Curious if people think the Supertopo time of 6-8 hours on route is accurate. We took 12, and got benighted on the descent.
|By Sergio P|
From: Idaho Springs, CO
Aug 21, 2007
rating: 5.10a/b 6a+ 19 VI+ E2 5b
I would agree w/ Scotty Nelson that this route is more then 6-8 hours. We did it in about 14 hours car to car. 1-2 hours for the approach (we got lost) and at least 1 1/2 - 2 1/2 hours for the decent (half of it was in the dark).
|By Joe Stern|
Dec 20, 2007
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI HVS 5a
A mega-classic climb that has the feel of a great adventure despite only being an hour's hike from millions of tourists. Supertopo's average time of 8-10 hours of climbing (updated since your post Scotty?) is certainly achievable by first timers comfortable on all manner of 5.9. The crux of this route will depend on your particular strengths, but expect full value 5.9 climbing on the Wilson Overhang, the pitch after the Wilson Overhang, the pitch after the rappel, the pitch before the Narrows (OW), and the Narrows (and probably a few others!). We took (along with some smaller cams) a single #4, 5, and 6 camalot (new sizes) and used all of them a lot, but you could definitely get by with less. Save some time for the descent, as those slabs can be a bit tricky in the dark!
|By Darshan Ahluwalia|
From: Petaluma, CA
Apr 22, 2008
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI HVS 5a
My partner Kia and I did this Saturday, April 19. We started the approach at 530AM and summited as the sun was setting.
The descent gully is a nightmare when its filled with snow. You'll have to rap the entire gully (7-10 rappels), down climb wet ledges, squeeze between the snow edge and the rock, and do other crappy stuff to get down it.
If attempting the Sentinel when there is snow in the gully, you may be better off rapping the route you came up, especially if you bring twin or double ropes. (I recall seeing several slings on the lower half of the Steck-Salathe.)
Either way you go down, the gully or the face, bring several feet of cord/webbing (and a knife) and prepare for a long night getting off...
PS: bring a lighter.
|By Will S|
From: Joshua Tree
Jul 30, 2008
rating: 5.10- 6a 18 VI+ E1 5a
Did this 7/26. So called "unprotected" 5.8 flake after Wilson does take gear. For big stuff we took a single purple 4 and red 4.5 camalot. Only used the 4.5 at the bottom of the pitch below the narrows. I thought the slab pitch protected better for the leader than the follower.
Be careful on the last double cracks leading to the tree ledge, there's a big loose 3' shard in one of them that will easily trundle.
Crux? Dunno. I thought the Wilson, pitch below narrows, and narrows entry move were about the same but the pro was better for wilson and narrows. 5.8 lieback at the top of the pitch after the rap felt like the tech crux to me, but maybe I missed something.
It was 95+ on the valley floor, but probably only in the upper 70s on the route. Take enough water, I only had a liter and suffered greatly for it. Long hard day to put it mildly. Did the descent in the dark with headlamps (never done it before), thought it was very casual as long as you don't miss a couple of well-cairned turning points.
|By Dan Brockway|
May 16, 2009
Death flake below the Narrows? We did this on May 14, 2009 and we did not notice a dangerous flake there. Could it have fallen out?
I found the offwidth pitches especially the Narrows very hard but probably typical for Yosemite 5.10 offwidth. (ie darn hard)
May 17, 2009
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI HVS 5a
Excellent line up the Sentinel. While it is a long route with many wide sections to pass through to get to the top, there are more hand jams than chicken wings on the Steck-Salathe. Cut rope drag by taking many long slings and only use half a rope length if you plan to simul. Stash water at the bottom of the descent gully before ascending the approach ramp. Most people are thirsty by the time they make it down.
There are too many edges to use, offering rests from the heal-toes and chicken wings for this climb to be rated 5.10. It will take talent and determination to make it to the top. However, just because you can climb this route, does not mean you can climb 5.10 offwidth in Yosemite.
|By Bruce Bindner|
May 27, 2009
Effective May 2009, on P9 (of the posted description here, the pitch below the Narrows) the two old nail-and-sleeve Star-Dryvn bolts from the original ascent have been replaced with 3/8" stainless Powers 5-piece bolts and stainless hangers.
Also, regarding strategy: For parties who have never been in the descent gully, I strongly recommend doing a hike up it to the top of the Sentinel a day or two before your climb: Stash descent shoes, water, and headlamps at the top.
The advantages of this strategy are several:
1. After the climb, you will be familiar with the intricacies of the descent, having just done it in daylight
2. You won't need to drag descent shoes up the climb with you or do the toe-crushing descent in your climbing shoes
3. You will have water and headlamp at the top, and be more refreshed for the descent.
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
May 27, 2009
Stashing gear? That's cheatin'! Nothing like thrashing down the gully lost in the dark, wondering if that is a drop-off below you, with your headlamp fading and your mouth like sandpaper.
Darn, why did I never think of that? Add:
4. You can't wimp out so easily.
From: Oakland, CA
Jun 23, 2010
I also thought the pitch after the rappel was the hardest on the route, though I skipped the squeeze after the Wilson by traversing to the flake. This felt a little heady - you don't want to fall if taking this variation.
Great description here, the only part I'd disagree with a bit is the descent. Modified here to match my experience, with my additions in bold (YMMV):
"Part 1: Follow a passage east through manzanita and boulders as it winds south, then drops down SW and into a small notch. Here it appears that you'll be forced to descend a gulley to the west, which you don't want to do, but after dipping under a mini headwall, you'll be able to ascend back east to the true notch and see the trail descending east into the correct gulley.
Follow the obvious trail along the southern (right) wall of this gully until it eventually begins switching back down the center... Eventually you will reach a stream which must be crossed to reach the second part of the descent... Cross almost immediately after reaching the stream - the path may be overgrown, especially in June/July.
Part 2: After crossing the stream, begin heading north (left) on slabs. The slabs you are descending form an 'island' between two different streams (unless they're dry, but their beds will still be obvious): the one you just crossed, and another stream further east. You do not want to cross the second stream. You want to stay in the middle of the slab or on the western 1/2 of it.
Staying more or less in the middle of the slab, look for cairns at a small promontory - from here, you'll descend back west down a clear if steep, blocky, and improbable 4th class section. Do your best to pick up a trail here that will have you re-crossing the same stream you crossed above (this time headed west, back toward the Sentinel massif).
|By Alexander Nees|
From: Grand Junction, CO
Oct 18, 2010
rating: 5.10- 6a 18 VI+ E1 5a
I only have one thing to add to the huge amount of quality beta for this route. The 5.9 squeeze after the Wilson Overhang is mellow, except for the last body-length or so immediately before exiting, which is HORRENDOUS. I highly recommend the following strategy:
Climb up the chimney to the point at which your chest is starting to get compressed by the squeeze, maybe 6-8 feet below the slung chockstone. Place a good piece (I used a bomber .75 C4), then slither back down the chimney to the slopey foot traverse out to the 5.8 flake. You can now do the traverse and the bottom portion of the flake with a toprope off your piece in the chimney. Don't place gear in the flake or you'll have bad drag, but don't fall off near the top either, or you'll take a nasty swing into the corner. Follower can clean in the same manner (climb up, remove gear, climb down and traverse) while protected from above. Made this section much easier. Too bad it took me 20 mins of struggling in the squeeze before it occurred to me...
|By Crotch Robbins|
May 29, 2012
Was happy to have a #5 and #6 C4
70m link beta:
Can get to base of Wilson Overhang in 2 pitches.
Can get from pitch after Wilson (5.9 squeeze to 5.7 traverse) to top of Flying Buttress in 2 pitches.
Lots more linking possible above the slab pitch if you have juice left.
Jun 4, 2012
Done the route in 9 hrs. 3 hrs to the top of Flying Buttress, then slowed down a bit. I didn't really think it had much OW climbing, a lot chimneying (incl. squeeze) though.
Placed only one or two nuts, cams everywhere else. Doubles to C4 #2, then 1 each C4 #3, #4 and 4.5 and we were perfectly fine.
We had 5 liters of water and the second was carrying or hauling pack off harness and it was too heavy. Next time I would carry less and suffer more -:)
I agree that the flake on the pitch before Narrows is dangerous (June 2012) - it flexes and is ready to come down if you pull on it too hard.
Make sure you go climber's right after the 5.9 squeeze above Wilson overhang. There are slings/tat approx. 30-40ft directly above the squeeze and it is NOT the right way to go. You need to angle right to the base of large gully system. I went straight up here, then had to lower Michal down and when seconding the pitch I had to do a bit of spicy face traversing to get into the correct gully.
The descent ranks as one of the worse ones. Took us 1.5 hrs or so, lot of route finding in loose rock.
Overall, great route and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
From: Boulder, CO
Jul 3, 2012
Thanks for the descent beta, Sirius. We did the route yesterday. There were no cairns on the promontory but it was easy to figure out which one and how to get down. Watch the slabs below the promontory; they are water polished and slick.
|By Shawn Heath|
From: Forchheim, Germany
Aug 28, 2012
Thanks fossana, for posting such great pictures of each of the pitches!
From: Boulder, CO
Aug 29, 2012
thanks, Shawn! The lighting wasn't so great, but I for one wasn't complaining about being mostly in the shade mid-summer.
From: Malden, MA
Sep 17, 2012
rating: 5.10b 6a+ 19 VII- E2 5b
As kovarpa mentioned, if you miss the 5.7 traverse after the squeeze you'll end up off route and in the wrong gully. If you keep climbing up the gully though it links back up with the route at the flying buttress. There are 1 or 2 fun 5.10 sections on pretty good rock in there...but definitely some crumbly/exfoliating rock in between.
Pretty fun altogether, I'd do it again.
From: San Francisco
Aug 13, 2013
We brought a set of offset nuts and a set of Mastercams from tiny to yellow and BD doubles to yellow, one #3, two #4's and one #5. Two #4's was not overkill.
The poster above (Sirius) has good descent beta, the Supertopo beta is worthless.
The route took us about 12hours, we kept up a pretty good pace, for the most part, but got slowed down on the wide crux pitches. We never got lost.
We brought 5 liters of water and drank it all by the time we got back to our packs at the base of the first approach ramp. There is a great spot to leave packs as the descent trail returns you to this spot. There are also some flat spots to bivy.
Regarding the approach, the supposed half mile travel on the 4-mile trail felt MUCH longer than a half mile. Keep going until you get to the spring, which was still running strong in early August.
Bringing a backpack wasn't much of a problem, we trailed it in the chimneys, which wasn't annoying, except in the Narrows.
Gear was great overall, except the 5.7 slab traverse which was pretty easy and the 5.9 slab pitch which was actually a bit tricky. The 5.8 flake variation to the 5.9+ squeeze on the 4th pitch also protects fine.
As mentioned above, most of the pitches (except the modernly rated 5.10 pitches) felt about one grade harder than listed. Which is part of what made this route so incredible.
|By Peter Lewis|
From: Bridgton, Maine
Nov 14, 2013
A historical note: in 1973 this route was onsight soloed in 2.5 hours by Henry Barber. Just think about that next time you're up there...amazing!