Tuesday evening I bumped into Matt Cornell in downtown Sonora, and he said he was going rock climbing first thing Wednesday morning at Table Mountain outside Jamestown, so I asked if I could tag along.
Cornell is a 23-year-old climber who waits tables at Priest Station Café. He free climbs big walls like El Capitan and Half Dome, using ropes and hardware to protect himself from falls. He climbed the West Face of Cerro Torre, one of the most difficult alpine climbs in the world, in Patagonia in January this year.
Last month, he ran and walked what may be the most difficult 72 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to Sonora Pass, in under 28 hours in drift smoke from the Ferguson Fire
There is no way I can climb at Cornell’s level. But I hoped to get some exercise and see what the climbing is like at Table Mountain. I left Sonora about 8:30 a.m., parked on Shell Road, and walked about a mile out the dirt path through sun-cured, bone-dry grasses toward the flat-top plateau with New Melones close by on my right.
I followed the path uphill, through a shaded tunnel of tall shrubs, then boulder-hopped black, igneous rocks under foot and stepped out onto on open platform at the base of Table Mountain. Cornell was high up on the overhanging black-and-tan wall above.
Geologists say Table Mountain formed about 9 million years ago when a latite lava flow moved west from vents near the rocky Dardanelles Cone below Sonora Pass and the crest of the Sierra Nevada.
The climbing area Cornell chose is near a place called The Grotto and it’s on private land with access allowed. A sign advises climbers to keep noise down and pack out all trash. Fires are forbidden due to high fire danger, and there’s no camping.
Up on the wall, Cornell was self-belaying on a 70-meter dynamic rope, designed to stretch under force, and he was about 110 feet above me. He was using a Petzl Mini Traxion device to belay himself on the rope, which he had already attached to the highest ⅜-inch expansion bolt at the top of the route.
He lowered himself slowly down to where I was and said he was doing laps on the route. He pointed above at the way the wall bulges outward higher up. He said the route is rated about 5.12a on the Yosemite Decimal System. Routes 5.12 and harder often overhang and they require skilled footwork on thin holds and great balance.
“This place is great for something different than Yosemite,” he said. “It’s steep, overhanging and it’s out of the sun in the morning. It’s sport climbing, and it’s a great workout.”
Sport climbing is rock climbing with permanent anchors drilled in the rock, pre-placed protection in the form of bolts, hangers and in some cases, fixed, gated, metal loops called perma draws a climber can clip into quickly. Sport climbing reduces the amount of removable protection hardware climbers carry on traditional routes.
I pointed up at a ledge to the left, on another route, 20 to 30 feet above us, and asked, “Is there any way I can get up there and take photos?”
Cornell said the start was rated about 5.8 so I figured maybe I could get up it with him belaying me from above. I’d brought my harness, a waist belt and leg loops made of webbing. Cornell tied a bite in the rope and gave me a locking carabiner to attach myself to the cord.
Then he climbed on up easily to the ledge, keeping his body weight well out from the rock and over his feet, leaning out at times to rest his arm muscles and to look at the next holds on the way up.
This lowest part of the wall was not overhanging and it appeared to slope inward slightly as it rose to the ledge, so it was somewhat less than vertical. The route climbed a crack with decent edges and jams in places.
But it had been 15 years since I tied into a rope to climb rock. It took me a while to get up my nerve, to trust my feet and to trust the strength of my fingers, to put my weight on a jam hold where I placed my hand all the way in a crack and tried to use that to go higher. I made a lot of poor moves, scraped some knuckles, and relied on my knees entirely too much.
But I didn’t cuss out loud or cry or vomit. Ascending this 20 to 30 feet took all the strength I had and, once I made it, I praised Cornell for his patience.
Then he was off again, this time traversing right, back to the route he was on before. He clipped back in with his Mini Traxion and began making his way up and outward as the wall bulged again higher up.
Cornell climbed higher and part of his shoulders and upper body began to appear against the blue sky. Just then a turkey vulture silently took flight from a perch out of sight above the climber. I wasn’t ready with my camera but it was a moment that underscored the vertical, natural setting and how quiet it was.
I realized I could hear birds or critters moving around in the dry brush that carpets the base of the cliff. Dried, white bird droppings were everywhere on the black rock, including part of the one I was perched on.
Soon we were back on the ground, sorting gear and talking about the weekend. Cornell has a slide show presentation on what he calls “The Dirtbag Life” and his climbing exploits, including his journey to Patagonia to climb Cerro Torre earlier this year. He said admission is free, with snacks and hot dogs and photo prints for sale.
Conrad Anker, the world-famous mountaineer and Himalayan detective, brother of Cornell’s boss at Priest Station, Steve Anker, will be introducing Cornell. The event is being hosted by the Tuolumne County Historical Society.
Cornell said he had to get back in a hurry to meet people with the Historical Society. I was thrashed and glad to walk the mile or so back to my car alone. It was about 11 a.m. and the sun was out and it was getting hotter. There was no creek to jump in to cool off, but it was well worth the effort to see where sport climbing is possible right outside Jamestown.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.