Of the many routes that pepper the 250-metre granite feature the Rostrum, which is sliced with unrelenting cracks and sharp chicken knobs, it’s the 5.11c North Face route that takes the cake. Other classics include Kaukulator, a glassy, slightly overhanging single-pitch splitter that rivals anything found at the famous Cookie Cliff down-valley. First attempted by John Bachar, who backed off according to the SuperTopo forum, it was Ron Kauk, belayed by John “Yabo” Yablonski, in 1975, who led Kaukulator clean with the tools of the day — nuts and hexes.
Kaukulator is the most prominent route climbers see when approaching the North Face route, which is accessed from a pullout above the formation. A wandering and exposed trail cuts through trees and over smooth slabs, and then splits when halfway down the way in. Taking a right here accesses Kaukulator and a short scramble that leads to the rock’s midway ledge, which overlooks Half Dome and Cascade Falls. This is where many parties stash approach shoes, food, water, and extra gear for the North Face. From here they reverse the scramble, get back on the trail, and aim toward the series of single rope (70m) rappels to reach the base.
Over two days in 1962, Warren Harding and Glen Denny were the first to climb the North Face route. It was Harding who took the team out the final roof. Today, most parties exit the North Face out right via a wide crack as part of the Blind Faith finish, but not Harding. In Denny’s iconic image, Harding ascends the massive overhang dressed in a white T-shirt and army fatigues, silhouetted against a white sky. A single boot is curled up under his thigh, where it’s held in place by a hand-tied aider. His greasy hair is slicked back, eyes peer directly into the lens. This image graces the cover of Denny’s memoir “Valley Walls.” In 2020 the shot also appeared at the Vagabonds to Icons: Photographs of Yosemite’s Climbing Revolution show at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley.
After completing Kaukulator, Kauk and Yabo returned to the Rostrum in 1977 and attempted to free the North Face route but were thwarted by the final overhang and finished the route by going right. “The pair climbed about eight pitches of 5.10 and 5.11, most of it involving extremely strenuous crack climbing,” says Golden Age Valley climber Steve Roper in SuperTopo. “A tremendous accomplishment.”
In 1985 Australia’s top climber Kim Carrigan successfully turned the roof, rating it 5.12b/c. Soon after, Peter Croft ran three laps (with the easier finish) up it in a single morning. After Croft soloed the line, John Bachar and Dave Shultz also did it ropeless. Croft free solos the Rostrum in the 1991’s Masters of Stone film and it was this film that inspired me to move to Yosemite directly out of high school.
Years later, in what was considered the hardest free solo done in Yosemite at the time, the late Dean Potter free-BASE soloed the final roof in Reel Rock. Today that video has over 3 million views on YouTube. In a moment of relief, as Potter reaches the top, he exhales and says, “nice. I was pumping out.” Years later when Free Solo came out, here it showed Alex Honnold taking it one step further than Potter by free soloing the roof without the backup of a parachute. The exposure is dizzying. The scenery, breathtaking.
Over the dozens of times that I’ve climbed the route since 1996, I’ve turned it into a “super-picnic” outing. In summer when temps are in the 90s, I stash icy water on the ledge to pour over myself before doing the 5.11c fingers pitch above. In winter, I stash tea and cookies to munch on with friends. I’ve brought apple pie, hot ramen, a rechargeable hand warmer, a tiny fan. And I stash a single knee sleeve for the offwidth on pitch-six, which can either feel like the 5.9 it is or much harder depending on the day.
Part of what makes this route “the most enjoyable multi-pitch 5.11 in the Valley” is that it’s easy to haul, easy to retreat from with one rope, has comfortable belays and has very little loose rock. But more importantly are the pitches themselves. While looking up from the base to the summit, one crack shoots out of the ground and splits the gray stone to its summit. The layback flakes, chimneys, hand cracks, they don’t end. Plus, there’s stemming, overhangs, and a wide crack finish — everything a Yosemite climber is seeking.
Since the mid-90s I’ve sampled various routes on the Rostrum, Kaukulator, Blind Faith, even a forgotten sport route that I can’t find in my guidebook collection, but I always come back to the North Face route.
The first time I climbed the standard Rostrum 5.11c route, I partnered with Aaron Martin and Paul Wignall, then my neighbors in the park’s concession housing area called Boystown. For years we lived side by side in those canvas walled tents and worked odd jobs so we could climb. I’ve also done the North Face with the Uprising variation, which links in a overhanging wide hands and fists section to reach the offwidth on pitch-six. I did that with Zach Milligan who spent 13 years living in a cave in Yosemite Valley.
I’ve taken Alex Honnold’s mom Dierdre Wolownick up the Notch route, a short 5.6 that leads to the summit, and I’ve partnered with some of the sport’s best on the roof finish. For my first time on that line, while still in my late teens, I followed Hidetaka Suzuki out the roof, which was way over my head at the time. I dropped a cam. I dangled in space after falling while following his lead. I still remember that day – being pumped out of my mind and overwhelmed by the exposure.
Later I partnered with big wall-free climber Justin Sjong and led the roof clean. That day when I reached the top, my hands were so fatigued that I couldn’t close them, and I’d tweaked my back from over-straining.
Since then, I’ve gone up the North Face with the late Brad Gobright, who carried only a handful of cams and led 80-metre pitches. That day he told me about his many solos of the route. I also did it with the late Sean “Stanley” Leary, who ran up the route at top speed. I’ve climbed the North Face with Valley local “Surfer Bob” who wore his customary sweat shorts and brought a spray bottle to cool himself between leads.
And this past November, I did it with the first U.S. woman to climb 5.14d, Sasha DiGuilian, where we enjoyed a super-picnic on the midway ledge, listened to house music on my mini speaker, and took in the sunset over Half Dome from the top of the route.
Each time I do the North Face, I think of old friends and new ones I’ve climbed it with, including Eliza Kerr, co-founder of the local yoga and meditation retreat center Balanced Rock. We ran laps up it last winter, sometimes topping it out a few times a week. “I love the Rostrum because it is a great adventure, yet a civilized climb,” she says. “It’s always challenging, and if you know how to work with cracks of all sizes, the Rostrum is your climb.”
Hiking in through bay leaves brings back feelings and memories. Once on route, the jams, gear placements and overall feeling is familiar, like running along a favorite trail. It’s always a test of fitness, efficiency, and teamwork; all played out on endless cracks that overlook the granite crucible. No wonder SuperTopo calls it “One of the finest multi-pitch 5.11 climbs anywhere. Perfect climbing is combined with one of the best approaches/descents to a long Yosemite route.”