It took three tries over two years, but I finally managed to top out on the legendary valley climb Astroman!

I first heard of Astroman around a campfire in Joshua tree around 2018. Someone was discussing the merits of Astroman vs. the Rostrum, and talking about how you’ve really “arrived” at the valley once you’ve gotten on both. I looked up the route on mountain project that night and was disappointed to see it was trad 11c, aka, impossible. Each year, I would try and get a little stronger, get whipped by a 10d, then realize Astroman was farther than I thought.

Finally though, in 2022, something clicked. I think it started with climbing with Mel. Not only is she strong, brave, and relentless in her pursuit of her climbing, she is very open about the fear she faces when she gets on something hard. Mel inspires me in many ways, and in climbing, it’s her willingness to get on something that really scares her. I was feeling very strong in the fall of 2022, having climbed the Nose and the Rostrum, and decided to be brave like Mel, and try and get on Astroman, which really scared me. The first step is believing you should try it, and so began my journey!

Attempt #1: October 2022

The first mini-attempt came in October 2022 amidst a much grander occasion – Dan and Shannon’s wedding! Their wedding was held at sunrise at the base of El Cap. For the ceremony we set up fixed lines from the base of Pine Line to a ledge above, and all of the friends sat and watched from this upper ledge. Dan and Shannon also coordinated everyone reserving a campsite in one loop of a Yosemite valley campground, so for the reception we cooked a campground dinner for 70 people and danced the night away. It was one of the most magical and memorable weddings I’ve ever been to!

The day before the festivities, my friend Milde and I decided to try our hand at Astroboy – the first three pitches of Astroman. We went up a mere two pitches before hitting a party stuck on the Enduro corner. Having a strict time schedule (we had to get back to set up the fixed lines!) we rappelled down and hustled off. We knew we’d be back, as we hadn’t even made it to the start of the fun!

Attempt #2: October 2022

Two weeks later, stoke high, Milde and I decided to make another attempt. Driving into valley, he shot me a quick text warning me he was feeling pretty beat after a long week of work, but was still stoked to make an Astroman attempt. We started up the next day with me feeling very excited and Milde feeling a bit out of sorts. The plan was for Milde to lead the odds, and I would lead the evens. We brought his thin tag line to haul our backpack to save a little bit of energy.

Milde cruised the first pitch, then I skipped the 11c boulder problem on the second and brought us to the base of the Enduro corner. Normally 11c is a no problem for Milde, but I could tell something was off when he took halfway up. Milde wasn’t feeling great but we kept going, and I was stoked to top rope the enduro pitch clean. I led the next short 5.8 pitch, then Milde had another tough time on the next 10c lieback pitch. At this point, it was looking unlikely that we’d make it up all 12 pitches to the top, but Milde was a champ and encouraged us to at least get past the Harding slot, after which we could still rap back down to the ground.

And so, there we were. At the base of the Harding Slot. This pitch is infamous for being a squeeze chimney that is so tight, you can’t take a full breath of air in it. People advise you to leave all your gear behind, remove your helmet, and pick a direction to look because you’re not turning your head once you’re in there. Cathie, 5’2″ and quite strong, had told me – it’s not as bad as everyone says! I forgot I have 6 inches and 30 pounds on her, and thought, well hey maybe it wont be so bad. Getting into the slot presented quite a few difficulties, and I ended up falling a couple times before I found a tiny crystal to smear a foot on that got me in the slot. A couple moves and I was fully in the slot, facing right out of the granite maw.

Looking up into the slot!

I pushed with all my might against my hands, my butt, my back, pressing as hard as I could with what felt like every surface of my body. I gained a centimeter. Gasping for air, I repeated this again, and gained a centimeter. Feeling stuck, panicking, I pushed again, lost my grip, and feel beyond my starting position into an even more stuck place. I tried to calm my breathing, and not feel like I was being buried in a vertical tomb. I told myself if I could get in, I could get out, and that I wasn’t going to get stuck in there. I kept trying and trying for what felt like an eternity. Gaining a centimeter, losing another. Luckily there was some protection, and I kept bumping a #4 with my left hand. I was groveling, desperate, hyperventilating, and I thought briefly that I was going to die in there. Truly, it was horrible. Somehow, after pulling on gear, twisting and banging up my knees, and scraping my entire body through this slot, I got my left foot on a thin edge. With that, I was finally able to push myself up and out of the slot, and slam in the .5 I was saving into a little pocket. As I clipped the chains of the anchors, I involuntarily started crying from the relief of being out of that pitch. Milde, hearing me yell off belay, whooped and cheered. He then yelled up – “yeah I’m not doing that, let’s bail”, and I was a mixture of relieved and sad – it was over. On our way down, as a consolation prize, I decided to try leading the Enduro corner, and got my highest redpoint to date – an 11c! It was a test of endurance, and by the end I had claw hands. And so ended my second attempt on Astroman.

The next day, Milde felt a little better, and we got on Voyager, where I managed to onsight the 11c Incinerator pitch! I left the valley feeling strong, stoked, and grateful to have a great friend in Milde. Two days later, he found out he actually had covid :O. That poor man got dragged up two 11c’s in the valley with a full on covid-19 infection. The weather was starting to turn in the valley as well, so I decided that would be it for my attempts that season. I was a bit disappointed, I felt like that had been my chance to climb Astroman as I would probably never be this strong again. But you never know….

It honestly doesn’t get any better, sharing a beer and snacks gazing up at el cap after a big weekend

Attempt #3: September 2023

Almost a year passed, and I managed to break a vertebrae and get married (separate incidents). Highs and low’s ya know? So I wasn’t climbing much until August rolled around, and the stoke was back. After several “get back into shape weekends”, including a trip up the Hulk, I was feeling re-invigorated. Not quite as strong as I was feeling last season, but pretty good. Milde had moved to Australia cuz I guess he really had a bad time climbing with me (jk jk), and my usual partner in climb Cathie was feeling zonked by her new job. Luckily my friend Miles had heard about my failed Astroman attempts, and put me in touch with his friend Brianna, an absolute crusher. After chatting a bit, we made a deal – she would lead the Harding slot if I would lead the final pitch, a 10d R “sting in the tail”. I was pretty nervous about the R rating, but felt that it was a fair trade. And although I told myself I was never getting in that damn slot again, it had been a year, and I’m forgetful. And so, in late September, we met up in the valley to make our attempt.

We got up early, hiked to the start from our campground (a nice feature of climbs on Washington column), and started climbing around 7am. Briana took the first lead, then I linked pitches 2 and 3 to the base of the Enduro corner. Brianna took the sharp end on the Enduro corner pitch, fighting her way up the lieback crack. I linked pitch 5+6 to take us to the base of the Harding slot.

Brianna working her way up to the Harding Slot

I gave Brianna a big hug, took her extra gear, and off she went! Brianna also fell getting into the slot, but then, the similarities in our experiences ended. Brianna wedged herself in, then slowly and methodically made her way up, occasionally pausing to catch her breath. There were 100% fewer tears/wails of despair than when I was last on it. After what felt like no time at all, she was through! We had brought a tag line (but had neglected to bring a microtrax, a mistake we later regretted) and tagged up the bag and our extra gear. Then, it was time for my second faceoff. I made my way into the slot, feeling a bit better because I knew I was on top rope. Then it got really hard – once again, I felt utterly stuck, and cursed my hips and butt for being too large. I scraped, I panted, I hung on the rope. After another eternity in the slot, I finally reached the light, right into Brianna’s big smile. We were through! We caught our breath, had some lunch and surveyed the new territory we were venturing into – the next 5 pitches. This was the point of no return, there were no more bolted rap anchors after this, and retreat would become much, much more involved.

Big cheesing at the top of the slot. There’s a nice ledge for a wall picnic.

Brianna took the next lead to the base of the Changing Corners pitch. In preparation for this famous pitch, I had been trying hard on face climbs at the gym, and was really excited for this lead. The opening moves mantling to a slab felt really good, then I went a little too high trying to get around the corner and had to take on the slippery slab reach around.

Then, it was pure magic. For me, when the climbing is good, it feels like vertical dancing. I felt such mastery of my body – that feeling of control from my fingertips on the edges of granite, through the tension between my shoulders, down to the rubber of my toes digging into the rock. The 11b thin corner required stemming, endurance, and a cool head. When I finally reach the 5.9 hands it all seemed to come together. I could see the climb stretching into the valley below, and could feel that flowing concentration in my movement. I reached the belay with a shit-eating grin. I knew at this point we had a good chance of making it. I belayed Brianna up, and then watched her cruise the next two pitches of 5.9.

We reached a large ledge, moved the belay over, and looked up at the dreaded 10d R pitch. It was the only thing standing between us and the summit. This pitch is infamous, and I knew of a stronger friend who blew it at the crux, and fell all the way to the starting ledge. Luckily he only bruised his tailbone, but the potential fall loomed large in my mind. I had obsessively researched this pitch online, trying to find any images or beta that could ease the R. But to my dismay, there was just no way around the runout. As insurance, Brianna and I had brought extra nuts to potentially bail all the way back down – a long and sketchy prospect. Brianna gave me a pep talk, I put on my big girl pants, then I began.

The 10d portion of the climb came right away, and was actually well protected. After that the difficulty eased, and I got my final pieces of gear before the runout – a blue and black totem at the bottom of a downward facing flake. I carefully hugged my way up the flake, then, with the gear at my feet, took a high step into a delicate balanced stand. Fully stretched, I groped around to find a rounded sloper. I caught my breath, then carefully, imagining sticky sticky feet, I smeared my feet, pulled up on the sloper, and threw my right hand into a crack behind a roof. I slammed in a piece, then whooped with joy down to Brianna. We were going to make it!

I topped out to a glorious valley sunset. Brianna followed up, and we were standing on the summit! We shouted our joy into the valley, hugging and jumping up and down in disbelief at topping out. We were just one big smile! Astroman had been a big goal for both of us, and we felt so proud and so happy to do it with each other.

After taking in the golden sunset views, we started making our way down the descent, talus hopping and butt scooching our way down. By the time we reached our campground we were completely parched and utterly exhausted. After drinking straight out of the faucet for a while, we went to our site so exhausted that we both had to get horizontal. I laid on the picnic table and Brianna just laid down on the ground. We were completely cooked. Our friends Nate and Aurora had wrapped up their climbing for the day, and were on their way back with a big ole pizza from the Deck. When they arrived, we managed to sit up, then gorged ourselves on victory za and recounted our tales of the day.

The next day, I awoke feeling the most sore, wrung out, and destroyed I had felt in a long time. Everything hurt except my heart, which was overflowing with the beauty of climbing in the valley. It had been such a journey to climb Astroman, and I was so relieved I would never have to climb the Harding slot again. But, six months have passed, and I must say, I’m starting to feel that itch again. Maybe it’s time to go back to the valley, and consider what it would take to climb Astroman clean….

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