Yosemite Valley’s Astroman IV (5.11c) is one of the most classic and sought-after long, hard free climbs in the world. Originally called The East Face of Washington Column before it was renamed Astroman (after the Jimi Hendrix tune) when it was first free climbed in 1975 by John Bachar, John Long and Ron Kauk. Nothing compares. Yet many climbing areas boast their own version and name them “Astro” this or that, such as Astro-Elephant on Elephants Perch in Idaho. Dave Nettle and I named our route (which is actually a link-up of several existing routes and a few new pitches) Astrohulk in this tradition. However, Nettle would go on to put up other routes on the Incredible Hulk that are more worthy of being compared to Astroman. Two of these are Sun Spot Dihedral IV (5.11b) in 1999 with Jimi Haden and in 2004 Venturi Effect IV (5.12+) with Peter Croft.
This is new I thought, camping in Little Slide Canyon instead of going for it car-to-car. But Dave Nettle and I need some extra time to work on the first pitch. Dave and Tahoe free climbing ace Mike Carville had been working on a variation to Positive Vibrations IV (5.11a) earlier this year and had added a new start. They dubbed this pitch “Power Rangers,” and it involves technical and tricky 5.11+ moves. Nettle and I worked on this pitch in the afternoon and added a bolt to the bouldery first moves.
The next morning was quite cold, so Dave and I opted for the original 5.9 start and quickly climbed over the familiar first four pitches of Positive Vibes to a large ledge. It was almost a year ago to the day that Nettle and I huddled here waiting for a howling west wind to drop. Later, as we rapped off at my request, Nettle told me that this would be a good day in Patagonia. As I struggled with frozen fingers and my rap device, I made a mental note not to mention any desire to climb in Patagonia in front of Nettle again. But while today is late-September-cold, there is no wind and we cruise across easy ledges to the start of the Bard-Harrington “Suicide Route.” Here is where the business starts-three steep and sustained 5.11 pitches that include the wild detached flake known as “The Sea Serpent.” At the base of a large right-facing corner where the original route pendulums left, Dave drills two 3/8-inch bolts (by hand of course) in record time.
Now we’re finally in the sun, but the warmth does nothing to ease the sight of the desperate looking corner above. It’s beyond steep, and protection in the strange, rounded grainy crack looks non-existent. My assessment of this pitch (later named the “Enduro-Corner” after the fourth pitch of Astroman) would not be complete without the overriding fact that the man himself Dale Bard and High Sierra pioneer Bob Harrington had elected to swing out left to easier ground. I assumed they didn’t even want to aid the thing! Neither did I, so I passed the lead to Nettle.
Dave steps out of the belay into a full lie-back with his feet skating around on the thin loose flakes that line the crack. I try to adjust my belay so that if Dave falls he won’t end up in my lap. Dave manages to finagle in an unlikely number four Camalot that is tipped-out on the lip of the crack. Next, Nettle calls for tension. I pull in the slack and brace for impact. Nothing happens. The stem of the cam is completely horizontal and looks ready to snap. “I’m gonna drill,” Dave says, and gets busy. I’m more gripped than he is. I need to chalk up just to belay.
I look to the west and try to calculate the remaining daylight and the distance to the top. It’s going to be close. Dave finishes the bolt, clips in and lowers to the belay. “How’s it look above?” I ask. “More of the same,” he says as he checks out the rapidly sinking sun. “I may have to place the number four like that again.” After a quick drink of water Nettle is liebacking past the bolt. Another twenty feet go by before Dave places the four cam again in the same dicey manner. But instead of placing another bolt, Dave continues on and finally latches a loose flake way out from the shifting cam. I chalk up and brace myself to catch a huge fall. He’s too pumped to place gear to protect a mantel on to the flake. Dave says “watch me,” then manages to shake his way onto the flake.
Sierra evening air is starting to cool as Dave continues up the corner to a big ledge. It takes every cubic centimeter of my forearms to follow the pitch without falling.
“How hard do you think that was?” Dave asks. It takes me a minute to catch my breath, then I answer between gasp, “I don’t know, 5.11+ or 5.12a?” “You think?” Dave asks looking down the pitch. Then he says something that totally shocks me “I think I should rap back down and place a bolt to protect that section before the mantel” I look at Dave to make sure he’s serious, then shift my gaze to the setting sun. But my thoughts aren’t not only on the late hour. “Look Dave.” I begin. That was a real masterpiece of a lead; let the next guy do it.” While Nettle is thinking about this, I start eyeing the next pitch. “I just want people to repeat it,” he says as he’s hands me the small brass nuts. “You might need these.” I grab the nuts and say, “Listen Dave, this route’s been your gig from the beginning. If that’s what you wanna do, go for it.” As I rack the tiny nuts I look up and wonder where the hell am I going to place these? “Dave that lead was a moment in time, don’t discount it man” Dave smiles and I begin lacing up my shoes, then continue. “I’ve never seen doing first ascents as community service.” Dave gives up the argument with, “you’re on belay.”
I start leading out above the corner where I’m faced with a tricky maneuver that forces me back down to a good stance. If I fall here I will fly past Dave‘s belay and rattle down the corner. I think about placing a bolt, but after my speech on style, I decide to go for it. The move turns out to be much easier than expected. I finally plug in some pro and run out the rope to the North Ridge. Dave and I high tail it to the familiar summit via simul-climbing with an occasional belay. Dave signs the summit register:
“First ascent/link-up of Positive Vibes, Bard-Harrington, and Direct Finish, Astrohulk” IV (5.11+) F.A. Dave Nettle, Mike Davis 9/9”