On September 13, Cheyne Lempe and Ethan Pringle put up The Constant Gardener (5.11+ R A3), climbing from the ground up to complete the rare new route in Yosemite Valley on the north face of Higher Cathedral Rock. Their line overlaps with two established climbs in its top section, but travels mostly unclimbed terrain.
In late June of 1960, Yvon Chouinard, Robert Kamps and Chuck Pratt authored a “very strenuous” route with “poor cracks,” Chouinard wrote in the 1963 American Alpine Journal, to the right of Lempe and Pringle’s line. The trio side-stepped even steeper terrain, exiting the face early with a leftward traverse. Pratt returned eight years later with Dennis Hennek to finish the climb by aiding through the roof section.
Lempe, who authored his first Valley route with Everett Phillips in June, hunted through guidebooks before approaching the Higher Cathedral Rock, eager to find a seldom-trodden wall in the Valley. Finding little information about the area, Lempe and Pringle committed, working their way through two runout approach pitches, followed by difficult hauling. From there, they made a risky leap over what looked to be a 30-foot gully and drilled the route’s only bolt.
Although they had hoped to climb the route free, heavy vegetation had them gardening and aiding their way to the top. The finger cracks they had spotted from the base with their binoculars had looked free climbable, but they discovered the seams to be moss- and lichen-filled. They completed the route, including 600 feet of new terrain, in two longs days, with faces and hair covered in dirt.
Upon their return from the wall, Lempe commented on Instagram that, “[The climb] was an enormous amount of work, and life is sweeter because of it!” Alpinist called him up this week to get the details.
Out of all the rock in Yosemite Valley, why Higher Cathedral Rock?
We initially planned to do a new route on Half Dome. But when Half Dome got closed down [for safety reasons], and our friends were still coming to shoot a video of us on the wall, we scrambled for different walls we could climb.
One of my friends reminded me of this big north face on Higher Cathedral, so we climbed to the base and were like, “Wow, this looks so cool, big and inspiring.” It wasn’t until we climbed 600 feet of new terrain and traversed into a different crack system that we linked up with an ancient Chouinard route that we eventually found in A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley.
What were the most memorable pitches of the route?
Ethan led this roof pitch that Pratt had climbed on his second time up there. He did 20-to-30 feet of straight horizontal climbing. It was pretty rad watching him. I also liked the second-to-last pitch. I was climbing when the sun was setting and everything was glowing red.
Doing a first ascent in the Valley is pretty rare nowadays. What were your thoughts when you topped out?
What I was most stoked about was hanging out with a super rad friend. What I’ve been focusing on is finding that true adventure and the mystery of not knowing what you’re going to do next. On this route there was not a whole lot of certainty of success. On other Yosemite routes, like the El Cap routes, if you have a topo and gear you are almost guaranteed to get to the top. But here it was not a guarantee. It was kind of a relief reaching the top, but as with any climb I was then thinking about the next thing I’m going to do.
What was it like to climb with Pringle for the first time?
I definitely feel honored to rope up with such an amazing, gifted climber. I feel honored that he even considered climbing with me, since he is an entire world away from me in terms of free climbing abilities. Ethan is super lighthearted and super nice. He has a way of making things less stressful. Like, when we got the haulbag super stuck on Pitch 1, and I had to rappel all the way down to get it unstuck. Ethan diffused that stress and negativity with witty, funny comments. Ethan is always quoting YouTube videos, like “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!” He kept calling all the aid climbing gear “the weapon” [laughing]. He called the beaks “ninja throwing stars.”
I think the number one most important thing with trad and alpine climbing is not taking things too seriously. Mikey Schaefer and Colin Haley are always joking about things. Guys like them and Ethan, when unexpected things happen, they have a way of going with the flow.
While on the climb, were there moments of suffering? If so, was it worth it?
One aspect that’s kind of funny about doing things that take huge physical or mental effort is that it feels really good to just stop. You get this huge sense of relief. And things are more vibrant after you get down. Whatever you’re passionate about, whether that’s basketball or even poetry, you completely engulf yourself in doing your best at it, and it’s rewarding because of the effort. Whenever I talk with climbers projecting new climbs, they always say that when they stop and just focus on the effort and the process instead of the end goal, that’s when they redpoint it.
What’s next for you?
The Constant Gardener would definitely be free climbable if someone put in enough time, training and bolts. I’m not sure if I’m the one to do it. It’s definitely possible. But right now there are other projects I’m more stoked on. Chouinard said, “The future of Yosemite climbing lies not in Yosemite, but in using the new techniques in the great granite ranges of the world.”