Via Aqua

by Paul Doherty

Yosemite Falls is one of the earth's great high waterfalls, there is a rock climbing route next to the top part of the falls, appropriately named Via Aqua, that ends at the tourist overlook next to the lip of the falls.

overview of via aqua
Yosemite Falls without water. September 1987

See the climbing route.

At the end of October, 2000, I climbed the route with Joe Hastings. I had climbed it thirteen years before with Martin and Morresa Meyer. The photos were taken on my first climb in 1987.

There is no problem warming up for the climb since we began by hiking 3 miles and climbing over 2000 feet up from camp 4 along the Yosemite Falls trail. About two-thirds of the way up the final switchbacks, where the trail turns left at a large dead log, we turned right. Here we dropped our hiking shoes and packs and changed into our climbing gear.

We descended a little to a sloping ledge leading out to a large tree, at the tree we picked up a faint climbers trail leading around the corner toward the falls. We meandered up and down bushwhacking and looking for the route. Eventually we saw the "classically exposed ledge," in the words of Steve Roper's guide, leading to the left facing corner at the left side of buttress of broken rock. The exciting part of the walk along the ledge involved stepping across a gap above a thousand feet of exposure to a sandy, sloping continuation of the ledge. Don't screw up here. We decided to rope up.

approach ledges to Via Aqua
W roped up for the classic exposed ledges on the approach.

At the base of the climb, I looked up to find the route. High above, at the end of the second pitch, the left facing corner looks like it becomes a steep awkward slot. I hoped that the route would avoid the slot.

The guidebook said that the first two pitches were moderate 5'th class. Joe started up the first pitch and found the same thing that I had found the last time I was here, the climbing was over rounded water polished holds and felt like 5.7. After the first moves he went to the right a little and found easier ground, but eventually, he returned to the corner stopping at a nice belay ledge about 150 feet up.

Morresa on the start of via aqua
Morresa follows the starting moves.

On my lead I moved up a couple of holds beneath a gently overhanging wall with a piton at its base, then stepped around to the right where I found lower angle climbing. I too returned to the corner and ended up belaying in the bottom of the slot I had dreaded from below. The belay had a place for me to stand and to pile the rope. The flared chimney was just wide enough that my hips fit snugly inside it.

dark chimney with bright flake
A bright flake sticks out of the dark chimney.

Joe lead up chimneying the flared slot. The crux move was climbing over me. Above I could see a sword of Damocles flake that filled the view out of the top of the chimney. The guide promised that, somewhere above, a bolt protected "strenuous climbing" over the flake. As Joe exited the chimney, he found the bolt. It was old, rusted, bent over and partly pulled out of the rock. Joe took a disgusted look at the bolt and immediately placed a nice camming device in the crack below the steep flake. The steep flake was indeed strenuous, but straightforward and fun, the exposure and view from the flake were fantastic. Joe's pitch ended at a large ledge.

upper ledge with Martin and Morresa
Martin and Morresa on the large ledge leading to the final slot.

I walked to the right along the ledge to the base of an obvious large chimney. Below the chimney was a short wall with multiple cracks. I reached into the wider-than-fist crack on the left and was elated when my finger tips found a vertical edge to wrap around. That let me pull in and move up the crack. I found three such small flake edges on my way up and worked hard to reach the chimney. Martin had avoided the cracks and chimneyed a less obvious wider slot.

Paul atop the final chimney
Paul above the final chimney and all the difficulties of the climb.

The chimney above was clean and classic. There are no ways to cheat. Place your back on the right wall your feet on the left and chimney. After a couple of moves you will find small handholds which will accept small camming devices for pro. Continue to chimney enjoying the rough patches that appear for your feet but remember, "it ain't over 'til its over."

Via Aqua upper chimney
Martin exiting the narrow chimney into the more pleasant wide chimney.

Joe ran up the remaining third class pitch to the tourist railing. We hoped to find some tourists there to impress like Martin did on our first ascent when a woman asked if he would please step inside the railing because by belaying outside of it he was making her nervous. But this time, only chittering chipmunks greeted us. We enjoyed the view, then headed down. Stopping at the packs we ate a late lunch and reaching the bottom at 4 PM.

Paul Doherty 1987
Paul Doherty on via Aqua 1987.

Via Aqua, 5.7, 4 pitches, First ascent 1960.

Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 2000

30 Oct 2000