Lost Arrow Spire was one of the original inspirations for modern freestyle rock climbing. The spectacular 'Tyrolean' rope traverse is rated one of the top climbing experiences in the world, and the only one with a 'beginners class' (A2) rating.

Tyrolean highline from tip of Lost Arrow Spire
Tyrolean highline from tip of Lost Arrow Spire

This page tells you pretty well everything you need to know for the entire trip.

Forward: Planning the Climb

Fitness Training

To start, you should be ready to walk 10 miles and climb 4,000 feet, carrying 35lbs, in one day. You don't need to do that all in one spurt. When I was a kid, this meant running up flights of stairs, but these days it's much easier to pace it on aerobics ellipticals, because they actually tell you what you are capable of doing with amazing accuracy. Depending how fast you run, it's about the same as jogging 7 miles. Agility is actually more important than raw strength, so just do a few stretches before and after aerobics, like this: first stretch and hold while breathing in and out slowly three times (~30 seconds). Then without straining, try stretching a little further (you should always get a little further extension). then hold a few seconds, and relax. Touch your toes, put each leg on a chair, stretch arms forward, and stretch arms back. Plus, you should be comfortable doing 3 sets of 15 full pullups, with 3 minutes of rest between each set (during pullups, keep your abdomen taught and legs straight). Rest a day between sessions and rest 48 hours before the climb. That's all there is to it. If you are already fit, this should not all take more than 3 weeks. And once you can do all that, you are ready to climb!
Jog 7 miles, stretch, do 3 sets of 15 pullups, and you're ready to go
Jog 7 miles, stretch, do 3 sets of 15 pullups, and you're ready to go

Equipment

Equipment can be rented, but you will really want two cams, two hooks. and rope ($100, see later for details), plus your own hiking boots, climbing shoes, backpack, and camp equipment ($500) Yes, really, if you already have athletics clothes and coat, everything you actually need to backpack and rock climb can easily be had for a mere $600. For details, see my blog article, "Equip to Wilderness Rock Climb for Less than $600," on this site.

Food and water

You almost never camp next to water, thus the freeze-dried stuff they try to sell you in camping stores is pointless, because you have to carry water anyway. So enjoy real food.

Insurance

With accident costs as they are, there's really no way out of purchasing 'Explorer Insurance' from World Nomad, which is the only insurance carrier for rock climbers in the USA. The insurance covers emergency evacuation by helicopter, which costs $3,000~$10,000 alone, and not otherwise covered. It also covers all hospital costs and equipment loss (even phones) with no copay. So the ~$25/day for insurance is actually a pretty good deal. For carrying water, bicycle bottles are good. Thre's no point getting collapsible or canvas bags, because you have the space in your pack anyway.
Equipment Haul (and Yes, its next to a Waterfall too)
Equipment Haul (and Yes, its next to a Waterfall too)

Training and Team

You will need THREE pro hulks with you to assist on this climb: anchor, lead, and belay. The belay is so the lead feels safe, and the anchor is to help on the other end of the highline traverse. That's expensive, so 2-3 novices usually choose to amortize that cost. A team of five usually takes 6 hours to complete the climb, including rappel, two pitches, and the tyrolean highline. The trail to the rimwall usually takes a couple of days. Training on bunny slopes is $165/day for an instructor with up to 6 trainees. You'll probably want to stagger training days with minor excursions to test your skills elsewhere, with 3-5 days of formal training, During training, you can find your team for the climb. This is one of the most sought-after climbs in the world, so you should have no trouble finding your mates and pros. Remember, though, the pros can't teach while they are taking you, and getting them together takes some negotiation. So a total of three weeks is wise to allow for training, weather, team assembly, scheduling, and packing out.
You need a pro lead, pro belay, and a separate pro anchor for the highline
You need a pro lead, pro belay, and a separate pro anchor for the highline

Finale

Besides getting there and back, the only other thing you really need to plan is a hot bath and real bed the night after, lol, it will be the best soak and sleep of your life.

Preface: How the Spire was Made

When you understand the geological process causing the spire formation, at every turn you can see millions of years of lava-spewing volcanoes, grinding glaciers, and pounding rivers, interlaced by the seasons of sun and ice.

Winter ice, eating the cliff around the waterfall crest behind Lost Arrow Spire
Winter ice, eating the cliff around the waterfall crest behind Lost Arrow Spire

Granite is a layered igneous rock created by successive lava sheets boiling over each other, each cooling by different amounts before the next layer of lava arrives. When solidified, gigantic subterranean pressures twist the rock around and up at different angles. Then over several thousand years, water seeps into microfissures between the lava sheets, freezing in night shadow and expanding in during summer warmth. This splits the layers apart at different speeds, depending not only on the vertical angle of the layers, but also on the angle of the rock to the sun at different times of the year, and the varying temperatures and amounts of precipitation at different altitudes. North-facing slopes are colder, eroding steeper, and forming shadowed pools at their base which last longer into the Summer, thus eating further into the base of cliffs. South-facing slopes are usually more gradual, more brittle, and creased by vegetation, Higher altitudes are also colder, with more dramatic erosion. Even on bunny slopes, one can feel the effect of different angles to the sun under one's hands.

Bunnies jugging on Swan Slab, Yosemite. Lava layers facing North are colder and more eroded by ice, and so steeper and smoother. South facing slopes are more crackled
Bunnies jugging on Swan Slab, Yosemite. Lava layers facing North are colder and more eroded by ice, and so steeper and smoother. South facing slopes are more crackled

The combination of water, sun and ice creates exfoliation sheets where the granite peels away from mountainsides like layers of skin. If the lava was very hot, the sheets are thicker and more contiguous. If the lava was cooler, then there are smaller, lateral fissures inside the sheets. This example, from Feather's Peak in Yosemite, shows many hot and thin lava sheets with little lateral fissuring, cooled, fractured in two by tectonic pressure, then shoved up at different angles. More water ran down less steep front sheet, causing it to erode to a lower level. The rear sheet, almost vertical, has been feathered by freezing water and the tips eroded by different amounts depending on the hardness of that lava layer.

Bifurcated sheet exfoliation on Feather Peak, Yosemite
Bifurcated sheet exfoliation on Feather Peak, Yosemite

The following example is abundant all over Yosemite, with many instances easily accessible along the Happy Isles trail up by Nevada and Vernal Falls. Here the lava was cooler, starting with slower flows. This resulted in a curved formation with more but lesser lateral fissuring, as the individual sheets progressed more slowly over periods of days or weeks. You can see mild striations where the laval cooled overnight, with larger lateral grooves caused by climate changes over spans of days. That created exfoliation joints across the sheets, and edges where water has since cut through successive layers at different joint points, so that the rock appears to be peeling like an an onion. Because the rock is igneous, though, it is still extremely hard, so the crevices provide perfect hold points for rock climbing.

Lateral Fissures and Striations across Exfoliation Joints near Nevada Falls, Yosemite
Lateral Fissures and Striations across Exfoliation Joints near Nevada Falls, Yosemite

In this lateral view of the spire top and neighboring peak, you can see how exfoliation cut through softer rock between the spire's tower and the cliff behind it, and how ice has cut away giant sheets to create vertical walls 3,000ft high, with overhands and ledges left by lateral striations. Much of the spire is still attached to the cliff, except for the top 300ft, known as the 'spire tip.' the crevices between the tower and wall are called the 'spire chimney.'

Lost Arrow Spire tip, with giant vertical fissures on the glacier-cut rimwall creating the chimney and overhangs
Lost Arrow Spire tip, with giant vertical fissures on the glacier-cut rimwall creating the chimney and overhangs

Finding the Spire

Lost Arrow Spire is in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which runs about 800 miles along the Eastern edge of California. This is a relatively new granite range pushed up by pressure from continental drift, where a series of glaciations then carved the mountain range. Due to pressure along the continental divide, an enormous of granite in the Yosemite valley region was twisted 90 degrees, so its layers are vertical rather than horizontal. Then the granite was further carved and pummeled by a series of glaciers between 3 million years and 10,000 years ago. Since then, weathering has accentuated the U valleys, rather than soften them, in a myriad of ways for the last 3 million years.

Lost Arrow in the Sierra Nevada
Lost Arrow in the Sierra Nevada

The spire is next to one of the most stupendous waterfalls on the planet: the Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, Melting snow from the upper plateaus cascade all over Yosemite's rimwalls in the Winter, and some waterfalls, like the Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, thunder into the valley all year long.

Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls from Far Canyon Rim
Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls from Far Canyon Rim

Because the spire is a mile up from floor viewpoints, you actually have to know what to look for before you can actually see it from the valley. Hence many people don't know it's there, even if they have been to the park many times. From this angle and lighting, you can easily see the spire to the right of the 2,000ft Upper Yosemite Falls, which strikes a moderately ridged pool before cascading again to the valley floor in the 1,000ft Lower Yosemite Falls, not visible in this photo.

Upper Yosemite Falls and Spire
Upper Yosemite Falls and Spire

Anton Nelson and John Salathé first climbed the chimney from valley floor to spire tip in 1947. It took them six days, sleeping overnight on the face, which was a breakthrough achievement at the time. Now routes are established from the wall to the spire's upper notch which are easily completed in one day, and are actually quite safe, with others to lead and belay you.

Belayed on Second Pitch to Spire Tip
Belayed on Second Pitch to Spire Tip

The Trail In

The trailhead for the front way in starts at the mobbed Lower Yosemite Falls viewpoint on the floor, where you get soaked by the waterfall half a mile away no matter what time of year it is. The trail in is 12km and a steep 12000m up by the stupendous Upper Yosemite Falls. Some can run it in 3 hours, if someone else is carrying equipment, but most need a night's rest on the roof. There's also a much flatter, but longer, trail to the valley wall from the backroad on the upper plateau. On the front, the Yosemite Falls Trail is almost vertical in places, but it is the oldest hiking trail in the park, and well carved in. You'll still want to check your pack's balance when you get to the switchbacks.

Yosemite Falls Trail Map
Yosemite Falls Trail Map

On the way, it is well worth taking the side hike to Eagle Peak, which offers one of the best panoramas of the Sierra Nevada in Yosemite Park. In the middle of the picture below is Half Dome Mountain, which is a massive moraine made by one glacier at ~9,000ft, later cut in half by another. It's also easy to see how a third glacier collided with the second one to cut the 4,000ft-deeo, mile-wide, and 8-mile-long Yosemite canyon. It is easily one of the most astounding tributes to the power of nature on the planet, when you see it in person from this height, millions of years of stupendous beauty unfold in front of you.

Eagle's Peak, Yosemite
Eagle's Peak, Yosemite

At the top of the Yosemite Falls Trail, the Yosemite Falls river is deceptively small, and peaceful looking, and a pleasing place to fill up on water, but the current is fast faster than it appears. Swimming there without rope tether to the shore is foolhardy, as you could easily be carried through the quaint-looking fence and over the Upper Falls in a jiffy.

This quaint-looking stream is actually the top of the giant Yosemite Falls
This quaint-looking stream is actually the top of the giant Yosemite Falls

From there it is a short hike to the top of the rappel, at 6,000ft elevation

Lost Arrow Elevation Next to Upper Yosemite Falls
Lost Arrow Elevation Next to Upper Yosemite Falls

The Rappel

From the roof there's a delightful 80m rappel down to the spire notch, which is still 900m above valley floor. They don't make climbing ropes that long, so that's two 150ft ropes knotted together--you relink the rappel in the middle.

Team lead on the roof, choosing a rappel point
Team lead on the roof, choosing a rappel point

Usually, one team member, the 'anchor,' stays at the top to pull people across the tyrolean if they can't do it themselves. Once the rest of the team are down the rappel, the anchor sends a third 150ft rope down to the climbers. The lead then ties one end of the third rope to the end of the rappel and takes the other end to the spire's peak, then loops it, using one half as belay for the other climbers, and leaving the other half as hoist. Once all the climbers are on the peak, the lead pulls up the hoist, and the anchor pulls the rappel up, to provide the main crosswire. The anchor hooks another two ropes to the crosswire and drops them down to the lead, for setting up the tyrolean hoist and retrieve.

Half-way down the 80m rappel to the Spire's notch
Half-way down the 80m rappel to the Spire's notch

The Climb

The climb itself is actually quite safe with others to lead and belay, and takes a total of about 6 hours. First is a 30m cliff traverse from the notch.

First Pitch from the Spire's Notch
First Pitch from the Spire's Notch

There's a short stretch on this first pitch where you'll want 'C1' cams ((the easiest 'clean cam' rating, meaning it's spring loaded into a crevice without piton or hammer). This picture shows a typical loaded spring cam, with some cam hooks on the side for decoration, lol.

All the Cams and Hooks you could want for this climb
All the Cams and Hooks you could want for this climb

That brings you to a comfortable ledge which appears like it was made on purpose for this climb, where you can rest before the second pitch.

Ledge to Second Pitch on Lost Arrow Spire
Ledge to Second Pitch on Lost Arrow Spire

Then there's a 50m climb up which some dare freestyle. It starts with a C2 cam around the corner. Here you can see a climber who has placed a cam 'hook' to make it easier, meaning the cam is hooked on a crack, rather than spingloaded into it. This is why the climb is rated A2 rather than A1, because hooks require more practice. It is possible to get onto the second pitch without using a hook, but you probably want to be able to do it once you get there, in case you want it.

Cam Hook from Ledge to Second Pitch
Cam Hook from Ledge to Second Pitch

Around the corner, the second pitch takes you up alongside the waterfall, which also sprays you in the Spring. The second pitch starts vertical, with a few more easy C1 cams in long vertical crevices you can follow up to the peak, or you can go for a nifty overhang freestyle. If you disdain assistance with a bolt ladder on the last vertical, it's free grip on flattening slope to the flat spire top. If you want to lean on the celay like this guy, it's dead easy.

Leaning on the Belay up the Second Pitch
Leaning on the Belay up the Second Pitch

Here's a view of the spire the other way, towards the waterfall. The top is so flat, it also feels like it was made for this.

East View of Lost Arrow Spire
East View of Lost Arrow Spire

Here is the climbing annotation for the beginner's route.

Technical climbing annotation for Lost Arrow tip and highwire
Technical climbing annotation for Lost Arrow tip and highwire

The Tyrolean Highline

No descent climb! The 40m tyrolean traverse is 'abseiled' so it is actually quite safe. This means thre is a person on each end. No pitons or hammer work are needed to get to the spire's flat top, but the 'Lost Arrow Piton' was actually invented to be the anchor for this tyrolean, and has since become a mainstay in mountaineering. The lost arrow piton can't be retrieved, hence the peak was named for it, 'lost arrow'!

The Lost Arrow Piton, invented for this climb, has a loop tip and flat blade, maximizing shear-force tolerance
The Lost Arrow Piton, invented for this climb, has a loop tip and flat blade, maximizing shear-force tolerance

There's a number of techniques for the highline, the most popular being with three ropes: one to clamber across, one loop attached to you to pull you across if you run out of stem in the middle, and a third semiloop to the spire anchor so you can retrieve your rope at the end of the climb. This shows how the release enables line retrieval.

The Tyrolean Knot
The Tyrolean Knot

Looking down, on one side, is the valley floor.

Rimwall View of Tyrolean Traverse
Rimwall View of Tyrolean Traverse

Looking from the other side is Yosemite Falls. Here is a view of the traverse from the other side, in the Spring, when the waterfall is fullest.

View of Tryrolean from Lost Arrow Spire towards Waterfall
View of Tryrolean from Lost Arrow Spire towards Waterfall

A Videos of the Climb and Traverse

This is a cute little video of a very experienced rock climber pretending that Yosemite freestyle is easy and the climb is difficult. ROFL. But Adidas did a good job with a helicopter filming her. Enjoy )

youtube

And here is the first girl to tighhtrope the tyrolean, lol.

youtube

There and Back Again

I end this article with a few notes on how to get there and back, which is where most people start, so once you finish reading this, you are ready for the gym!

Main road access in and around the park
Main road access in and around the park

Yosemite is about 3.5 hours from San Francisco Airport, if you don't drive during rush hour (and you should avoid rush hour every way you can). There are roads in each point of the compass.

  • The most popular is the North entrance from highway 120, which does take you along a fast motorway stretch from highway 5 up the lower slopes to a very beautiful reservoir. There you have to make a choice between a VERY LONG graded road around the reservoir edge, and a VERY STEEP climb to Groveland. From Groveland, there is a pleasant stretch though wooded mountains that feels very much Switzerland, there is no significant loding at this entrance, but a very large number of campsites.
  • The West entrance from 140 is a little faster. The 140 entrance takes you up along the Merced river through some far older moraines, pretty much exactly as they were 10 million years ago, that are ruddy and sparsely grass covered. Just before the park entrance there are a series of motels of lackluster quality. Far better is to take the road up from the valley floor to the south entrance, and by Glacier Point there is a turnoff to the West called 'Yosemite West.' Along this long winding road there are numerous condos and houses of various sizes, including one expensive B&B which has no Internet reservations and always has a spare room.
  • The South entrance is about 40 minutes from the valley floor. Close to the South entrance is the turnoff for an impressive grove of giant redwoods. There is an old and graceful hotel near the South entrance, but by the time you get that far, it's much better to stay on Bass Lake, which offers an pleasant lakeside resort at 3,000ft. the pine forest there extends Eastwards into some national forest land with free camping.
  • The East Entrance takes you down a massive gorge to the interesting yet sad Mono Lake, which gas through massive water loss is now surrounded by numerous bizarre and alien salt formations. The road there iis so steep and precipitous, it's like turning your car into a rock climber. If you can find camping nowhere else, though, there is a remote free campsite just outside the park entrance for adventurous folks such as ourselves, in which I have never seen more than four tents.

Once inside the park, a free shuttle takes you around everything on the valley floor. Here is one version of the ubiquitous map, which I particularly chose because it highlights the bicycle route. Bike rental is cheap, and it's absolutely the best thing to do on the first day there.

The relaxing bicycle route on the valley floor
The relaxing bicycle route on the valley floor

Rock climbers often prefer camp 4, which is free, and also right next to the trailhead for to Upper Yosemite Falls. But to get a place, one has to get there very early in the morning and still stand in line no matter how early. From July through September there are more camps off the backroad, Tioga Road, which rarely fill up, which are reserved for overnight stays with wilderness permits. The advantage of these, because of the long lines, is the opportunity to catch up on news on conditions and planned climbs; and also, you can get permits for climbing and wilderness camping at the kiosk.

Camp 4 kiosk line, the best place to greet and learn
Camp 4 kiosk line, the best place to greet and learn

The main slopes for rock climbing training is actually on Tioga Road, but when bicycling around, you will discover the Yosemite Mountain Shop. But in fact it doesn't have much floorspace, and it's really the place to go if you need anything repaired, which is their emphasis. The Curry Village Sports Shop has clothes and other equipment as well as rock climbing gear, and there's more basic equipment in the supermarket if you find there's something you didn't bring that you can't live without.

Climbers' supplies in the Curry Village Sports Shop
Climbers' supplies in the Curry Village Sports Shop

Finally as I started by saying, this is what you will want the day after! While you might be tantalized by jacuzzis on balconies with amazing views, after this experience, you will prefer the indoor ones, because they stay hot much longer.

The well-deserved finale for an experience like no other
The well-deserved finale for an experience like no other

Of course, if I take you, and you mention you have a room with a hot tub to anyone on the tip with you, the entire team will show up. Then they all sleep on the floor, the management finds out, we all get thrown out, and I'll be banned for life. Like it hasn't happened before.


Thanks for visiting :)

Parting view of the spire in winter
Parting view of the spire in winter