This is what it's all about, pitch after pitch of demanding, ultra high quality climbing on excellent stone w/ a surpassing view. Almost all the pitches would be highly sought after if they were base routes and three or four would be mega classics. If you don't think this climb is great, either you're just being contrary or you need to find another sport.
Bibliographic Note 1: supertopo.com has an excellent free topo download for this climb that most will find more useful than the following route description:
Bibliographic Note 2: An old issue Rock and Ice (from the 80s) had an article by Bob Yoho providing the pitch by pitch "betamax" - move by move sequences for all the cruxes -- on this route. This is amusing to look at after you do the climb, but it will probably just confuse you beforehand.
Approach: Walk east from the Awahnee on a road for about 15 minutes until you encounter a climber's trail on the left which heads up to Column. The climber's trail can be hard to spot in low light, so if you're getting an early start, it's worth scoping out at least this much of the approach beforehand. The climber's trail continues past the start of AM which is more or less directly below the obvious right-facing enduro corner. After leaving the main climber's trail, scramble up ledges to a small ledge with a tree which is where the climb starts. Without routefinding errors, the approach can be done in an easy 45 minutes.
P1: Trend up and right on easy vegetated ground for about 100' to a ledge with anchors. This bushy pitch can be wet and unpleasant in spring. It makes sense to skip this belay and continue up a right facing layback w/ finger jams (short stretch of 10a) on steeper, nicer rock for about another 50 feet to another set of anchors; if you plan on doing the easier version of the next pitch, belay here, otherwise traverse left 20' and belay at the base of a thin crack. 10a 170-190'
P2: The Boulder Problem.
Option 1 the traditional Boulder Problem: From the left end of the ledge, climb up a thin crack, fiddle in some small nuts, bust some fingery, feetless, old school 11c moves (the technical crux of the route), reach a ledge/flake and traverse right 20, then up another 20'of ~5.9 layback jamming to a small, sloping ledge w/ fixed anchors.
Option 2, easier, more direct, less well protected. This variation goes straight up, avoiding the two traverses. Historically, the route did not go this way because it was harder to protect but with modern small cams (~blue Alien) it is safe.
The climbing is thin laybacking/face climbing. ST rates it 10a but 10d is more like it. The need to hang out and place gear adds some difficulty. After you make it through the crux first 10', you encounter a ramp with a crack in it. Be forewarned, this may be covered in dirt, exasperating when you are desperately trying to plug a unit (~ red Alien). Above this point, the two options merge.
I will blasphemously recommend option two, skipping the boulder problem, as the more direct, in character with the rest of the climbing, momentum preserving way. Note: Dean Potter caught some grief when he took the piker's variant during his solo of AM, so if you've got hardass friends or are in the limelight, you might want to "bear down" and go the hard way.
Note 2: Either way, this is a quality pitch.
Pitch 3: The Enduro Corner. Totally classic, an endless Indian Creek style, continuous corner which favors those with smaller hands. Starts out with 2.5 Friends and gradually thins. Keep you eye out for the occasional bomber handjam and stem rest. Towards the top, the corner thins more (1.5 Friend) and most people go from jamming laybacks to straight laybacking. This point is probably the crux of the pitch and ends with a thank god sinker hand jam. The last 40' of the pitch are 5.7 chimney in which it is nice to have a 4 Friend or Camalot. Belay at the second set of anchors, on a big ledge. 11c 165'.
If you rap from here, you've done Astroboy.
P4. One of two "easy" pitches on the climb. Head up and left in an easy, blocky corner system for maybe 20'until you hit an cruiser handcrack which is followed to a small stance in a flare with bolted anchors. 5.9 80'.
P5. Another great one, reminiscent of the Rostrum. Follow a wide hands corner crack for about 1/2 a rope length until encountering a roof; the trick on this pitch in rationing and/or walking your bigger gear through this section. From the roof, reach left to a thin crack system, finagle in some small gear (RPs, purple Alien) then step over to this crack and follow it up ( 10c layback & face climbing, occasional small nut) until you can reach back right where the crack is easier and followed to another bolted anchor ledge beneath the ominous, impending maw of The Slot. 10c, 130'.
P6. The Harding Slot. Competitor of the Hollow Flake for THE imagination seizing Valley pitch. Many strong climbers have melted down here. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, it requires a style of climbing that is rarely encountered outside of the Valley and avoided in general and second, most average and large size people don't believe they can fit through the slot. (This is a great pitch to be small on.)
At any rate, from the belay crank up on straight forward 10+/11- laybacking for about 25' until a stance. Place some #1 Friend size gear (BETA ALERT: there is an obvious 1.5 Friend placement here -- don't fill it up w/ gear.) Once you've got bomber gear, make a plan and execute. The next 6 or 7 feet can be both baffling and exhausting. You're working with very thin hands (for only one hand!) in a slick, smooth flare that's not quite a chimney and not quite a corner. ST indicates a "dyno chicken wing" is the secret here; I say nonsense -- that's the sort of inscrutable beta that's likely to leave have you hanging on the rope, thinking about rap anchors.
So somehow you've passed the entry move, and you're standing on a small ledge, still able to move your head. You're officially in the slot. Make sure there's nothing on the back of your harness (you should have lengthened your knot at the belay and left your helmet on the ground) and start squirming. They say take an 'S' path but it's not like you could move otherwise. Stay calm and settle for an inch at a time progress. The entire slot itself is about 20-25' long and the really narrow part 10-15'. There is gear to be had in the back of the slot but don't place it unless you have it in for your second; anyhow, it would be pretty hard to fall -- if you slipped, you'd quickly wedge.
For those absolutely too large to squeeze through, there is an alternative, laybacking the outside of slot, supposedly 11 X. (I question the X as I've heard a fairly reliable story of a guy going this way and taking the fall unscathed three times before he finally made it through.) I've belayed a 2nd taking this outside route and it seemed horrendous -- if possible, any members of your party who have to go this way should be following.
The Slot is the key to route. Be ready for it which means having someone who can lead 5.10 squeeze and get through the baffling entry moves. Some parties which had been cruising up to that point bail after being stymied by the entry moves. There are some great pitches above the slot and just because one move is giving you fits is no reason not to experience them; if need be, aid a couple moves and press on.
Note: you probably started the slot in the sun and ended in the shade. Plan accordingly.
You're now at the point of no return. The ledge at the end of slot is the last with bolted anchors and the last place you could reasonably retreat from.
P7. Hands around a roof (10b), then some 5.9ish hands brings you to a spot where the traditional route goes left at 11b and the pikers var. right at 10c. The 11b way is better (technical face/stem move with good gear) but if your tank is running low, discretion might be the better part of valor. More quality 5.9 cracking takes you to a good ledge where you'll actually have to rig your own belay. 11b/10c 150'.
P8. Changing corners. Fantastic. 20 or 30' of easy ground bring you to mantle (11a) which is one of those moves that you can sail through one time only to flail the next time. There is an old, questionable bolt here which can be backed up w/ something like a yellow Alien; if you're really motivated top rope pro (#2 Rock?) can be had. After the mantle, some more easy ground takes you to the base of the corner, right-facing at this point, which is ascended until things get too hard and you step left around the arete onto slabby face which is followed for a few feet until you start wondering about your last pro, out of sight, below you around the arete. BETA ALERT: reach blindly back right and place something (2 Friend, 1 Camalot?) in the original corner. Eventually you rejoin the corner, now facing left, for a long stretch of fingerlocks and stemming (small nuts). (The face passage is sensational but can be avoided by staying in the corner (11d, better gear)). After the corner ends, continue in easier, wider cracks (good to have a 3 Camalot and a 4 Friend) until a stance in the vicinity of a couple of fixed pins. There are several belay options before this point but its good to stretch it to here in order to be able to link the next two pitches. 11b 150'.
P9: Blast through a long stretch of 10- which trends right. Then up 50' of 5.9 cups and fists (#3 through #4 Camalot, easy to walk). At the end of this crack, step right and hand traverse right to the left end of a long ledge and set up a belay. This may be a really good pitch, but at this point you're probably too sated to really appreciate it. 10a, 200'.
Move the belay to the right end of the ledge.
P10. The scary face pitch. Not the best pitch on the route, but as the sting in the tail, essential to the experience. The nature of the rock changes from classic Valley granite to something less desirable. Up an easy corner for about 20'. Then a reachy 10+ move with decent protection including an extruding angle that makes a good foothold (shame); ST gives this section an R but it seemed pretty well protected to me. Up a few easier face moves, taking whatever gear you can get, and establish yourself at the base of a thin, downward pointing flake. You can get ostensibly decent gear at the bottom of the flake (red RP, blue Alien) but the flake is expanding, so this gear probably isn't worth much. If you're lucky, there may be some fixed heads within reach to the left. Whatever the case, sack up, commit to sending and work up the flake (10b) which gradually gets easier but doesn't offer pro for at least 20'; if you blew it in this section, it is possible you'd zipper all the way down to a menacing spike at the start of the difficulties. At any rate, you succeed, place a 1.5 Friend size piece (phew!) and romp up easier ground to a ledgey area. 10d, 100+'.
50' of 4th class up and right leads to the top of the column.
Descent: follow a rough trail, north for a short while and then east for much longer, with the occasional class three or four section. This will eventually feed you into slabs which are tediously descended (class two to four, possibly complicated by wet streaks) until you eventually can walk back west towards the column and find the trail to your packs and the bottom. The full descent from the top of the column to the valley floor will take two to three hours and would be quite sketchy in the dark. I don't remember much more about the descent but it would probably be well advised to consult SuperTopo or some other authoritative reference before embarking on it for the first time.
1 ea 2,3,4 RPs
2 ea 1-4 Rocks
1 ea 5-7 Rocks
1 ea purple & blue Alien
2 ea cams from green Alien to .5 Camalot
3 ea cams from .75 to #2 Camalot
2 ea #3 Camalot
1 ea #4 Friend, #4 Camalot.
Water, haul line, headlamp.