A couple of weeks ago Luke and I drove into Yosemite with the intention to check out Free Rider — kick its tires, try and get its general idea. Things went better than expected and we ended up climbing up 1/2 of El Cap free in a day. So we figured, “Eh, doing the whole thing can’t be that hard.” When I said that to my friend Traian, he laughed and answered “Yeah right, you guys climbed ‘Easy Rider’. Wait till you get higher.” He was spot on.
This time we got to the base of El Cap with enough luggage to support us comfortably on the wall for a few days: a large haul bag, a small food bag, a portaledge for 2, and a poo bag (well, yeah, gotta plan for those things too.) Luke is an expert at the art of planning, and he had orchestrated down to the detail what could happen over the next few days, and packed exactly what we needed — to eat, to drink, to sleep, to keep us warm, and to climb. I felt like an explorer back in the colonial days — with a slew of pieces of luggage made of matching material in train (in this case Durathene). Unfortunately, we were missing the porters.
The plan was to ascend fixed ropes 1/3rd of the way up El Cap to the Hearth ledges, then start climbing from there onwards. (We had already climbed the bottom 1/3rd twice during our last trip and had all pitches dialed.)
We loaded ourselves with all our gear, clipped our ascenders into the fixed ropes, and as soon as we started ascending the ropes, reality hit us. This was really, really, heavy. My shoulders were starting to fail — I could not bear the weight I was carrying. So we switched to tying all our bags together one after the other and hauling them with a rope. Luke would go up first with the haul line, then I would join him, and together we would hoist up our gear with a 1-1 system. The lower pitches of the west side of El Cap are not very steep, and the bags were grinding against the granite. I felt like we were dragging up a 20 cubic feet stainless steel Whirlpool refrigerator with built in water fountain and crushed ice dispenser, tied to a king-sized Select Comfort Sleep-Number therapeutic bed — something I convinced myself we would really be happy to have later on, to rest our broken backs on.
We continued that way all afternoon, rope after rope, inching our way up El Cap under an intense November sun, and reached the ledges right as the sun was setting. We would have to camp there tonight.
As I was climbing up that last rope, Luke called down to me: “We have a night companion!” I slowly reached the top of the rope, and looked left. There, in the golden sunset light sat a young woman on a small ledge, alone, with little more than a sleeping bag by her side. Was the effort already making me hallucinate?
We chatted a little. Her name was Eleanor, and she was up here for a date, but seemed to have been stood up. Hum. Luke and I stared at each other, and decided to scramble up to another ledge 20 feet higher for the night.
On the morning of day 2 Eleanor was still there. She brushed her long dark hair in the early sunshine, packed up her hairbrush and sleeping bag in a small backpack, and silently glided down the ropes into the darkness of the valley. And we headed up to climb some rock!
The climbing started off pretty well: a 5.12 slab traverse with a big swing fall (yippee!), a couple of death chimneys, a few long run-outs on vertiginous terrain – bah, stuff that by our last trip had accustomed us to. Eventually we got to the first pitch that neither of us had climbed before: “The Ear” – a giant ear-shaped flake that you climb by squeezing your body into the bottom of it, wiggling your way up, and (hopefully) coming out of at the top. Other than Luke’s screams of terror and me getting my head jammed for a few minutes, we both got out of it unscathed. That was a fun thrill.
By now the end of the day was approaching, and we faced our first big challenge: The Monster Offwidth. The Monster Offwidth is a daunting crack about 7 inches wide, spanning 190 feet in height. Stories of it abound in the Yosemite climbing community – stories of fear, of sufferance, of people being brought down to tears, of non-stop battling for over an hour to get up it. The crack is the perfect nightmare: too wide for hands to be of any use, yet too narrow for a human body to fit into it. Climbing it requires solidly wedging your body sideways into it, while somehow figuring out a way to inch your body up – over a total of one hundred and ninety feet.
But of course, I was quite confident. After all, I had conquered 15 foot high offwidths at Mt Woodson; hey, how much harder could this be?
So there I went. I traversed over to the crack, wedged my left side into it, and slowly but surely started inching my way up, walking a Camalot #7 up as I went.
“Hey, this feels okay” I thought; and I continued. I got past the 5.11d section and onto “easier” ground. I continued. I got to the intermediate anchor, looked at Luke, and we both decided that this was an inelegant place to stop, so I continued. After quite a while I started getting dry and thirsty. I continued. The continuous grinding of my body against the rock started wearing a deep hole in my left shoulder blade. I ignored the pain and I continued. My mouth went pasty and I started becoming dizzy. I continued. Fear caught up with me when I slipped and the cam lobes titled off axis. I shut my mind off, and I continued while Luke talked to me like my personal therapist. The light slowly became orange as the sun started setting. I continued. My breathing was heavy and loud like that of a dying man, my arms were seizing up, and desperation was setting in as the sky darkened. I continued. My body signaled to me that I had reached the end of my energy. I continued.
Then, slowly, things started to fade away; I glanced up at the distance I still had to climb – it looked like forever. Beyond that I saw 1400 more feet of sheer vertical rock that we would still have to scale over the next days. I quickly realized that even if I did make this double pitch onsight, my body would be destroyed by fatigue; so I surrendered and dragged myself up the remaining distance by pulling on the cam.
I understood why one climber had described climbing The Monster as being the worst hour and forty minutes of his life.
When I got to the top, two professional Canadian rock climbers — Will and Jason — were there, hanging out for the night on a large ledge. Jason could tell in the dark that I was in bad shape, and handed me a big jug of water saying: “Yup, the Monster will do that to you.” My body had hit exhaustion. That night I shivered even though I was warm, I could not eat, my urine turned completely opaque. I would remain nauseous and weak for the next 36 hours.
We woke up to day 3 on the top of El Cap Spire – a spectacular free-standing column of granite that overlooks the valley. I was still quite sick from the Monster offwidth, and tried with great difficulty to eat a few spoonfuls of oatmeal.
Luke started off by climbing a superb 5.11+ crack and immediately had trouble. He was obviously also worn down by the two previous days, and had to battle to get to the top. I was glad: the time was ripe to talk to him. I climbed up to him, and broached the tricky subject of bailing: “we’re both dead; let’s give up and go back down.” Luke looked down at the 2000 feet of rock we had climbed, then looked up at the remaining 1000 feet to be climbed, and brought back the harsh reality: “the fastest way out is… up.” So on we continued.
That day was the toughest for me. I got stuck on the crux of the route – the Teflon Corner – and couldn’t even aid it up. I wedged the smallest brass nut in the flared hairline crack, and it popped. I wedged my nut tool and tried to stand on it, and that popped too. Eventually I climbed to a bush and made an elaborate stick-clip out of several thin twigs and tape from my tape gloves, and it just about was enough to clip the next bolt.
We dragged ourselves up pitch after pitch, and finished in the dark right under the great roof – the large overhanging feature that stands on the skyline of El Capitan when seen from the ground. We rapped down 3 pitches to a sloping ledge and set up the portaledge for night #3.
I woke up on day 4 with new found energy! This was the day – I was determined that we were going to make it off this darn wall today. We jugged up the line we had set up the night before in the dark, and off I went on the 5.12 traverse – the last hard rated pitch before the top!
The 5.12 traverse is a spectacular pitch high up on El Capitan that traverses horizontally left and around a corner on a series of grapefruit-size huecos, holes formed in the rock during its formation – a geological anomaly that also contributed to creating the famous A5 traverse on Golden Gate. Below the traverse is nothing — 2800 feet of thin air right to the ground.
I started off the traverse by reaching out far left to the first hueco and letting myself hang off of it. I felt the emptiness below stretch my body; it felt soothing. I closed my eyes and crossed by right hand over to the next hueco. Slowly but surely I continued along on more huecos, making sure to stay calm and concerted. Eventually I reached the last hueco and was left facing a a blank wall to my left, except for a thin horizontal edge about thigh high. I swung my legs and got the tip of my left foot on the edge, and pushed with my right arm as far as I could to try and establish myself on the edge. I desperately palmed all over the left wall like a blind man looking for something to grab on, however tiny it might be, to allow me to establish myself on the tiny edge. My hand caught on a rounded bulge the size of half an English muffin, and as I pulled on it as hard as I could it ripped off and my whole body went swinging backwards. I held on hard with my right arm as I watched the piece of rock tumbling down towards the valley. I caught my calm and tried a different option: standing up high to hold the under-cling on a bulge above me – like the bottom of a Buddha’s belly. But Buddha wanted to play with me and spat me off: I went tumbling towards the valley after the half-muffin. By then I was pretty far from my previous piece, and around the corner beyond Luke’s sight with plenty of rope to enjoy the fall. What a thrill! I went flying down towards the valley before the rope gently tensioned and swung me back towards the wall.
After all that excitement I climbed back up the rope, tried the same thing again, and this time Buddha let me through to the end of the traverse. What a fantastic experience!
After that, somehow all the remaining pitches went by like a breeze: a steep 5.11+ crack, another double-pitch of crazy offwidths, a fantastic finger-sized 5.11+ crack, and a final death chimney — once again expertly lead by “Death Chimney Luke”. The two of us worked together smoothly and efficiently like clockwork, and reached the top without a snag right as the sun started to set. It was fantastic.
The sun bathed all the surrounding peaks around us in a peach-colored light in celebration, while the valley far below was pitch dark. The top – one large dome of granite – welcomed us with arms open: wide, flat, and stable. It felt like we had finally emerged from a long time underwater, and were taking in deep breaths of fresh air.
That night I fell asleep staring at the full moon, mulling over everything we had gone through – a lifetime of adventure. I promised myself that never again I would get involved in something like that. Yet now, not even a week later, I am thinking of when we can go back and how best to work the remaining pitches. Surely it won’t be that bad the next time…