The Plan is conceived
I swore off big wall climbing several years ago after a failed attempt at The Nose left me convinced that light and fast was the only way to climb. I would never use a portaledge, web never haul a bag. I would only aid climb when absolutely necessary and choose routes accordingly. Aid climbing was for fatty’s and gearnerds, I would never be caught dead slothing my way up a wall with a mess of wacky gear hanging off every inch of my body looking like Jim Bridwell’s Christamas tree…
(The author leading pitch 3 of the Nose in 2007)
The beak behind a flake of sandstone was perhaps the 2nd or 3rd I had ever placed. What happened next was definitely a first. The sound of shifting metal and a small pop only registered after the sandstone wall in front of me started rushing upwards, like having the door open as you ride an out of control falling elevator. Before the complete realization that I was taking my first aid fall had set in, it was over…a split seond, barely enough time for me to fully take in the sensation of my testicles retreating to my gut. I was leading the first headwall pitch of The Desert Shield (5.11, c3, 9 pitches). Why was I doing a big wall? It wasn’t anything drastic or overly inspiring that led me back to the persuit of vertical backpacking. Scotty told me one day that his new roomate Logan, who I had climbed with around Boulder several times, had a portaledge and had never used it. Talk of ledges turned to tales of big walls, and a couple of Scotty’s guidebooks and beers later, Logan and I decided we would use his ledge for the first time in Zion national park. We climbed The Desert Shield with 2, 2-person ledges and slept in style right on the headwall. We didn’t do the last pitch because of darkness, but had a blast nonetheless. The bigwall bug had begun to invade our systems. It was time to take it to the next level…The real Shield on El Capitan.
(Logan following the first Headwall pitch on The Desert Shield in Zion)
We somehow got psyched on a team of 3 and recruited Shaun. Shaun had climbed Lurking Fear and had also been shut down on the Nose. So began the 2 month long planning process. Country Club crack was just like the Shield headwall for sure…and after puckering our way up loose sandstone, Yosemite’s solid granite would be a cakewalk. Gear was procured from friends, ordered on the internet and talked about at legnth. Offsets and iron became all the rage. On one particularly exciting night, Logan and I convinced ourselves it was imperative the three of us do a warm-up wall together. A skimming of Scotty’s guidebooks and a frantic phone call to Shaun was all it took to plan a trip to Arches National Park to climb Zenyatta Entrada (c3, 7 pitches), put up Solo by the great Charlie Fowler. 2 days later we got on the wall and sent. NOW we were ready to climb The Shield (5.11, A3/C4, 30 pitches).
(what dreams may come…)
The next month was hectic. I tried to concentrate on school, but my mind was on The Shield headwall. The fact that my roomate Joe would also be climbing on El Cap at the same time (Golden Gate, he sent!) did not help me focus on my studies. Yosemite was the talk of the house. The captain was like our fourth housemate. Its soaring granite flanks called to us from across the Rockies, whispering promises of glory and hints of punishment. And then the day finally came when my van was packed and the gear was racked…
For 3 days we waited and watched. Waited for the weather to clear so we could climb and watched a party take a reaming from the storms while stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean Wall, completely exposed to the rain, snow, and wind which raged through the valley. We had been stormed off the Free Blast twice already. As a friend once said, “it was niether free nor a blast.” It is recommended to haul from directly below heart ledges since the free blast traverses quite a bit, so we carried extra ropes to fix down from Heart ledges.
For days we worshiped the printed out web shot of NOAA posted at Curry Village, while our bags hung wet and heavy about 40ft off the ground at the base of our fixed lines. Now the message from the weather gods told us that our passage would be possible. It was time to strike.
(ugggghhhh…at the gates of jugging hell)
We jugged our fixed lines up to the base of the half dollar pitch, which was soaking wet and quite mossy. Out came my Russian Aiders, which would prove to be an incredibly fast and effiicient way to lead an aid pitch. 2 more pitches of 5.7, and we were at mammoth terraces. We had enough rope to fix all the way to the ground, which we did right away and started hauling. Several words come to mind when I think of that afternoon of hauling…most of them are synonomous with punishment. The bags were at their heaviest with all of our food and water. We were forced to do a 3:1 haul system with 2 people hauling, which we learned is the opposite of fun. We slept on the mammoth terraces that night, rudely awakened to the task at hand. The captain had not given us anything, and it was clear that before we made it to the top, if we made it to the top, it would take its full toll.
(Logan leading towards the flood)
Cheating Death, moving slow, and Chinese water torture
On day two we woke with mixed emotions. The thrill of waking up on the captain was checked by the realization of what lay ahead; an odyssey of great toil, a test of our will, and a whole lot radical climbing. Shaun freed the first pitch off Mammoth ledges and Logan took the lead on the next aid pitch. I was belaying Logan, looking aimlessly at the green valley now 1000 feet below, when Logan took his first aid fall and jerked me out of the mindless act of belaying with a gri-gri. At this point we still needed 2 people to haul the bags and one person to keep them from getting stuck, which meant that we could not short fix. I cleaned the pitch and began hauling with Logan, while Shaun stayed with the bags in order to help them clear the blocky ledges. Logan and I heard Shaun scream a proclamation along the lines of “I almost died!” But after that he went silent despite our attempts at communication and we were left to worry and speculate for over an hour until Shaun jugged up the haul line. His description of his near death experience was fuzy, but appaently he had not been tied in to anything and had avoided taking the quick way down by grabbing the lower-out line with his bare hands, which were badly burned by the friction.
(a look of agony)
With only a couple hours of daylight left, I took the lead knowing I would have to climb into the night in order to get us to Gray Ledges for our bivy. Apprehension vanished as I left the belay and became focused on every gear placement and upward progress.
(go up young man!)
By the time I started on the final pitch of the day it was dark. Scotty had made a note on the topo in his guidebook next to the pitch I was now leading; “polished groove from hell!” He was spot on. Halfway through the pitch, a placement blew and I fell down the miserable squeeze slot. My gear hit me in the face when it popped and gave me a bloody lip and a nice divit on the bridge of my nose. The pitch ended with mandatory free climbing up the squeeze chimney and then an unprotected traverse onto Gray Ledegs, which were wet. It was a relief to clip the anchors but that was just the beginning of our shitty night. Although the weather was calm and clear, Gray ledges was below a running watercourse which dripped on us continuously. It was like a form of cruel Chinese water tourture inflicted upon us by the captain in an attempt to force our retreat. But we were determined, and since retreat would involve considerable effort as well, our will to go upward remained steeled.
On the cusp of Zen
On day 3, we did the morning dance on Gray Ledges while El Cap’s massive shadow moved along the valley floor telling time like a natural sundial. Shaun lead the first pitch, and soon Logan and I followed, bidding farewell to any standable ground for the next 2 days. We were closely trailed by a team of 2 wall godesses who were racing up the Muir wall in good style. Their deft efficiency and lighter loads highlighted the disadvantages of climbing in big wall style with a team of 3, all of us relatively new to walling. They parted with us via a bolt ladder to the east, while Shauin lead a spectacular soaring traverse pitch.
(Shaun leading one of the coolest pitches on the wall)
The weather had been nice despite the wind which would start around 11am and cease around 5pm, always from the west. It was late in the day when I cleaned Shaun’s pitch and waited for logan to lower the bags and himself out and jug the lead line. The air was calm all around and a late day light was glowing on the cathedrals accross the valley. We were situated below the great Shield Roof. A 30 foot seam shoots out the dead center of the roof with nothing but 1000 feet of air and another 1000 feet of granite slab below. It was my lead. The roof itself is mostly bolt protected up until the lip. I highstepped on the last placement below the lip and eyed the terrain above. I knew what I would need to place as my next piece, and it would be the first time I had used that specific gear. Yosemite sat still thousands of feet below me in shadow while lingering alpenglow frosted the rocky tops of the southern side of the valley. There was not even a slight breeze and all the distant sounds seemd to vanish until all I could hear was my own heartbeat thundering. I felt like a 15th century explorer approching what he thinks to be the precipice of the earth itself, about to find out if the rumors of roundness are true. My entire existense seemed to be folding and stuffing itself into the small pin scar above like a galaxy being sucked into a black hole. But I cast all my fear into the void below. I was treading trodden trails, climbing through the gear placements of great men and women, some of them my friends and heroes. Tranquility set in, perhaps even euphoria, and I moved through the next 3 placements, none of them suitable to hold a fall, but all of them solid.
(point of no return)
Another 20 feet and I clipped the anchor, set up the haul system, and began hauling which was now doable with 1 person using a 3:1. It was there we spent our first night on the great Shield Headwall.
Enter the Headwall
“Steep, clean and outrageously exposed, the Shield Headwall may be the most spectacular place on El Capitan.” Chris McNamera put it well, and we had it all to ourselves! Despite dropping a couple pieces of gear and Logan dropping his camera (with all of our video), the day went well. Shaun lead the first pitch off the belay, Logan fired off the infamous Groove Pitch, and I dispatched with the strikingly beautiful Tripple Cracks, atop which we spent our second night on the headwall.
(easy route finding)
The hauling had now become easier with the reduction of food and water weight, not to mention the stuff we dropped. We were one day behind our schedule on account of the various snags and the unplanned diffuculty of hauling which thwarted our short fixing startegies. The next morning Shaun lead the final headwall pitch at a snails pace, taking over 4 hours including a huge fall that left him hanging just several feet above the ledge Logan and I were on belaying. Logan lead us up to Chickenhead ledge and we followed as the sun went down. In order to make up for our slow progress, I lead a pitch by headlamp above Chickenhead ledge and fixed a line, leaving us 4 more leads and hopefully just one more day to the top. Leading aid pitches at night turned out to be very peacefull, with only your headlamp aura to focus on and the element of exposure out of sight and mind. I had to take off all my aid gear to free climb the last 40 feet of this 200 foot pitch, which was nerve racking in the dark with sneakers on, and when I rappelled back down to the gear I had ditched I dropped another piece of gear while putting it back on…one of our aid hammers! Luckily this, nor any of the other gear we dropped, hit anyone on the way down.
We left chickenhead ledge around 9am, jugging the line I had fixed the night before. The winds were howling and an intermittent drizzle raised our anxiety. Logan lead the first pitch as the storm swept into the valley. The next pitch aids up into a humangous roof and out its left side, leading to 2 pitches of 5.7 to the top. I blasted up under the roof and traversed out left. I peaked my head around the corner of the roof’s lip and was immediately drenched by a cascade of icy water. The belay was right around the corner at the beggining of the next pitch, a chimney that had turned into a running waterfall due to the percipitation. Soaked and freezing (it was now snowing) we decided to set up a ledge under the roof and use its shelter to warm up and analyze our situation. We had enough food and water to last us through the night, but the next day would be just as bad, if not worse, should the weather fail to break. We sat for a couple hours watching as the clouds swirled around the alcove under the roof like some evil smoke rising from the depths of Mordor. None of us wanted to lead through the waterfall, and as we dilly-dallyed, the day slipped away and the weather remained grim. Sometime in the afternoon, with a small lull in the storm (but not in the waterfall), Logan Cobb decided that it was time to step it up. With darkness closing in and the snow starting up again, Logan racked up. Shaun and I watched as he turned the lip of the roof into the wet hell above and proceeded to climb through the first of the final two 5.7 pitches. I cleaned the pitch and remained in awe of how Logan could have goten up the thing. Not only was the slot/chimney awkward and running with water, but it was also slicked over with moss and hard to protect with lots of big gear placements in the back of the slot, where there were actually living frogs and who knows what other creatures. The rain continued as Logan and I hauled the bags while Shaun kept them out of the slot. On the next pitch, Logan had to use hooks to ascend the slab that was slick and running with water. We topped out just as the storm began to die sometime around 2am. We were drenched, freezing, exhausted, and starving…but we had made it and we had Logan to thank for getting us through the last and perhaps the hardest section. He had battled the captain and mother nature in the darkness and came out on top.
(focused and psyched)
It was the most impressive and grueling lead I have ever witnessed, and in those couple hours, with the wind raging and the snow beating down through the pitch black, Logan solididfied his place amongst the heroes to be born on the walls of the captain.
After the storm there is the calm…and the descent from hell!
I woke the next morning in the small hole I had managed to locate and PTFO (pass the fuck out!) in after scarfing down some hot food the night before. I did some stretching and admired the sight of Yosemite Valley far below. The skies were clearing and the sun felt good on my wrecked body. I watched as Shaun emerged from the hole he had found like some animal coming out of hibernation. Logan had set up his portaledge and was now waking as well. We had some breakfast and met Rich and Josie who had just climbed Tangerine Trip, and to our relief, knew the way down to the east ledges rappels. With a ton of wet gear and all the ropes we had used to fix, our bags were rediculously heavy, and hiking/rappeling down truned out to be one of the most miserable parts of the whole climb. I hitchhiked back to my van and when I drove around to pick up the rest of the team, they were hanging out with 2 guys who bought us beer in exchange for some beta on the Shield, which we were happy to give while we drank our cold ambrosia. That night we stuffed our faces with pizza and drank beers at Curry Village. We had earned our place amongst the ranks of climbers who have scaled El Capitan. No club membership has ever felt so sweet. Logan, Shaun, and myself had started climbing as friends and finished as brothers of the wall. A month later my hands are still a little bit messed up. Shaun and Logan are back in Boulder and I am on the road. But no matter where we go or what paths we take in life, the lessons we learned on the captain will be in our minds and the glory gained from topping out will remain in our nether regions…forever.