September in Yosemite seems to be hot, and dry. REALLY hot and dry.
Having booked into Camp 4 for just 3 nights, we had effectively forced ourselves to be on a ‘beginner wall’ such as Washington column, or at least doing something by the 4th night. A few words of advice from fellow British climbers, a chat with the Camp 4 ‘Wall Monkeys’ and an awe inspiring meadow sesh brought us a somewhat predictable decision – to get straight on it.
So come Thursday morning, we fixed the first 3 pitches of Triple Direct, a 29 pitch 5.9 C2 that runs parallel to the nose and joins it at around half height for some classic steep features such as the great roof and the changing corners. Our reasons for choosing this over the nose as our first wall – despite the harder compulsory free-climbing and greater number of C2 pitches – were based on some recommendations from the YOSAR wall monkeys. Triple direct still scales the full height of El Cap, but misses some of the more fiddly starting pitches on the nose, avoids the queuing and traffic that can burden the lower half of the nose and provides you with a great big comfy ledge for your first night on the wall. A nice trade-off for a couple of slightly harder pitches, how hard can 5.9 really be anyways?
After a quick lift in the boot of a chevy with some friends we’d made in Camp 4, we began jugging our fixed lines on Friday morning around 7am, and proceeded to climb through C1 and C2 cracks, 5.9 face climbing, and around the awkward chimney crack of the Half Dollar, eventually arriving at the aptly named ‘Mammoth Terraces’ at pitch 10 just before dark. Cans of Stagg Chilli on the stove, music through the speakers, and a chilled out night already a 3rd of the way up El Cap. We were more than a little tired but super-psyched.
The next day was much harder. Longer, harder pitches followed straight off the mammoth terraces, the wall became more and more intimidating, climbing slowed down and hauling was difficult with muscles aching from the previous day. A lot of the free climbing was dispensed with as we were both just too tired from the previous days efforts. This was perhaps the common theme of El Cap, as it challenges you every day to keep trying hard, no matter how tired you are, and how hard you tried yesterday. Only 5 pitches higher as the sun began to sink behind the valley walls, Stefan shouted up “we’re going to have to get the ledge out at the next belay I think!” This was quickly followed by a few disheartening discoveries. – the next belay was a completely hanging stance – there was a knot in the middle of the haul line – The Portaledge hadn’t been checked before it was last packed away, and was tangled in a spectacular fashion.
Panic followed. But maybe this is the most important lesson you can learn from a Big Wall – panic gets you nowhere. When disaster strikes – knotted ropes, stuck haul bags, dropped gear, injured climbers etc , you have to keep calm, and recall on the skills you’ve learnt and the experiences you’ve had to overcome the problem and keep on climbing,
The Alarm went off at 5:30am and we woke up hanging in the portaledge, above pitch 15. We had 7 pitches to do that day, the first 4 traversing into the nose to join it under the great roof, and the rest leading us up to camp 5, an ‘okay bivvy for 2’. Despite feeling very tired now, the traverse pitches led smoothly and soon we’d led up under the great roof. It’s an incredible feature, and as you clip across the fixed tat under the roof and look down to see little marked out edges that some climbers use to free climb the pitch, you can’t help but think – “you f*cking heroes”.
Arriving at the camp 5 ledge shortly before dark, we were relieved to have fulfilled our quota of pitches for the day, leaving us just 8 pitches from the top. We were not relieved however to see both the small size and sloping nature of the camp 5 bivvy ledge. With the sun already setting, we decided to forego the portaledge faffing and instead crack out some tinned pineapple slices and some gangster rap, and settle down for a night of continuously shuffling away from the edge that we were sliding towards. A great game indeed.
On the morning of Day 4, we could look up to see the lip of El Capitan. Spirits were pretty high, and by this point the nature of the climbing and the exposure of the wall have stopped being quite so intimidating.
As you begin to understand El Capitan’s granite, and come to terms with the 1000 metres of air underneath you the – the climbing opens itself up a little, and we were allowed to climb quickly and steadily through the next few pitches, enjoying the steepness rather than fearing it.
Clipping from bolt to bolt through the roofs on the final bolt ladder certainly does feel heroic, and topping out in a perfect Yosemite Sunset was maybe the biggest treat we could have imagined. We dragged gear from the last belay to the El Cap tree, stood up on flat ground, took off our helmets and harnesses and cracked open a can of coke. Job done.
We were covered in dirt, soaked in sweat, a fair few kilos lighter and quite badly dehydrated – but we’d done it. The Months of training and preparing had all paid off, the 100’s of pounds of big wall gear had all been invaluable in use, and the somewhat back-breaking effort we’d put into getting up the wall had indeed – gotten us up the wall.
The next day, after descending the eastern ledges with no water in the blazing sun, we burst into the El Cap picnic area, and begged a group of Russian tourists for water, they were rather intrigued and plied us with all the water melon and drinks we could get through our severely chapped lips.
Returning to the valley, we both agreed we’d truly never been so tired. Your first big wall really breaks you down and takes all the effort you have to give, and then takes more. But through the sweat, smashed knuckles and lack of water it was worth it. We even got a high fives, bear hugs and a “Good Job!” from the YOSAR guys at El Cap bridge.
As we dumped our bags onto the El Cap Shuttle on Tuesday afternoon and stood infront of the air conditioning, the heavily moustached bus driver tipped his sunglasses and said “Did you get ‘er done?”.
It felt pretty surreal to say “Yeah, we did”. We’ve climbed El Capitan.