Monday, June 18, 2012

Humble Pie on the Nose

This is a confession of sorts on my NIAD ascent with Hans...

Sunday, June 10th, I climbed the Nose with Hans Florine. It took us 10h53m. Three days later Hans climbed it again, this time with Alex Honnold in 2h53. Why so much faster? I know what you are thinking and I thought the same thing: weather! Sure it was hotter when we climbed it, but subsequent events have me thinking it is something else. Four days later Hans and Alex set the speed record on the Nose, climbing it in just two pitches (no re-gearing) in 2h23m. I think now it might have something to do with Hans' partner...

This year I turned 40+10 and had five goals for the year, four of them exactly the same as the ones I had when I turned 40. Back then I completed all four goals. Two of them are running goals and this year I failed at the first (Bolder Boulder 10K under 40 minutes) and the second will be extremely difficult (Pikes Peak Marathon under 5 hours). I knew that accomplishing these goals would be unlikely, since I barely was able to achieve these goals when I was ten years younger, but I wanted to "Do Hard Things." 

The other three were climbing goals and since they are more technique oriented, I figured I'd have at least as good of a chance to get them. This turned out to be correct and I've already done all three. They were to do 100 pitches in a day in Eldo (completed on May 17th with Hans), redpoint a 5.12 (Empire of the Fenceless on May 27th) and climb the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite in a day, which, as I mentioned, I did recently and want to report on now.

I've known Hans Florine for a long time and we co-wrote "Speed Climbing," yet I had never climbed the Nose with him. When I first did the Nose in a day (NIAD) I specifically did not want to do it with him, as that would have been cheating, the ascent guaranteed, practically, even if I led half the route since he could lead the other half faster than I could jug it. He has, after all, climbed the route over 75 times and has broken the speed record eight times, with six different partners.

I flew out Saturday morning and Hans picked me up around noon. We drove to the Valley and scoped out the traffic on the Nose, scrambling up to the base of the first pitch. Back in El Cap Meadow we racked for the next morning and met up with Quinn and Jes, two climbing guides from Colorado that had been out in the Valley for two weeks training to break the female speed record on the Nose, which stood at 10h39m. They were very friendly and quite modest. They had been working the route and had already done NIAD twice, with their best time so far at a bit over 14 hours. We decided to start a bit after them and follow them up.

We headed up to Hans' house in West Yosemite, which conveniently was not rented. We cooked pasta and BBQed some Italian Sausage for dinner and were lights out by 9:30. My alarm went off at 3:20 and I was up to make the coffee, dress, eat something and we were driving before 4 a.m. We picked up the girls at Manure Pile and drove to El Cap Meadow. While the girls took off, we taped our hands, visited the "little big-wall climber's room" in the forest, drank a bit more, geared and followed them 30 minutes later. They must have taken their time getting ready, as Quinn was just starting up the first pitch when I arrived at the base.

Quinn led the first pitch in about 17 or 18 minutes and Jes was jugging up shortly afterwards. Hans let her finish jugging before he started up. He fixed the rope at the top of the first pitch and waited for me there, thinking he'd give the girls more room. I jugged up and we were both at the top of the first pitch in 18 minutes. Our plan was for Hans to lead to Sickle where I'd take over for a bit. The girls were moving well and at the top of the second pitch Hans short-fixed and continued on up the third pitch while I jugged below. There is a pendulum on the second pitch but there was a short bit of fixed line at pendulum point and I just lower myself out, hand-over-hand with that and then let go and swung over. I'd be getting a well-needed refresher course on the art of jugging pitches that go sideways.

Hans stopped at the top of the third pitch and we re-racked. The fourth pitch goes up a bit and then traverses straight sideways. Hans led this pitch in about 2 or 3 minutes. Following I had to put a bight through the pendulum anchor point and lower myself out. I did a bunch of jumping the ascenders around gear on this ascent. This is a pretty casual maneuver but it amounts to being thousands of feet off the ground and only attached to rope by a few tiny teeth biting into the rope from a single ascender. Sure I'm tied into the end of the rope but for speed purposes I never tied in short so if the ascender popped, it would be one long fall. But ascenders don't spontaneously come off the rope, so there is no rational reason to be worried and I didn't think about it. But my ascenders did slip a few times, which is terrifying for just the split second when it happens. We were using a brand new (I opened it the night before the climb) 9.4mm 70-meter rope and its sheath was very slick. That's a skinny rope to jug up a 3000-foot fall and when your ascenders slips it sure did get my attention.

I was jugging in my running shoes and switched to my climbing shoes on Sickle Ledge and took over the sharp end. I led up Sickle and then the steep section at the top (5.9+). I clipped an anchor over lip with a leaver biner and lowered way down before doing a tension traverse/run across the slab to a corner. I did this while Hans counterweighted me. I pulled him up the route while I was being lowered and then he stopped moving while I swung to the right. It took me a couple of tries as there wasn't much to grab in that corner and I didn't go with enough gusto. Once in the corner I had to climb 70 feet or so with no gear so that the rope would run up at a reasonable anchor from the last pendulum point. I went up to bolt and some tat, clipped in and took tension from Hans again, lowering out tentatively to 5.10- face climbing to a bolt and then up to a thin crack which I climbed mostly by liebacking it up to a stance and two-bolts at the base of the Stoveleg Cracks. This was the equivalent of four pitches when doing the Nose in the classic manner, though I don't know how often it is done that way anymore.

Hans followed quickly and I led the first Stovelegs pitch. This pitch is 130 feet long and is mostly hand-sized, though it starts thinner. We had exactly two hand-sized pieces, one #3 Camalot and one #4 Camalot. When Tom and I did the Nose we had at least three more pieces of gear that would fit this crack. I had to space out my #2 Camalots by forty feet or more. The climbing is just 5.9 but it isn't simple straight-in splitter, the crack goes in at an angle, so that you could even lieback the edge of it, but it makes it more awkward to jam your right hand. It is the perfect size but my head did not like running it out 40 feet. I didn't, really. I went maybe 25 feet and then put in the piece and then would shuffle if for as much as I felt comfortable. Pulling it out forty feet above my last piece and moving it was scary for me. I think I would have been better off if I had had a day or two of Yosemite crack climbing before launching up El Cap with a spartan rack. Needless to say, I wasn't very fast. Hans was always so positive, though, telling me I did great.

The next pitch is also long and does take a bigger variety of gear, but it has a hard, awkward, offwidthy section that is best climbed by liebacking, if you are confident of going the 10+ feet and getting back in the crack to place gear before falling off. I wasn't feeling confident and groveled laboriously up the squeeze. I was dripping with sweat above this section.

As Hans was jugging up to me he asks, "Do you want me to lead the next pitch?" The final lead to the top of Dolt Tower has a really long wide section and we had even less wide gear: one #3 Camalot and one #4. It was outside of my mental reach to lead that pitch with the rack we had, at least after struggling somewhat on the easier pitches leading to this one. I switched back to my running shoes, tail tucked firmly between my legs. Hans led us to the top of Dolt and on the wide 5.9/10 section he went 70 feet without leaving a piece behind! While that certainly does cut down on the size of the rack you have to carry, you better be one solid crack climber! I know Dean Potter and Jim Herson climb routes like this and take nothing bigger than a #1 Camlot, but that boggles my mind. On the Nose that basically means doing the Stovelegs while just clipping the belays. Yikes! But for those guys it's like me climbing the Third Flatiron. The exposure of being thousands of feet up a vertical wall means nothing to these guys.

On Dolt we could see the girls above climbing right through a party of three guys on the Boot Flake pitch. They'd pass three parties on the day and all of them were great in letting them just cruise by. It seems that parties on the Nose are very accommodating of NIAD teams. We didn't want to get caught up behind the guys either so Hans suggested we do the Jardine variation to bypass them. This is a chipped variation that avoids the bolt ladder leading to Boot Flake. It also avoids the King Swing pendulum, both of which are not likely to be free climbed by anything with less climbing skill than a gecko. Hence all free ascents of the Nose use this variation. It also avoids a 5.6 pitch and the 5.8 Texas Flake, prime leading targets for my bruised ego. In our rush to get by the guys before they did the King Swing, where the variation rejoins the regular Nose route, Hans stayed on lead through the next two 5.9 pitches, which he linked and then short-fixed. While I was jugging these two pitches he climbed the 5.11c (5.10+ mandatory climbing even if you grab the draws you clip to the protecting bolts) without a belay. To say Hans is comfortable on the Nose is quite an understatement. He is as relaxed and comfortable up there climbing 5.10 without a belay as I am lying on my couch watching TV. And that is not a metaphor. That is literally true. He is a professional athlete and I have about as much frame of reference to understanding what he does on El Cap as I do analyzing Rafael Nadal's strokes at the French Open (yes, tennis is big in our family).

Following the horizontal Jardine Traverse was another good opportunity for me to bond with my ascenders. This is not an ugly chip job and it looks pretty natural to me and quite thin. The next pitch, up to Eagle Ledge, where the King Swing ends, is 5.11c and ends with 30 feet of unprotected 5.9 offwidth or lieback. There was no need to discuss who would lead. Hans aided up the corner, climbing as fast as most people free climb. When he got to the run-out section he let me know so that I'd be able to feed rope to him continually. This was a good thing, as the ropes were dorked up. Belaying Hans is not much of a rest as he pulls out rope constantly and has frequently already begun the lead because he short-fixed, so I feel like I'm playing catch-up the entire pitch and trying to make sure the rope has no loops in it. 

Hans short-fixed at Eagle Ledge and continued up the 5.10 pitch above. I got him on belay before he got to the 5.12a traverse (5.10 if you grab the draws) but just barely. He stopped here and then did the short horizontal Gray Bands traverse and belayed me across it. Above us, just below the Great Roof, was a team of two guys from Colorado. They were letting the girls pass. Hans said that he normally likes to take a lunch break at Camp IV (one pitch above us), but now he wanted to get up there and check with those guys about the best place to pass them. He zipped up the 11b pitch and linked the 5.9 pitch to a belay just above and right of the Colorado guys. They were going to let us pass so I jugged up to Hans. He stopped there since the girls above were still on the Roof pitch and we had to wait on them a bit.

Hans wanted to practice following the Great Roof in preparation for his record-breaking attempt with Alex, yet he didn't want me to hold up the other team with a long lead. Hence we followed a hybrid solution, one used by the girls above us. They lead part-ways up the crack leading to the roof and short-fixed. We did the same except that Hans just belayed there and I took over and led the Great Roof. This lead wasn't such hard, as there was a bunch of fixed gear in the roof, though this is some tiny gear. 

I fixed the rope and Hans practiced how he was going to follow the roof with Alex. When they go for the speed record Hans will lead from the ground to Eagle Ledge, just after the King Swing. Then Alex takes over and leads to the top. Last Fall Hans got to Eagle Ledge in 1h18m - almost exactly half the time they took to do the total route. 

Hans asked if I wanted to lead the Pancake Flake pitch, but I declined. This pitch is rated 10a for the first 80 feet or so, but it is dead vertical liebacking and fingerlocks that requires confidence and quick movement from gear stance to gear stance. I didn't have the confidence to make this 5.10a. I wasn't fresh enough to climb strong. Even though I was just jugging, it was wearing me out. I wouldn't lead any more.

Hans zipped up the Flake and then up the 11b/c tricky section at the end of the pitch. Just a couple weeks ago they rescued a guy who had fallen on this section and broken his leg and his pelvis. They did a vertical evacuation, lowering a litter from the summit of El Cap, clear to the ground! The day before, as we geared up in the Meadow, they had us move our car as a helicopter was coming in to rescue another guy off the West Face of El Cap. This is serious business.

Hans short fixed at the top of the pitch and continued up the 11b awkward flare above, with no belay. By the time I got there, he only had some easy climbing to go to Camp V. A couple of times on this climb he ran out of rope while climbing while short-fixing and had to just hang from gear and wait for me to finish jugging the previous pitch so that I could put him back on belay and give him more rope. But most of the time I was fast enough to keep him moving. 

We had a leisurely 30-minute lunch at Camp 5. We watched the girls climbing two pitches above us and ate. I was glad for the break, as I felt busy and pushed nearly constantly. It wasn't like climbing with an equal partner where I'd have plenty of downtime belaying. Sated, we continued with Hans short-fixing the 5.12c Glowering Spot pitch (liberally aided, of course), the 5.11a hand crack (with no belay) and the 5.8 pitch up to Camp Six, in one continuous lead. 

From Camp VI the route gets even steeper, dead vertical and jugging became much more strenuous. The first pitch is the Changing Corners pitch, the 5.14 crux when free climbing the Nose. Hans led the next three pitches without re-gearing, just short fixing and moving on. I held him up at the top of the Changing Corners pitch, as he ran out of rope before I got to the belay. I had a bit of trouble getting off my jugs and onto the anchor for some reason. I was getting tired. It probably only took me two minutes but to Hans this must have felt like an eternity. It amazed me that he could go so far between gear placements.

When I joined Hans below the 10b crack leading to the final bolt ladder I found him talking to a girl just starting to jug the last pitch. She was part of a 3-woman team that had spent six nights doing their first wall climb. They were known as the JTree Girls in Tom Evans' El Cap daily reports. Six days is an awfully slow time on the Nose, but they caught "Pass the Pitons Pete" Zabrok was on a marathon 14-day trip up the Nose with another guy. Fourteen days! On the most popular route on El Cap. That isn't cool. Actually, they climbed Grape Race, which starts with the first three and a half pitches of the Nose (continuing straight up when the Nose goes hard right to Sickle Ledge) and merges back into it at Eagle Ledge, below the halfway mark of the Nose.

Hans followed the girl up the last pitch, helping her with the overhanging jugging. This cost us 30-40 minutes but we didn't care. I didn't care. Jugging the last pitch is strenuous, but I had things down pretty well by now. I topped out to find quite the crowd. The three JT girls, Pete and his partner, Hans, Quinn and Jes. The latter two had just set the new speed record for females climbing the Nose: 10 hours and 19 minutes, breaking the previous record by 20 minutes. The last I heard they might try to trim that time down a bit more on Wednesday. I'd think they'd be satisfied and want a break from that steep, huge wall, but I guess they got pretty dang comfortable with the route.

The JTree girls had to wait 2.5 hours while Pete climbed the last pitch. This is about the same amount of time it will take for Hans and Alex to climb the entire Nose route! So, quite literally, the fastest and the slowest Nose climbers topped out within an hour of each other. Pete mentioned that he has spent 499 days sleeping on the side of El Cap. Hans estimated that Pete has climbed El Cap 50 times, so he averaged 10 nights per ascent. Hans has climbed El Cap 145 times (though he'll do 3 more this coming week: Wednesday, Thursday as warm-ups for the record attempt on Sunday) and he has spent 20 nights sleeping on El Cap. So he averages 7 complete ascents per night spent on the wall.

Quinn and Jes waited for us on top and we all hiked down together. They had left a car at the Manure Pile Buttress where the trail empties out and we had picked them up early that morning and driven them to El Cap Meadow. So we all piled into their car and drove back to the Meadow. After some snacks, we bid them good-bye and Hans drove us back to Oakland. We arrive around midnight and hit the sack after a quick shower.

So, was it cheating to go with Hans? Absolutely and that will become very apparent, as I didn't hardly do anything on this ascent. I don't know exactly how to feel about it just yet. I do have a newfound realization of what was going through Opie's mind when we climbed Sheer Lunacy earlier this year in Zion, as I think I went through the same thing. 

So, could I have done the NIAD with an equal partner? Yes, I think so. I think I'm at least as good of a climber as I was when I did it before, but it would have been a a long, hard day, close to 24-hours, I'd guess, especially with the difficulty in passing other parties. We passed other teams by using the Jardine variation (which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it, so that I could know this way) and by being so fast. People are usually happy to let Hans pass them, partly because of his reputation and super nice demeanor, as he never assumes people will let him by and respects their right to say no, but also because they know it will cost them very little time to let Hans' party pass. With me and an equal partner, it would cost other teams more time.



Damon said...

Nice post Bill. I think your honesty related to leading pitches shows a lot of maturity in your decision making. Having hit that 40+10 age myself this year, I think that we can sometimes use our brains to compensate for some of the drop-off in physical abilities.

John said...

That really brought back memories, Bill. I climbed Half Dome with Hans 13 years before this and I remember how insanely fast he was... with an equal partner you'd get rests here-and-there while belaying or waiting for him to jug, etc. With Hans, you're always moving and barely have time to recuperate. It's super hard, but it's over quick. :)