On the day we arrived in Yosemite Alex Honnold free soloed Free Rider on El Capitan. While the extreme danger of this ascent is grasped by the general public, and this understanding is what makes Honnold the most famous and highly compensated climber in the world, if you are not a climber you cannot understand the magnitude of this feat. Caldwell and Jorgenson’s Dawn Wall climb got massive press as the “hardest climb in the world” and while incredibly impressive it was repeated by Ondra the next year. It will be at least a generation before El Cap is free soloed again. If you don’t understand climbing but understand track, this is equivalent to someone running an eight second 100 meters - beyond what anyone thinks is possible. Or if tennis is your thing, this is like someone winning Wimbledon without dropping a single game. Yet, many of us knew it was coming. Honnold is such an anomaly and this goal, so terrifying and obvious, was on his radar. I know Alex, a bit, and have climbed with him twice. I knew he was thinking about it when he told me about his Easy Rider ascent - another free solo up El Cap, but via a route not considered a main El Cap route. A poster on supertopo.com summed it up nicely: This was both inconceivable and inevitable. And, yes, I do know what “inconceivable” means. I heard about it when Hans called me as I drove from the San Jose airport to Yosemite, just a few hours after Alex’s ascent. When Hans said, “Did you hear about Alex?” my first thought was that he had finally fallen and was dead. He is pushing things so far beyond the realm of understanding of even very experienced climbers that it can only end with his death. Now that the “moon landing of free soloing” has been accomplished, I hope he quits extreme soloing. After this, he should be set for life. I’d pay good money to see the film. I’ll buy the movie. If he writes a book about it, I’ll buy that (I already have his first book). I climb in the shoes he wears (though they are TC Pros, so I guess that money goes to Tommy Caldwell). Now, Alex, please, turn your attention to massive, roped linkups, like you did in Patagonia and Yosemite with Tommy.
I viewed this tremendous feat, on the first day of our trip, as a good omen. That we would have a safe and successful trip.
We flew into San Jose, arriving at 10 a.m. and had no trouble getting the rental car, which was right at the terminal. I love this little airport. It is so convenient and so easy compared to almost every other airport I’ve been to. We were soon on the road to Yosemite and I was reminiscing about this southern route (101 to 152 to 59 to 99 to 140) to Yosemite that I did so many times, mostly with the Loobster. But my memory was flawed and when we drove by the 59 turnoff I said to Derek, “Hmmm, that sounds so familiar. I think we should have taken that.” Doh. We corrected and drove into the Valley to find the most traffic I’ve ever seen there. A sign warned us that if we went by the turn-around at the east end of El Cap Meadow, it would be three hours before we got back out. Three hours!!??That worked and we parked on the road connecting the one-way-east side to the one-way-west side.
|Derek at the top of the 5.9 direct start to Nutcracker.|
|Derek leading After Seven (5.8). This pitch is steeper than it looks here.|
Derek motored up the pitch as well, climbing in the same shoes, same size. That's convenient and he's climbed in my shoes quite often. His foot is a bit bigger, but my high instep frequently forces me into a shoe slightly bigger so that works out well. I led the second pitch as well, just for speed reasons, and arrived on the big ledge there to find quite a party. Three teams of two were here and another team was climbing the third pitch above us. Momentarily confused, I asked, "What's going on?" But it was just a giant traffic jam.
I brought Derek up, but with no variation to get by, we had to go down. I wasn't going to wait for four parties. Everyone was really nice and one of the teams built a rappel anchor for us so that we could rappel down to the top of our first pitch. Once down there we rapped off slings around the tree and were soon back on the ground. We simul-rappelled of course, as that is our MO.
|Derek on top of Manure Pile Buttress with Middle Cathedral Rock behind him.|
After Seven had a party of two guys on it and leader was more than halfway up the first pitch. They said they'd be moving fast, so we queued behind them. Once the second got up twenty feet, I encouraged Derek to start leading, as he'd be slower on lead than that guy would be following. Derek was itching to lead it and cruised up and through the crux smoothly, confidently, like he'd been on the route many times before. I followed and led the next pitch, a short, easy one, up to join the two climbers above, who were just starting the third pitch. I wanted to simul-climb by, but I resisted and they didn't offer. No big deal.
Derek joined me and we waited on them again. Derek led, again following the follower up the route. Clearly we were a lot faster, but the route was just five pitches and things were going fast enough. I did feel slight pressure when a third party joined me on the ledge and even climbed up ten feet above me, part ways up the third pitch. We were already waiting on the party above. There was no way I was going to let another party climb by us.
While waiting, I changed out of my TC Pros and into my approach shoes. Belaying with a Gri-gri lets you do stuff like this. The TC Pros are great, but both Derek and I get some serious foot pain (mostly in our left foot) after a number of pitches. My mentor Chris Weidner would tell me, "That's supposed to happen! Just take them off after each pitch. Oh, and WTFU!"
I then started simul-climbing a bit, managing the loop of extra rope, to make sure I was moving up the third pitch before these two new jokers. Derek eventually put me on belay and soon I was done with the third pitch and this time moved on directly into the fourth pitch lead. Here I could climb parallel to the other leader and moved by him. I belayed short of the top, though. Derek followed and led up behind the next leader, with both ropes running next to each other. He gained the top of the formation where he found a couple of the Nutcracker parties. I followed quickly and we coiled, re-racked, Derek changed shoes, and we were the first ones to head down. We didn't want to be out too late, as we were planning to climb the 10-pitch East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock the next day.
Whenever I go to Yosemite, I like to stay at Hans' house in West Yosemite. It's a bit complicated, though. Hans is rarely there himself, as he lives in the Bay Area. The house is a VRBO rental and Hans has caretakers that live in the first floor and manage the renters and cleaning of the upper house. Each time I go there Hans has a different crew as caretakers. This time it was Haley and Erik. Hans introduced us via email and we made plans to stay there, but this is their house. They don't know us and even though Hans has vouched for us, they don't need guests staying in their very small place for a week. To make a good impression we brought them a bottle of wine and a six pack of beer.
After our climb we headed up to Hans' place. No one was there and it was locked, so we hung out on the driveway and organized our gear for the next morning. Soon, though, Haley and Erik showed up. They were incredibly nice and welcomed us into their home. They had two other people with them, a cousin and a friend. The cousin moved into their bedroom for the night so that we could have both couches in the living room. That was really nice. We'd have been fine sleeping on the floor. We hung out talking with them until pretty late.
East Buttress of Middle Cathedral RockI have some very tough history with the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock. It was the first climb I ever did in the Valley. I had graduated from CU and was moving to San Jose to start my first job out of college with IBM. Naturally, I drove through Yosemite to get there. I met two climbers in Tuolumne Meadows and we agreed to team up for the EB of MCR. I was drawn to this climb because it was a “Fifty Classic Climb” and because it was mostly 5.8 with one pitch of 5.10 that could be aided.
Due to some miscommunication over how much water the other two were carrying, I didn’t bring enough water for the incredible heat we faced. My two “partners” didn’t feel the need to share their water with me and I became massively, dangerously dehydrated near the top of the route. Even though I did the bulk of the leading and all the harder pitches, they felt their water was theirs and it was just too bad that I screwed up with my water. This incident would greatly affect how I viewed my climbing partners from then on. My philosophy now is simple. You are a team of climbers and everything you carry is team gear. Everything. If someone screws up and doesn’t bring enough water, then the team is low on water. There is no individual food or water, though each team member might carry some of it. Hence, everyone is responsible for whatever goes up the route. If you are new to climbing with someone perhaps you need to check how much food and water they are carrying, knowing that these are team resources and if they are carrying too little, you’ll likely not be eating all the food you’re carrying. Since that day I’ve been very lucky here. I climb with incredible people who share this same philosophy. I’ve literally been given a shirt off my partner’s back. This team aspect and this bond between my partners and me is by far the most rewarding aspect of climbing. It’s not the climbing. It’s not the mountains or the route or the views. While all are important, it’s the people that make climbing so special.
The second time I did this route it was with three friends: Fred Yenny, my main climbing partner at the time, Dan Fitzsimmons, a friend and climbing partner from work, and Don, a friend of Fred’s. Since Dan and Don weren’t very strong climbers, at least compared to Fred and I, we split into two teams. Dan and I would climb first and Fred and Don formed a team following us up the route. As I was leading the tenth pitch, Dan yelled up to me, “They’re gone! They’re gone!” Whose gone? I thought. Obviously not Fred and Don for where would they go? But it was them and indeed they were gone. I finished my lead, struggling to keep my composure. Dan had said that Don was leading the ninth pitch, a tricky-to-protect pitch rated 5.7, and he fell about thirty feet above the belay without getting in any protection. He fell directly onto Fred and the belay anchors ripped from the wall. They fell 800 feet to the rocky slope below.
It was all I could do to stay safe and get Dan and I up to the top of the route and then down the tricky descent back to the base. What we found there will haunt me the rest of my life. I won’t describe it. We had to make sure they weren’t still alive. We headed down to notify a rescue team but we met them coming up the slope, for Fred and Don had fallen past another party, who had then rapped off and hiked to get help. Once I met these guys I knew my job was done. I sat down and completely lost it.
|Derek at the top of the "disaster pitch"|
We got up at 5 a.m. and were out the door shortly thereafter. We drove down to the turn-out below the route and easily found the trail leading to the base of the route. We were a little disappointed to find a party already on the route, at the top of the second pitch. It was no big deal, though, as I knew there were two options at there crux pitch: either the classic 10c face/bolt ladder pitch or the new 10a “Fifty Crowded” variation, which I heard was very good.
Derek combined the first and second pitches, included a tricky 5.8 move, and set up a belay just below the other party. I climbed past Derek and up to Elaine to start using my Hans-Florinesque-passing charm. Turns out she and her partner Todd were from Louisville, Colorado. Todd had even soloed Lurking Fear before. Cool. Everyone you meet is a badass these days.
|Derek at the start of the crux pitch.|
|Derek working the 5.9+ crack section on the crux pitch.|
I followed free up until the last delicate traverse left to the crack. I was rushing a bit here, knowing I had to be quick to pass the other party, and I slipped off. Derek caught me fine, though he was a bit surprised that I fell. I then also found the 5.9+ section to be quite tricky. I solved it with a little deadpoint, which I shouldn’t have to do on a 5.9.
I moved quickly into the lead for the runout 5.7 pitch that traversed back to the right. Elaine was just below me as I did this section, still leading her “Fifty Crowded” pitch. We worked together fine, though, and I encouraged her to clip into my gear if she needed to. I set up a belay from bolts and Derek soon joined me.
|Derek on the 5.7 6th pitch that traverses back to the right.|
I followed and led a pretty long 5.8 pitch that traversed a bit left at the top. This put us at the bottom of the “disaster pitch.” When Don led this so many years ago, I thought it was a poor choice for him to do his first lead of the climb, despite the easy rating. Back then it was rated 5.6, but it is now rated 5.7. I remember it as tricky to place gear and that would explain Don not placing any for thirty feet. I was overly cautious giving Derek directions on the lead and asking him to place gear early and often. But I had a solid belay and could take any fall he might dish out. Of course, he didn’t fall. He found it easy and protected it great, but he knew the mindset I was in and he humored me. He'd say later that he tried to put in everything but the pieces he needed for the belay.
The last pitch of the route, at least if you opt for the rappel descent, is a long 5.8 pitch, which is pretty tricky and changes crack systems a couple of times. The climbing was engaging and it was getting quite warm. I was happy to end up on a nice ledge with a small tree on it. I took off my shoes here and relaxed while belaying Derek up. When he joined me we ate and drank and just hung out. We called Hans, who had left us a message to call him back. It turned out that it wasn’t cool for us to stay so many nights with Haley and Erik. Once explained, this was obvious. They didn’t really know us and didn’t need us hanging out in the main living area for so many nights. We promised Hans that after we launched on Lurking Fear, we wouldn’t be back to sleep any more nights. We also called Chris Weidner to talk more about Alex's ascent. I know Alex never wears a harness for his solos, but that seems crazy. I'd want a harness and some slings just in case I wanted to clip in and call for a rescue. I guess, deep down, there might be some differences between Alex and myself. Chris confirmed he didn't wear a harness. We also called my mom and Sheri, which we tend to do on the top of each mountain we climb (provided we have cell service).
|Derek at the first rappel anchor.|
This route was a great confidence builder for us. Derek did great leading. We moved quickly and efficiently. I got in some thin granite face climbing, which I’d have to do on a number of pitches on Lurking Fear. And we got down early enough where we’d be fresh to start El Cap the next day.
We made another run to the grocery store and then we headed back up to Hans’ place where we organized our gear to fix the first three pitches of Lurking Fear the next morning.
|El Cap from Middle Cathedral Rock. The Nose is the sun/shadow line. Honnold solo up just to the left, in the morning shade. Lurking Fear is far to the left, about the left edge of what we see here.|
We saw Hilary and Wayne at El Cap Meadow. They were headed for Dolt Tower, training Hilary up for the NIAD with Hans in September. Her original goal was to do the Nose jugless, but that is one huge step up. I think she’d need a lot more training for that and, after her recon on the route, she agreed.
My friend Alan Doak had lent us his bosun’s chair for the ascent, but when packing up, it seemed like too much stuff to bring up there. This chair, while comfortable to belay from, is bulky and heavy and just another thing to deal with. We stripped it away and took a butt bag instead. Alan also recommended two carries to get our gear up there, but we pretty much did it in one. This wasn’t so much that we’re so strong (Derek might be, but I’m certainly not), as I am so lazy. I didn’t want to hike up there twice just to bring the gear up there. Alan recommended mosquito netting and bug spray and we ignored that too, mostly because we forgot and were lazy. Basically, whatever Alan recommended, we didn’t do. It’s a bit strange to ignore the advice of a better climber, but we worked things out our way.
|Hiking in to fix lines.|
Derek reappeared without any of the bottles. He said he had them propped up to fill from very slow drips and hopefully they wouldn’t tip over and be full by the time we got down.
Pitch 0: The top shows an optional belay (with two bolts) at the top of the initial 5.4 climbing that led up to a small pedestal sixty feet up. I belayed there at Derek’s request to get him out of the mosquitoes, which were brutal at the base of the route, but non-existent just a tiny bit off the ground. In fact, Derek climbed up just ten feet to harness up and found just that small difference to cut down about 75% of the nasty pests.
|Derek starting off on the second pitch.|
I had a tiny ledge to stand on at the top of the first pitch, which was a rare treat on this route. There is another ledge at the top of the third pitch and then nothing so much as a foothold until you get to the top of the ninth pitch. Then nothing until the top of the twelfth pitch, where there is another tiny ledge. It’s pretty sheer on this route.
I fixed Derek’s line and even pulled up the entire haul line and stacked it on the tiny ledge. While I was waiting for Derek to arrive a couple of climbers walked up to the base of the route and yelled up, “We’re doing Lurking Fear too and we’re going to head up there and pass you.” Sure it was a bit aggressive to start with such a statement, but despite having climbed El Cap before, I still consider myself one of the weaker climbers on it. I hear so much about people climbing routes on El Cap in a single day, of climbers freeing various routes, and aid masters doing the terrifying A4 routes, that by aiding the easiest route on El Cap over 3+ days, we must be the worst climbers on El Cap. That’s okay. It still seems to be a pretty elite group, at least in my mind. Hence, I just yelled down, “Sounds good!” I don’t know if this response surprised him or disappointed him because he was only kidding and I think wanted to cause us some momentary stress (in good fun). He quickly responded, “Nah, we’re headed to do Mirage.” This was another El Cap route to our left, in-between Lurking Fear and the West Face.
|Leading on the second pitch.|
Pitch 3: Here I was a bit intimidated by the lack of bolts on the free climbing variation to the left and almost went up the normal pitch on right, but was worried if I had enough gear for it. I wrestled with this decision for awhile. I’d look to the left and be anxious by the gaps between the bolts. Then I’d look to the right and wonder if I had enough gear for that crack. I decided to man-up and try the 5.10 A0 variation on the left (this is rated 5.12d if you free it all). I stretched between bolts, taking some tension to maximize my reach, and did a bunch of free climbing to get through the bolts and to the crack which began about halfway up the pitch. I could french free the crack up to the belay. I back cleaned the traverse so that Derek didn’t have to lower-out too many times, though he became quite the lower-out expert by the time we topped out.
|Derek arriving at the top of the third pitch.|
Derek cleaned the pitch without any trouble. He was really getting proficient with all the cleaning tricks and seemed remarkably comfortable so high above the ground. Our El Potrero Chico training was paying off.
We fixed our lead line to the bolts and I rapped off first. There would be no simul-rappelling for us this time, as there was just a single strand heading down. I had the haul line fixed to my harness and down I went. I went 190 feet down and found two sets of two-bolt anchors, separated by about fifteen feet. I chose the one with a rappel chain installed and clipped in there. I fixed the haul line here and left on the second 190-foot rappel before Derek arrived.
|Derek rappelling down our upper fixed line. I'm rappelling the second line as I take this photo.|
|Derek rappelling the second line ot the ground. I love his comment:|
We packed up all our stuff into the big haul bag so that it looked neat and tidy. We’d need to unpack all our climbing gear tomorrow and repack for the ascent, but we left it neat and headed down, carrying just our empty Atom Smasher mini haul bag. We’d use that tomorrow to bring up the sleeping bags and the rest of our clothes, gear, and food.
Just above the fixed line we ran into two climbers resting in what little shade remained. Piotr and Jaukijewickzch had the same plan as we did: to fix three pitches on this day and blast the next day. They were disappointed that we beat them to the punch, but were nice enough not to crowd us or pressure us and just shifted their ascent by one day. Why they chose to do both the hike up there and the fixing of the three pitches under the brutal sun, I don’t know. I’m sure they were now doubly regretting that choice.
|Heading in to jug the fix lines and blast for the top. This is all we carried in. Well, by "we" I mean Derek.|
We were up at 4:30 and out the door before 5. We drove to El Cap Meadow and then decided we really wanted a bathroom. We made a quick loop over to the bathrooms at Bridal Veil Falls and back again. We returned much lighter and ready to hold our shit together, literally, for the next three days. That was the goal, but we were prepared with a poop tube and carried it the entire time.
Jugging the lines was much more tiring that I expected, as the angle wasn’t quite vertical - the ideal angle for efficient jugging. I think it was because we had to go 190 feet without a good reason to pause. Derek went up first while I made the final preparations with the haul bag. We had the haulbag pretty full and then clipped the portaledge (in its own bag) and our mini haul bag to the bottom of the main haulbag. It was a sizable load.
|Body-hauling the bag.|
The bag was soon up and we docked it with our docking cord using a Munter friction hitch and then wrapping the excess cord around itself for additional friction. This is a great technique where the second never needs to physically lift the bag off the anchor to unclip it. This is key when the bag is heavy, as all the gear to lift the bag is up with the leader at the top of the next pitch. Learning these systems are the keys to getting up big walls. Having said this, Derek and I had never used this technique before and only learned about it the week before we left for the Valley, just watching a YouTube video on how to do it by my friend Mark Hudon. I’d heard of this technique for a couple of decades, but never really needed it, as the few times I’ve hauled up a route, the bag was light enough to manhandle if I had to. And many times, if the leader is straight above you, the leader will just haul the bag off the anchor and there is no issue. But if the leader is significantly sideways, then this technique is very handy.
Derek, haul line clipped to his harness, then jugged the second fixed line, set up the haul, and lifted the bag off the anchor. He did a body haul as well, while I jugged up to join him.
|Me leading the fourth pitch.|
Anyway, free climbing got me to the 5.12a crack which was supposedly C2, but went routinely. I set up the belay, fixed the line, and hauled the bag.
Pitch 5: Derek’s lead. This is a beautiful crack rated 5.12b and out of the question for any free climbing. It was a hundred feet long, rated C1, and supposedly ended on what looked like a small ledge, at least on the top. There was basically nothing there. Derek, who had been in his running shoes up until now, changed into his climbing shoes for the lead. He did a great job leading and steadily made progress up to the belay. At this point he had still led less than twenty pitches of trad climbing. He was on a ridiculously accelerated pace to be leading an El Cap route. He even had to back clean some gear, his first time. At the belay, he set things up and hauled the bag, using our now familiar body-hauling technique.
|Derek leading the fifth pitch.|
Pitch 7: I was a bit worried about this pitch because of Loobster’s tale of his partner leading this pitch. He got so despondent that he put his head against the wall and slammed it with his hands, crying out, “I can’t do it! I just can’t do this!” He did it. So did I. It might be easier now than back then. The topo mentions hangerless bolts, but all the bolts were shiny and solid. I did a tension traverse and some free climbing and it was all over in a jiffy. The rest of the pitch was moderate crack climbing and I free climbed to the belay.
Once I arrived at the belay Derek’s stress level greatly increased. Why? Because the ropes had become a tangled mess. Both of them - together. He had to untie from the lead rope, which is not as scary as it sounds, since he remained clipped into the belay with two redundant slings, in order to untangle that. He thought he was going to have to untie the haul bag as well, but eventually worked it out. This took a long time and caused Derek lots of frustration and stress. A hundred feet above him, I could do nothing to help him.
Derek would later say:
So, the scary part was down jugging and then untying. But there I could tie in short. It was just a much less secure position than hanging on the bolted belay, and constantly moving down the rope, camping back the jugs. And then leaning way over to the bag, etc. You did help by suggesting down-jugging! I didn’t know what to do until then. Felt helpless. I couldn’t lift the bag of course and the problem was that the rope would loop under the trailing bags (mini and portaledge) and then catch on the big one, around the connecting biners. So I had to go to the smaller bags and free the rope from around them. And then untie… Ugh, what a mess.
|Me leading the sixth pitch.|
|Me leading the start of the seventh pitch.|
|Derek following pitch 7, where we had to lower-out a number of times.|
|Looking up the eight pitch from a bit below the belay. This is the #4 Camalot crack.|
|At the eighth belay.|
The portaledge, once erected consists of a rectangle of aluminum poles, with a fabric bed strung between them, upon which we sleep, and a number of straps from all the corners and additional locations, which all come together at a single point, which is clipped into a solid anchor, like a bolt. But before that the ledge is six aluminum tubes strung together with shock cord so that you can’t drop any of them. Getting these tubes untangled from all the straps had us befuddled for a while and then it had us frustrated and finally it had us fairly desperate, though not yet frantic. At times we were at a complete loss at how to fix the issue. It was getting darker and darker and our stress level continued to rise. We never got short with each other, though. We just worked the problem and eventually, almost by divine intervention, we finally had it deciphered and it went together. We got on it just before we had to pull out our headlamps.
By the time we dug out dinner and sleeping bags from the bottom of the haulbag we had gear clipped everywhere. With both ropes tangled and dangling from both sides of our ledge it looked like a giant had flung our haulbag against El Cap and it exploded and stuck to the wall. I was a bit stressed. We had barely done six pitches of climbing today, though we did haul all nine pitches. We’d been having trouble keeping our ropes untangled. I’d love to blame this on Derek, but truth be told he was handling the ropes better than I was. Part of the problem was our borrowed, static haul line. This rope was purchased by Chick-fil-a for Hans to fix ropes down El Cap for some commercial. Erik offered 70 meters to us and we figured it would be better than the dynamic line we had. I don’t think it was easier, because this rope was astoundingly stiff. It was hard to even coil and flake because it stuck up at nearly rigid angles.
|Looking up the ninth pitch, our last for the day.|
At one point Derek said, "That's disturbing. I see only one of my approach shoes clipped in." That would make hiking down slow and painful. He'd have to go barefoot or wear his climbing shoe. I was already thinking of giving him one of my approach shoes (we wear the same size remember) and hiking down in one of my Mythos climbing shoes. When Tom and I did Nose-in-a-Day we didn't bring any shoes to descend with. We hiked entirely down in our Mythos. Those shoes are so comfortable. Everyone should have a pair.
Anyway, a moment later Derek looks over the edge of the ledge and says, "I see it. It's wedged in the crack down there." Amazing. I wouldn't have thought it was possible to drop anything at all anywhere on this route (save Thanksgiving Ledge) and not have it fall to the base.
The next morning I was awake early. Heck, I was awake parts of every hour of the night, I think. I peered over the edge of the ledge, down a thousand feet of smooth, shaded, gray granite. It was early, but I wasn’t cold. We both climbed the entire wall in shorts and long-sleeve shirts. At six a.m. I asked Derek, “Should we get up and get moving? Or do you want to sleep a bit longer? I’m fine either way.” I should have been anxious to give myself as much time as possible to get to where we needed to be, but I also feared the mess we had around us and feared getting started. Derek slowly nodded that we should get moving. It seems he had a lot of the same trepidations that I had, though I hoped his were less. I hoped he was just thinking, “My dad will just take us to the top and all I need to do it make sure I can clean these pitches safely and manage the bags.” We never talked about an explicit change in plans but somehow I knew we were thinking the same thing: that I’d take over all the leading. This would lower the stress level of both of us a bit and we’d have clear, unchanging roles for the foreseeable future.
|Me leading the tenth pitch - our first pitch on day two. The first roof above me and a bit to the left is the start of the eleventh pitch. The 2-tiered roof way up there is the twelfth pitch.|
I also proposed that, instead of sorting everything out immediately, I lead this next pitch, the tenth pitch, the pitch we had hoped to have fixed the day before, while Derek belayed me from the portaledge. Then I’d rappel back down, cleaning the pitch and we’d have one rope straightened out and a bit less of a mess to deal with. He agreed and, after racking and sorting the lead line (and rappelling down to retrieve Derek's shoe), I led up.
This pitch was another C2 pitch and our topo called for cam hooks and RPs. I didn’t use either, but used plenty of micro cams and offset cams. I fixed the rope and rappelled back down. We packed up the haulbag and then packed up the ledge. This was all much easier to do with me still on rappel with my Gri-gri and able to move around with great freedom.
|Leading the traversing twelfth pitch.|
So, what would I do while Derek did all this stacking? Generally, nothing. I re-racked. I rested. It worked well for us and Derek was so good with the ropes, so diligent in getting them organized. I was never short of rope when leading; never had to wait on him.
In order to speed things up a bit I decided to try to link pitches 11 and 12. Pitch 12 ended at a same stance and this will skip yet another hanging belay at the top of pitch 11. To do this I needed to be judicious with my placements, especially my slings. I was a touch concerned at the 5.10 free climbing required to skip some hooking at the very end of pitch 12 because of the tremendous rope drag I’d have after pulling out nearly 200 feet of rope, but I could reconsider when I got there.
|At the top of the thirteenth pitch.|
|Derek belaying at the top of the thirteenth pitch. See the nicely flaked ropes? This was the first time we didn't have each rope hanging in a sling at the belay. Our first real ledge since leaving the ground the previous day.|
I arrived at a stance for the third time on the route and above me I could see the angle tilting back a bit. Once you go around the corner at the end of the 12th pitch, the nature of the climb changes and everything eases up. Ledges appear, the angle decreases, the climbing is free instead of aid. It was a great relief to get here. Derek did an awesome job with the advanced cleaning on this pitch and didn’t have to leave any of our gear. He did have to take some swings across the face, because he had no way to do some lower-outs, and these are always nerve wracking. Derek is just a natural at handling exposure. Most people, thrust into such a crazy exposed position, wouldn’t have lasted three hours, let alone three days. While he wasn’t any more comfortable up there than I was, it was his first time and it was my eleventh time. I think he can attain the mental state where going up El Cap is a natural, comfortable thing for him, but I doubt I’ll ever achieve that.
|Derek jugging the fourteenth pitch. The bag is stuck and I'm waiting for a little help from Derek.|
Pitch 14: After Derek did his usual flaking of the ropes, I clipped the bolt just above the belay, stood in my aider, placed a 0.75 Camalot, pulled on it, and I was on a sloping ramp. I back cleaned the cam and carefully inched across the slick ramp to 5.7 free climbing the rest of the way. This was a bit circuitous and I ran things out greatly to make the cleaning easier. This wasn’t scary at all since there were many ledges and the exposure seemed greatly reduced. This was a long pitch, but it ended at the bivy ledge, which was pretty flat and would have sufficed fine.
|One happy guy to be at the top of the fourteenth pitch - a possible bivy location.|
While I just rested, Derek did his task of flaking the ropes. He got quite good at handling the ropes and never shirked from this job or asked for help. I’d occasionally help with the stacking and always with the slinging of the ropes, but he pretty much did this all himself.
|Looking up at the fifteenth pitch.|
The ropes were a different story as these last three pitches to Thanksgiving Ledge were all in a big left-facing corner system and the ropes were accumulate in the corner and tangle. We didn’t cut any corners, though, and after each jug and haul, Derek dutifully stacked both ropes.
Pitch 16: This pitch was rated only10b, but the top twenty feet were so slick, sustained and awkward that I opted to stand in aiders. I didn’t feel solid french freeing it and didn’t want to make a mistake so late in the game. Plus, I had the time and it wasn’t a big additional time cost. It was another long pitch. All of these three pitches were markedly longer than our topo stated. They were all at least 130 feet and this one might have been 150. I belayed on a small stance where I could drop below it, hanging completely free, to easily body haul the bag.
Pitch 17 finished on Thanksgiving Ledge so it was great to finally start up this pitch. It began with some steep crack climbing that I french freed and soon hit the 11d 4.5-inch offwidth, which I very carefully aided on tipped out (accurately described in the topo as “barely works”) #4 Camalots. Thankfully, it was only 15 feet before the crack pinched down to a more reasonable width and I was able to place bomber gear for another 15 steep feet. Once I turned the lip of this steep wall, it was 5.7 climbing up blocky terrain to Thanksgiving Ledge. There were two bolts right as I hit the ledge, which made for convenient hauling, but I needed some help from Derek below to get it unstuck a couple of times. We wondered how wall soloists handle stuck haul bags.
|On Thanksgiving Ledge!|
Once on the ledge I confirmed what I feared on the last lead. We were missing two yellow Aliens. I must have dropped them, but I didn’t notice them being dropped and Derek didn’t notice them flying by. I dropped another cam on the sixth pitch, the day before. I noticed that and watched it drop. I still don’t know what size cam that was, as I didn’t notice anything missing from the rack. I did add a few extra cams to the rack, just in case, and it must have been one of those. At least it wasn’t a core cam. But the yellow Aliens (0.3 Black Diamond size) had been extremely useful. I brought four of this size and there was at least one pitch where I used all four. I also had four in the red Alien (0.5 Black Diamond) size. We were heavy on the same cams, per Chris McNamara’s suggestion (“They don’t weigh anything”).
|Thanksgiving Ledge - what a treat.|
We emptied the haul bag of pretty much everything, laid down our pads and bags. We ate heartily, as we had plenty of food. We’d still carry down two cans of spaghetti the next day. Maybe we should have left them for subsequent climbers… We surveyed our water situation and we were right on track. We drink a bit of the next day’s rations, but it wasn’t going to be a full day anyway. We found a log book up there and signed it, each pouring out our hearts about each other. Even though it wasn’t the top, it was an emotional moment. We knew we’d get to the top the next day, as there was just one 10a pitch to go and then a couple of low 5th class ones before we unroped.
|Reading the Thanksgiving Ledge log book.|
I french freed up most of the 18th pitch, but clearly didn’t study the topo very well, as I didn’t notice the 4-inch crack marked on it and left behind all the big cams. It wasn’t too bad and I was able to climb by it. Above I stayed in the main crack too long and went into the “off route” section. I could see the two-bolt anchor down and left of where I was. I climbed up onto easy terrain and slung a flake so that Derek could clean the pitch without taking a big swing. I then downclimbed twenty feet to the belay bolts at the top of the steep climbing. The belay was located here in order to make the hauling easier and it certainly did.
The next two pitches were easy rambling, mostly. The first had two bolts where I could belay and haul. Now on lower angled terrain, I had to walk down the slab to haul the bag. I’d then climb back up to the belay using one ascender and then walk down the slab again. The bag came up reasonably well.
|Done with the roped climbing!|
There was a fixed line on one last steep section and I just barely made it up that with the use of an ascender as a handhold. Derek was moving along well, as he’s a very strong kid. Above this line, we had to climb steeply uphill for another ten minutes or so. At one point we stopped and I scoped the route up to flatter ground. Once up on the flatter ground we dropped the loads to continue just a few minutes to the very summit of El Cap. I’m not sure I’d ever been there before. If so, it was on my first ascent of the Nose, when Sheri and John Black met the Loobster and I and we hiked out to the trailhead on highway 120. After taking a summit photo we retrieved our loads and laboriously hiked down and east, down and east, picking up the well cairned descent route near the top of the Nose and following it all the way down to the fixed lines on the East Ledges.
|Taking a rest on the way down.|
Derek turned to me and said, “I have to wait for Jimmy Chin to get up here.” Derek and I knew of Jimmy Chin the famous climber, photographer, and film maker probably best known for “Meru” — a film about his ascent of the Shark’s Fin with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. We knew Conrad through my brother Chris, who met him in Bozeman, where Conrad lives and my brother has a vacation house. In fact, Chris helped finance the finishing of that film and is in the credits as Executive Producer. I’d never met Jimmy before, though.
I waited for Jimmy to jug up the top line as well. While waiting, two climbers coming off the Nose in a Day joined me. I’d let them pass me after the first rappel, as they were off to do another climb. These guys were psyched to meet Jimmy and everyone introduced themselves. Jimmy didn’t know who I was, not surprising, and I had to name-drop my own brother…to a climber. His eyes lit up and he said, “Hey, that’s crazy for us to meet on the East Ledges of El Cap. Say ‘Hi’ to your brother for me.”
The second rappel pushed me to my limit, as it was very steep and had a knot in the rope just before the end of the rappel, to protect against a core shot. Derek used his ascenders to get by this and I had mine on my hip and was ready for it, but the haulbag was crushing me and I had trouble breathing here. Derek saw me in a bit of distress and soloed up to me, unroped, and pushed me into the wall and used his head under the haulbag to lift some weight off my shoulders, so that I could get my composure back. It was both impressive and scary to see Derek come to my aid so quickly, unroped, and with a 40-pound pack on his back. This wasn’t quite as scary as it sounds, as the terrain wasn’t extreme, but, still, a fall would have been fatal. Derek, most definitely and in this situation quite literally, has my back.
|Nearing the fixed lines.|
He was gone less than a minute when the shuttle bus pulled up. It’s next stop was the Meadow, so I called Derek back and we hustled to pick up all our gear and drag it onto the bus. We were quite a scene and a man on the bus knew we had climbed El Cap by the look of us. And then he asked the question every wall climber hates. He asked it as his very first question. He should have first asked, “How can you two be so incredibly brave to go up that cliff? Just thinking about that makes me wet my pants.” His second question should have been, “Can I get a photo with you two guys? I’m so impressed by your skills and fitness. This is the highlight of my trip to meet two hardman, big-wall climbers.” Instead he asked, “How do you poop up there?” I hate that. It’s not the most dignified question. I gave him my best steely-eyed, Eastwood-esque squint and said, “Do I look like I poop? Guys as tough as us have evolved past such gross bodily functions. Our bodies use absolutely everything we ingest and our only waste products are CO2 and water.”
Indeed, we walked a bit taller now. You never look up at El Cap the same after you’ve climbed it. Derek’s now gone through a door into the world of big wall climbing. He’s broadened his experience considerably. What’s next for us? We’ll see. We have some ideas. I doubt we’re done with El Cap…
That was pretty much it for the trip, though we didn’t head home until Sunday. Derek was taking two online summer college courses and needed to get caught up on all his homework and even take a test. After cleaning up at Hans’ house we decided to drive to Oakhurst to stay in a motel (a bit of a disaster, but I won’t go into the details. Suffice to say, I made a bad mistake) where Derek could get wifi and do his work. The next day we hung out the entire day. We watched the French Open semi-finals, Derek did his school work, and I organized our gear.
Friday night we guerrilla camped at the ski area along the Glacier Point road and Saturday Derek worked all day in the Yosemite library in Half Dome Village. We were originally planning to climb the first four pitches of the Nose that morning and do school work in the afternoon, but I found out the wifi was much better in the morning and we switched plans to climb it in the afternoon. But as we got to lunch time it was clear Derek had a lot more work to do and we bagged climbing for the day. I worked the morning with him, helping him out with his programming class and then did a 15-mile hike in the afternoon where I visited Illilouette Falls for the first time. We bought dinner in the small store there in the Village and heated it up in the microwave. We hung out some more in the library and met two climbers, Steve and Inga, who, after finding out we didn’t know where we were sleeping that night, invited us to join them their site in the Upper Pines campground. Awesome.
We were up early the next morning and were back at the great coffee shop in the cafeteria at the Half Dome Village. After a quick bite and a coffee, we headed back to the Manure Pile Buttress to finish off Nutcracker before heading for San Jose, the airport, and home. When we got to the parking lot we saw three guys gearing up. Knowing there was a good chance they were headed for our route, the most popular route at the crag, by far, we hustled.
As we approached the base I didn’t see anyone and thought we had it to ourselves. Alas, Kate and Walker were just starting up. Kate was belaying Walker who was halfway up the pitch. Kate didn’t even have her shoes on. We waited. We had to. We really wanted this route.
I followed Kate up the pitch, not too close behind, as I didn’t want to be rude, but close enough where I was hoping they’d offer to let us pass. I made it known that we had to be down and driving out of the Valley by 9:30 a.m. I strung the first two pitches together, following Kate as she led the easy 5.4 pitch to the top of the pillar. I thought the crux of the whole route was a move or two at the top of the 5.8 lieback on the first pitch. Derek might have thought the flared wide section on the fourth pitch was the crux. Alas, we didn’t have trouble with any of it and loved the climbing.
Derek followed quickly and we all waited and watched Walker lead the third pitch. He belayed from a slightly hanging stance and yelled down that he’d let us pass here. I asked if I should start up and he said that would be fine. I zipped up the pitch, moved left, and was linking in the fourth pitch. I opted to belay before the crux wide flare over the mini roof and took just a tiny bit too long to call down off belay. Kate had started to move up the pitch before Derek, so he was clogged up behind her.
Once by her, at their third belay, he soon joined me. We re-racked and I led the remainder of the fourth pitch and brought him up. I was leading everything this morning, only because of our need to move quite quickly. I zipped up the fifth pitch and the crux mantle move, which isn’t really that much of a mantle and definitely not the crux for me, and was soon pulling in rope as Derek swarmed up the final moves to the summit.
We knew the descent from our first day in the Valley and here, on our last day, we repeated it. Back at the car, we threw in the gear just as some raindrops started to hit us. We’d timed the trip perfectly. In a couple of days Hans’ house would be covered in snow. Derek drove us to San Jose where we had lunch at my friend Steve’s house. We were best friends when I lived in San Jose. It was great to catch up and he and his whole family seemed quite interested in our trip up El Cap. We packed our bags, drove to the airport and flew home.
It was a nearly ideal trip.