It's a cliche, but I've been wanting to climb El Capitan ever since I drove into Yosemite and got my first sight of it at the impressionable age of 18. That was 14 years ago (yikes!) and I had only been climbing for about 2 years, so it seemed a remote, but not unlikely, possibility. During my college years at UC Davis, I made many excursions to the Valley and became very adept at bailing off of various big walls. At some point during my undergrad career at Davis, while engaging in the adolescent introspection that is expected during one's college years, I decided that I had two lifetime goals: 1) to climb El Cap, and 2) to read all of Shakespeare's plays. I figured that these goals encapsulated two of my biggest passions in life: climbing and literature.
Later, while in grad school at UC Irvine, trips to the valley became less frequent, but I managed to make my way up the South Face of Washington's Column, my first successful big wall ascent. Over the next few years in grad school I lost interest in big walls (too much time and effort), but at least I was making some significant progress towards goal number 2.
After moving back to northern California and getting into better climbing shape, El Cap began to seem like a less remote possibility. In addition, I knew I had some good partners to choose from. Over the years I had made various plans and schemes to climb El Cap, all of which had gone awry for one reason or another- crowds, weather, lack of time off from teaching, etc. Most of my closest friends and climbing partners had climbed El Cap already, some of them multiple times. I figured it would be great to hook up with a few of my more big-wall experienced friends and give it a try. About 5 years ago, when I first met Mitch Allen, who would soon become one of my best friends and favorite climbing partners, our conversation consisted of the following exchange:
Thus a true friendship and climbing partnership was begun, based on complimentary opposites and forged in my love for steep face climbing and Mitch's attraction to wide, awkward cracks.
Aaron Johnson is another of my long time climbing partners and friends- he's an all-around great guy, mellow yet enthusiastic with an infectious smile and a fantastic attitude- the perfect wall partner. Aaron runs a guiding service (Mountain Adventure Seminars) in Bear Valley, CA that I've had the privilege of working for over the last 7 or so years, and it keeps him really busy, so one always has to plan trips with Aaron far in advance. In the hopes of getting some good quality time with Aaron, I mentioned the possibility of doing the Salathé, a route Aaron had done in 1998, when I was supposed to accompany him but couldn't make it because of teaching commitments. Aaron immediately took to the idea of doing the route again, and the planning began. It was a foregone conclusion that Mitch would be involved as well, and another quick conversation sealed the deal.
Mitch's cousin Chris, who had done the Triple Direct with Mitch and Aaron the year before, was going to be in the Valley during our planned climbing time, and Mitch suggested that maybe we should go as a party of four. None of us had done, or really even heard of such a thing, but it seemed like it might not be that much more complex than the three-person system which Mitch, Aaron and Chris used on Triple Direct. Chris ended up not being able to make it, but the four person seed was set, and when our good buddy Mike Buchalski realized that our four person team was back down to three, he inquired about the possibility of joining us. Mitch and I were psyched about the possibility of having Mike along- he's a very motivated and strong climber, and he's always ready with a good joke to lighten the mood (plus, he does awesome Homestarrunner impersonations- always a plus).
So, our four-person team was ready to go. The complications started early, as they always do, when we had to shuffle our dates around, settling finally on the week after Memorial Day, thereby starting our climb on Memorial Day, the most crowded weekend in the Valley. Furthermore, Mike had plans to visit his family, so he wouldn't be back until Monday night. So the plan was for Mitch, Aaron and me to jug and haul the fixed lines to Heart Ledges on Monday, and then fix to the top of Hollow Flake. Mike would join us at the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning by jugging the lines up to meet us on Lung Ledge. Because of time constraints, we weren't planning on climbing Free Blast at all, since Mitch and Aaron had done it already, and Mike and I planned to come back and do it a few weeks later (Contrived? You bet!)
When we arrived in the Valley on Sunday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend was in full swing. Mitch and I needed to make a "quick" trip to the mountain shop for a lower out line and some other miscellaneous items- it took us one hour to drive the 3 miles from Curry Village back to El Cap meadow. We finally got back to the meadow, packed the bags and hauled our massive amounts of gear and water to the base in two trips. Aaron and I decided that we would do the bulk of the heavy physical work on Sunday and Monday so that Mitch could be relatively fresh for his lead of Hollow Flake on Monday. By the time we had schlepped the bags to the base, there were a few hours of daylight left, so we decided to get a few pitches of jugging and hauling out of the way. This proved to be a perfect opportunity for me to learn the systems and get reaquainted with the fine points of jumaring, hauling, etc. The hauling was particularly complicated, since we'd need to do counterweight hauling because our train of gear probably weighed about 250 pounds. It didn't take long to get the system figured out, and by the time I had set up and hauled the second pitch, I felt pretty confident. It was a great feeling hanging there in the dark, getting ready to rappel down for one last night's sleep on the ground before setting off in the morning.
After a sleepless, bug-filled night below El Cap, we set off at first light to jug the remaining three fixed pitches. During the course of the previous days schlepping and hauling, we had discovered that our fears of a crowded Memorial Day weekend on El Cap were well founded. There was one party of three women above us on the route, and another party (Janet and Ben) who had hauled on Sunday and were going to do Free Blast on Monday, thus putting them on exactly the same schedule as us. There was yet another party (Carson, Gus and Dave) who was planning on the same schedule as us, but they were a few hours behind us, so we had the pole position on them, at least. We figured we'd just start climbing and see what happened.
The rest of the hauls and jumaring went quite well, and then we came to the first real lead of the climb (pitch 12 on the SuperTopo). Aaron assured me that the tricky looking face climbing was only 10a and that "It wanders a bit, but you shouldn't have too much trouble." I set off for the lead after lightening my load quite a bit, but still feeling like I was carrying a ridiculous amount of stuff, including, as I discovered half-way up the pitch, the small ball-peen hammer we brought along to help clean stoppers. The first part of the pitch went pretty easily, and then I came to some pretty blank looking slabby face moves, with a bolt about 10 feet away from where I was. I placed a pretty good cam, and moved over about 5 feet to the bottom of the slabby section. The holds seemed quite thin, and the cam seemed pretty far away. I tested out the moves a few times, moving back and forth and whining to Mitch and Aaron, who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I finally committed to a scary stretch across the blank face to what looked like a good foothold on the arete. After tenuously shifting my weight onto the foothold, one or two more moves got me to the bolt, which I was delighted to clip. I climbed a bit higher, made some more tenuous moves, and was beginning to think that if this was what 10a felt like on the Salathé, then this would be my first and last free lead of the climb! Just as I was starting to get discouraged, Mitch picked the opportune moment to inform me that Aaron's faulty memory had inadverently sandbagged me- it turns out the pitch is 11c, not 10a, so my confidence was well renewed (at least for the time being...)
The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, until we got to Lung Ledge, where we were planning to bivy. The party of three above us were having difficulties with Hollow Flake, and were already somewhat freaked out since one of them had been hit in the head with a falling cam the day before. She had briefly taken her helmet off and ended up with a pretty bad cut, and a good scare. Thus shaken, the intimidating Hollow Flake proved too much for them, and they decided to bail. Things were starting to look better as far as the crowding went, and the outlook improved even more when we found out that Carson, Dave and Gus were going to hang out at Heart Ledges for an extra day so that things would be less congested. So the plan was that Mitch would lead Hollow Flake and then we'd let Ben and Janet do that pitch and pass us so that they could sleep on the top of Hollow Flake while we slept on Lung Ledge. Mitch did a fabulous job on Hollow Flake, feeling confident and smooth. He pendulumed across on the lead line, and then used the haul line to protect the climb. He was able to slide up the number 5 camalot a ways and then placed a few Big Bros. He felt like the talk about horrendous rope drag and scary runouts were exaggerated, but he's pretty solid on those wide cracks!
After the day's climbing was done, we settled in on Lung Ledge while Ben got ready to lead Hollow Flake. The plan quickly fell apart, however, since another party, consisting of "Pass the Pitons" Pete and Tom, the maker of the huge Valley Giant cams, was merging onto the Salathé from Bermuda Dunes. They were aiding (!) Hollow Flake with their huge cams, and it took them hours and hours to do it.
Ben waited patiently but finally had to give up when they informed him that they planned on taking up all the space on Hollow Flake ledge, and there'd be no room for Ben and Janet. This seemed a bit unreasonable, considering that Pete and Tom had a double portaledge EACH, but they were there first, and they decided to take advantage of it.
We made some room for Ben and Janet on Lung Ledge and all settled in for a good night's sleep (well, I kept waking up thinking that Aaron and Mitch were going to collapse the portaledge and crush me, but other than that...
Mike got to the Valley at about 2 am after flying back to Sacramento from Atlanta. He jugged the fixed lines and arrived at Lung Ledge after about 1000 feet of ascending with no sleep for over 30 hours. He was pretty wasted.
Before Mike could slow down and fall asleep, we packed up the bags and headed off to begin day two. The day started with a brief encounter with Pete and Tom on Hollow Flake ledge. They had about 450 pounds of gear, and were dragging it up the wall at a glacial pace. They were spread out all over Hollow Flake ledge- ropes, coffee brewers, hanging stoves, wine. They told Mitch that they were carrying firewood for a campfire on El Cap spire. They were very friendly, making room for us on the small ledge, shuffling their stuff around and even belaying Aaron on the first lead of the day while we got out stuff organized around them.
Day two turned out to be our longest day, as we had anticipated. We were headed for El Cap Spire, which seemed fairly close- only six pitches away. But we weren't exactly speedy, and we ended up in the Alcove, one pitch below the Spire, just as it was getting dark. Mitch was on top of the Spire by the time it was really dark, and Aaron and Mike started jugging. I was the last man up, and it was eerily peaceful in the cave-like Alcove in the pitch black. After a while, Mitch informed me that everyone was really tired and that Aaron and Mike thought we should just stay in the Alcove. At this point, the haul bags were about twenty feet above the alcove, with 80 feet of hard hauling left to go to get them on the Spire. That was a lot of effort for four exhausted climbers, one of whom hadn't slept in 37 hours. But at the beginning of the trip, Aaron told us that his main goal for the climb was to spend the night on El Cap Spire, an opportunity he had missed last time he climbed the route. I knew if we just sucked it up and worked hard for another 30-40 minutes, we'd all be much happier in the morning, and Aaron's goal would be achieved. With that in mind, I urged the team on, and we made it to the top of the Spire, exhausted physically and mentally. Unfortunately for them, Janet and Ben were already up there, so their potentially peaceful night was pretty much shattered by our intrusion. That's the way big walls work though, as we learned ourselves later.
We finally settled in and I continued what would become my personal theme for the trip of getting a lousy night's sleep of 2-3 hours per night... Waking up in the morning was quite glorious though - beautiful views of Middle Cathedral Spire, perfect balmy temperatures and an unparalleled location. We started up the next pitch and Aaron got to spend a few minutes alone on the Spire as we pushed on.
I convinced Mitch to take the first lead off the Spire, which wasn't too hard to do, since it had a squeeze chimney in it, and Mitch loves that stuff. By now, things were starting to get a little steeper, which meant that the hauling was getting easier and the jugging harder! The steep free hanging jumaring was both exhilarating and tiring. Not to mention the fact that by this time our hips were pretty bruised, battered and chafed, so harness hang-time was a lot less than pleasurable. But that's the way it goes, and the steep, exposed pitches on the upper section of the route were worth the pain!
Day Three was the hottest day of the climb. While Mike led the sopping wet, mossy "Jungle" pitch, Mitch, Aaron and I baked on the sloping ledge below, trying without success to stay cool and comfortable. The uncomfortable sloping ledge factor continued when we reached "The Block," our bivy for the third night. The block is a pretty good size ledge, but it is sloping and slippery. It's quite difficult to lie down and stop the inexorable slide towards the edge. I felt pretty confident that I wouldn't get much sleep even in the portaledge, and I knew that no one would really sleep on the ledge (except maybe Mitch who can sleep anywhere), so I volunteered to sleep in the ledge, and Mitch took the scary "Parasite" hammock that hung below the main ledge (where no one else wanted to sleep after one of the tie-in points ripped when Aaron was testing it!)
The Block was certainly the worst night's sleep I've ever experienced: waking up every fifteen minutes convinced I was sliding off the edge. (Important note: since I suspect my Mom might read this at some point and I'd like her to be able to sleep better than I did on El Cap, I'd like to explain for the record that although one might FEEL like one is going to slip off the edge, that is in fact not really possible since one is always tied in to a BOMBPROOF anchor, even while sleeping.)
Being sleepy didn't matter that much on day four, since the climbing was exciting enough to provide an excellent wake up call. This would be the day we'd tackle the Salathé Headwall, an overhanging, exposed section of the climb that comes just a few hundred feet below the top- about 3000 feet above the Valley floor. I was lucky enough lead the roof pitch at the start of the headwall. This is an amazing pitch- about 20-30 feet of tiered roofs that you climb through on a mixture of fixed and placed protection. Some of the fixed protection is museum-quality, and it's pretty scary to shift your weight onto a manky, upwardly-placed piton with a cracked eye. But there's enough good gear to make the pitch quite safe, and anyway, the fall couldn't get any cleaner! The pitch right above the roof is more technical and tricky- I struggled to get a number 1 HB offset to fit into a seam- ripping it out three times while testing it before finally getting it to stick and gingerly shifting my weight onto it. After I slowly made my way through that pitch, Mike got to lead the Salathé Headwall- a beautiful crack through a gently but steadily overhanging golden wall. It doesn't look all that steep, but by the time Mike finished the pitch, the ropes were hanging 50 feet away from the wall.
Mike's pitch finishes atop Long Ledge, a 2 1/2 foot wide ledge with 3000 feet of air below it. It's an exhilirating place to be! Mitch had the pleasure of being the last to jug up to the ledge, so he got to swing out into space to start his jug (there wasn't enough rope left for him to lower out.) The swing was pretty spectacular, especially when he tried to "check" himself on the haul-line, only to start himself spinning helplessly. He finally managed to stop spinning and joined us on the ledge.
On Long Ledge it was finally my turn to sleep on the double portaledge. Up until then I had been resisting sleeping on the ledge, assuming that I would be too worried about keeping my ledge partner awake with my typical thrashing to get a good night's sleep. I was pretty stupid- the ledge kicks butt! If nothing else, it's a lot softer than the rock, and the hard hammer loops in my Yates Shield harness could just poke through the soft fabric of the ledge instead of into my back every time I moved. My good night's sleep on the ledge wasn't destined to last, however. We went to sleep around dark at 9:00, and at 2:30 am we were awakened by the sound of Carson, the guy from the team who decided to hang out an extra day on Heart Ledges to avoid crowding. Turns out that after hanging out on Heart, Carson and his buddies Dave and Gus got stuck behind Pete. According to Carson, despite the fact that Pete and Tom took 9 hours to climb two pitches with go free at 5.7 and 5.10a, they still wouldn't let Carson and his team pass. So they were pretty low on water, out of food (but not cigarettes), and ready to get the heck off. They had been climbing since dawn, and it had understandably taken Carson many hours to lead the headwall pitch in the dark while his partners shivered and cowered at the hanging belay below (of course, that night was the only cold and windy night of the entire week.) Carson said his team was going to just keep on climbing, so we let them just set up on top of our anchors, figuring they'd move through and be gone by morning. I drifted back to sleep for an hour or so while Carson hauled, and was awakened again by the sound of Gus trying to finish cleaning the pitch. He was at the far end of Long Ledge, about 40 feet to the left of the anchor point, at a bolt that marks the far side of the ledge. To get to the anchor, he needed to unclip the bolt and to about 10 feet of 5.6 free climbing, with 3000 feet of night air below his feet. He wasn't really willing to do it. He said "I don't think I can do this in the dark." I wanted to make some caustic remark along the lines of "Well, if you just hang there for another hour and a half, it will be light..." but since his partners weren't being very helpful (they were already passed out) I got out of bed and tried to help him. He still wasn't convinced that he could do it, so I got back in bed. Finally, Carson went over and put him on a shorter belay and talked him through it. The three of them fell asleep sitting up and were still there when we woke up in the morning. We got them on their way and they only ended up delaying us a bit, which wasn't a big deal since we knew we'd be topping out within a few hours.
As these things tend to go, those last few hours did not prove uneventful. The pitch leading off of Long Ledge, which Aaron had done the first half of the night before, contained some tricky free climbing. Aaron climbed back up to finish the pitch, and spent some time trying to work it out. Mitch and I were sitting near each other, with Mitch belaying Aaron when suddenly, our zip line started falling. At first I thought Aaron had dropped it, but a second later Mitch was yanked off his feet and came tight on the belay as Aaron came falling back into sight. He had taken a good sized fall of about 25 feet, ripping all of the stitches on a screamer attached to a fixed pin in the process. Like the trooper he is, Aaron went back up to finish the pitch. In the end, Carson's team repayed our previous night's hospitality by offering Aaron a top rope so he could finish the pitch in style and comfort.
From there, it was just two short pitches to the top. We summited and started getting ready for the long walk down. The descent was typically annoying, but since Aaron and Mitch had both done it before we didn't have any trouble finding it. Our friend Tony met us at the bottom of the rappels and helped carry some stuff down. He also had cold drinks waiting for us in the car- what a guy! A quick jump in the swollen and frigid Merced river marked the official end to our adventures (and fulfilled one of Mitch's long-term goals- descending from El Cap with enough daylight and warmth left to jump in the river). We headed off to Curry Village to gorge on pizza, beer and sodas (thus fulfilling a long-term/five-day goal of mine- drinking some cold drinks.)
Most of the things people say about the transformative powers of big walls are true to one degree or another. The horizontal world seems strange and somehow trivial after all that time in the vertical. One appreciates the little things- warm food, cold drinks, not having to shit in a bag. The big wall experience seems to involve a great deal of work, and a fair share of pain and suffering. Spending a few hours at a hanging belay after a few days of hauling is no picnic(three days later, I still have no feeling in my hip area). I'm not sure if I'll do another wall again. I'm very glad I did this one, and I'm happy to be able to tick off one of my two life-time goals. Time will tell- perhaps the call of the big vertical will prove too much to resist. I was expecting to be pretty certain one way or the other by the time I finished- either to become addicted to doing more walls, or swear off them completely. Neither seems to be the case, so I guess I'll just have to wait and see what happens... Or, we could just turn to Shakespeare for the question and the answer: