TR : East Buttress El Capitan (July 27 - 29, 2007)


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Trad climber
San Jose, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 27, 2007 - 07:58pm PT
I think we earned a degree of fame the hard way... when was the last time someone spent 2 nights on East Buttress of El Capitan? 1952?

On the drive back, I promised myself to write all the sordid details before they flushed from my brain like a turd down the toilet. Well, that was a few weeks ago [edit: now a month ago], and here I am writing. So now we'll get the glossed-over made-pretty-for-posterity view.

This time we had a mostly uneventful night hike up the Talus field below Zodiac. I note this specially because the last time we were up there together, we reached the base of the climb at 7:30am, only to discover that I'd left one of our double ropes somewhere near the base of the talus when I took off my jacket. After burning an hour in search and rescue mode, I miraculously found the rope in a hole between boulders at the bottom of the talus field (Yosemite-sized needle in a haystack). Then I got back to find another party with a slow start on the first pitch 5.9 chimney, and after they saw me champing at the bit, they let me pass. So I went as fast as I could up the chimney, brought up my partner, and I proceeded to take a 12 foot pendulum fall off the belay into the chimney below my belayer. Maybe I did that twice? We ended up bailing, and I felt like a total shmuck for delaying the party below us for more than an hour. But I digress...

So we get to the base of the climb well after dusk but with almost enough light from the rising moon. I recall the initial 5.6 gulley as a minor 3rd-class scramble to get to the start of the real climb at the 5.9 chimney. My first flailing attempts by moonlight reveal that I'm either more sucky or the climb got harder, so I rope up. With feet skating, I submit to using the headlamp so I can see where the heck I'm going. Even with the headlamp, it feels pretty stout for 5.6, and I find myself marveling that I non-chalantly cruised up this without even considering a rope last time a few years ago. It was the first of many honey-glazed memories shattered by the brutal reality that would characterize the trip.

So I get up there, and bring up my partner, and we reconsider our original plan. We were going to climb the first chimney pitch, the crux 5.10b face to cracks, the exposed 5.6 ridge pitch, and then sprawl out to sleep on the 3rd/4th class section for the night's sleep. Well, after making the initial 5.6 gulley look like my life's work, I wasn't looking forward to the real difficulties in the dark. So we decided to call it a night and camp out below the 5.9 chimney. I should note that Upon closer inspection, I see we climbed a variation gulley to the left of the real start of the climb.

Our camping plan was simple: small pads and bivy sacks, skip the sleeping bags. My partner in crime Bruce is showing off his new ultra-like super-matic fancy-pantsy mini-thermarest. I can barely contain my bravado and sense of superiority as I unpack my secret weapon. I mock his ridiculously priced bulky pile of eco-yuppy junk. I let the excited tension build as I unpack the "blue monster" I procured from an ABC store in Hawaii for two dollars years before. Out comes my sweet little plastic inflatable swimming pool kiddie-toy air mattress. This thing folds down to the size of a deck of cards. Well maybe two decks of cards. But the thing is small, and it inflates to 4 inches thick and longer than my body, with a built-in pillow. I'm damn near creaming my jeans thinking about the glorious night of sleep in front of me. I'm smug as hell as I blow that thing up, and Bruce is just shaking his head. I volunteer for the crappier sleeping spot, a pitiful sloping granite slab with fist-sized lumps rippling across it, because I know I've got the superior sleeping contraption. Of course you know how this is going to end.

Fast forward twenty minutes, and I feel my head slowly sinking after a small body shift. There were no visible holes, but the kiddie-toy for the pool just can't stand up to a climber wearing a harness and sharp nut-cleaning tool on a granite slab with lots of little sharp edges and pieces. Apparently that fact was obvious to Bruce from the moment he saw my plan. But I fancy myself a modern Pangloss. And I digress again.

On the bright side, it wasn't that cold during the night. Of course I shivered a good amount with my body in firm direct contact to the sloping granite slab. But I like to think I shivered more because I was too lazy to get out of the sweat sack and get the jacket out of my bullet pack. And to avoid the granite lumps, my back was twisted like a pretzel. I didn't want to spend another hour going through the contortions to find that sweet spot where I could just ignore the discomfort enough to fall asleep. But like flies follow donkeys, so morning follows an uncomfortable night.

Onward and upward..

Pitch one... I reach the part pretty early in the 5.9 chimney that I remembered as the crux. Having gotten through that, I felt home-free. But the real crux is right below the belay, as I suddenly remembered while thrutching about for a few minutes with my legs stemming all over creation. Alright, survived, next.

Pitch two begins with a couple of delicate right face moves directly off of the belay, to a few solid but tough finger/hand jams and then to some easier territory. After checking the belay setup a few times, scoping out the different micro foot-holds, stretching across to the far site to set a cam, fumbling about with brass nuts trying to free up the precious finger-jam spots, casting all that aside and starting over with a cam set way low to keep the finger-jams free but still control the pendulum swing in a fall, etc. In short, after completely exausting all possible delay tactics and a few more hims, haws, and fake whines for my mommy, I commit to the moves, vault up and I'm done with the serious part. I tell my partner "ok, now the rest of the climb is pretty straight-forward". Which of course is a euphemism for "we're totally screwed".

I show mercy on Bruce, and let him lead the exposed 5.6 pitch so he doesn't have to tell everyone I hauled him up every part of the climb. Of course he whimpered grievously, and I had to cuddle him like my three year old daughter, but he eventually manned up and got the job done. I think it was the hero pictures I promised him that did the trick. Or maybe my sweet caresse?

I remembered a 5.7 roof, but it turned out to be 5.8. I almost choked at the lip, hanging on an overhanging fist jam while failing to place two different pieces, but finally I said screw it and just went. "Really, there's just a couple more little tough parts and then we're cruisin'" I tell Bruce. He began to look on my recollection of the route with suspicion after flopping over the lip himself.

The next two pitches are Serious with a capital "S". Well, maybe they're more scary than serious. First, teeter up a narrow ridge with no pro off the belay, wind-whipped with wide-open air on either side... then into the 5.9 lay-back and awkward left leaning crack... and then a fun pitch of arm-barring over-hanging off-width where I let out my first ever mid-pitch primal scream while sapping the last of my strength, yarding on a bad off-fist jam with my feet flailing on nothing....

"OK, the worst of it really is behind us now" I tell Bruce. Of course he absolutely disregards anything I say at this point. And I'm starting to move slowly, talk with a slur, and generally feel slow. Maybe it's because we're several hours past noon, and the only thing I've eaten is a cliff-bar for breakfast? I eat the chocolate Goo packet that Bruce offers... a little oozy packet of butt-sludge that gums my mouth shut and takes the last of my water to clear out.

But it helps eventually. I'm traversing out on what I recall as easy 5.5, but something must be very wrong. It's exposed beyond all imagination, and looks to be a fingers-only hand traverse with no feet on an overhang for about 15 feet. I plug 3 pieces of gear, perform my ablutions, and peel out in a burst of commitment and fatal resignation. And then a glorious angel chorus trumpeted the shining triumph of good over evil. Hark! The herald angels sing the blessed arrival of my feet on solid purchase. A hidden sidewalk suddenly lit with holy fire, basking in heavenly glow!

And then I'm perched on the most amazing little pinnacle, and sloping away below is a magnificent stretch of airy exposure. Surely it's one of the most stunning spots a trad climber of modest means can reach in the valley. I have a few minutes to soak it up as I drag Bruce across, and watch him sail the gamut of emotions that I just charted.

Then it's upward for me, to the exposed 5.8 on polished knobs, what some call the "psychological crux" of the climb. Well maybe that's the case if you're a pansy! Hell, if you can get through the rest of the climb, then this part is cake. I guess it would be a different story with horsetail falls whipping along or a rain-storm brewing, but in sweet sunny skies it's a gentle little wind-down section of the climb for me. I don't mind run-outs as long as I'm not sketching out where I'm standing. And for the most part, this section is all there if you take a moment to chart your progress. I took plenty of moments, and never had any serious concerns on this part. But I guess I'm writing this a month later, and if history serves me correctly, I was probably sobbing and wracked in wretched agony for every little foot shuffle and delicate step-up. Nah, I'm full of crap. That part really wasn't that bad and I was more relaxed on it than most of the climb before it. And I must acknowledge that the chocolate butt-goo Bruce gave me really did make a big difference. It might have been a sucky epic if I was left to my own poor food planning.

So we reach the top more or less uneventfully, just slow as glass flowing downward in an antique window. And I'm pretty thirsty by this time, but the sunset is pretty, with light and shadows splitting the face of half-dome across the valley.

We start the descent with evening light, and soon find ourselves squinting into murky blue-black as I vainly search for the white rope anchored to the slab that I remembered from a daylight descent a few years ago. No rope. We wander hither and thither, and a little below the wild dykes I'm sniffing the edge of the cliffs like a blood-hound, looking for rap chains or a rope or anything. I recall there's 3 spots so I'm bound to find something, but we end up rapping once off a crappy bush onto a steep slab by headlight and at a stretched 60m I see I'm 20 feet above a large ledge. I let myself loose and scamper down the slab and start hunting more by headlamp, but no bolts appear.

So in what has become a familiar pattern with Bruce, we call it a night. By this point, my lips are cracked like the heels of a fat person who wears open sandals too much. I start imagining jolly ranchers to live in a dream of slaked thirst. I'm too hot and sleepy to bother with rigging a bivy, so I just lay down to sleep on a jumble of rocks. That night I used my old #4 camalot for a pillow and kept my jacket on, and did eventually break out the bivy sack for warmth. I'm up early, water dominating my thoughts. A pitiful little pool of burning yellow piss fills a hole in the rock, and I think it might have been a splendid site for grinding acorns a few hundred years ago. Or maybe someone as thirsty as me spilled battery acid from their pecker and burned a hole in the rock. How many times must I digress?

We quickly find the reason for getting lost in the night. I was looking for the white rope anchored down the slab... I find one end of it still hanging around the base of a tree anchor, but the rest of it is cut away and missing. When we find the rap anchors nearby, we see that someone re-purposed the white rope for the fixed rappel. It's rigged up in an awful manky mess that nearly blocks proper use of the rap anchors. We use our own ropes for the rap, and after a non-eventful rap and trudge down the remaining trail, I reach our car first. Before sitting or dropping any gear, I pop my trunk open and break out a case of plastic water bottles. The contentment I felt then, sitting on the edge of my trunk, was sublime. The first bottle went down in a continuous gulp; the second tumbled and crashed over my crusty lips like surf on a jetty. A bus full of clean and well-dressed tourists pulled up and they all filed out to gawk at the big stone.I felt like a perfect stage prop to embody a raggedy scary-lookin' climbing bum.

We took off before the bus, and stopped at the little gas station and convenience store outside the park. I loaded up with 3 bottles of Naked Juice and a Snapple ice tea. On the drive back to the bay, I polished those off and drank another couple of water bottles, and didn't have an urge to pee since that little burning one in the morning. I drank another full glass of water at home, and it wouldn't be until another full glass of water was in me before I'd pee in the shower.

But my arrival home was noteworthy. I still had my hands taped, I was grubby and dirty, and I really stunk to high hell after 2 nights sweating out my sedentary lifestyle toxins into a synthetic stink-prone shirt. My wife couldn't penetrate within 4 feet of my wall of stench, and my 5-year son made a dramatic display of nasal suffering. I actually couldn't smell myself that much, but it really made me smart when I cut the tape off my hands and the primeval funk assaulted my nose. That was really something. But my blessed 3-year old girl came to sit in my lap and hugged me in all my stinking majesty, and showed me what real love is all about. Or was it stoic fortitude? In any case, she'll be a fine climber one day.

Pics to follow :)
Russ Walling

Social climber
Out on the sand.... man.....
Aug 27, 2007 - 08:06pm PT
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Aug 27, 2007 - 08:19pm PT
Wow - a good TR, and adventure! Can't wait for the photos.

Perhaps your partner could write and post his version, without having read yours? That might be fun to see!

East of Seattle
Aug 27, 2007 - 08:30pm PT
Excellent! Way to stink with it.


Trad climber
Aug 27, 2007 - 08:31pm PT
Thanks, great writing!
susan peplow

Aug 27, 2007 - 09:06pm PT
Typically I'm bored after the first 1,000 words but your story of tribulation kept me in there 1 1/2 times longer than most.

Nice story, I'm glad you made it to the summit and home safely. But I find myself asking..... are you and Bruce still speaking?


scuffy b

The deck above the 5
Aug 27, 2007 - 09:08pm PT
Thanks for the fun read.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Aug 27, 2007 - 09:19pm PT
Good show! and a great route...

Gym climber
Otto, NC
Aug 27, 2007 - 09:32pm PT

It's good to let the kids see the gnarly side of daddy every once in a while.

Santa Monica, CA
Aug 27, 2007 - 09:42pm PT
What a great story, thanks for making me laugh so hard. Glad you guys made it - show us the pictures!


right here, right now
Aug 27, 2007 - 09:57pm PT
"I eat the chocolate Goo packet that Bruce offers... a little oozy packet of butt-sludge that gums my mouth shut and takes the last of my water to clear out."

Dude, I feel your pain.

Epics seem to provide excellent grist for the mill; in fact you did such a good job with this tale it doesn't really need tidy little pictures to go with it!

(If you add pictures, I'll click on the edited post with one hand covering an eye, then, carefully, slowly I'll peel back the lid on the other onion...)

San Fran Cisco
Aug 27, 2007 - 10:13pm PT
so, then basically a cake-walk, you're saying?


Trad climber
Aug 27, 2007 - 10:52pm PT
My friend,
You are the MAN.

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Aug 27, 2007 - 11:50pm PT
worthy, even though you pee in the shower.

Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Aug 28, 2007 - 04:45am PT
willy unsoeld would be proud. and i bet you set the record for the slowest ascent in the last 20 years....SWOLE!!!

props, babe.
Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Aug 28, 2007 - 07:54am PT
That's one of the funnest routes I have done but I'm glad I didn't go through what you did. Props to you.

Trad climber
Between Tuscano and Liguria, Italia
Aug 28, 2007 - 08:50am PT
You did not manage to find a pair of brown sunglasses at the top of the route, did you. I lost them two years ago and just now remembered that despire my friend Michael specifically telling me not to leave my glasses "laying there", I did. THe only defense was that he told me that before I had tied my shoes to start the decent and so I had already forgotten.
Great TR!!!

Trad climber
Between Tuscano and Liguria, Italia
Aug 28, 2007 - 08:50am PT
You did not manage to find a pair of brown sunglasses at the top of the route, did you. I lost them two years ago and just now remembered that despire my friend Michael specifically telling me not to leave my glasses "laying there", I did. THe only defense was that he told me that before I had tied my shoes to start the decent and so I had already forgotten.
Great TR!!!

Trad climber
Between Tuscano and Liguria, Italia
Aug 28, 2007 - 08:52am PT
You did not manage to find a pair of brown sunglasses at the top of the route, did you. I lost them two years ago and just now remembered that despire my friend Michael specifically telling me not to leave my glasses "laying there", I did. THe only defense was that he told me that before I had tied my shoes to start the decent and so I had already forgotten.
Great TR!!!

Trad climber
St. Charles, MO
Aug 28, 2007 - 09:04am PT
What a great adventure read!
Messages 1 - 20 of total 38 in this topic << First  |  < Previous  |  Show All  |  Next >  |  Last >>
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