The Nose, El Capitan 5.14a or 5.9 C2
Avg time to climb route: 5 days
Approach time: 10 minutes
Descent time: 4 hours
Number of pitches: 31
Height of route: 2900'
OverviewLong, sustained and flawless, the Nose may be the best rock climb in the world; it is certainly the best known. On paper, at 5.9 C1, The Nose sounds easy. It’s not. With over 31 pitches of steep, exposed and strenuous climbing, The Nose is an immense physical and psychological drain. Extensive climbing experience on long routes is mandatory. The failure rate is high. That said, anyone who is deeply committed to training for this climb can do it. See our recommended Nose Rack
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HistoryFirst ascent history
After missing a chance to make the firrst ascent of Half Dome, Warren Harding knew there was only one other accomplishment that could surpass it—the ﬁrst ascent of El Capitan. Because no technical rock climb of this scale had ever been attempted, Harding employed expedition tactics of using supplied camps linked by ﬁxed ropes. In addition, the Park Service mandated that the climbers use ﬁxed ropes so that a rescue would not be necessary. On July 4, 1957, six days after the ﬁrst ascent of Half Dome, Harding and his team began their historic journey.
After reaching Sickle Ledge in three days, the team pulled off two wild pendulums and faced the next obstacle, a series of 300-foot long, 2–3" wide cracks. Standard pitons that large did not exist, but Harding had come prepared. He had four enameled stove legs that Frank Tarver had scrounged from a Berkeley dump. Leapfrogging the 9" monsters up the continuously wide cracks, the team made it to within 100 feet of Dolt Tower before descending.
The climb was a huge tourist attraction, and trafﬁc became so tangled that the Park Service ordered a halt to the project until fall. Even under the best of circumstances climbers were viewed as a nuisance by the Park Service—“Somewhere between hippies and bears,” noted Wayne Merry, a member of Harding’s team. Despite their lack of warm feelings for the project, the Park Service lifted the ban as promised and Harding’s team pushed up to Dolt Tower before descending for the winter, leaving ﬁxed ropes attached to the wall. Fixed ropes reduced the fright of being on such a colossal wall, but because they were made of manila and left swaying in the wind for months on end, the ropes presented a danger in themselves. Steve Roper describes a close call: “Wally Reed had just begun prusiking up a section of rope when suddenly he plummeted back onto a ledge. The rope had broken. Luckily the ledge was a fair-sized one and he didn’t roll off.”
In May 1958, Harding and the team reached the Boot Flake, a feature that mysteriously ﬂoats on the wall with no visible means of attachment. Each pin placement caused the whole feature to groan and expand. On top of The Boot, seeking the next crack system, Harding unleashed the wildest pendulum ever done, now renowned as the King Swing.
By fall the route was pushed up to Camp IV, and both climbers and the Park Service wanted to wrap things up. Harding had been the leader from the start, and as problems arose and partners bailed, it was his determination that kept the project alive. Of the eight climbers who contributed to the ﬁrst ascent, only Harding was involved for the duration.
On November 1, 1958, the team, now consisting of Harding, Merry, Rich Calderwood and George Whitmore, prusiked to their high point at 1,900 feet, and launched their summit campaign. The Great Roof, although appearing from the ground to be the crux of the route, was easily dispatched, and the climbers moved steadily up to Camp VI. At this point Calderwood suddenly dropped out, leaving Whitmore to move loads and Harding and Merry to swing leads up the spectacular upper dihedrals.
After enduring a storm on November 10, they reached a small ledge 180 feet below the summit. Above them loomed a blank and overhanging wall. At 6 p.m. the next day Whitmore came up the ﬁxed ropes, which now spanned 2,800 feet of the wall, and delivered a fresh supply of bolts to Harding. What followed was described by Steve Roper in Camp 4 as “the most famous single episode in Yosemite’s illustrious climbing history.”
For 14 hours, from dusk till dawn, Harding endured the unimaginable pain of hand drilling 28 bolts in a row by headlamp. At 6 a.m. he stood exhausted but triumphant on the summit, greeted by hordes of friends and media who created a huge commotion unlike that ... [full history for SuperTopo members only!]
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