Zodiac, El Capitan A2 5.7
Avg time to climb route: 4 days
Approach time: 45 minutes
Descent time: 4 hours
Number of pitches: 16
Height of route: 1800'
OverviewEasy hauling, a straightforward approach and a great location make Zodiac the first El Cap route for many climbers. The climbing is clean and exposed, following a series of large features through overhanging rock. Though the aid climbing is much harder than the Nose or Lurking Fear, only 16 pitches mean that Zodiac is less of an ordeal.
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First ascent historyAlthough one of the easier El Cap routes today, Zodiac was once a test piece, with numerous pitches rated A4 and A5. Charlie Porter went through two attempts before he climbed the route solo over seven days in 1972.
During the climb, several strange events occurred. When Porter reached the top of Pitch 3 he found a dead bird “upside down with its feet in the air” and dubbed the spot accordingly. More ominously, as Porter explains, “This was at the time of the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer in San Francisco. I would go up on the wall, come down, and ﬁnd that he had killed again. His killings seemed to be timed with when I was on the climb.” This disturbing coincidence led to the naming of the route. Also, “It was that time when everyone was running around talking about the stars.”
Porter remembers that one of the wilder moments of the climb came when he reached the Nipple pitch. Right at the tit, the crack became too wide to nail. Porter took off some of the hardware and then liebacked the feature at a 1970s rating of “hard 5.9.” Bolts were later added to this section, and today parties will gawk at the fact that Porter liebacked the feature.
Porter topped out after spending seven days on the climb and placing 74 bolts. He remembers the climb was during November as “Bev Johnson was in the Valley screaming up to me, ‘It’s Thanksgiving, you turkey!’”
Other historyIn October 2003, Alex and Thomas Huber made the first free ascent. After a three- pitch starting variation, the free route stays close to the aid line with numerous short variations. The nipple pitch was the crux, at 5.13d.
StrategyBetween May and September, expect a two-day wait to start the route. Most parties spend the ﬁrst day ﬁxing to Pitch 3 and then spend three nights on the wall, ideally at 7, 10, and 13. All anchors have numerous quarter-inch bolts and will accommodate at least two portaledges. Zodiac has gone hammerless many times. Parties that nail usually place fewer than five pins. The ASCA has replaced all belays and lead bolts.
Retreat/StormZodiac is El Cap’s most friendly winter route. Except for the ﬁrst four pitches and the last three, which are exposed to runoff and ice fall, the route is well protected from the elements. Belays 8, 9, 10, and 13 offer the best shelter. To retreat, rap the route. On Pitches 10 to 13 some down aiding is required. From Pitch 4 do three 50-meter raps straight down on Shortest Straw anchors.
ApproachFrom El Capitan Meadow, pick up the distinct trail that starts 300 feet west of El Capitan Bridge. Follow the trail to a large clearing. When facing the wall, walk at 10 o’clock and pick up the climbers' trail that eventually leads to a point 200 feet in front of the toe of the Southeast Buttress and the start of the Nose. From here, the trail diverges to skirt either the base of the Southeast Face or Southwest Face. It’s about a quarter mile and a 10-15-minute walk from the road to the toe of the Southeast Buttress and the start of The Nose. From there, it is an additional 20-30 minutes to reach the start of Lurking Fear or Zodiac.
DescentThe 2-3 hour East Ledges Descent is the fastest, most convenient way to descend from El Capitan. It spares your knees the long hike down either the Yosemite Falls Trail or Tamarack Flat Trail.
From the summit of most routes, hike east, staying 100 feet from the edge of El Capitan until you reach a long and distinct 30-40-foot-wide drainage just below the Zodiac finish. (For the Lurking Fear/West Buttress Finish, begin by hiking away from the edge and east until you escape slabby and brushy terrain. Then turn and head down and a little east back to the edge of El Capitan.)
Follow the drainage down until 80 feet before a 2,000-foot drop-off into Horsetail Falls (often dry). Enter the manzanita bushes on a well-worn trail that after 5-10 minutes will hug the left wall. Continue along the wall until bushes end and scramble down 3rd-class terrain for about 100 feet to a ledge that is roughly perpendicular to The Wild Dikes, a south-facing black wall streaked with white.
Read the following text while referencing the descent topo in the book "Yosemite Big Walls: SuperTopo":
For rap routes A and B, move down 15 feet of 4th class and cut right (south) across a 20-foot wide drainage gully. Walk/slide down the right side of the gully for 30-50 feet. Exit onto the south (right) shoulder and cruise down 40 feet to a ledge. For rap route A, continue toward the edge and down a 20-foot 4th-class section to a tree wrapped with slings. For rap route B (the only route you can rap with one 60m rope), head left and down 30 feet of scree, then move right over exposed 4th-class rock. Work right, through a bush, to a 4’ x 6’ flat ledge with a small tree. Rap route C (see topo) is not recommended.
From the base of the rappels, head east down multiple 3rd-class sections joined by faint trails. Eventually, a defined trail will emerge. Follow it down to a boulder strewn drainage, immediately crossing to a trail paralleling the drainage for 300 feet before it breaks off into the trees to the Manure Pile parking lot, about one mile from El Cap Meadow.
If you’re caught in a storm or descending at night and are unfamiliar with the East Ledges descent, take the tedious, 4-5-hour Yosemite Falls Trail descent instead. Pick up the Falls Trail from the summit of El Capitan (see map page 42 of Yosemite Big Walls).
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