I am looking at the cover of summit magazine trying to get my head around what is going on. What is puzzling me is the image of a solo climber on the nose. I had seen pictures of El Capitan before but had no idea of the techniques of getting up it, let alone how you would do it solo, but this was the moment that the seed of an idea was planted in my mind...
Fast forward 5 years to December 2011. I am putting the finishing touches on my PhD and have been fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job up to July the following year, it seemed that the planets were aligning to provide the time and funds needed for a big trip. A trip to Yosemite from the uk is a big undertaking and because most of my friends had real jobs and real life commitments I realised that this was going to be a trip I made on my own. This meant not only learning how to aid climb, but learning how to do it solo. People's normal first el cap ambition of the nose was replaced in my mind with thoughts of the steep southeast face. I started making trips to an old viaduct made from big sandstone blocks, an old training venue for local climbers before the time of climbing walls. Relatively straightforward climbing was spiced up with traversing, lower outs and dealing with hanging belays. A point of particular ridicule amongst my climbing friends was the fact I took empty milk cartons with me filling them up in the nearby river to practice hauling them up the wall! Did I forget to mention that everyone thought I was a bit crazy...
By June 2012, my PhD was done and dusted, and I had decided not to immediately pursue a career beyond my current teaching job, I booked tickets to san Francisco for mid august and the trip was on!
Nothing can prepare you for how un-comprehensiveley massive el cap is as I arrived in the valley on the 21st of august in total awe at the scale of it all. My first goal was a solo of the Prow on Washington column. I figured in August it would be relatively quite and therefore a good place for a total novice like myself to get the 'wall climbing' thing figured out without getting in the way too much. That first afternoon I hiked a few gallons of water to the base and met Matt who would become a good friend and essential source of floor space to make an 11week stay in the valley possible.
The next day I hiked gear and the rest of my water. I also fixed the first pitch, my first 'real' aid pitch i.e. not on the viaduct or the old crumbling quarry I had practiced in, giving me a rough idea of where I was at in terms of my aiding abilities. As was to become a common theme in my aiding experience it was awkward but easy moves and mandatory free which I came to dread, rather than being strung out on sketchy heads and hooks (which I tended to move through quite quickly using ‘the quicker you get on it the quicker you get off it’ policy!).
By Friday afternoon I had fixed the second pitch, been to Merced to buy an American mobile phone and had all my gear at the base, time to get going! That first evening all I had to do was jug and haul to my high point, just to get into the swing of things. This involved lowering myself out whilst ghost riding the pig for the second pitch which was pretty exiting!
Setting up my ledge for the first time on the wall went relatively smoothly and I settled in for the night, enjoying the evening light on Halfdome.
Saturday started with the pretty straightforward pitch 3 to anchorage ledge. I had a little excitement at the end as I pulled up a little to the left of the anchors meaning I then had to jump across onto the ledge. Normally not a problem but I was scared of a dangling aider or something else getting snagged mid flight resulting in a faceplant either onto the ledge of off the side! By fixing the 5th pitch I was getting ahead of my schedule a little and was keen to reach tapir terrace by the next evening. Perhaps this was a mistake as I was always keen to push on and do more pitches than my planned two a day, instead of pausing to take in the positions. In fact I can hardly remember the first few days on the wall as my mind was so wired all the time, just concentrating on not dying and trying to take it all in.
Sunday was going to be the biggest day for me, with the supposed crux pitch 6 followed by linking 7 and 8 to Tapir terrace. I was glad of my rationing of one and a half gallons of water per day, as it was super hot (this was still August), fortunately the Prow takes the shade from around 2pm which spared me the worst of the afternoon heat. I was pretty pleased to get myself and bags to Tapir terrace at a reasonable time meaning I was a full day ahead of my planned schedule. There had been no significant bag hangups (yet!) and I had been finishing before dark everyday so felt I could relax a little and start enjoying things a little more.
On Monday as I ate my lunch at the top of pitch 9 I watched as a rescue took place on half dome. The chopper flew past several times with a brave YOSAR member on the end of the wire and returning with the injured climbers passing within what seemed a few hundred feet from me. I was later to learn that it was an accident on snake dike where a party had got of route and the leader had unfortunately fallen resulting in both the leader and their belayer falling to the deck. Watching the chopper made me feel very exposed up there on my own, I was alone on the route and out of sight of the more popular south face). The gradient eased significantly on pitch 10 but also was the start of the serious issues with hauling. I used two directionals to keep the bag out of the gully and the haulbag eating flake but still needed to abseil four times to free the bag and unclip directionals, very tiring. I was rewarded with a nice sloping ledge with a nice little rivet over to the side to hang my ledge and enjoy the sunset colours on Halfdome. By now the wall was taking its toll on my body with my back complaining and my fingers swelling making opening cans and untying knots a painful experience, I was spurred on with the thought of topping out the next day though!
On Tuesday I had my first (and only of the trip in fact) problem with ropes getting stuck. I was running the continuous loop method and the knot joining the lead and haul line got caught up in a crack 100ft below me when I was only 10ft from the belay. I was totally out of rope and no amount of tugging would free it, so I had to build an anchor where I was, rap down, free the rope and ascend back up and make the final couple of moves to the belay, very frustrating. More bag hang-ups ensued on the haul, but I was soon setting off on the final pitch. Not technically difficult, but I was still having difficulty with free climbing, constantly getting things caught in cracks and running out of rope mid move which is kinda scary. I think the bag just got hung up a couple of time and by 3pm both me and my bags were on the summit of my first big wall! I wasn't sure at the time how happy I was, I guess I was undecided if I had actually enjoyed the wall or not and having invested so much in this trip I had put a lot of pressure on myself not just to get to the top but to have fun too! Additionally the prospect of a decent down the north dome gully wasn't exactly inspiring. Regardless I enjoyed my summit bivi, not needing to wear my harness, but instead having to fend of the advances on my food from a very persistent ringtail cat!
I made a couple of key mistakes that turned the descent into the most epic part of the climb. The first was to estimate that I would be down by lunchtime and therefore that 1.5 litres of water would be sufficient to get me down. The second was to attempt to carry all of my gear in a single load. With everything strapped to my bag I made it about 5 feet before a sight unevenness in the path sent me toppling over. With the technicality of the descent I knew that I would have to shuttle my gear in two loads. Unfortunately this only became apparent after I had poured out all my remaining water apart from 1.5 litres! The first technical part of the decent actually went ok, I needed to rig a hand line both at the eroding hillside and the exposed 3rd/4th class section, but the heat of the day hadn't started to cook me yet. Once I made it onto the switchbacks on the scree slopes I really started to feel it, working up and down that slope in the baking heat was a real killer.
By 3pm I'd managed to get the smaller bag to the tree line and was humping the big haul bag down to the horse trail. I almost broke down in tears when I got lost in the boulders above the trail, not being able to find a way down through the house sized monsters above the Indian caves. I eventually fell out onto the horse trail, a sweaty dirty mess begging water from passers by who must have thought I was a real idiot only half a mile form the Awahnee hotel! Eventually some hikers took pity on me after I challenged one of them to lift my haul bag and pointing out to them from where I had carried it! I was rewarded with a litre of water and banana, which gave me the energy to hike back up the hill for my remaining bag. By this time I had finally managed to get in contact with Matt and he and his friend Chris came to help me carry my bags the last few hundred yards to the car, finally the epic ordeal of the descent was over!
Some holiday was called for and a couple of days relaxing and swimming at Tenaya Lake was much needed recovery time. It didn't take long for me forget the hardships and decide that wall climbing was in fact a great way to spend my time and I sat on the beach making new plans.....
My original plan for a first El Cap route had been Tangerine trip. The reason being that it had very little mandatory free i.e. good for soloing, was not too hard and as with my thinking for the Prow, hopefully I wouldn't get in the way of other parties too much. When I was sitting by Tenaya Lake however, I started to have doubts. There was still hardly anyone on El Cap (this was still very early September) so getting in peoples way was unlikely to be a problem, so a route like Zodiac was now a possibility in my mind. Zodiac was the same difficulty and length as T-Trip but considered to be the superior and more classic route. I started getting pretty psyched as I read the guidebook and by the time we returned to the valley I was set on the idea of soloing Zodiac, blasting off in a weeks time.
The valley was still quite in terms of climbers (although still very busy with Tourists) and I humped my loads and fixed pitches hardly seeing a soul. In fact the only other person in the vicinity of the route was fellow Brit Neil on his solo of Ned's excellent adventure. After a relaxed week of humping and climbing in the mornings (I was always down and swimming in the river by midday) I had everything apart from my food and bivi gear up at the base by Thursday, with two pitches fixed. I decided to wait until Friday and blast in the afternoon, jugging and hauling after the sun had gone of the cliff and biviing at the top of 2. The daytime temps in the valley were still in the 90s and this was the best way of getting high on the wall before needing to climb in the full heat of the day. By 6pm on Friday I was installed in my ledge at the top of pitch 2 enjoying my gourmet wall meal of pizza from the pizza deck (Thanks to Matt for the great tip on that one!). I did have some unwelcome visitors on the ledge that night however, with hundreds of silverfish swarming out of the cracks and crawling all over me, harmless but not pleasant!
5am Saturday morning. I was awoken by the sound of the world coming to an end. In my sleep I dreamt that flaming meteorites were streaking down from the sky into the valley, eventually the roaring sound stopped and I was awake not sure if what I had just heard was a dream. Then came the second roaring sound, and I realised that the sound was in fact not the apocalypse, but just some early rising base jumpers, very early in fact as there was a third jumper at 6.30am who as far s I know wasn't arrested either. I had a relaxed start to the morning as I knew Ben Doyle and Cheyne Lempe would be arriving soon for their one-day push on the route. I didn't see the point in getting half a pitch out and having the complication of them having to pass me so I spent the next hour or so shouting greetings to a couple of groups of climbers heading over to do the east buttress and enjoying the view. Ben and Cheyne showed up getting on the route about 7am and by 8am Ben's head appeared over the roof 30ft below me. They sped on past, with their shouting and whooping audible for the whole day as they made an impressive 12 hour push.
I got going about 8.30 and made good progress on pitches 3 and 4, which were straightforward. When I rapped back down to my gear after leading the third pitch I heard a friendly greeting shouted up from below. Alice was there to scope out the first few pitches of the route. She was the first (but certainly not last) person I would initially meet from a vertical perspective on El Cap which is certainly a fun way to meet people. Alice went on to successfully solo Zodiac in October and you can read her story here http://www.supertopo.com/tr/A-rookie-s-solo-ascent-of-the-Zodiac-Oct-2012/t11726n.html . I made the top of pitch 4 in good time so decided to fix pitches 5 and 6 (easily linked when soloing) taking me to the base of the black tower pitch.
The most exiting bit of the day was a hook traverse out left from the belay on pitch 5 and then top stepping to a rivet, but I knew the really interesting climbing was still to come. That evening I discovered that I had left my spoon behind, so I had to make an assessment of which piece of climbing gear would make the most suitable replacement for eating chilli out of the can. After a brief trial with a camhook it turns out the nut key worked best, the camhook failing to reach into the deepest corners of the can. This being my 6th night on a bigwall I was starting to get the hang of things now, setting up and adjusting the ledge quickly, unpacking and clipping all my gear where I could easily grab it. I also realised that I was definitely an ‘outside edge’ sleeper, think I just prefer that edge of the world feeling of looking out into space from my sleeping bag.
I woke on Sunday morning to first clean and haul up to the top of pitch 6, and then to climb pitch 7, the black tower. This has a reputation for being one of the few pitches on Zodiac where you can really hurt yourself with a fall and it is obvious why. After the easy climbing up the side of the tower itself you are faced with climbing a thin overhanging seam above, this rises almost directly over its sharp pointed summit. This section went pretty smoothly with offset cams, brass offsets and a few fixed beaks stuck by previous parties and I was soon standing on the good ledge at the top of the pitch. After cleaning anf hauling I set out to at least fix the 8th pitch into the bottom of the white circle. Things were going well and I was pleased with how the day had gone, climbing quickly and getting past one of the cruxes so I decided to forgo the good natural ledge I was on and instead cleaning and hauling to the top of 8 putting me a whole day ahead of schedule.
I guess I was getting confident in my systems and starting to loose a little focus as well as me being tired at the end of the day, but I definitely paid the price! I use prussic loops on the lead line every 50ft or so to both hold the weight of the lead line and also stop the rope rubbing on sharp edges when jummaring. I was approaching one of these points which also happened to coincide with the rope taking a sharp turn to the left at the top of a slab. This meant that when I passed the piece with my top jumar I could not push it as far up the rope as I wanted as the prussic was in the way, meaning I was not weighting it. To be able to free the rope from the piece to be cleaned I lent into the slab and held the lead line with my right hand to take the weight off allowing me to release the lower jumar, my plan being to let out the rope and put my weight back onto the upper jumar like a kind of mini lower out (This is something I would later do always using a grigri instead of holding the rope by hand!). I disengaged the lower jumar with my thumb and expected to simply lean back and let my weight be taken on the upper one, unfortunately this was not the case. I suddenly felt myself falling, sliding down the slab. I felt the rope running through the fingers of my right hand and my immediate reaction was the grab on tighter to arrest my fall, this was obviously a mistake and the pain was immediate. A fraction of a second later my brain told me that I was falling down the rope and logically I would fall to my gri-gri, then back up knots and ultimately the end of the rope which I was tied into. My hand released from the rope and my body went into ‘fall mode’ i.e. trying to stay relaxed, not get tangled in the rope and come to a rest without too much damage.
I had been getting a bit to cocky and confident that day, moving fast, this also meant not synching up my gri-gri as often as I should have been and my fall length was significant. Eventually I came to a jolting stop, I had inverted and hung stranded, staring over 1000ft straight down to the talus below. My first thought was to ask myself ‘Am I dead?’, once the answer of ‘No!’ came back the second thought was ‘well your up here on your own so you better stop hanging around and get yourself sorted out!’
Evidently my top jumar had not been re-engaged properly to the rope and I hadn’t realised, I had then committed fully to it resulting in my ungraceful plummet. I had been so slack in synching up my gri-gri than in fact I hadn’t even reached it. The rope had got hooked on a flake off to the side causing a sideways pull, this had somehow caused the lower jumar to re-engage and it was from this that I was now hanging. I managed to get myself back into a sensible orientation (rather than being inverted) and was now looking up at this jumar trying not think about what it had done to the rope as its teeth bit into the sheath. With all my bags hanging in space 20ft from the wall and the pitch half cleaned and the nearest other party on the Dawn Wall I had only one option, finishing cleaning the pitch, haul the bag and then think about what had happened.
I hauled the bag trying not to think about the pain coming from my right hand. It wasn’t bleeding much, which was a start. I thought I had been bleeding from my head, but it turned out it was just blood from my arm which I had wiped there. Eventually I had the ledge set up and finally on a flat surface I could assess both my own injuries and any damage to my gear.
The bleeding cuts on my arm were superficial just a scrape on my elbow, my hand though was something else. I had ripped the skin from my index finger between the middle and end knuckles, I also had large blisters on the tip of this finger, my thumb, middle finger and pinkie. The only finger to be relatively unscathed was my ring finger. I had assumed that once the adrenalin wore off it would be pretty unbearable, but fortunately I was mistaken and it wasn’t too bad. The second thing to assess was my rope, I flaked the rope onto the ledge and discovered a nice cut in the sheath where the jumar had bit in. It wasn’t outrageous and hadn’t come anywhere near to actually cutting the rope, but I knew that I wouldn’t be comfortable climbing on it. But was I going to be climbing on it? Did I even want to continue? I had hurt myself and damaged my rope, did I even trust myself to stay safe anymore? Had I bitten off more that I could chew attempting a solo as my first route on the big stone? I started to think about the logistics of retreat, I had just entered the white circle almost exactly halfway up the route where the route really starts to kick back (it was steep already though!). Descending would require back aiding and pendulums, meaning I would have to descend twice, first without the bag and then re-ascend to get it. My hand injury would be of equal hindrance doing this was it would be to continue, perhaps I should just push on? I had two of the crux pitches to climb the next day and knew that if I could climb those, then I could get to the top. I pushed to the back of my head the fact that I would be climbing myself into a position even harder to retreat from.
I started to think about the length of rope, I estimated I needed to cut (I decided to cut rather than tie knots to keep my rope systems simple) 15m from the end, leaving me with 45m of lead line. Because I was using a continuous loop system with a 70m haul line (the extra length used for lower outs) I knew that I could pass the knot when I reached the end of the rope and continue climbing on the static haul line, but still with the dynamic rope in the system. Without much more thought I pulled out my knife and cut the rope, it was done.
I turned my attention back to my hand. I was still learning a lot about big walling and what I did and didn’t need on the wall. I had with me only my pitifully small Scottish winter climbing first aid kit consisting off duct tape and sanitary towels (they are cheaper and actually better than gauze pads). This was in an attempt to save weight (a mistake I know) and left me with basically nothing to bandage the wound with. I then remembered that on the evening before I set off on the route, Ben Doyle had spoken to me in his slightly tipsy state and was horrified that I didn’t have any alcoholic treats to take with me on the wall. With this in mind I dug in the bag and found the hip flask full of whiskey he had given me. I took a generous nip orally and then administered another generous nip to my hand. This procedure would be repeated for the following 3 nights on the wall before I got some proper first aid. I slept surprisingly well that night, knowing that the next day would make or break my attempt on the route.
I woke to find that my hand was no worse, so decided to push on leading the next pitches. Nine went smoothly and then I was faced with the daunting looking nipple pitch. Reaching the nipple wasn’t too tricky with cam hooks and totem cams, but turning it was very physical, a move I virtually had to repeat when cleaning the pitch. The climbing above was thin, but not too scary bringing me below the Mark of Zorro. I decided to stop here for the day after hauling my gear, despite it being only 4pm. I was pleased that my hand didn’t seem to be holding me back too much, as long as I didn’t use the affected fingers too much. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was also the day that Tom Evans arrived in the valley, and he managed to get some nice shots of me cleaning this pitch and me climbing the second half of the route.
Although feeling a little tired I was now getting the hang of things on the wall and had a routine going. I would lead off the ledge first thing in the morning, normally raping back down just as the sun would come onto the route. One of the most memorable rappels was rapping the super steep Mark of Zorro pitch and watching as the sun crept across the face and illuminated my gear and the void below me.
Pitches 11 and 12 went well, and despite the best efforts of the wind I had my ledge all set up at the top of 12 by late afternoon. I probably could have pushed on to peanut that evening, but I had plenty of food and water, and decided I would try and enjoy the position of being high on El Cap a bit more. Up until that morning I had been alone on the southeast face, but had spotted a team of two on the route well below me. After the Mark of Zorro I could no longer see them but wondered if they would join me on Peanut ledge the following day.
Wednesday was a planned easy day for my, with only one pitch of hauling up to Peanut at the top of 13. This was the only pitch were I actually ran out of lead rope, and this happened within a few feet of the anchor. Annoying, but not a big deal, as I simply passed the knot and made the last moves to the belay.
I then set off on what was the last pitch on the route that held a lot of fear in my mind, the wide pitch above Peanut. I had borrowed a second number 5 camalot from Tod in the SAR sight and grabbed this out of the bag, clipping it to my harness. The first half of the pitch I actually found the scariest, as the flake was very sharp and being about a size 4 all the way meant I only left 2 pieces between me and the belay. I then moved onto the number 5s leapfrogging them up the crack, which actually felt pretty secure. I doubled up rivet hangers and stuck a screamer on the rivet mid pitch and then set off knowing that my next piece of gear wouldn’t be for another 50ft above me. Despite the cams being super secure I was relieved to reach the belay on the sloping ledge above. I briefly considered cleaning the pitch and hauling up to this ledge as it seemed quite a good spot. Peanut is one of the classic ledges on el cap however, and so I decided to take the afternoon off, just rapping back down and setting up camp.
My plans were slightly thwarted by the wind however. After securing myself to the belay I looked up and realised that the wind was whipping the haul line around like crazy and I knew that I should tension it up to stop any mishaps. I looked down to take a quick drink of water before doing this job, but when I looked up again I realised I shouldn’t have waited! For the middle 100ft of the route I had 2 pieces of gear and the haul line had managed to clip into one of them! Very annoying as it meant my relaxing afternoon couldn’t start until I jugged up there and sorted it out.
I removed the offending piece of gear as well as tensioning up the rope to save myself any return trips. By the late afternoon I saw the top of a helmet couple of pitches below me, signalling the arrival of Ryan and Scott. When they reached the top of 12 we exchanged a few words and established they were in fact just going to stay there the night and not come and join me. A shame as I was looking forward to the company, but I also knew that despite my best efforts of being organised it would still be pretty cramped on the ledge.
I woke early in the morning and quickly packed up my gear and got ready to clean and haul the pitch. I knew that Ryan and Scott would be hot on my heals and didn’t want to get in their way if possible. By the time I had lead the 15th pitch and rapped back to my bags, both Ryan and Scott had arrived there. I was surprised I could still talk, having not spoken to anyone since Saturday morning and it was now Thursday, but I managed to atleast introduce myself. From that initial meeting I think they must of thought I was a complete weirdo, never having climbed El Cap before and with a totally messed up hand.
Because we were so close to the top, there was little point in them attempting to pass me, so as quickly as I could I cleaned the pitch and got myself ready to lead the last pitch to the summit. Despite my best efforts they were still waiting as I set off on the last pitch. I appeased with gummy bears and my spare water and left them to cook in the hot sun for an hour as I lead the last pitch.
The last pitch has a slight sting in its tail within sight of the top, but I managed to get through it with some brass offsets and a hand placed beak before the final roof.
Just a couple of reachy moves to the right and I had the summit bolts clipped. I hauled myself up onto the summit of El Cap, all of a sudden finding myself in a place I never thought I could reach.
I topped out into a world of new friends, and with El Cap conquered once, perhaps some new opportunities….