When my wife and I first started climbing outside (just over a year ago), I told myself that I would climb El Cap before I was 40. Being 37 at the time, this seemed entirely reasonable. We were lucky enough to meet Shaun early on and he has proven a great friend, teacher and climbing partner for us both. You can check out a trip report for my first weekend climbing with Shaun in Tuolumne from last August.
Shaun has previously climbed El Cap twice, including the Salathe last year - a trip in which he led and hauled almost every pitch. Despite never having done any real aid climbing (seconding the first four pitches of Leaning Tower earlier this season aside), I was determined to do my share of the leading and hauling.
Read on to see how well that worked out...
We had planned on heading out to the valley Wednesday (10/28) night, but fears of looming "slight chance of thunderstorms" (we all know what that usually means!) over the weekend combined with our excitement to get on the wall led us to head out Tuesday evening after work. Shaun showed up and we loaded the haul bag filled with goodies and the portaledge(*) (a sky cabana double bought used off of ebay) in to the truck.
The drive to the valley was uneventful and midnight found us sorting gear and packing things up. Leaving the truck near the bridge(2*), we began hiking towards El Cap. Shaun was staggering through the dark with the haul bag including all of our water (3 1/2 gallons or so) and a slight wrong turn left us just to the right of the nose where we decided to bivy for the night rather than attempt any more steep stumbling up the west side.
2AM - Exhausted, we threw down our pads and sleeping bags and tried to steal a few hours of sleep. This mostly futile effort was further hindered by a late night (early morning?) raid of ring-tailed cats intent upon plundering our food bag. I awoke to find one perched upon my chest!
6AM - While Shaun returns to the truck for his forgotten water bottle, I pack up the bags and marvel at where we just slept.
The approach to Lurking Fear really isn't that bad, indeed almost pleasant...if you're not carrying loads. Hauling heavy bags up it is miserable - especially if you find yourself in the middle of a heatwave(3*). On a positive note, the approach is straightforward and the third class portions easily navigated with good fixed lines. We did the hauling in two loads, mostly so we could split the water load up.
Upon reaching the base, we were confronted with a menagerie of fixed lines and gear...and no climbers at all! There was a portaledge up around the fifth pitch, fixed lines to the top of the second, and a second set of fixed lines reaching to the top of the third (the latter with a haul bag fastened to it at the base). Additionally, there were a few more haul bags and a tent festooning the area.(4*)
After hauling our second load and getting prepared, we finally began climbing in the early afternoon. Shaun led the first pitch easily and we were off the ground! The second pitch was mine, and I was slow. Not an unexpected outcome, however, as this was my first aid lead ever. The highlight of it was mantling up on to a ledge off of a hook. Good fun! Unfortunately, it became clear that we would have to move faster in this heat and thus my opportunities to lead would be limited.
The third pitch contains the window pane flake which gave Shaun little trouble. I, on the other hand, took a bit of a pendulum tumble out of it as I figured out how to re-lead/lower-out on traverses. I completed the pitch with nothing worse to show for it than a badly scraped elbow and some valuable aid climbing education.
Meanwhile, atop pitch 3, a tired Shaun decided to proactively set up the portaledge. This led to a dropped portaledge bag(5*) and an impossibly tangled skein of portaledge straps. Knowing that the ledge wouldn't be deployed any time soon, we decided to avail ourselves of the fixed lines present and bivy on the ground that night.
Tired and dehydrated from our intense effort on this brutally hot day, we were happy to be back on the ground. Food was cooked, the portaledge sorted out (it's so much easier to assemble when you're standing on the ground!) and a little camaraderie shared with the team from New York prior to our passing out at an early hour intent upon an even earlier morning.
4AM - After a very sound night of sleep, we're up early and jugging to the top of the third pitch. The New Yorkers are up in parallel and heading up to get on the second. Headlights blossom everywhere as we all try to make the most of the cool pre-dawn weather. Shaun also manages to drop his sleeping pad while rapping...oops.
We make good time on the next few pitches, including passing Riley(6*) (valley botanist soloing her second big wall! Go Riley!) on the sixth. She gave me some useful advice on dealing with the traverse on pitch seven and I returned the favor by setting up her haul line after her rope was stuck while following up behind us. We also gave her our spare headlamp.
In the meantime, Shaun headed up in to the wide, where a previous party had left a number 4 conveniently jammed, thus greatly reducing the runout.
We reached the top of pitch 10, which had been our day's "beat it or bail" goal due to concerns about slow speed and water consumption. Having managed 7 pitches, we actually felt pretty good about our day. We'd have preferred to knock out one more pitch (which would have allowed an easy rap to the bivy ledge), but it just wasn't happening. Instead, I volunteered to try the tension traverse to reach the ledge around the corner to the right.
I start out too low and after getting to a better height, it isn't easy going with slick unfeatured rock offering little purchase as I slowly slide down and to the right. Finally, I can reach the crack leading down from the ledge, but only get two fingers on its lip. Trying to lower yourself with a gri-gri on to two fingers for a tension traverse is difficult (to say the least), and I feel my grip slip.
This leads to a horrifying pendulum back left directly at the huge right facing book which the route climbs. In my mind as I slip across the rock is the pendulum slab fall my wife suffered her first day trad climbing, but even this is overshadowed by the wall of rock I am flying directly towards and knowing that a pendulum fall horizontally can be one of the most dangerous occurrences in climbing. Just before contact, I curl in to a ball trying to protect my head and sides. Luckily(?!?), I strike head and shoulder first - a direct impact on my helmet. Shaun is horrified, sure he'll shortly be calling for a rescue. Happily, I raise my head utterly uninjured. My helmet did its job and I feel fine. Assuring Shaun that all is well, I give the tension traverse another go, this time sticking a hand jam in the crack which allows me to pull myself over and up on to the ledge.
I very much enjoy my first bivy on El Cap, despite its small size and our attempts to share my sleeping pad. Sadly, Shaun can hardly sleep and is suffering from serious stomach pain in the morning. It's bad enough that bailing has to be considered once more. I jug back to the anchor (twice, actually, having forgotten the haul line the first time) and haul the bag up. By the time Shaun joins me, he's feeling better and we're off for the last of the really interesting pitches.
Pitch 11 is uneventful and pitch 12 proves especially interesting to clean, involving lower-outs and re-aiding which I somehow manage to carry out quite efficiently. Apparently, I am getting the hang of this aid climbing thing!
From there to the top, the climbing is less aesthetic but has the advantage of going largely free (or french free). Pitch 14 proves spicy, with Shaun being a bit sketched out by shortfixing the "better way" shown on the topo and happy to have his freeclimbing shoes on for the unprotected and quite slippery ramp. He also traversed left a bit early (prior to the "through bush, then left") and ended up runout and offroute on knobs that looked like they might break off at any moment. It was well within his abilities, but tired and loaded with gear it nevertheless provided the most "interesting" moment of the climb...the sort of inevitably unavoidable occasion which we would gladly foreswear at the time, but which also serves to make climbing such a vital undertaking.
The hauling for the next few pitches up to Thanksgiving Ledge is painful and by the time we arrive at this most glorious of bivies around 3PM, Shaun is exhausted once more. He briefly argues for pushing for the top (only two most pitches to go which ostensibly link up), but with the pursuasive assistance of the half gallon of water we find in the cave I convince him that we should enjoy the luxurious bivy and finish off the climb in the morning.
While relaxing and rehydrating, we hear the tinny sounds of Prince playing from a portable speaker quickly followed by a climber ascending to our ledge. It's Aaron and John, on their way to an "in-a-day" onsight ascent of Lurking Fear. We had last seen them while we were on pitch 12 and they approaching the pillar of dispair. One of them had managed to hit himself in the eye while cleaning a nut he thought was fixed. Having not seen them since, we thought they had bailed. Happily, they were still hot on the trail of their sub-24 hour time and after refueling with some of our trailmix and jerky were quickly on their way leaving us to enjoy an early evening of rehydrated food and well-earned sleep.
The snooze button is visited a few times in the early AM, but soon enough we're on our way. A bit of backtracking is required by Shaun after he completes the first pitch and runs the second (easy slab) out but still cannot reach the final anchors with our 60m. So he returns to the pentultimate bolts and hauls while I clean. Shortly thereafter, we find ourselves at the end of the official route (according to the topo) and after the boulder you have to mantle on to we fix a line to get us up to a big tree/boulder.
The worst of the climb is behind us...or is it?
From there, we cut right and end up having to do some fourth class moves with daisies clipped in to cams to traverse a very exposed corner. What would have been fine when fresh or unburdened just demolishes me while tired and loaded down with kit (Shaun is soldiering on with the huge haul bag, but the two ropes, rack(7*), portaledge over my shoulder and other miscellaneous gear are taking their toll on me) and something in my brain takes a left turn when it should have gone right. Now I often describe myself as too stupid to be afraid. My mind is usually too busy with whatever interesting events are transpiring to find time for fear. For whatever reason (the exhaustion, my unfamiliarity with sketchy moves while heavily burdened. dehydration, all of the above), these few moves on weighted (albeit bomber) gear are too much: I cease to trust myself (an unheard of occurrence for me) and just want to be done.
Shaun valiantly and patiently babysits me (for I know how ready he is to be eating pizza and drinking beer, himself!) and at last we find ourselves on the slabs atop El Cap! There is a ring of stones which seemed to mark the actual apex and nearby skid marks, obviously from a helicopter - perhaps traces of the rescue executed earlier in the weak when an unfortunate Austrian climber severed his thumb in a fall. With only a fleeting thought for the poor fellow, we enjoy our summit shots and then start the trek across to the East Ledges.
A brief stop for vertiginous photos from the top of zodiac (or some other east side steepness) followed and then the finding of more much needed abandoned water renewed our resolve. The final stretch down to the fixed lines went as smoothly as one could ask for, manzanitas mostly avoided and only one wrong turn - plus, we actually found the fixed lines and so didn't have to setup our own raps....whew!
Arriving at the rap lines, it seems more like the escalator at a busy department store than the descent from El Cap. A number of groups are headed up to work on Freerider as well as others ferrying loads for Tommy Caldwell. Heading down are a couple of Czechs (just off of something I don't recall), a couple of East Buttress climbers and a miscellany of others.
The East Ledges raps are no problem, though I'm pretty spent at this point and some of the (easy 4th class) downclimbing immediately following it took a further toll on me (that never-deployed portaledge caused me great pain and discomfort through this section). The gully path which follows is steep and taxing, but straightforward. By the end of it, though, I am so exhausted that I didn't even want to stop and retie the ropes (worn as a backpack, I had had to readjust them a number of times to keep them from dragging or catching on my feet).
Finally, we pile the bags by the road and I collapse atop them while Shaun goes to fetch the truck. When he finally returns, I load our gear in the back...portaledge, haulbag, ropes, harnesses and gear, rack..rack?...where's the rack? WHERE'S THE RACK???
Shaun: 'you were carrying it'
We confer and the last time I *know* I had the rack was during our slight detour just before the fixed lines, but I'm fairly sure I had it after the raps as I stopped to readjust ropes. Losing the full big wall rack would not only prove painfully expensive, but cast a long shadow over my first successful big wall. We alternate between attempted joviality and sheer misery. A quick trip to the store for sustanance and liquids and we're grimly back at El Cap.
There is a bit of our kit in a backpack at the base of lurking fear and originaly I had planned on heading back up there once we were down (I would make the journey instead of Shaun, since he had suffered through most of the leading and hauling on the trip). Now, we have two separate trips, up opposite sides of the captain. Given the choice of which to make, Shaun chooses the East Ledges. I will say only this: if you are ever given the option of hiking to the base of Lurking Fear or making the sojourn to the base of the East Ledges raps, opt for the former.
My trip is uneventful. The few folks I chat with along the way all reassure me that the rack will turn up. Returning to the bridge, Shaun is nowhere to be found. this worries me, as I was thinking that his hike would actually prove shorter than mine. Does this mean he didn't find the rack? My suspensful wait is short as soon Shaun is trotting across the bridge in the company of two fit fellows. Upon seeing me, he raises his arm in triumph, rack in hand. I give a shout of thankfulness and, for the first time since awakening on Thanksgiving Ledge (how loong ago that seems!), truly relax.
Shaun had arrived at the bottom of the raps - no rack in sight. A pair of climbers had just gotten down and he inquired as to them having seen one somewhere. They had...it was sitting at the top of the raps! I must have taken it off briefly to setup the rap with the haulbag and never put it back over my shoulder. Unfortunately, Shaun has no ascenders with him...but there is another duo halfway down the raps. Shaun asks them if they to saw the rack. They did...and they are willing to go back up and get it! Batman-ing up the rope with a backup knot, one of them soon has it in hand and the three descend together.
The two(8*) are Bay Area climbers and had just enjoyed a run up the East Buttress. Needless to say, much pizza and beer is bought and consumed. They are as happy to have saved my first El Cap ascent as I am to have the rack back. Despite exhaustion, our pizza deck festivities know no bounds, spilling over to the next table and involving much merriment at the potential for using marital aids as passive pro (don't ask..we were really tired). Finally, it is time to head home. Shaun grabs a quick shower and drives us to the bottom of Old Priest Grade where I take over for the haul home. Around midnight, we arrive back in Oakland and quickly load everything in to our house so that Shaun can cross the bridge to his own waiting bed. Sleep well earned!
The trip was amazing - as painful as promised, but also as wonderful. While I was disappointed that I couldn't lead more of my share of the pitches, in retrospect we made the right decision at the time. Threatening weather and heat-induced water concerns (an odd juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory anxieties) meant that speed was of the essence and I just wasn't fast enough yet. Nevertheless, we made a solid team and I learned more than I could imagine (or even distill and retain) about big wall climbing during these three days.
Through the discomfort and dehydration, despite the doubts and pain, there is an enforced meditative simplicity to climbing 15 hours/day on the side of El Cap. There are no money concerns, nor relationship issues, no politics or injustice. There is only the rock, the rope and up. Even two weeks later, I can still feel remnants of that clarity - a peacefulness and acceptance of ther world for what it is. You cannot force reality to transform itself to your liking, you can only keep climbing: the rock, the rope and up.
As Shaun would say: "It's not over until you're down." Now I'm down and it's over...and I cannot wait to do it again. A huge thank you to him again. When he first met me, I was a wet-eared neophyte. Under his tutelage, I have graduated to not-utterly-clueless journeyman...still with a ton to learn, but more capable every time I climb. Next year, we'll be on El Cap again and I will lead my share of the pitches!
Next up: A week in Red Rocks in early November. It will be our (my wife and my) first trip there. Looking forward to some awesome long moderate fun!
1. Fix three pitches and then go in two days with belays at 10/11 and Thanksgiving Ledge. This assumes you can move fast enough and have good weather. You don't want to bivy on the Pillar of Dispair.
2. When aiming for the bivy ledge at 10/11 (which is ok for two if not exactly cozy), you're better off rapping down from 11 than tension traversing over from 10...or make sure you're very comfortable with the technique and watch out for the open book waiting to crush you should you slip.
In hindsight, we could have made the penji better by climbing up a bit higher (though we were exhausted) and/or having Shaun lower me rather than me dealing with lowering myself with a gri-gri.
3. Rope lengths are off for a number of pitches: 15 and 16 both being longer than the supertopo indicated and 18 and 19 not linking with a 60m rope as indicated in the 3rd edition supertopo. interestingly, the correct pitch lengths (with no reference to linking) are present in the 2nd edition supertopo. Any ideas on what's going on there? not often that an older edition is more correct!
4. if you carry a portaledge, find a better way to carry it during the descent than slung over your shoulder.
5. The descent from El Cap is a beast, especially dehydrated carrying huge loads after having climbed for multiple days. You read trip reports of people "running down" the East Ledges descent and it doesn't sound so bad. It is.
* For foreshadowing's sake, let me just mention that I had tried setting up the portaledge only twice (using a mounting point in the ceiling of our living room) and Shaun had never done so (despite having set up single ledges a few times).
2* Newbie mistake: we parked on the far side of the bridge, near the approach trail, thus forcing an unnecessarily long drive back for the post-climb pickup at Manure Pile Buttress. Learn from our error and park on the correct side of the bridge turnaround!
3* The unexpectedly high temperatures were a recurring issue for us throughout the climb, but especially the first few days. Big wall climbing in relentless sun is quite simply brutal.
4* Later we learned that the portaledge was Riley (soloing the route), the fixed lines to the top of the second (as well as the tent) were a friendly duo out from New York and the fixed lines leading higher were from a pair that are apparently climbing the route in spurts - each weekend pushing their lines a little higher. Siege tactics on Lurking Fear!
5* Kindly located by a lurker at the base and placed by our remaining pack...thank you!
6* If anyone knows Riley (or her friends in SAR), have her drop me a line so I can email better copies of the pics of her.
7* With revisted pain in my heart, I note this as further foreshadowing.
8* Names now forgotten, but I believe they post on supertopo, so please remind me.
Added bonus for people who read to the end: