Trip Report"Blue-Collar Climbing" - The Nose, El Capitan
THE NOSE, EL CAPITAN
BY CHARLES SHERWOOD
Sunday, May 4, 2014
I awoke and looked around me. I was lying on a sort of trapeze, suspended horizontally at 90 degrees to a vertical cliff. Cautiously I peered over the edge and into the abyss below. It was a somewhat ‘shallow abyss’, since the ground lay just 10 metres beneath me. My eyes turned to the rock soaring above – all 5 metres of it. We were on a portaledge, hung on the side of Yarncliffe Quarry in the Peak District. It did occur to me that no one ever before us had been benighted on a single–pitch British rock climb. But then, of course, this was no accident. We were rehearsing for another rather larger cliff.
The other part of the ‘we’ was Andy Kirkpatrick, probably Britain’s top big wall climber. The larger cliff was the Nose on El Capitan.
Monday, June 9, 2014
Just over a month later Andy, a third team member, Max Biagosch, and I stood together at the foot of the most vertical, featureless granite I had ever seen. El Cap – or “the Captain” as it is often called by locals – rises from the ground, immediately vertical and astonishingly unblemished by crack or ledge. It is a daunting sight, reminiscent of a modern glass building and equally unyielding to the would-be climber.
Modern aid climbing was largely created in this valley in Yosemite and it is easy to see why. The glaciers carved out such vertical cliffs, with such polished stone, that traditional free climbing was impractical. New techniques were called for. Nuts, cams, pitons and bolts were no longer required just for insurance should a lead climber fall; they were needed for pulling on to make any upward progress at all. Enter the golden age of the jumar (a one-way friction climbing device), the etrier (or ‘aider’ as Americans call them – essentially a sling ladder) and the haul bag (required because of the painfully slow rate of ascent, huge amount of gear required and lack of natural water).
That golden age really got underway in the 1950s and its seminal moment came in November 1958: the conclusion of Warren Harding’s 45-day conquest of El Capitan by its original route, the Nose. That route has become an icon. As the valley guidebook states, “The Nose may be the best rock climb in the world; it is certainly the best known” and it remains “huge, exposed and terrifying”. Who could resist?
El Capitan has two faces joined at 60 degrees by what resembles a ship’s prow. Harding’s route essentially climbs this prow, although its first four pitches cunningly skirt the immediate verticality by taking a detour off to the left (west), before returning back to the central line at a notable break called Sickle Ledge. This was our objective for the day.
We set off around 6am. It was virgin ground for all of us. Max was entirely new to Yosemite climbing; I had completed only one significant previous route, the South Face of Washington Column; and Andy, although this was his 25th ascent of El Capitan, had never before climbed the Nose. We were all in a state of awe – in Andy’s case with a small ‘a’ and in Max and my case with a big ‘A’ and an exclamation mark ‘!’.
The roles reflected the experience. Andy did all the leading. That meant he provided the brains and the talent and took most of the risk. Max and I followed cleaning and hauling, which is largely about brawn. Since Max was born in Bavaria and brought up wearing lederhosen, he was well suited to the task; being born myself among the dreamy spires of Oxford, I was less durable, but needs must.
In one sense our initiation was gentle: to start with, we had only a very light haul bag, containing stuff for the day and a gallon of surplus water. In another sense these first pitches provided an early challenge, because they required two tension traverses. Here the leader had to be lowered off; the haul bag had to be belayed out; and the cleaner had to employ a combination of abseil and jumar in order to follow.
This was all fine while the ropes behaved. But ropes on big walls do not behave; at least not if left to their own devices. Soon we had the mother of all tangles at the belay, commonly called a “cluster f**k”. Then worse: as Max jumarred, cleaning the route of the gear that Andy had placed, the trailing rope behind him jammed, caught in some hidden crack. Already tired, he now had to retrace his route down the lead line to free it. Half an hour later it happened again. Max looked as though he would cry – only Bavarians don’t cry, so it turned into a sort of whimper.
A final swinging traverse on the haul line brought me to a position hanging at last vertically below Sickle Ledge. An energetic, but straightforward, jumar and I was up there next to Andy, enjoying the relative comfort of this quite roomy ‘eagle’s nest’. We congratulated ourselves… prematurely…
It was nearing midday and the sun was beating down on us with full force, generating valley temperatures of up to 100°F. Max was having yet another fight with the ropes. He lowered out the haul bag only to find he’d caught a further loop of the haul line around it. A half hour passed as he recoiled both ropes, all while in a hanging belay, suspended by his daisy chains. At the end of this, he looked at us across the expanse of bare rock, uttered, “I’m exhausted”, placed his helmeted head in his gloved hands and neither moved nor spoke for 15 minutes.
This was not good. Andy was filled with alarm. I had known Max for many years and indeed worked alongside him in the same firm. He had spent his life in the mountains and completed many demanding routes, among them the North Face of the Matterhorn. I knew he was anything but a quitter. But this collapse seemed very sudden and I was worried that he might be suffering sunstroke. After what felt like an eternity Max pulled himself together and climbed slowly over to join us. We were done for the day, at least as far as any upward progress was concerned.
We just needed to get back down to the valley, leaving our fixed lines behind us. This should have been a simple abseil on our two existing ropes plus a third we had stashed in the haul bag. We managed to turn it into something of an epic. Andy, descending with the additional weight of the haul bag, fixed the second rope so tightly that Max and I, following, were unable to engage our abseil devices. With the afternoon wind now blowing, communication with Andy was impossible. A huge effort from Max and myself finally secured Max on the line and allowed him to descend. Max in turn was able create some slack in the rope at the next fixed point and free me from its weight sufficiently to allow me to secure myself and descend too. The whole process took over two hours and it was 2.15pm by the time we stood once more on the valley floor.
It had been a short day – around 8 hours on the rock – but it had not felt easy. Our mood was subdued. We were beginning to understand the magnitude of the challenge presented by this immense wall. If we could make such a ‘meal’ out of 4 pitches, how long were the full 31 going to take us? A vertical kilometre of rock.
Thankfully, a good dinner lay ahead and a comfortable night in a tent in the valley.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
There followed a day dominated by logistics. In the morning we rested and ate well; bought in all our required supplies; packed the haul bag, the portaledge and the ‘poop’ tube; and dragged all three up the fixed lines to Sickle Ledge. In the evening we rested and ate well (again), before ourselves ascending to Sickle Ledge for the night.
Max and I reached the ledge around 9pm, as the light started to fail. While Andy followed behind collecting the ropes, we constructed the portaledge. On it the two of us spent the night. Andy rolled out his karimat on the flattest available rock. We all slept pretty well, until…
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
We were woken at 4.20am by the sound of violent ‘thunder’. Only it wasn’t thunder. It was rock fall. Huge rock fall. To our east, a large chunk of El Cap had descended into the valley, leaving a white scar on the cliff and a cloud of granite dust that looked deceptively like morning mist. It was a sobering sight.
We got up at 5am, ate an energy bar, packed everything up, including the portaledge, and were away by 6.30am. The first two pitches were comparatively straightforward and we ran them into one. In the course of this I acquired a third, previously abandoned, rope that Andy asked me to bring along too. We now had three 80 metre ropes to deal with.
The next two pitches proved a major test, possibly the major test, of the climb. Both were rightward traverses. On the first of these, Max lowered out Andy, who clawed his way over under tension from above, before then climbing upwards to a higher belay, called Dolt Hole. I then lowered Max out on the haul line, effectively belayed from above and below, until he was suspended vertically beneath the new belay and could easily jumar up to it. Next went the haul bag. That left me to abseil off a mallion on the lead rope, trailing behind me, while jumarring up the higher portion of the lead rope above.
I joined Max at Dolt Hole tired, thirsty and hungry. Andy had moved on and was already out of earshot, due to a tornado-like wind that seemed at its most violent at this point. The stance was another hanging one with 250 metres of clean drop. There were now three ropes streaming out below me and disappearing from view, tossed by the wind to snag on who knew what. And, of course, the ropes were tangled.
It never even occurred to me to quit, but I did question whether we were really up to this. I was intimidated, narrowly focused on my own survival, and as a result of little help to my partners. I paused for a moment, ate some food and drank a little water. I realized that I must simplify the situation. During a brief respite in the wind, I managed to communicate with Andy. We agreed to ditch the third rope I had acquired at the previous belay. I released it and watched it descend into the valley. It sounds like a small thing, but this freed just enough mental bandwidth for me to get back on top of the situation.
Following Andy and Max required another rightwards traverse. Again, I lowered myself out by abseil, while attempting simultaneously to jumar on the rope above me. A mistake. Each of these techniques should be used in turn, not together. Now I really did hear Andy. He screamed from above “Both hands on the Gri-gri!” ie belay device. I corrected the mistake, completed the traverse and jumarred up to the belay, where at last Andy, Max and I were reunited.
Andy and Max had clearly been having a serious conversation. Andy had asked Max whether he wanted to go down. Max had replied “no”. I felt the same. But it was clear that Andy’s confidence in us was being tested. Meanwhile it seemed that all around us were ‘bailing’. A pair from above abseiled past us headed down, while another pair, who caught up from below, promptly turned tail too. The wind remained very strong and the sense of exposure almost over-powering. We were alone or nearly so.
However, I was past the worst and the way ahead looked easier. We were now in the famous Stoveleg Crack, where Harding and his team leap-frogged their way up, using four pitons, forged from the legs of an old stove. The crack looked challenging, but at least it was straight up all the way to a sizeable bivvy that was our destination for the night.
The first step towards regaining control was getting on top of the ropes. Two things made this possible: first, stashing them properly in the rope bags that we carried with us; and second, recognizing that we had two ends, one attached to myself and one to the haul bag, that if necessary could be untied and thus permit untangling. From that moment on, we had plenty of ‘cluster f**ks’, but none that we were unable to resolve before the ropes came tight. The ‘we’ in this was important, because the other crucial element was teamwork. Max and I both calmed down enough that we were able to look beyond our own immediate task and personal security; and work to help each other. Together we were much more effective.
Things started to improve quickly. At the 9th belay, halfway up the Stoveleg, we regrouped again in better spirits. The wind was dropping. The ropes were tangled once more, but this time Max and I sorted them out efficiently. Andy, leading off, was able to proceed unhindered. The rest of the crack and a final short corner went without incident, delivering us onto the sizeable ledge of Dolt Tower at 6.30pm.
This was a sensible, even luxurious, time to organize a bivouac, with 21/2 hours of light remaining. We made the most of it. Up went the portaledge. Out came our rations: a supper of bagels with tuna and cream cheese, washed down with Gatorade. And out there was a view to die for. We were not though entirely alone. Below we could hear the calls of two British climbers still making their way up the Stoveleg Crack. And here I learned something about Andy…
Andy is a bit of an enigma. He has no ‘A’ Levels, let alone a university degree to match my own from Cambridge and Harvard, but I was in no doubt as to which of us was the smartest. And I don’t mean just ‘street smart’; Andy is super-smart. He is also insatiably curious – about everything. A conversation with Andy can sometimes feel like you’re on the panel game ‘Twenty Questions’. The combination of this intellectual power with a character that is extraordinarily resilient – the traditional climbing term is ‘hard’ – in my view explains why Andy is such a strong big wall climber. Big walls are jokingly referred to as “blue-collar” climbing, because so much hard manual work is involved, jumarring, hauling and just surviving. However, they also require real intellect. They are a puzzle that must be unlocked. It’s less about gymnastics and more about engineering.
But on Dolt Tower I found out something else about Andy. He is a nice person. Indeed, remarkably so. Max and I had the portaledge. That left plenty of room on flat ground for Andy, since Dolt Tower has bivvy space for two. Yet, Andy chose instead to sleep on a miserable pile of uneven rocks, leaving the flat ground for the two British climbers still fighting their way through the night. I know few, if any, climbers who would have done this. The accepted rule at bivvies is ‘first come, first served’. Andy’s gesture proved a pointless one, because the British pair didn’t make it to the ledge until 5am, but it said a lot about Andy.
The night was not complete without a bit of theatre. As we sat in our sleeping bags gazing out at a mountain vista, lit by a full moon, over our heads fell a body… and then another. They passed with a strange ‘wurring’ sound, black shadows in the night. As they neared the ground small white canopies emerged and waiting cars switched on their headlights. Base jumpers. They jump in the dark because it is illegal in the national park. Suddenly what we were doing seemed rather safe. All things are relative.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
We awoke as always with the light. Huddled next to us were the forlorn, exhausted bodies of the British pair, John and David. We tried not to disturb them, but that wasn’t easy as I dragged the haul bag across the ledge.
Another traverse required Andy to be lowered off into a crack system that allowed him to resume upwards progress, rolling two pitches into one. I in turn lowered Max out, who jumarred the haul line and then set about the hard work of pulling up the haul bag, with the portaledge and ‘poop’ tube attached below. Finally I bade farewell to my tired compatriots and abseiled off the ledge, using the spare end of the bivvy line. There were no ‘hiccups’. We were finally getting the hang of this. One further, uneventful pitch brought us to El Cap Tower, a roomy ledge with space for six. Andy had floated this as a possible objective for the day, but we were now ‘humming’ and there was no serious question of stopping there.
Next came the Texas Flake. Andy, as leader, was forced to climb the narrow gap between flake and mountain, feet on the one, back to the other. Only it wasn’t as narrow as he would have liked. Either that or his body wasn’t as long as he would have liked. Anyway his verdict was “SCARY!” We followed to a belay on the top of the flake, perilously balanced over a void on either side.
Flakes were the order of the day: the Boot Flake formed the following pitch, a remarkable boot-shaped feature that the Duke of Wellington would have been proud of. The guidebook refers to the belay at the top as an “OK bivvy for 1”. Well, I guess it’s Ok if you’re happy sleeping on an under-sized ironing board, but not one for me, thank you. Fortunately we had no intention of staying there.
But there we were at last, positioned and ready for one of those great moments in a climbing lifetime: the famous, notorious… whatever… King Swing. How the partying, womanizing playboy Warren Harding figured this out in 1958 is beyond comprehension. Yet he knew he needed to complete a big traverse left and reckoned the only way that could be done was with a massive pendulum. Since we were following in his footsteps, that’s the way we went too.
Max lowered Andy down half a length of rope. From there he moved initially right to build momentum, before swinging back left in a huge pendulum, bounding across the rock and clawing for a suitable hold to prevent him returning whence he had come. It took Harding five swings to find the hold he was looking for and it took Andy much the same. But he made it, to a chorus of shouts from those watching through telescopes down in the valley. From there a crack system led to a belay at similar height to ours.
It was Max’s turn. Near disaster followed. Inadvertently Max attached his jumars upside down and failed to employ his Gri-gri (belay device). Halfway across the traverse Andy realised the twin errors. Later Andy admitted his instinct was to scream, but instead he calmly… very calmly… asked Max to attach the Gri-gri and then reverse the jumars. A close call.
Next I lowered off the haul bag; and finally myself, running my abseil rope through the available mallion and thus avoiding the sacrifice of a karabiner. Despite the near miss, we had completed one of the major obstacles of the Nose with great efficiency.
The 18th pitch included another pendulum. This time I had some fun, imitating Andy by skipping across the rock in huge leaping strides to catch a loop of rope thrown by Max. Andy referred to it as “Charles’ Princess Swing”. A significant change had occurred. We were now thoroughly enjoying this climb. Fear and intimidation had given way to respect, but also fun.
Halfway across the 19th pitch, in the so-called Grey Band, we decided to make camp for the night. It was 8.30pm. This was to be the most spectacular bivouac of them all. The portaledge was suspended over a complete void, rather like a VIP box at the opera, protruding over the stage. There we ate yet more bagels, tuna and cream cheese, as we gazed into the valley, expectant of some form of entertainment. We were not disappointed. Out came the moon and over our heads flew another base jumper. Our confidence in achieving our goal was growing. Spirits were high.
Friday, June 13, 2014
We awoke well rested and munched the remainder of our muesli, while trying not to think about the date. Friday the Thirteenth seemed a bit ominous.
Leaving the haul bag on a ledge, we took an easy traverse left to what is called Camp IV and from there climbed to the foot of the Nose’s most famous feature, the Great Roof. Andy followed the crack line beneath the roof, working his way right to an airy stance beyond its huge overhang. Harding had expected this to be the crux of his climb, but in fact had tamed it with relative ease. We seemed to make similarly light work of it. Yet, the majesty of the Great Roof remained. It was spectacular.
The ‘Kirkpatrick brain’ had figured out that between the haul rope and the surplus lead rope, we had enough to drag our haul bag from its ledge at our last bivouac all the way to the top of the Great Roof in one super-efficient lift; and that’s what we did. The British pair behind subsequently tried the same, resulting in a jammed haul bag and an epic to free it. There is art as well as science in this work.
Two further pitches, including the Pancake Flake, brought us to a sort of pulpit, Camp V, and another two, up a very straight, very vertical chimney system, to the imaginatively named Camp VI.
This, our 4th bivvy, was a reasonable ledge, but jammed into a somewhat darkened corner. Max and I again took the portaledge while Andy lay on the rock ledge beneath. The gap between the two was a narrow one and Andy had us in fits of laughter as he described his condition: that of a loaf of bread baking in an oven. Reflecting on this, he commented: “I think I’m an indoor person”. Wonderful coming from the author of ‘Psychovertical’ and ‘Cold Wars’.
Life on a portaledge is not an entirely easy one. For a start everything must be attached: mattress, bivvy bag, sleeping bag, water bottle, pee bottle, head torch, shoes, gloves, spare clothing… Anything that isn’t is likely to be lost and might well be a danger to those below. But, once familiar, the portaledge is actually very comfortable and I certainly slept well. Rather better than Andy!
Saturday, June 14, 2014
I woke to yet another stunning view, supped a can of Nespresso, munched on the statutory bagel and snatched a brief telephone conversation with my wife, Rosemary. The mobile reception was pretty good on the wall, although less so at Camp VI, given its enclosed location.
Max and I were struggling to contain our excitement. Only five pitches remained. We knew we could expect to ‘top out’ that day.
There were two more straight pitches before the route veered a little right under another smaller roof. Coming up cleaning behind, I was delighted to find my technique now much more proficient. The proper combination of Gri-gri and jumars allowed me to progress rapidly, extracting all the gear as I went. Soon I joined Andy and Max at the 30th belay with just a single pitch left to climb.
This final pitch is the subject of probably the most famous story in Yosemite folklore. Warren Harding climbed through the entire night, placing by the light of his head torch a seemingly endless line of bolts, in order to overcome a spectacular overhang, the Nose’s last defence. He emerged to the embrace of friends and media, a hero of his times.
In a gesture of great generosity Andy now passed over the lead to me for this magnificent finale. The first two-thirds was a bolt ladder with just one cam to place. I reveled in it, knowing myself secure, but enjoying the sensational exposure and the sheer gymnastic thrill. Beyond, the final third was free climbing, but on gentle slabs that I padded up with ease. And there I was, all of a sudden, at the top of El Capitan, having completed surely the greatest rock climb in the world.
Soon Max and Andy were at my side. We found the traditional tree and hugged it ritually; then hugged each other. It was a special moment. And it was a moment we wanted to last, to savour just for a while. So, rather than rush back to the valley, we camped up there on the top of El Cap for one final night. The sun set on the Half Dome, casting it in a red hue, as we ate a dinner of … you guessed it… bagels, tuna and cream cheese. Then we rolled out our mats, gazed up at a cacophony of moon and star, and slept well – very well.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
We awoke one last time on El Cap. As we ate a final breakfast, a deer grazed next to our campsite. There was a deep feeling of peace. A long walk to the valley lay ahead of us, but it would be a happy one.
The climbing was not over. Before leaving Yosemite I would lead a further four pitches on the Leaning Tower, a rapid education in life at the sharp end of the rope, especially when I slipped off a sky hook and took a “35 foot whipper”. That subsequent experience would only heighten my admiration for the man who had led us up the 30-odd pitches of the Nose. What a way to spend six days.
Oh, and those other two British climbers, John and David, well they made it too. And we all had pizza and beer together down in the valley.
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