West Face 5.11c

 
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El Capitan


Yosemite Valley, California USA


Trip Report
First Time Climbing El Capitan when I was 15
Friday July 17, 2015 8:30am
I just did an Enormocast with Chris Kalous last night (it was super fun and will be live mid-august 2015). We talked about my early climbing days and it inspired me to look for old unpublished stories. I came across this article I wrote about climbing El Cap for the first time with Mark Melvin. I think this was my college application essay in 1997. For backstory, I saved up a few thousand dollars between ages 10 and 15 being a Little League umpire, groundskeeper and snack shack operator. I then came across a business plan for Touchstone Climbing gyms through my high school outdoor ed teacher, Derek Larson. My dad gave me 21 reasons why not to invest – he actually wrote them out on a yellow legal pad. He then called Mark to find out why he was trying to take a high school kid’s hard-earned money. I can only imagine Mark’s reaction – “This is what I have to go through to raise start-up capital: a 15 –year-old and his dad who is highlighting all the reasons this business might fail?!” But I just wanted free climbing gym membership for life (which I still have), and to own a slice of the largest climbing gym ever conceived (this was 1994). Mark took my money and decided to take me up El Cap, even though I had never climbed anything taller than the Golden Gate Bridge.

From the moment I first saw it, El Cap was the most powerful thing I had ever encountered. It’s a little less than three times the height of the Empire State Building but stating that fact doesn’t mean much until you walk under it for the first time. It just overpowers the mind, especially when I started to consider actually climbing it.

On the day of my first ascent of El Cap, Mark and I drove arrived in Yosemite at 5 a.m. I imagined that preparation for the climb would be a very serious undertaking. I thought we would lie out all our gear and go through a detailed checklist, down to rationing out the number of M & Ms we would take with us.

Instead, Mark just heaped a bunch of biners, ropes and other climbing gear into a backpack. I thought all this frantic activity was pretty much fun until after hiking the approach route we arrived at the base and discovered we had a big problem. In his hurry, Mark had forgotten he needed to provide me with climbing shoes, as I didn't own any good ones. Or maybe I was supposed to remember this? At any rate, there we were with four feet and two shoes.

Now, on a one-day ascent you try to slim down your gear to move as fast as possible but you never forget the climbing shoes (we were climbing the route free and didn't bring jumars). The only thing more crucial is the rope.

My first reaction was: “This is great news.” I was terrified by this 2000-foot wall and was hoping that something would go wrong so we wouldn’t actually have to climb it. Now it looked like my prayers had been answered.

Unfortunately Mark didn’t see it that way. He just looked up at the wall for a moment and said, “Since we have the same size foot, I guess I’ll tie the shoes to the trail rope and zip them back to you after I lead each pitch then lead some of the 5.7 pitches barefoot to save time.” Amazingly, this actually worked, and the first 1500 feet went smoothly.

With 500 feet to go, however, we ran into another problem. We didn’t bring nearly enough water. We ran dry right when the sun hit us and the wall began to bake. I started to feel sick but Mark just kept leading ahead. A few hundred feet from the top we found some water that had been left on a ledge. It was hot from being in the sun and had insects floating on the top, but we gladly drank from it. After eight hours and 2000 feet of climbing, we made it to the top. We were back down to the meadow at dusk.

It is hard for me to explain how much this climb changed me. It was an amazingly intense, raw and terrifying experience. The wall was vertical so there was often nothing but a thousand feet of air between my feet and the ground. From a place that high up, the 200-foot trees at the base look like little clumps of broccoli. And because we were climbing so hard with little water or food, I was having minor hallucinations. It was the most difficult and draining thing I had ever done in my life. And all I could think about was doing more of it.

  Trip Report Views: 3,132
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on Earth had been spent on the face of El Capitan – an accomplishment that left friends and family pondering Chris’s sanity. He has climbed El Capitan more than 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?”

Outside Magazine called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He is the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA and the Rowell Legacy Committee. He has a rarely updated adventure journal, maintains BASEjumpingmovies.com, and also runs a Lake Tahoe home rental business.

Comments
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the Fet

climber
Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La
  Jul 17, 2015 - 09:03am PT
Fantastic.
Captain...or Skully

climber
Boise, ID
  Jul 17, 2015 - 09:03am PT
Those were the days, huh Chris?
YeAh man! TFPU!!!!
eKat

climber
  Jul 17, 2015 - 09:05am PT
^ ^ ^ Yeah, what MyCappy said!

:-)
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Jul 17, 2015 - 09:18am PT
2000'? Did you run up the last thousand? :-)

Genuinely enthusiastic and succinct - two great attributes!
locker

climber
  Jul 17, 2015 - 09:22am PT

Enjoyable read...

Timid TopRope

Social climber
the land of Pale Ale
  Jul 17, 2015 - 10:34am PT
Cool. Good writing about a life-changing experience.

Andy T
JEleazarian

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Jul 17, 2015 - 10:50am PT
Wow! I didn't start climbing until I was 16, and didn't feel competent to get off the ground in Yosemite Valley until I was 18, but then we were teaching ourselves -- carefully. In addition to the pure enjoyment of climbing your TR shared with me, it also shows the value of having a good mentor.

John
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
  Jul 17, 2015 - 11:36am PT
This is pretty damn awesome!
pc

climber
  Jul 17, 2015 - 11:44am PT
Great! Was the application successful?

Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Author's Reply  Jul 17, 2015 - 11:48am PT
haha. yeah, got into Princeton. But dropped out after 16 days. It was too far from El Cap. Ended up graduating from Berkeley. Closest UC at the time to El Cap.
NutAgain!

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
  Jul 17, 2015 - 12:02pm PT
What kind of climbs and other activities were you doing at the time that you had the strength and stamina to mostly free a route on El Cap in a day? Had you already done the long 5.9/5.10 adventure climb circuit or any other walls? Or were you a multipitch n00b who kicked ass in the gym?
Captain...or Skully

climber
Boise, ID
  Jul 17, 2015 - 12:46pm PT
Chris was a bigwall climbing freakazoid in those days....tearing it up!
Now he's a legitimate businessman.....woe. Lol
steveA

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
  Jul 17, 2015 - 12:52pm PT
i really liked that TR. Thanks!!
L

climber
And I'm searchin' for waterspouts...
  Jul 17, 2015 - 01:01pm PT
Great story...especially since you were sharin' shoes.
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Jul 17, 2015 - 01:29pm PT
what were the hallucinations like?
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

climber
Out Of Bed
  Jul 17, 2015 - 06:23pm PT
Full value !
Full on!
the real deal for sure !
thank you for threading the needle and sowing it up tight

Excellent company keeps excellent company.
mastadon

Trad climber
crack addict
  Jul 17, 2015 - 06:35pm PT

CM- Do you still keep in touch with Derek Larson?
MisterE

Gym climber
Small Town with a Big Back Yard
  Jul 17, 2015 - 06:52pm PT
What a great story, Chris.

Thanks for the share.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Jul 17, 2015 - 08:44pm PT
Right on! When I was 15 I had just learned to tie my shoes.
Wayno

Big Wall climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 18, 2015 - 12:07am PT
My, how times have changed!
Bad Climber

Trad climber
The Lawless Border Regions
  Jul 18, 2015 - 06:24am PT
Hey, Chris--That's great! You did the West Face or Lurking Fear? East Butt? I, too, did a teenage ascent of El Cap--the West Face in 1980, although I was fresh out of high school and 18 at the time. I had the pleasure of watching Ron Fawcett blast by me as I stepped aside above a big overhang. Jill Kent followed smoothly. Good times.

BAd
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Author's Reply  Jul 20, 2015 - 10:31am PT
West Face of El Cap

Yep, still keep in touch with Derek. Have done a few talks for his California History classes in Truckee.

Hallucinations - less "crazy visions style" and more "not sure this is reality" feeling
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Jul 20, 2015 - 06:21pm PT
This is a great story, your first hit ;)
karodrinker

Trad climber
San Jose, CA
  Jul 20, 2015 - 06:34pm PT
Thanks for sharing, so rad that you shared shoes! Dehydration/exhaustion hallucinations... Ii remember hiking down the mist trail after the RNWF and hearing a full symphony coming from Nevada Falls, then a bluegrass band coming from Vernal. It sounded so real.
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El Capitan - West Face 5.11c - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
Photo: Chris McNamara
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