Iron Hawk A4 5.10
Trip ReportIron Hawk - Solo*
I was more exhausted than I can remember ever being. Not only was I physically beaten, but my self- confidence had become severely shaken. I had taken too many falls, made too many mistakes, had too many things go wrong. I didn’t trust myself any more. The crazy confidence in myself that had previously gotten me up so many routes over the years, had simply evaporated.
I looked up at the 5.9 slab above me, the overhanging wall looming above that, the summit beyond and I knew in my heart that I could never climb there.
There was only one thing I could do.
I chose Iron Hawk simply because it ascends a part of El Cap I had never climbed. I’d done the North America Wall and the Tangerine Trip way back in the day, but nothing in between those two routes. The Knifeblade [KB] Traverse looked cool to me, the Spoon above it looked awesome, and the runout 5.9 pitches near the top added a perverse attraction. Additionally, the route didn’t seem to get much traffic, and I was eager to get off the “trade routes” and onto more challenging territory.
My spring plan is always to leave Hood River, Oregon on the Friday before Memorial day, stop for the night a few hours from Yosemite, and then drive the rest of the way the next morning, I then jump out of the car, grab my gear, hump to the base and fix a pitch or two.
I had some interesting weather on my drive down.
This year I stayed at Max Jones’ house in Carson City, and then we drove to the Valley together the next morning. I was going to help Roger Putnam with his geological survey of El Capitan, and to return the favor Roger agreed to help me by carrying some of my loads to the base. Skot Richards and Paul Souza were also there and ready to carry loads as thanks for the various big wall techniques I had taught them through dozens of emails over the winter and early spring.
The load carrying crew, me, Paul Souza, Max Jones, Roger Putnam, Skot Richards. Photo by Tom Evans
Max was going to come along with me for the ride as I climbed the start of the route to the El Cap Tree, but he was under strict orders not to touch anything - I wasn’t about to allow my solo ascent to be tainted! Accordingly, I fixed the lead line, and Max would climb the pitch, belaying himself with a Mini-Traxion and an ascender. Then I would rap the haul line and clean as normal while he waited for me to return.
Probably the first mistake I made was deciding to drag a pack with all the hardware up the traversing and blocky pitches to El Cap Tree. It really proved to be a waste of time and strength, as it was they wouldn’t have added that much weight to my haul bags when I eventually hauled them directly up the two steep pitches to El Cap Tree later in the day.
Max and I arrived at the top of the 5th pitch - right at the base of the Tree - and from here, we fixed two ropes down to the ground. Along the way, I rebelayed on the bolts partway down in order to avoid passing a knot. Back on the ground I packed my bags, said good bye to Max, and then jugged back up the first rope and hauled to my rebelay anchor. Conservatively I had at least 250 pounds of gear, food, and water, but hauling is never too difficult when using my 2:1 hauling system.
Since I was alone, there would be no one to release the bags from the first anchor when I was ready to haul them up to the second anchor. I didn’t want to have to jug the second pitch twice so I worked out a way to hang the bags on a fifi hook so that I could haul them right off the anchor. I’m usually someone who pays excessive attention to every detail but as I left the first anchor I noticed the haul line was running between the bags and the rock. I figured it would pull through and thought nothing of it at the time until the haul line came tight and I was unable to move, barely 10 feet from the second anchor. I rapped back down, fixed the mess, and jugged the line again... just what I didn’t want to do. Maybe the Better Way would have been to have skipped the rebelay and its attendant cluster, and simply hauled to El Cap Tree all in one go. It’s no big deal to pass a knot joining two haul lines when using my 2:1 system.
I spent a wonderful night on my ledge in the company of the El Cap Tree. Sadly the Tree is dying if not dead and has probably 200 feet of Christmas lights hanging from its dead branches. The Tree deserves more dignity than that and some Good Samaritan should go up there and cut them off.
The next day when it was time to start climbing, I was faced with the first of many similar situations, which were the pitches that traverse, overhang, or zig-zag through roofs. But I say “situations” and not “problems”, because when you’re rope soloing, you don’t have to worry about rope drag. This is because when you’re soloing, the lead rope doesn’t move like it does when you are climbing with a partner. You fix one end of the lead rope to your lower anchor, and then the rope stays in place as you climb the pitch, feeding the slack through the self-belay device you wear on your harness. The benefit is that when soloing, rope drag is never a problem, because the rope is stationary. This allows you to climb crazy diagonals and roofs with impunity, since you never have to worry about being hosed by rope drag. This allows you to link pitches, which you probably couldn’t link when climbing with a partner, since the rope drag would be impossible. You just have to make sure you bring enough gear to link the pitches. As well, you have to be careful not to backclean too much if at all on traverses, otherwise it will be very difficult to clean.
The topo shows the 6th pitch of Iron Hawk as being 110 feet long and the next one - the one that goes out the roof - as being only 50 feet. (It actually shows 150 feet, but it’s incorrect.) My plan was to link those two pitches, to save time and also to save a second haul.
At the start of the pitch I mucked around on some grassy ledges before climbing into a shallow corner that could easily have gone free if I had had a belayer, and hadn’t been weighed down by a ton of aid gear. I placed a few cams and then a beak; bounce tested it a little, and then got on it. I was searching for the next piece when the beak pulled, flinging me sideways out of the corner. I felt a bit shaken since I was so close to various ledges and blocks where a more serious fall could easily result in a twist or break of some fundamental body part. But I shook it off and continued on.
The topo shows A3R and “Fragile Hooks” but I found that merely looking around and being smart tamed the pitch. The last few feet to the anchor were easy, and I tagged up my gear bag to the anchor directly under the roof.
Climbing the roof was a journey in itself! It looks like a hanging garden that has a rock climb going through it. I thought of Ron Kauk and Dale Bard climbing out this thing years ago, gardening along the way, exhausted and covered in mud at the end. The whole roof is now fixed but you have to find the pins or slings hidden in the moss and then you have to be able to do the gymnastic moves to clip them!
The Iron Hawk Roof (a five photo pano)
I was quite happy and relieved to reach the vertical rock above the lip.
Once above the roof, a copperhead didn’t pass the bounce test - and I found myself having to place my first head in 35 years. I grabbed a head off my rack that looked like it might fit, reshaped it to match the taper of the placement, and then using the end of a blunt Lost Arrow, I pasted it into the crack. It survived a rather violent bounce test so I climbed up onto it. Further up, I was bummed to find my first useless head a few inches above an obvious and bomber cam placement. “I hope this route doesn’t degenerate into more of that,” I thought, remembering back to last year on Zenyatta Mondatta where I pulled out a least a dozen fixed heads from easy nut and cam cracks.
Bomber cam, useless head
I use a clever but complicated system of solo tagging when I climb. What this means is that I don’t have to wear my entire rack when soloing a pitch, but rather I leave some of it behind in my “tag bag,” which is the bag I can later pull up behind me a once or twice per pitch. This bag is carefully hung from a fifi hook initially at the lower anchor. The bag contains some food, water, and all the gear I’m not carrying on the rack, along with the bag containing the rest of my lead rope. This helps me lighten my load, and should I run out of gear, I would then pull up the bag, grab the gear and continue on, leaving the tag bag hanging from a fifi mid-pitch. The Tag Bag is tied to the “top” end of the lead rope, which is the opposite end of the rope to that tied at the lower anchor. One thing about soloing that is different than climbing with a partner is that you are seldom if ever actually tied into the end of the rope - you are merely sliding the middle of the rope through your self-belay device. The only knot per se that attaches you to the rope is the backup knot, immediately downstream of the solo belay device.
In order to allow tagging on very long pitches, where my tag back is hanging far below me, I have lengthened my system by adding a 40-foot hunk of 8 mil cord which is tied to the end of the lead line and to the tag bag. My lead line is a 70-meter rope, which is 230 feet. Adding the extension I have 270 feet of useable rope and can climb as far as 135 feet before having to tag. The tag bags hangs on a fifi hook, safetied with a “slippery overhand knot”.
When I need to pull the bag up, I set up a makeshift anchor, pull up the rope, pull the slippery knot out and pull the bag off the piece it is hanging on and up to me. Get it?
To finish off the system, I have the top of my haul line tied to the bottom of the tag bag. This means that I don’t have to climb with the weight of the haul line hanging off of my harness. I do the final tag up to the anchor, set up my belay, and then I rappel the haul line back to the lower anchor to release the pigs onto the haul line where they hang in space while I clean the pitch. Then I reach the top, and haul the load.
The anchor for the next pitch is only a few feet above the lip of the roof but I had a hell of a time trying to pull my tag bag off the lower anchor. I pulled and pulled and nothing happened. It was completely stuck, but from above the roof, I had know way of knowing what the problem was, let alone how to solve it.
I really didn’t want to rap down past the roof and jug back up to the anchor. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Was the tag line going so horizontal that it wasn’t rotating the hook off the anchor? I gave it one more pull and it released and swung out from the roof. I rapped back down, cut my pigs free, then jugged back up to clean the pitch. Fortunately, cleaning the roof was a little less strenuous, and I was happily ensconced on the smooth clean rock of the headwall.
The next pitch, marked on the topo as A3+, seemed pretty casual and I climbed it quickly, cutting off the half-inch webbing slings someone had left on each rivet. By the time I reached the anchor, my tat collection had doubled, and I could see more than a dozen lower-out slings on the KB Traverse. I can never understand why people leave slings all over the place on climbs. To me, it’s a sign of an unthinking climber, which baffles me since wall climbing is such a thinking person’s game.
That evening, while setting up my ledge and anchor, I made what turned out to be my biggest mistake of the climb - I dropped my only Grigri. What happened was that I was moving the bags up a little on the anchor by creating a 2:1 mini-lift with the Micro-Traxion on top of the haul bags and a Revolver biner [the one with the little built-in pulley wheel] at the anchor, when a loop of rope I was holding fell out of my hand. This caused the full weight of the free hanging rope to hit my other hand, which was holding the Grigri. I cursed as I watched it fall to the trees below, but wasn’t too worried. I was using a Silent Partner as my solo belay device and used the Grigri only for rappelling my haul line when returning back to the lower anchor after having led the pitch. I figured I could use a biner brake to rappel with and it would be no big deal.
It turned out to be a bigger deal than I realized.
After dropping my Gri-gri, I got freaked out and tied tether cords to everything.
The Knifeblade Traverse is one of the money pitches of Iron Hawk, and the Spoon also qualifies. The KB Traverse has been described as a “horizontal Groove (on the Shield) pitch,” and so I expected loads of fixed junk. I was pleasantly surprised to find fun pin placements for the first few moves. As I continued on, however, fixed copperheads with lower out slings became the norm. I had my butter knives ready to clean out any useless head I could find and I was kept busy removing deadheads and tat. A previous cleaner had left a lower out sling on almost every piece on the pitch - didn’t this person know he could have simply climbed the pitch on aiders, belayed with his jugs, using a back up knot as a safety, in order to clean it? Doing it that way would have been at least as fast as lowering out from every piece. I removed them all, along with any head within a foot of another head. As I left it, the pitch still contains quite a bit of fixed gear but it’s all usable, and the pitch is quite a bit cleaner than it was.
Starting the KB Traverse. Photo by Tom Evans
About halfway across I saw a place I could use my “meat hook,” a large Pika hook. It easily spanned the rounded hump of a flake, and I was able to make a far reach to clip a bolt. I figured I could make my cleaning easier if I could place a cam behind the flake, but when I used the flake as a handhold it easily moved two whole inches, I changed my mind! I wasn’t using my usual tag bag set up on this pitch; rather I was tagging just my rope bag across it. I pulled the bag off the anchor, set the tag bag’s fifi hook onto the bolt, and fed the rope into the bag, ready for when I reached the pitch’s end. My plan was to clean the KB Traverse, then lead and clean the Spoon, and then rap back down and spend another night at the start of the Traverse.
Two things of beauty!
At the end of the Traverse, I pulled on my tag bag line. It didn’t move. Not again! I pulled again, harder, and again and again and again. No go, it wouldn’t move. “What the f*#k!” Things were not working out on this route. How in hell was I going to get back to the middle of the pitch, fix the problem and then get back to this anchor? It wasn’t like I was on a vertical section, and could simply rappel down to my bag. This was virtually a dead horizontal pitch.
I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t really want to do it. I set up a carabiner brake, rapped down my tag line till I was as the bottom of the loop, and then jugged up to the tag bags, only at the last moment seeing why the bag was stuck and what was securing the rope I was jugging on. The rope, as I had pulled it, had clipped itself into a biner on the next piece, and I was jugging on a rope anchored by a fifi hook being pulled sideways on a bolt and nothing more! I calmly clipped one of my daisies into the bolt and into the next piece and reset the hook.
To get back to the anchor, I tied a knot into the rope I had rappelled on from the top anchor, and clipped it to my belay loop with a locking biner. My haul line was attached to the tag bag so I grabbed it, then pulled it till it was tight to the lower anchor, almost horizontal with me. Then I put my ‘biner brake setup on it. I stepped out of my aiders, and was now suspended between the upper and lower anchors and was able to lower myself back down until I was below the upper anchor, at which point I could jug back up. What an ordeal!
A fun pin stack
It hadn’t taken much time but I still had to clean the KB Traverse and then lead and clean the 160-foot Spoon above me. I rapped back down the rope but this time on the haul line - its other end was attached to the start of the Traverse. Then I cleaned it without incident, removing a few more heads and an old RURP.
The trick of cleaning traverses is to be able to get up high and close to your jugs. This puts you up at the same level as the leader. If the leader can lean one way to place gear, then the cleaner can easily lean back to clean gear. I use my adjustable fifi, hooked to my ascender handle to quickly move up higher on my cleaning set up.
Safe traverse cleaning. I just noticed that the cam on the upper jug is not in its clipped shut position. I must have taken the photo before I did that. I was very conscious about hearing that "click". I don't put biners in the top hole because they take too long and make moving the ascenders difficult. I do make it a point to have a biner at the bottom of the top jug clipped to the rope to make that jug more in-line with the rope. Of course, I tie safety knots to my harness every thirty feet or so.
The Spoon starts off a bit scary since the first few moves off the anchor are sketchy and a Factor Two fall onto the anchor is a real possibility. Originally, I thought I’d use a Screamer and a Gri-gri to help mitigate that problem, but now without a Gri-gri, I couldn’t think of a fast and easy way to do it. I hung a Screamer off the highest bolt at the anchor and hoped that would be good enough.
The KB Traverse and the Spoon. Photo by Tom Evans
The Spoon went on forever and the last seventy feet of the pitch takes all the same size gear. I leapfrogged pieces for a dozen feet, leaving a piece and continuing on as best I could. My last piece before the anchor was a cam with only two of the four lobes in the crack. It was freaky, but it held.
Getting back to the start of the pitch was a special treat since my haul line was anchored down at the start of the KB Traverse and not the bottom of the Spoon. I had to rappel on my carabiner brake and continuously pull myself to the right over on the lead line since the Spoon leans to the left. It sure would have been nice to have had my Grigri!
But everything went well. I passed the knot between the lead line and haul line, and after a fair amount of work, was back at the bottom of the Spoon. It was getting late. I had had a hard day of work, but I still had the 160-foot Spoon to clean. I resolved to clean it in 30 minutes but took 35. After that it was a nice, clean and airy 190-foot free-hanging rap back down to my ledge.
Ah, Home Sweet Home!
The next day I slept in and didn’t get an early start since this was to be sort of a rest day. All I had planned to do was jumar and haul the 190-foot rope I had fixed, and then climb one 80-foot A2 pitch. I packed the bags, flagged my ledge, lowered them out on the haul line from the anchor, then ran and jumped off the sloping ledge and jugged the free-hanging pitch on the lead rope. It was quite a swing!
My tat collection at the top of the Spoon.
The worst thing about hauling for me is that it merely takes time. I have my 2:1 hauling system perfected, and to haul a 250-pound bag 200 feet in free space requires only the strength to do 400 squats!
The wind came up a bit, as I was getting ready to lead off on my 80-foot “rest day” pitch. Soon, my ledge was swinging all over the place. Before I had reached the next anchor, the wind had tangled the ledge in the ropes and slings at the lower anchor along with my tag line. My haul line is always attached to my tag bag so that I don’t have to lead with it hanging from my waist. Without being able to pull up my tag bag, I would not have the haul line and would therefore have to rap the pitch on the remaining length of lead line, fight the wind while taking apart my ledge and stuffing it in its bag and then jug the line again merely to get the haul line to the upper anchor! I would then have to rap down again to release the haul bags and clean the pitch.
So much for my rest day!
I spent the remainder of the day organizing my gear, trying to streamline my setup, and hopefully avoid any more tangles, mistakes and stuck tag bags.
Bivy above the Spoon. Photo by Tom Evans
The anchor at the top of the 13th pitch was a mess of one 3/8” bolt and four ¼” bolts. It wasn’t unsafe, but the route deserved better and I had the time and the equipment to fix it. I pulled one quarter-incher and, using the same hole, replaced it with a 3/8” bolt. I then pulled two others, filling one hole with epoxy and the other with a 3/8” bolt.
A bunch of crappy bolts.
Climbing El Cap seems like such a privilege to me that I feel bad if I can’t give back and try to leave the cliff in better shape than I found it. It shows respect to the next climbers up the route. I don’t feel they deserve to wade through my tat and useless fixed gear. I figure they are just like me, wanting to experience the route as much like the first ascent as they can.
There is no arguing that Iron Hawk is, after the Girdle Traverse, the most traversing route on all of El Cap and at times, two 130-foot pitches will gain you only 150 vertical feet. In three or four places on the route you could, if you set it up correctly, climb two pitches but haul only one.
I had originally planned to link the next two pitches but was getting gun shy about doing anything out of the ordinary. That day ended up being the only day where nothing went wrong, where everything went according to plan.
It didn’t last.
This actually held a fall and then fell out on its own later.
The 14th pitch starts out with a rivet ladder to some dirty, grassy, wide, loose, and awkward corners. I was trying to avoid a loose flake when a cam pulled and caused my first upside-down fall. I was a bit shaken, and had ripped a large chunk of skin off of my left hand little finger. And then, on another attempt to avoid the flakes, a hook skated off an edge and sent me for another fall. At this point I started to get rattled. I tried to regain my composure, tried to tell myself that this was what I was up here for - the challenge, the not knowing, and the getting close to the edge. But I still felt gripped and was even getting a bit depressed. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard! Or was it?
Too many things had gone wrong. My solos weren’t usually like this; my planning usually paid off. I was losing confidence in myself, and my body was slowly getting beat up from wrestling portaledges in the wind, pulling tangled and stuck tag lines, and rapping horizontal pitches.
A Swallow in a crack
At least the swallows in the crack kept me company for half of that pitch, so I didn’t feel entirely alone. They were chirping and squawking, and at one point, I watched a swallow chimney up the crack, its wings folded back and touching one side of the crack while its body bridged across to the other side. It quickly darted into a smaller crack and squawked at me. From this point, the pitch continues awkwardly just above an overlap to another poorly designed anchor.
A photo for Roger’s survey and a note from me.
The “Sky Traverse” was the next pitch. When I had climbed twenty feet or so above the anchor I could see that the topo had hosed me by mistakenly showing many .5 to 4.5” pieces on the pitch below where nothing wide was needed. I stared up into a 4- to 5-inch crack with nothing larger than a 2-inch piece on my rack. If I hadn’t dropped my Gri-gri, I could have immediately stepped out of my aiders and rapped down to the anchor to get some larger gear. But with only a carabiner brake, the task wasn’t as easy, so I forced myself to make do with what gear I had, placing small pieces in the cracks at the back of the wider one.
The actual Sky Traverse rivets on the slightly-less-than-vertical wall were a welcome relief from the awkward overhanging cracks I had been climbing all day. The Sky Traverse ends in the middle of a blank face and you have to lower down and swing over to a thin crack leading to the next anchor. Lowering down with a Silent Partner is possible, but it’s not a one-handed job. I would not be able to let go of the rope to grab holds or clip fixed gear. I ended up using a carabiner brake above the Silent Partner to awkwardly perform a task that a Gri-gri would have done easily. I had to yard myself a bunch of rope, rappel on the biner brake, settle into the Silent Partner, swing over, and try to grab something. If that didn’t work I had to pull some slack through the Silent Partner, drop down a bit and try again.
We don’t need no stinkin’ Gri-gris!
When I finally caught something to hang onto, I was too busy trying to stay attached to the rock to take the biner brake off the rope. It was a tug of war that now on Day 6 of my most difficult solo I was slowly losing. I didn’t realize at the time the cumulative toll the whole affair was taking on me.
I had planned to climb only one pitch on my 7th day, which turned out to be a smart idea. I couldn’t have guessed that Iron Hawk was about to turn the dial up to 11.
The topo didn’t show a length for my pitch of the day and rated it only A2, and it was also described as “loose”. But I could see most of it, and it didn’t look too bad. There is a wide section at the beginning, so I loaded up with big gear.
The wide section
Somewhere along the early part of the pitch a cam pulled, probably because on this seldom traveled route the cracks are filled with small flakes and the cam simply skated out with a few of them. I later figured I should have bounce tested the cam just a bit, to test the brittle flakes and fracture them first before I fully committed to the piece. I ended up falling fifteen feet or so, swinging quite harshly to the right. Later, while taking a photo of the beak placement I was standing on, the beak pulled and I pitched off backwards. The sound of my helmet scraping against the rock was disconcerting, and finding myself hanging upside-down didn’t make me any happier. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse, and fast.
After righting myself and climbing back up to my last piece, I noticed blood all over my pants and on the rock. I looked around and discovered that my elbow was bleeding quite freely. The gash was at the very tip of my elbow, and therefore I couldn’t get a clear view of it. I had a Band-Aid in my pocket and slapped it on where I thought the blood was coming from.
A few minutes later on the same pitch while I was searching for a piece on my rack, I heard a soft “ping”. I looked around; looked up at the piece I was on and didn’t notice anything different. Not anything different, except things were sort of blurry. I tried to focus and noticed that my glasses frame was open and that I had lost a prescription lens.
Just another thing
Oh, great, I thought. Isn’t this just the cat’s ass? Why now? But then again, why the f*#k not? I mean, could anything else go wrong? Maybe I could get dive-bombed by a crazed raven or get bit by a rabid bat! I know, a mouse could chew through my ropes causing me to fall to my death!
I was ranting.
Wait a minute - how ‘bout I get the f*#king Hanta Virus! Go ahead, bring it on. What the hell else can go wrong?
I didn’t have an extra pair of glasses with me, but fortunately I had prescription sunglasses in the haul bag. The rest of the pitch was a blur, both figuratively and actually.
More crappy bolts
The anchor at the top of the 15th pitch was another bolt disaster. I pulled four crappy 1/4” bolts and replaced them with a 3/8” bolt. I then got my ledge set up, and tried to take a photo of my elbow so that I could see how bad it was. After a few attempts I got a good shot of it, and determined how best to tape it up. I was already beat, and I was getting even more beat up with every passing pitch. I contemplated retreat, but it would have been very difficult if not impossible because of the overhanging and traversing nature of the pitches I had already climbed, and I determined that going to the top would be the easiest solution.
“I’m Mark Hudon, and I’m badass,” I said to myself, and almost started crying.
Additionally, I must have chipped a bone, I’ll be going to have a doctor look at this soon.
I started climbing early the next day, my 8th day on the route. I wanted to get two pitches done, because I wanted to get the hell off this route. I had had enough, and I just wanted it to end.
Start of day 8. Photo by Tom Evans
The next pitch looked to be about eighty feet long and the topo shows it to be only A2. I took all the pins I had, and placed one any time it took me longer than about ten seconds to find a clean placement. I hammered them extra hard, too. I was done with falling; I just couldn’t take it anymore.
It was finally dawning on me that my general attitude toward the route was contributing to my problems. My first solo - Grape Race to Tribal Rite - was far more of a trade route than Iron Hawk, and although it was nominally rated A4, I would consider its rating to be more of a “trade route level A4”. On my solo ascent, I had climbed its “A4” pitch cleanly, at mild C3, and I had hammered only fifteen pieces in the entire route. My second solo, Zenyatta Mondatta - another trade route and another supposed A4 route - went clean for me aside from fifteen beaks and the dozens of welded heads on the “A4” pitches. Climbing A4 pitches on ZM is merely clipping a ladder of fixed heads, and what climbing isn’t on heads is instead on cams and nuts.
But Iron Hawk is a different caliber of climb. The route is rarely climbed, is only lightly scarred, and has no history of clean ascents. My mistake was being more clean climbing-oriented and thinking that Iron Hawk’s A3 pitches should only be about as hard as the “A3” pitches on Grape Race/Tribal Rite and ZM, which I had mistakenly assumed translated roughly into C3.
At any rate, the pitch went well for a change, and I continued on to another anchor 60 feet farther. This is where Iron Hawk joins the New Jersey Turnpike and there are a few anchors very close to each other for some reason. The anchor I chose to stop at, yet again, was an ugly affair of bolts and rivets. I only had one bolt remaining so I left the anchor for a future party to fix.
An anchor on the New Jersey Turnpike.
After an overhanging wall, the topo shows an A2 ramp to a rivet ladder. Halfway up the ladder, I could see a flake had fallen out and someone had placed a head, but it had cheater slings hanging down from it. Without even thinking about it I clipped the sling and move onto them. I was casually hanging from the slings having just stepped off a hook when the wire on the head broke and I dropped down fifteen feet or so, caught by a rivet. It was a casual little fall. I just dropped straight down, no big deal, but somehow I managed to jam the middle finger on my right hand, which started to swell immediately. Well, that’s about par for the course, I thought. Pretty stupid of me not to have tested that head first. Oh well, it wouldn’t kill me; it was just another little thing, just one more of the Thousand Cuts.
For once, my tag bag pulled off the lower anchor without a problem and I thought I was going to have a day free from any major problems.
I rapped down to the lower anchor and was happily cleaning away when I noticed that the haul line had snagged on a rivet and that it was running at about a 45-degree angle to the anchor, 40 feet away. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another, I thought as I approached the snag. I tied a Klemheist knot to the line below the rivet and tried to fashion a 2:1 with whatever slings and cords I could muster. I was down and to the side of the snag and couldn’t get much leverage on it; plus, I didn’t want the rope to drag me with it when it finally released. After a whole hell of a lot of pulling and prying, the rope popped off the rivet and snapped towards the anchor, severely pinching my hand between the slings and cords of the 2:1 system I had concocted. Predictably.
The rivet core shot my haul line
The rivets end right at the anchor, which consists of two 3/8” bolts. It would have made a better anchor to have added a third bolt, and even though it was still a few hours before my usual quitting time, I was so wasted that all I could do was set up my ledge and get into my sleeping bag. I was too tired to even make dinner. In fact, by this point I didn’t even care if I ate dinner or not. I ate a couple power and fruit bars and called it good.
Since NOAA Weather was forecasting a rain storm for the afternoon of the next day, I got up early and climbed a 5.9 pitch to the next anchor which was at an uneven, sloping ledge about six feet long and four wide. I thought I could get set up better and be drier there when the rain hit. I was well encamped on my ledge and under my fly when the rain arrived a few hours later. Everything looked good so I took a nap.
The 5.9 pitch to where I spent the rainy afternoon. Photo by Tom Evans
Two hours later in that dreamy state between sleep and wakefulness, I heard the rain, but it seemed far more consistent and rhythmic than rain should be. I was lying in an awkward position and I was feeling sort of hot, but I was enjoying my slumber too much to wake myself up. Eventually I did, which was a good thing, since I discovered I had pitched my camp under a runoff and that water was fairly streaming in through the door of my fly. Perfect. I grabbed my Big Wall Sponge and started mopping things up as best I could, then I put my sleeping bag away into its dry sack and made sure my clothes were also in their waterproof bags. I then arranged my rain jacket to catch the leak from the door and regained control of the situation. So far, so good.
The storm continued on but I remained mostly dry. It wasn’t forecast to last very long and sure enough, by eight that night, the sky began to clear. I made dinner and fell asleep before it was even dark.
The storm clearing
The next morning I woke up to find that I had not moved at all during the night, since I had awakened in the same position in which I had fallen asleep. I rolled over and slept for two more hours.
Despite claiming in my videos that “I really want to get off this route,” Tom Evans has photos of me only just leaving the ledge at 1:30 in the afternoon. The weather forecast for the day was clear and 65 degrees, but I was wearing almost all the clothes I had brought with me, and I was still not feeling very warm. I later found photos of myself still wearing my rack four hours later. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I had pretty much reached my physical limit of endurance, and was now running on fumes only.
I was wearing almost all the clothes I took on the climb but was still cold.
I was barely able to close my hands, and my left hand pinky finger was very sore for some reason, so much so I could barely bend it. Meanwhile the middle finger on my right hand was still swollen and hard to move. I wondered if either was broken. My right shoulder was simply killing me and I could hardly lift the rope with it. I had long ago gobbled the last of my ibuprofen so I was going to have to live with the pain.
I set up camp that night, hanging next to a long thin ledge, below the two runout 5.9 pitches. I was hoping beyond hope that I could climb them quickly and maybe even get to the top the next day.
It didn’t look like the opening moves of the first runout 5.9 pitch went free, or at least it didn’t look like it would go free by me. I aided up to a point where I thought I could free climb, and then lowered down, leaving my aiders clipped end to end to my high point. I returned to my ledge, put on my free climbing shoes and “Batmanned” up my aiders, and started to free climb. I was scattered and not confident but figured if I could make a few free moves I’d be able to pull up onto a ledge. I started to lieback a rounded edge but it didn’t feel right, I smeared my foot onto a sloping hold but I was already shaking. I tried to move up but my hand melted off a good hold and I pitched off backwards and head first, coming to a stop thirty feet lower, slamming my back into the wall, miraculously missing a ledge. Strangely, I wasn’t too freaked out. I was beyond caring. I had survived, so what? I checked my pulse and it wasn’t racing, but I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.
I sat there for a few minutes and then went up again. This time I placed some gear and got past the move that had thrown me off. I moved up onto the slab and was relieved to see a 3/8” bolt about 25 feet away.
I moved towards the bolt but when I grabbed a flake or hold I could feel that there was no strength behind my grip. I stood as well as I ever have on sloping footholds, but never felt the confidence that I wouldn’t slip and fall. I tried to convince myself that I could “technique the sh#t out of it,” but I couldn’t. I managed to clip the first bolt and then started looking for a second, which I spotted thirty feet up and just as far off to the right. I climbed cautiously and calmly but never confidently. I never felt strong, I never felt safe, I questioned every handhold and every foothold and never trusted the answer. I managed to clip the second bolt and finally the anchor, praying that the second supposedly “5.9” pitch wouldn’t be much worse. That I could, in fact, somehow “technique the sh#t out of it.”
But looking up at it, I immediately knew I couldn’t. I was in trouble.
After my “success” - if only barely - on the first 5.9 pitch, I figured I ought to get on the second one right away. I tightened my shoes, chalked my hands, and sized up my situation. Not great, but maybe OK. Straight up looked promising, a square-ish hold above a small ramp 25 feet above the anchor looked decent, and a traverse out left and up looked like it might be the way to go.
I wandered left, reached a high undercling with one hand and a sloping knob with the other, and tried to convince myself to pull up. Nothing happened. I moved my feet up and back down, a little dance, but I didn’t have the confidence in my strength or myself to commit to the move. I felt that once I moved up, it would be impossible for me to safely retreat. I really didn’t have the confidence in my ability to keep myself calm should the next move above be impossible and I would need to climb back down.
So I moved back to the anchor and tried going straight up. Same deal. I was really stuck, and I was feeling the desperation begin to set in. This really wasn’t good. I wandered far out left but questioned my every move, every handhold, and every foothold. I retreated back to the anchor feeling quite gripped. I tried each route twice more, each time with the same negative result. It was starting to dawn on me that I might not be able to climb the last 5.9 pitch, and that for me, this would be the end.
Then I thought that I might go up there and try to aid it on hook's but that would still leave me looking at a big fall with very frazzled nerves. I wasn’t sure I could keep it together. Placing a bolt never even crossed my mind. I instead thought that maybe I should haul my bags up to this, my high point, spend the night there, try to recover, and maybe give it another try the next day. Maybe my strength would come back? But on a pitch like this next one, I knew I would also need every bit of my confidence. And I had to face the fact that my confidence wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
What I really needed was time to heal - I needed to get off the wall and get away from it all. It might take days; it might take weeks; it might take forever. I was simply too beat, I had made too many mistakes, and I had taken too many falls. I was physically and mentally empty.
I was done.
I was more finished than if I had been on top. After ten days of the hardest work of my life, I was virtually paralyzed. Quite simply, I could do nothing. If the pitch had been rated 5.5 R, it wouldn’t have mattered, because I wouldn’t have been able to climb it.
I had come to the awful realization that I was completely and utterly spent, with no other option but to call for rescue. Rescue?! I could barely form the word in my mind, let alone put it into action. Not only was it impossible for me to move upwards, but it was equally impossible to move downwards. There was no way I could have bailed - I didn’t trust myself to move or even clip and unclip gear, let alone attempt to rappel more than two thousand feet down an overhanging and traversing wall with hundreds of pounds of gear.
I rapped down my haul line, dug out my cell phone, and set it in the sun hoping to coax some life into it. It was down to 2% power and I had to make it all count. As I sat there, I fully collapsed and cried for an hour.
I invest a lot of time, effort, and emotion into my El Cap climbs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my first ascent of El Cap in 1974 changed my life. I moved out west from New Hampshire to be closer to Yosemite and fashioned my work life to include plenty of time for climbing. I carefully plan my climbs, the water, the food, the pitches per day, the linking of pitches, the rack, any of it and all of it. I train all winter; I lift weights and ride a stationary bike. I watch the weather reports months in advance (although I know it does no good) and have my bags packed and ready to go at least a month ahead of time. I have to convince myself to wait till I get to Yosemite to fill my water bottles.
I certainly don’t plan on failure and certainly not on a 5.9 pitch. 5.9 pitches usually don’t even enter my consciousness when I’m climbing; I haven’t failed on a 5.9 pitch in 38 years. I don’t know what it was, but on Iron Hawk I was snakebit from the very first day. I don’t know if I was complacent or beyond my depth or merely experiencing a low biorhythm month. Whatever the reason, it was truly a Death by a Thousand Cuts, the bags getting stuck, my dropping the Gri-gri, the countless falls I took, even the lens falling out of my glasses. It had all added up, it had all taken its toll.
It all added up to this - here I was, sitting on a ledge way up on El Cap with nothing more than a 5.9 pitch between me and certain success. A 5.9 pitch that I didn’t have the strength or the nerves to climb.
There was only one thing I could do.
I sent Cheyne Lempe a text, asking him to come up to the summit and drop me a rope so that I could jug out. I explained that he needed to find some porters to help carry my stuff down, and that I wouldn’t even be able to help him haul my gear to the top. I couldn’t help with anything, because I had nothing left.
Coincidentally, Tom took this photo at the instant I was texting Cheyne. Photo by Tom Evans
Watching Cheyne’s rope snake down from the top the next morning was quite emotional. I thought that maybe I could have him belay me on the pitch, maybe I could toprope it, but when I discovered that I didn’t even have enough hand strength to stuff my sleeping bag into its sack, I began to worry more about if I could even hold onto my ascenders long enough to jug to the top!
When Cheyne asked me what he could do to help, I replied simply, “Everything.”
Cheyne helped me pack up my gear, and he and Alik Berg hauled it off. As I jugged off I tried to see where I might have climbed. Straight up? Far left? Out right? I couldn’t see anything that I could have climbed in my shattered mental and physical state.
Cheyne and Alik hauling my gear
John Fine was also on top and I thanked everyone profusely but was unable to help in any way. I could barely untie knots or lift anything heavy.
I was a bit shell shocked on top.
I packed myself a small bag for the hike down but couldn’t lift it. I had to ask for help lifting it onto my back, and struggled downwards, more than a bit embarrassed by how little I was carrying compared to the others. At the East Ledges raps, I asked for a Gri-gri since I didn’t trust my grip. I felt like the walking dead. Each step took an effort and all my concentration. I tried not to think too much, to just keep moving.
Upon finally reaching the ground and the parking lot, I went off to take a shower and with my phone plugged in, read the comments of the people following me on SuperTopo. Sitting in my car at Housekeeping Camp, I started crying all over again.
It was over, I was done, I had escaped.
I took Cheyne, his girlfriend, Jess, Alik and John out for dinner at the Mountain Room that night and a few days later drove to Reno and flew home for my daughter Ellen’s 8th grade graduation.
It was good that I left the Valley right away. I wanted to forget, I wanted it to be different, I didn’t want to face the reality. At least at home, I didn’t have to look at the thing in the face every day.
It felt surreal being home. I was dead tired; often taking naps in the afternoon, and eating like a pig, breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole week. I don’t know what Peggy and Ellen thought of my plan to go back to Yosemite to climb another El Cap route. I had been planning it for months and they both know my love for El Cap. They must have thought I was crazy and to tell you the truth, I was a little bit worried myself. My fingers were peeling, my hands still hurt, and I had not stopped feeling tired.
After a week at home I flew back down to Reno, drove to Yosemite and was fixing ropes on The Shortest Straw with Cheyne the day after I arrived.
It was very hot and I was feeling tired and sick. I didn’t know if I had recovered enough from Iron Hawk or if I was truly sick, or if my body and mind were simply recoiling at the thought of another El Cap route. I leaned my head against the wall and thought, “No, you can’t not do it. You have to do it. You can do it.”
Climbing an El Cap route solo and climbing one with Cheyne - a young and talented climber who has notched three one-day solos of El Cap - are far different experiences. Not only did I have to perform only half the work, Cheyne’s good nature and enthusiasm are contagious.
On our last morning on the wall after we had completed our quick and uneventful ascent of the Straw, I was cleaning the 5.10 pitch above Peanut ledge on Zodiac just above where the Straw joins it. Cheyne, who had soloed Zodiac last year in 19 hours, had raced up the pitch. I was feeling tired and although the final pitch was supposed to be my lead, I asked Cheyne to lead it, to take me to the top once again. I was tired, really tired, although I hadn’t reached the catatonic state I did on Iron Hawk. But I think after spending 17 of the last 26 days climbing El Cap, I had earned the right to be tired.
As I watched Cheyne work his way up the last pitch I realized what had happened. I had asked Cheyne to lead it; I had given away a pitch, something I’d never done before. But it was all right. It was fine. I was still climbing El Cap.
And then I started crying again.
El Cap Route Panoramas are available at www.elcappanos.com
I must thank Pete Zabrok for his work editing this TR for me. Pete easily spent five hours working on it. At times I wanted to strangle him but it all worked out for the best.
Additionally, Scott Jett and my neighbor here in Hood River, Dave Bronson made some corrections and suggestions.
As usual, the TR might have been good without editing, but it is most certainly better with it.
Thank you all,
More photos HERE
More vids HERE
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