"Shut the f*#k up!" - Shaun
"If you don't want to finish the pitch, lower down and I'll lead
it...you can manage the belay" - Aaron
It was our seventh day on the wall, ninth including two days of
fixing, and we were ready to be off. The majestic glory of five
wingsuited base jumpers strafing our portaledges early that morning
had given way to exhaustion and the simple desire to be done. Shaun
was trying to finish the last pitch following a 30' self-belayed fall
(blown head) and I was struggling to clean up (yet another)
self-induced belay mess - patience was at a premium on both sides.
Phil? I'd like to think we provided him a moment's amusement.
Designated to clean the final pitch and thus the last one off the
wall, he confessed to shedding tears at the last belay - he was happy
to be done, too.
We had originally planned on the shield, but the combination of slabby
hauling (Shaun had climbed the salathé and knew well how unpleasant
the haul to mammoth terraces could be) and Hudon's reiteration that it
contained only six or so pitches of truly great climbing compared to
Mescalito's anticipated embarrassment of excitement convinced us to
shift our gaze to the east side. That Shaun had yet to climb on that
side of el cap was ample added inducement. It was an ambitious plan
for an inexperienced team, but we have a history of biting off more
than we can chew and still managing to make a meal out of
Shaun - Our glorious leader and survivor of 3 previous El Cap routes.
Skilled, strong, experienced and stubborn as an ox. We'd succeed even
if it meant Shaun carrying our carcasses to the top
Phil - An extremely adept free climber and at 130lbs our secret weapon
for manky fixed gear. Bailed from the 5th pitch of Zodiac once. No
other El Cap experience.
Me - The junior partner despite my advanced age, having been climbing
outside for less than two years. I like to organize and geek out on
systems, which hopefully helps make up for my lack of experience.
Climbed Lurking Fear with Shaun during a heatwave last October.
Shaun - Dad
Aaron - Mom
Phil - That weird uncle that the rest of the family doesn't like their
children speaking to?
Once upon a time
We had all been fantasizing for weeks and yes, even practicing a bit.
Cragmont Park and Beaver St. may not be El Cap, but setting up haul
systems does help even if it cannot truly prepare one for all the
intricacies of the big stone. Now it was time.
Phil was already in Yosemite spending the weekend with relatives on
their annual family retreat (thank you for your kind hospitality Susan
et al.!) while Shaun and I headed up Saturday morning for two days of
fixing prior to a planned Monday blastoff. Only an hour later than
planned, Shaun was at my door and things were quickly loaded. The
untrafficked road lay bare before us, park entry was free and sooner
than expected we found ourselves parked at the bridge - a propitious
Short-fixing and an ill-timed lesson in how not to bounce test
We hike in with little more than our climbing gear - the big loads
would come the next day when we would be able to store them off the
ground and out of bear's reach. Before we know it Shaun is getting a
taste of run out hooks above sketchy bolts far below. In his usual
fearless style, he cruises the first pitch as well as the next. We
rap for the night and head off to join Phil's family in North Pines.
Any notion of my basking in the adoration of non-climbers goes to
sleep with me within 15 minutes of taking NyQuil for the congestion
which accompanies me all week. I trust Phil and Shaun to make the
most of the opportunity.
The next morning, our start is none too early (mountain shop stop,
forgotten pack), but soon enough we are back atop pitch two and I
start off on the third. When it comes to actual climbing
experience, I am a rank amateur; my scant two years standing in
foreshortened diminishment overshadowed by Shaun and Phil's studied
expertise. That is to say: I'm slow. Not impossibly or unbearably
slow though and even the ever impatient Shaun (eagerness amplified by his own
clear capability) is only slightly mortified by my pace.
Sadly, a good aid lesson is learned early: don't bounce test from the
high step. Take the time and retreat a few rungs before going at that
next piece. Not more than thirty feet in to the third pitch a black
C3 pulls while I test from my top step. A daisy fall is held by my
last piece (metolius offsets - blue and yellow friend of fellow, grey
and blue will see you through!) but my left knee buckles in the
process and a loud pop is heard. F*ck! Arthroscopic surgery again?
Hmm...It can bear weight. Ouch! It only hurts if I try and press the
knee inwards. Alright then, let's finish my block of leads. Two more
pitches down and the knee doesn't seem so bad.
Meanwhile, Phil and the best fiancée ever (his - Crusher) have hauled
in just about all our water. Amazing! I hobble out to fetch us pizza
while Phil and Shaun get everything up and off the ground, an
endeavor which takes longer than anyone would have liked.
Nevertheless, we end the evening with pizza, most of our gear a pitch
up and the prospect of blasting in the AM. Life looks good...at least
from my drug-fueled slumber: Nyquil and ibuprofen, congestion and
knee. If I hurt it didn't matter - I slept through it.
Monday morning sees us up and off. Breakfast in the cafeteria brings
the company of Nanook, who stokes our spirits with thoughts of glory
and word that the dowel pitches now sport bolts every third placement
or so. My knee is stiff, but I can jug so there's no stopping us.
Next stop: Anchorage Ledge!
And Anchorage Ledge we alight upon along with the full circus tent of
our undertaking - 150lbs of water, more bagels than any deli in
Manhattan, three haul bags and two portaledges (my ornery old double
BD and Phil's fancy fish single). Ringmaster Shaun orchestrates the
show while Phil fixes the seagull traverse. A note on anchorage
Don't be fooled by the delightful afternoon ledge. As the winds die
down and evening approaches it shall be accompanied by a steady leaky
faucet aimed directly at you. Our fly goes up in haphazard after the
fact fashion and wetness is suffered throughout the night because of it.
Friends don't let friends camp at Anchorage Ledge.
Day dawns and Shaun crosses the seagull to get started on the pitches
to come. What follows is the single greatest debacle of our climb -
a screw up (mine to be clear) that casts shadows (if not quite a pall)
over the rest of the week. Sitting safely on my sofa two weeks later,
I am unsure of whether it has grown more amusing or more horrifying
with the passage of time. Somehow both.
Preface to an almost disaster
Shaun and I had previously climbed Lurking Fear and releasing the bags
had never been much of an issue. There were a couple of decent sized
lower outs, but I managed them with relative ease. Phil has a few
pitches of aid under his belt (a few practice pitches and an aborted
zodiac), but seems equally overwhelmed by the belay management. To
compound our neophyte confusion, we are also employing a new system of
connecting the bags to the haul line via a minitraxion. With the ever
able (and sometimes impatient) Shaun off to shortfix, we simply aren't
prepared to tackle the process of breaking down camp, flagging the
ledge and doing the long lower out required for the seagull traverse.
Untying the haul line to extract it from the spaghetti mess of our
anchor is one bad idea too many.
We now join an almost disaster in progress
Shaun has fixed the haul line and setup the 2:1 haul system. We have
packed everything up, (incorrectly) flagged the portaledge and
prepared the bags to cut loose. As Phil begins to lower them out, I
am plagued by incompetency-fueled doubts about whether the minitrax
holding the bags is threaded correctly. Are we about to dump all the
bags 500' to the deck? I see them move on the line...god I hate
traverses, they screw with my head! Shaun is yelling
(wind...distance..WHAT?) confounded at what could be taking us so
long. Think Aaron...think! I convince myself that there's something
wrong and tell Phil to hold on (literally - dead end of the haul line
in his grigri mid-lowerout, he's going nowhere). Taking up the slack
from the end of the haul line, I jury rig a tie-in which I hope will
catch the bags if (when?) the rope flies freely through the minitrax.
Unfortunately, this cuts the length of rope available for the lower
out in half, leading to a long ride for the pigs and shouts of shock
from Shaun as he watches them fly by below.
The worst is past
Despite the obviously incorrectly flagged portaledge, Phil and I share
a sigh of relief - all pigs intact! He lowers me out so I can jug and
then begins to clean the pitch. Soon enough, we're both at the next
anchor and I manage to dock the pigs. Shaun has long since finished the
next pitch and is just waiting for us to lower out the bags. We are
eternally too slow, fighting to keep the anchors clean and our mule
Or is it?
Finally, things are mostly clean enough and the bags are ready. The
first of our two docking cords is undone and the bags are away. Two
of the three bags! Two? How can this happen? All our bags are attached to
one another through a complicated carabiner array attached to a swivel
attached to the nightmare minitrax - there's no way for them to
separate! Looking down, I am confronted by the single most horrifying
sight of my short climbing career: the fish bag is hanging
from a single biner - broken mouthed with the gate hanging limply to
the outside: docking tether to half a biner to bag to 500' fall. I
quickly grab another locker and thread it through the docking tether.
We then lift the bag (Careful! Don't rotate the bad biner!) on to the
new biner and, locking it, breathe a sigh of relief.
I'm generally pretty level-headed and game for adventure, but this
fiasco has shaken my faith. Not only am I trying to climb El Cap with
only one good leg, but we cannot even manage the basics of anchor
management. I utter the "R" word (retreat). Shaun has quickly
lowered back to our anchor and examined the situation. He may be
scared too (he certainly should be!), but he's ready to press on and
Phil agrees. I begin to clean the pitch to make room at the anchor and to
give my mind something concrete to focus on. By the time Shaun has
re-united the haul bags and has them ready to haul we're all pretty
wasted. I think we fix just one more pitch that day.
That night, we reconsider
The climbing isn't our issue. Rather, belay management is what is
going to make or break this climb and at our current pace we're going
to have a problem. It is decided that Phil well lead the next day and
Shaun and I will work the belays together (with me hopefully being
comfortable with the management going forward after that).
We make it to the top of 11 as it's getting dark.
Instead of carrying through with our hopes to fix the molar traverse,
we opt for an early night and thus an even earlier morning. We need
five pitches tomorrow - Shaun will lead, I (along with my new-found
square knot competency) will try not to get us killed and the portaledge
will stay packed while we climb. Shaun doesn't sleep well that night.
Do dreams of rescues, running out of water, or plummeting to our deaths
haunt him? Or is it just the cramped confines of my black diamond double? The
terrible smell of my feet after wearing well-worn approach shoes and
the same socks for three days? Whatever the cause, his 220lbs of predawn
agitation leave neither of us well-rested or eager to see the sun.
We need five pitches
We're up before the sun hits us, Shaun on the sharp end and Phil and I
packing up camp. He makes short work of the molar traverse (linking
12 and 13), the bags get lowered out successfully and I follow
(enjoying a bit of a run across the wall when my lowerout isn't quite
long enough - luckily no complaints from the knee). Soon enough, I've
got the 2:1 going and the bags are moving. Shaun is cursing up a
storm in pitch 14's squeeze and where is Phil? It looks like the rope
is caught on a flake and he is having to deal with that. At this
point, the afternoon winds kick up. Shaun is miserable at the exposed
anchor atop 14 and Phil is still down on 12/13 somewhere cleaning as
quickly as he can (Only later do we learn of the difficulties caused
by the jammed rope, including having to re-jug the line, threaded through
an ancient piece of lowerout tat). The only voice any of us can really hear is
that of the howling wind and the team grinds to a halt. We must make
progress! I fix one end of our extra line for Phil and begin to clean
14. When I arrive, Shaun can start leading on the rope I am tied in
to, I can haul and Phil can (eventually…) jug up to
join me. We're moving again!
P15's expando flake is tenuous enough that Shaun abandons all attempts
at C3F and (two lightly tapped beaks later) settles for A3 (Edit from Shaun: there
was missing fixed gear, too). I clean and haul the pitch while Phil hurries
up to tackle 16 with its combo of C3F and dowels. He's 20' out from the belay
when I ask why he doesn't have the tag line. A little lariat action later,
Shaun manages to toss it to him and he finishes the rest of the pitch
Atop 16, five pitches higher and many hours later than
we began the day, we embody that odd combination of exhausted and
exhilarated - a balance that could go either way until our
ill-assembled double ledge manages to collapse in on itself with us
sitting upon it. Ugh...make sure nothing fell, reassemble the ledge
correctly, eat a fruit cup, no energy for dinner - fall asleep.
Beer on the Bismarck
Everyone is tired the next AM and both Shaun nor Phil are assuredly
not morning people. In the interest of getting us moving, I volunteer
to take the next block and they heartily accede. The dowels cause me
little concern (as promised, there is now a bolt every third or so) -
after all, fixed gear like a dowel ladder is all C1 until something
blows. I slow down a bit on the C2 arch, bounce testing carefully to
ensure I don't take another fall on my almost immobile knee. Soon
enough (well pretty slowly actually), I'm over the roof and at the
The next pitch I climb mostly free with a welcome belay from
Phil. I've never led anything harder than 5.8 in the valley, so 5.7
on the 4th day of a big wall with a full aid rack in approach shoes and
half way up El Cap is like a dream to me. Luckily, it's a lot of
manteling and I thoroughly enjoy the pitch, arriving at Bismark much more
quickly than I expect. Soon enough, the haul bags are on their way and
everyone is briefly basking in the glory of solid ground under our feet for the
first time in over three days.
While I haul and take stock (water and food still in ample supply) and
prepare camp, Phil tackles the beautiful Bismark. What a crack! Soon
enough, he is calling for his free shoes, the 5 and 6 (our largest
pieces) are deployed, and he is grunting his way to the anchors. A
proud lead on a beautiful line.
Shaun follows him up and, perhaps
encouraged by Phil's free climbing fun, decides on the "5.9 hands
variation". He will hopefully chime in to describe his mini-epic but
suffice to say it included a late night, a stuck cam and a pendulum
fall. It also ended in victory. That night, we are fixed to the top
of 20 and can realistically look to get off with only one more
night...and we're sleeping on horizontal rock!
Oh..and there is beer. It turns out that Phil had misunderstood
Shaun's request to "bring the beer" and has brought not only the good
beer they have been drinking, but an extra 7 cans of PBR. Realizing
there is no real chance of our consuming it all, we wrap the PBR up
and leave it on the Bismark Ledge for the next team coming through.
Hope you guys enjoyed it!
Morale momentarily improved...but only momentarily
As has become our routine, Shaun jugs off to get started short fixing
while Phil and I pack. Soon enough, we're up a pitch, then I and the
haul bags are smoothly lowered out for pitch 20 and Phil deals with cleaning
up the anchor.
While I'm hauling, Shaun finds himself in the middle
of the hook traverse (which a stranger at the bridge has warned me is
spicy - score one for the stranger) and out of rope. He's short
fixing on the line Phil is jugging on and Phil has hit a wall: bonking
hard. 100' below the anchor, Phil is clearly struggling for energy -
the days of endless activity, inadequate calorie intake and general
big wall malaise have finally caught up with him. (According to Phil,
we may not have left the anchor perfectly clean; some re-aiding may
have been involved. Whatever).
manages to place a small nut, but his position is clearly tenuous. He
again asks me to tell Phil to hurry and I demur: Phil already knows he needs
to move faster. The last time I called down to him with a
report of Shaun's predicament and a plea to rush I received a
resounding "SHUT UP!" in reply. Yes, Phil knows Shaun needs his rope
and he will do his best. I'm not risking making this any harder for
him or the team. Finally, a haggard Phil arrives at the belay and
Shaun has his rope. A little partner management and Phil is
feeling a bit better too.
At the belay, things are actually organized enough for us to have a
bit of a breather. On lead, Shaun is less enthused by pitch 22's
awkward C2. Through the awkwardness and only 95' of C1 are between us and
our bivy. After that, we're all beat - Shaun has been driving
himself hard, I've been hauling more pitches of 3-person loads (with PBR) than I
ever imagined myself capable of, and Phil has been cleaning and
jugging and trying not to build himself in to the anchor for way too
many days straight; but we're on our little sloping 8'x5' piece of heaven
enjoying double rations and the sunset on half dome. Most of all,
we're savoring the promise of tomorrow's topout.
It's not over til it's over
Shaun has a firm rule against discussing pizza, ice cream, or showering
until after the descent is complete. He had this rule even before our
ascent of Lurking Fear (which involved me forgetting the rack atop the
East Ledges raps and a harried hurried return to same in search of
same - happy ending: the rack was found).
A dawn ushered in by wingsuited BASE jumpers and we welcome our last
morning on El Cap. Pitch 24's awkwardness is overcome and Shaun flies
across 25 leaving only a single pitch between us and the top.
This leads to the scene at the beginning of the trip report and really
the only moment of tension (Bonking Phil's "SHUT UP" aside) in the climb.
When Shaun is exhausted and scared (in this case of sketchy fixed heads,
one of which has already blown) he complains. When I'm exhausted and scared
(in this case, of screwing up one last lower out), I have no patience for
complaining. Shawn is an awesome partner...I'd like to think he considers
me the same. No one is getting judged by a momentary lapse of good manners
on their ninth straight day climbing on El Cap. Still, I'm glad he doesn't carry
through on his threat to start throwing gear at me.
Shaun finishes the lead.
I lower out.
The bags are hauled.
A short fixed line over the few feet of easy slab and we are there.
Only minutes later, Megan's (Phil's fiancée - the aforementioned best
fiancée in the world) voice is heard. She comes bearing beer, ice
cream, juice, trekking poles, and a huge backpack to help us carry our
loads. Did I mention she is the best fiancée in the world? Marry that
woman, Phil! After the usual topout reveries, the bags are somewhat
sorted and repacked and we head down towards the parking lot where the
rest of our significant others await us. The trekking poles make the
slabs atop El Cap almost painless even while carrying a full haul bag
on only one good knee.
Did I mention it's not over til it's over?
I lead things off on the East Ledges and the first rap is no problem.
On the second, I realize I'm on a rope which has a knot in it 20' from
the bottom. I also realize that I've stripped all the gear off my
harness while repacking after topping out. I'm not even carrying a
spare carabiner, much less my ascenders (or even the usual cord for a
prusik) and this with a fully loaded haul bag hanging from my harness.
Shaun passes me on the rope next to mine and lends me an
ascender and daisy with which to extricate myself. And then finally
it really is over. We are in the parking lot. Noe (my wife) is
laughing and holding her nose while telling me how bad I smell and how
much I shrank. Marie's eyes light up when she sees Shaun.
There are showers and pizza (Phil is missed on the pizza deck -
it is an integral part of the climb! Bolting for home, he and exhausted
fiancée Crusher make it only as far as Hardin Flat) and beer and sleep. Monday
morning, the weather is as nice as we've ever seen it in the valley. Spring rules!
I throw out my now disgusting scarpa zens (two seasons and two ascents
of el cap, they served me well) and buy some new shoes at the mountain
shop. Noe and I lay in the meadow and muse over the
route. The team behind us is just hitting the top of 17. It's
tempting to hang around to see them reach the Bismark and find beer,
but home and cats and real food and life beckon. It's time to get
back to rushing about and worrying over work and planning the next
vacation, but I cannot help looking back longingly as we depart: a big part of me
wants to be nowhere else than climbing 5.7 with a huge aid rack half
way up El Cap about to hit the Bismark Ledge.
While I can still hardly walk, no operation is planned for my knee. Bruised bones,
a sprained MCL and a joint full of fluid - just in time for my trip to Chamonix!
Thanks so much to Phil and Shaun for being truly awesome partners.
Thanks to Phil for letting us convince him that this was a good idea
and a very special thanks to Shaun for actually knowing what he is
doing and being willing to do it. His only flaw as a climbing partner
is in his choice of climbing partners.
Bonus Video! (Thanks Shaun!)
Finally a few important quotidian notes for those who don't care to
read the whole report:
7 days freeze dried food (Ate it all. In retrospect, it's worth
bringing twice as much food and having double rations every night)
a lot of bars and gu (With 32 bars and 13 gus left over)
too many bagels (They didn't get eaten often after the third
day...partially because they ended up buried at the bottom of a bag
and Shaun couldn't stomach them any more - 13 left over)
72 liters of water, around half sparkle-ade (we had planned for 1
gallon per person per day for 6 days. Even after 7 days, we had 6
liters which we left at the topout for someone less lucky. We were
worried about water consumption after our dehydrated heatwave time on
Lurking Fear and I was happy with the amount we allotted since it gave
us flexibility should we need more time or encounter hotter weather)
~24 beers (7 left on the bismarck. Cheers!)
Lots of ibuprofen
5 beaks placed (2 left behind?)
1 head blown (replaced with beak)
2 ascenders dropped
2 aid ladders dropped
1 left cam (on Shaun's mini-epic on 20. Offset by (booty master)
Phil retrieving a fixed cam just pitches later)
A few miscellaneous biners dropped
1. Seltzer water makes a wonderful wall water supply. The bubbles
refresh and the mineral tang seems to help replace lost salt. Even
better is combining the seltzer water with gatorade powdered mix to
create: Sparklade! Seriously, this stuff was *amazing*. Almost half
our water supply was sparklade and it never got old. A must for all
2. Bring trekking poles for the descent. I will never do another
long haul or even hike without them!
3. The "8'x5' sloping ledge" atop 23 is a great bivy. You'll still
need your ledge, but you'll be walking about and feeling pretty good
with stone to stand on.
4. Metolius offsets are fantastic in pin scars. You will never have
enough of them (or enough biners or slings, no matter how many you
Useful if not inspiring
1. Anchorage Ledge is an unpleasant bivy. You'll probably need your
rainfly due to the drip drip drop which ensues as soon as the
afternoon winds die down. You're better off forgoing the pleasant
ledge and pushing on or stopping sooner.
2. Using the minitrax to connect the bags to the haul line worked
really well when it wasn't causing us confusion (this especially on
longer lowerouts for traversing pitches). It ate up our haul line
pretty well by the end of the trip, but this is likely due to the
seagull fiasco and our general lack of competency and comfort with it.
I prefer the system to retying weighted knots to re-position the bags
on the line, but I can only recommend that you get comfortable with
the system. Despite my dislike for introducing yet another line in to
the system, next time I might prefer a static tie in for the bags
with a dedicated lower out line.
3. Flagging a portaledge is great in theory, but if your cleaner and
hauler aren't significantly faster than your leader it doesn't gain
you much...in fact, it may be more hassle than its worth (especially in high winds).
4. The belay atop 14 is miserable in afternoon wind. Make sure you
have a jacket. In general, wind was one of the greatest contributors
to our slowness the first few days. Ropes were blown about (60'
straight upwards at one point) and everything did its best to tangle
and twist together. We learned to love our four rope bags and next time will
bring even more of them. Whether storing the rope behind you after a
lower out or stacking them at a belay, they were absolutely necessary
for efficient progress. I never thought climbing El Cap could consist
of so much flaking and reflaking of rope.
5. The last pitch is hard. Be prepared for one last fight.
6. Have a couple extra aiders and even perhaps an ascender along.
7. Newbie mistake: make sure you always have some gear on you when
rapping fixed lines (like the East Ledges) in case you have to re-ascend or pass a knot.