Woke up, got caffeinated, finished packing. Plan was to head to the lodge for a breakfast sandwich then onto the first shuttle bus of the morning at 7. I had some food then got on bus. Neil was waiting for me on bus. Turned out I’d forgotten my headtorch in camp. Not the most auspicious of beginnings. I’m slightly less of a disaster when I’m concentrating – hopefully.
Hiked to the base in the early morning light for the last time. Listening to Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack was excellent. Felt very intimidated, and unsure as to what I was doing up there. Got to the base and despite the route being empty all week while I was hiking loads it was jammers that morning. One fast party was on pitch 2, and another soloist was about to start up. I had a bit of haulbag repacking to do so I happily got in line and nervously chatted to the other parties at the base of the cliff. Lead the first pitch via the JoJo variation, nice easy C1 but with a long splitter crack. I had to conserve and back clean aggressively to save enough cams even with triple sets. I got to the first anchor and fixed the ropes, then it was time to abseil back down to take out the gear.
Once at the base I double checked the piggy was ready to fly, then jumared back up the rope. Back at the anchor I hauled the bag, which involved serious inverted hauling just to get moving. Too late I realized that since I did the variation start my bag was over in a corner that wasn’t in line with the route. It cut loose across the face and smacked into the wall with some force. That could easily have burst all my water bottles and called an end to the trip before the first pitch was done, but luckily all water remained contained and I eventually got the bag up to the anchor. A bit of belay organisation then it was time to start the second pitch. I was worried about this one as it was given C2+ in the guide, making it harder than anything else I’d ever led. It went fine though, with one tricky slime move to get into the corner, then small gear up to the copperheads. I’d heard about all the heads on the route, and was scared of them. I’d read on the internet that singing to yourself helps, and the song that came to mind was “Down to the River to Pray” from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
As I balanced up on one mashed in bit of metal with a frayed wire after another I felt strangely calm. Though scary the fall potential was completely safe, and after 3 heads and one free move a bomber cam was reached. Easily up to the anchors and one more pitch down. It is possible to link 2 and 3 with a 60m rope, but since my lead line was only 50m I stopped at the chains under the roof. Fixed the line then returned to the tiny ledge at the top of pitch 1. Another party was there and much hilarity ensued as I tried to put up Colin’s portaledge at a shared anchor. Eventually portaledge got set up, and me and the other team’s belayer chilled on the ledge and talked American politics while I ate cold spaghetti and meatballs. It didn’t taste too bad on night 1. They finished fixing and rapped back down, leaving me alone on the portaledge with my thoughts. I was pleased to have gotten pitch 2 over with, but the enormity of the whole thing was weighing on me. Took Neil’s advice and didn’t worry about any of the other days, just tomorrow. Restless night’s sleep getting used to the movement of the portaledge.
High – Just being on the wall
Low – Thinking the mini waterfall was someone pissing on me
Fail of the day – Not looking at where my bag was in relation to where I would haul from
Number of tie in points at night – 1
The party from the previous night passed me before breakfast. I brought along 6 cans of Starbucks’ espresso in a can so had a nice morning coffee and a smoke before starting work. Felt like I was really on a big wall, despite being only one pitch up. Jumared up my fixed line and organised the rack to lead pitch 3.
Pretty straightforward stuff, though I managed to cluster myself at the end big time by z clipping and leaving my aiders behind. Ah well. Decided to haul in one pitch as my haul line at least was 60m.
I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing at this point, as it was my first proper hauling experience while soloing. Abbed down the haul line, while taking out gear on the lead line. When I got to the mid anchor I cleaned it, let go of the lead line and continued down the haul line to the anchor. Once there I very nearly sent the bag off into space without leaving myself attached to any rope, which would have left me stranded on the anchor. Luckily I caught my mistake, and tied the haul line off short and myself into the end of the haul line. This was followed by me walking the bag across the slabby ledge, and then having to jug the weighted haul line. Scary stuff as I was worried that me squirming around on the line would dislodge the bag from its perch, sending me and the bag swinging off into space. More singing ensued and I reached the anchor and hauled. This brought me and my entire sh#t show up to pitch 3, Anchorage Ledge, which was where I would spend the night.
I was a bit freaked by the amount of near f*#kups I’d had that morning, so decided to chill on Anchorage for a bit and watch the parties above me. It was really brought home to me that when you’re soloing there’s no one there to catch your f*#k ups for you, and though the route and techniques I was using were pretty safe any lapses in concentration could be dangerous. From that point on I went a wee bit slower, working through in my head exactly what was going to happen for each task and triple checking everything.
After my mental rest I started up pitch 4, which had thankfully gone into the shade at 2pm. An easy bolt ladder to some tricky cams to some more heads. I placed a bomber cam, clipped the first head, then leaned over to the next one. I didn’t have a hammer chisel or heads with me, so I’d been advised to not bounce test or clip as gear any of the heads I found. After the second head there was a blank section with some mystery cord hanging down. With no other options I clipped it and scurried up singing loudly. Once at the top of the mystery tat I saw that it was in fact a tiny copperhead with a broken wire that the tat had been hitched to the swedge of. Lovely. Moving swiftly (for aid climbing that is) on I got to the anchor and a sigh of relief.
Rope fixed and back down for more cold ravioli nomms. Set up the ledge again (getting slightly better) and settled in for the night. Tried to think of what fraction of the route I’d done but less than ¼ seemed depressing so I stopped that line of thought. Read a bit of my dragon themed fantasy epic then sleep.
High – Getting off that copperhead
Low – The ravioli
Fail of the day – The whole haul line fiasco
Number of tie in points at night – 2
Looking back I think this was the day I had been most worried about, as I had more work to do and had to lead both the pitch with the crucial missing fixed head, and the crux “Hooks and Heads” pitch 6. After the now usual morning coffee and smoke on the ledge I got working. First things first had to jumar to the top of my fixed line and then haul the bag.
That done I set off up pitch 5, cheat stick (portaledge pole with a biner duct taped to it) at the ready. The other soloist had bailed the previous day because of the missing head on 5, and I had no desire to join him because of one stupid move. Some slightly tricky stuff up to the bolt ladder, which had an 8ft gap between bolts at the missing bit. Screw that. I unashamedly cheat sticked past it, and continued up the reachy bolt ladder. The Cheatomatron 2000 (portaledge pole) didn’t make another appearance for the rest of the route, though the Miniextension 1000 (nut-key) certainly helped on the remainder of the bolt ladder. I’m 5’9” and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be any shorter for those bolts. Up to the anchor, back down to the bags, then up to the anchor again for more hauling.
No rest for the wicked. Forced a cliff bar down then off to lead pitch 6. I thought this was the trickiest pitch on the route. All the gear I placed seemed pretty good, though sometimes it took a bit of time to work it out. Another party had got behind me at this point, so I hurried singing to the anchor across many more heads interspersed with a few old and new bolts. I cleaned the pitch on rappel as I wanted to let the party behind me start leading as fast as they could. The other climbers were super nice, shared a very hanging belay with an awesome lady called Janice who’d climbed a load of badass El Cap routes. We chilled then lowered out the pigs together, joking about how they were dancing. They also took some pictures which was cool.
As I lowered out mine I remembered just too late that my second jumar was in it. Had to inefficiently gri-gri jug up. At that point in the day that was not needed. Hauled the bags to the anchor, waved goodbye to Janice and Jason and released their pig. They turned out to be the last people I saw until I go back down on Monday.
The last pitch had led me off the headwall and round a corner slightly, which was nice as the exposure on the smooth blank wall had been wearing at me slightly. The top of pitch 6 was a tiny ledge, but I eventually declustered my stuff enough to get the ledge up and collapse to sleep. I jumared 3 pitches, abseiled 2 pitches, hauled 3 pitches and lead 2 pitches. I was wrecked. Knocked a bit of food back then passed out.
High – Getting pitch 6 done and enjoying every minute of it
Low – Trying to set up camp
Fail of the day – Leaving the jumar in the haulbag
Number of tie in points at night – 2
Woke up feeling really sore but happy, as I figured I’d broken the back of the hard leading and was for the first time genuinely thinking I might actually make it. I wanted to chill for ages in the ledge as I felt really tired, but I consoled myself with lots of potential rest at Tapir Terrace above if I got there in good time. Got a shuffle on and set off up the Strange Dihedral pitch. Bit of tricky stuff here and there but pretty mellow, or possibly I was just getting used to being scared.
Decided to climb on and link the next one once I got to the anchor as the topo claimed 50m ropes would reach. There was meant to be a scary tension traverse off a beak on this pitch, but my worries were unfounded as it turned out to be an exposed walk along a ledge next to a bomber nut. Fine. Up some more straightforward aid to the mandatory free near the top. This is a bit wandery however, and I placed a piece of gear not in line with the anchors. Thus I ran out of rope, while runout about 5m from the anchors. However my problem solving skills were much improved by this point and I immediately realised that since I was using the continuous loop system I could just put a clove hitch on the haul line, take the gri-gri off and continue safely to the anchors. Triple checked my logic to make sure I didn’t do something silly, and then continued without incident to the top.
Fixed the haul line, went back down that to the last piece on the lead line, removed it then back up to the anchor to fix the lead line which now just about reached. Abbed down yadda yadda, released bag, jugged back up and hauled. It was 2pm by the time I’d finished my day’s jobs and was at Tapir with all my stuff. Debated about fixing another pitch that evening, allowing me to top out the next day if I was fast, but decided I had a metric shitload of food and water left so stuck to the plan and read my book and rested in the ledge for the remainder of the day.
I knew I hadn’t eaten enough the past few days (approx. 500 calories a day) so tried to mentally trick myself into thinking that eating the whole can of cold Dinty Moore beef stew was an essential task that needed to be done. Didn’t work, was retching before half the can was gone. The only daily task I didn’t complete. The long evening on the ledge by myself with nothing really to do took its toll on me mentally, and I started to get worried about all sorts of silly things. Hard to get to sleep that night.
High – Chilling on Tapir, seemed like a football field by that point
Low – The stew
Fail of the day – Running out of rope
Number of tie in points at night – 3
Slow start as I knew there wasn’t that much work to be done now that the hauling was over. I had pitch 9 to lead, and after reading about an accident on that pitch I was quite scared. Took it really slow though and it was fine, lots of micro nuts. At the top of 9 was a big psychological relief, as I knew it was only C1 to the top from there. Provided I kept my head good there was no reason I couldn’t make it. Back down to the anchor then jugged back up, bringing a gallon of water clipped to my harness to drink on the push for the top the next day. Pitch 10 was great, bomber C1 then some free climbing, which felt really fun despite the enormous amount of crap hanging off me, the lack of climbing shoes and the catchy gri-gri.
There appeared to be some kind of major rescue going on that day, as a helicopter flew over me several times. At one point I was stopped trying to work out a tricky mantelshelf move when I reckoned I just had to do it in case I appeared stuck and needing a rescue. Got to the anchors and rapped back down, initially in the gully I had just came up. Halfway down it seemed like my rope was out of line, so I thought I’d jug back up just a little bit to flick it onto a slab. It wouldn’t flick so I ended up going all the way back to the anchors, to go back down a better line. Didn’t turn out to be a better line, so had to go back up again to get back over to where I originally was. About the most faffing about I did the whole climb. Ended up rapping down the original way, leaving all my lower gear to keep the rope in line so I wouldn’t miss the belay. I was thirsty but didn’t drink any of the water as it was “summit water”.
Back down the second rope to the Tapir camp. Looked at the time and saw it was only half 1. Had a brief moment of madness when I decided I was sick of being up there, and would blast to the top that day. Got halfway up re jumaring the rope, before I decided it was folly to rush and possibly do something dangerous. Downjumared back to the ledge because in my haste I’d forgotten the gri-gri. Probably for the best. The constant helicopters and lack of company were starting to get to me, and I was well rested enough to not savour another afternoon on the ledge. Nought else to do though so settled in. Was starting to feel really nervous about the descent at this point, being convinced something would go terrible wrong and I’d end up stuck or worse. Couldn’t sleep so spent hours going over scenarios and practicing knots in the dark. This was probably the lowest point of the whole week. Heard a wet thump in the night and saw a frog had jumped from god knows where onto my water bottle. I carefully moved him off the ledge, and had a bit of a chat to him.
High – When the dragons came to murder the bad knights and save the princess
Low – Trying (and failing) to remember how to do a retrievable single rope abseil with tag line
Fail of the day – Trying to direction my rope abseiling on pitch 10
Number of tie in points at night – 4 (two daisys, end of rope and bight of rope)
Summit day! Zoomed back up the first fixed line, went to grab my water and promptly fumbled it off the edge. Damn. It wasn’t that far back to Tapir for more, but I’d covered the ground of pitch 9 seven times by that point and just couldn’t bring myself to go back down. Jugged up pitch 10 trailing all my ropes. Reracked and organised then set off up 11. In the low psyche of the night before I’d debated whether or not to do the last pitch, as it looked loose and crap and like a rope stuck incident waiting to happen. Got the top of 11 though and I was determined that after 6 days I was going to sit on the damn top.
But first back down and back up 11 to get my ropes and gear. Set off up 12 and after 10m of clip and go fixed gear I was suddenly on the top. There was clearly more easy scrambling to get to the pine tree that walk off parties use to belay on, but it was flat and sandy with lots of trees and space to walk around which made it a good enough summit for me.
I found a nice rock perch, had a top out cigarette, took a few photos then it was time for thirsty Jane to get back down. I down aided pitch 12 to avoid stuck ropes. Back at the anchor I was starting to get really thirsty. I left my first (of many) bits of descent gear on one of the anchor bolts and started to abseil. Back at the belay 10 I prayed the ropes wouldn’t stick. Phew. One down.
Started down 10 and decided to leave my big blue camalot with the broken trigger wire as a directional. Talked through it out load as I clipped it, but somehow still managed to clip it to the wrong rope. A heat exhausted prussic and belay device ascent of the rope later I was back at the piece and fixed it. Back down and thankfully ropes pulled despite the famous haulbag (and rope) eating flake. Just one more to the ledge. Went fine, and got some much needed water. I’d told myself if I was back before 2 I’d start down that day, it being 11.30 I was in good shape time wise.
Packed up camp, said goodbye to Tapir Terrace, clipped the still pretty heavy haulbag onto my belay loop and started down. In retrospect I think it was lucky that I clipped the cam wrong up higher, because as miserable as it was I was able to get back up the rope and fix it and it ensured that I didn’t do it again with the haulbag on me. I seriously doubt if I’d have been able to reascend the rope with that much weight on me. I left loads of biners on the pitch as I was worried I’d swing out of the Strange Dihedral and end up lost in space. I felt better after each successful abseil, as I was getting closer to the ground each time. I got braver too (and sick of leaving biners) so by the final traversing abseil on the flat headwall I only left one, pendulumming across the wall with the pig daisy chain outstretched to get over to the anchors.
After that it was a straight shot to the ground. I got down at 2pm, left the rack and ropes and took off down the trail with the haulbag. I knew 4pm here was midnight back home, and I wanted to get down in time to call my Dad. All the way up the wall I’d been imagining calling him and telling him that I’d actually done it.
High – Sittin on the top
Low – Setting off down the first piggy rappel
Fail of the day – Either the water fumble or the directional clip, both were pretty special
In the end...
On the walk out I was striding along although I was tired and the haulbag was packed badly and cutting into my back. It suddenly dawned on me that before I went up I had wanted to find out if I was the kind of person who was able to solo a wall or not. While up there I’d realised that once you start you’re on your own, with nobody to do any of it for you and whether you like it or not you become that kind of person, no matter how stupid and scared you feel. Every job is your job and every job just has to get done.
By day 6 I was sure I would never solo a wall again, though after less than 24hrs on the ground I’m already planning the next one. As I post this 2 weeks later, sitting in a coffee shop in New York I really think I was as happy as I've ever been in my life, sitting up on my ledge on my own, blood blisters, permanent low level scared, Dinty Moore stew and all...
Even though I did all the actual uppy downy bits myself, I couldn’t have done this on my own. Big thanks to Sonia, John and Colin for the essential gear loans from ledges to aliens and pretty much everything in between, Greg for selling me gear for a quarter of its worth, Paul for telling me I could do it, the good people of mountainproject for advice, Janice and Jason for reminding me to have fun up there and Neil for coffee/dinner/pig carrying/good advice and headtorch retrieval.
All the best,