The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2
Trip ReportNIAP is the new NIAD
As I finished the Great Roof and clipped in beneath the famous Pancake Flake, I was struck by horror. Was my figure-eight unfinished? My harness unbuckled? My fly unzipped before the scrutinizing glare of the telephoto-equipped crowds on El Cap Bridge? Nay--my harness, which hails from the nouveau ecole de lightweight crap, lacked leg loop quick releases. With disaster imminent, I pulled the elastic cords aside and realized with a second sinking sense of horror that I couldn't hold them and the waist of my pants abreast of the fecal trajectory at once. In split-second triage I kept my hands on the cords and trusted friction against my hirsute thighs to keep the pants clear. Having exhausted Lady Fate's generosity, however--it being merely sunset at the Pancake Flake on my first Nose-in-a-day, and indeed on my first time on El Cap--she yanked them back up. Most parties aid the Pancake Flake because of swollen hands; I aided it because of swollen underpants. Luckily Vitaliy is a nurse and was unfazed by the brown flecks on the rope which squished their way into our gri-gris and smeared themselves on our bare hands.
But all was not fetid and vile on this overzealous first foray onto the Big Stone. The emotions leading up to the climb, the impacts on my relationships, the unrelenting arduousness of the climb itself--everything was as exaggerated as my dignity was destroyed.
I had done three big walls before attempting the Nose-in-a-day: West Face of Leaning Tower, The Prow, and Southwest Face of Liberty Cap. The latter two were done in a day with Vitaliy without short-fixing. As far as free climbing, I onsight 10d in the valley and can squirm my way up harder routes. Most climbers would agree that this isn't the glittering resume of a NIAD climber, and I agree. Our attempt was premature and overambitious, but that was what made it so enthralling. It's sterile and spiritless to hold off on dreams until success is assured; why not pursue them when success is unsure? When the unsureness will throw your brain into insomnia-inducing loops of unease and apprehension; when it will strain your friendships and romances; when it will force you to confront the best and worst of your own character? One of our friends told us, “I'm going to wait to do the Nose-in-a-day until I won't flail.” Fine--if the point of climbing is to progress via carefully crafted pyramidal progressions, each step rewarded with Mountain Project onsight ticks; or if the point is to run the PDL and really go for it to collect commendations from sick bros; or if the point is to woo glitzy sponsors and score Youtube views--maybe then it would make sense to wait. After all, the first ascent of the NIAD was in 1975 and in less than fifteen hours, and we were destined to take much, much longer than that. But like I said, we wanted a bona-fide adventure, and if we waited another year we would cruise the sucker way too fast to claim we really suffered. So voila, we undertook The Nose.
Our plan was to start early Saturday morning and to finish sometime that night. On the Tuesday before the climb, back in Pasadena, I rashly emailed the housemates with whom I've lived for three memorable years to announce that I'm moving out. The trigger for this hasty announcement was remarkably insignificant: one of them didn't say “good morning” in the kitchen. I could hardly begrudge him that, though: I hadn't either. Next I ceased to talk to my girlfriend. She was about to fly to Colorado for a conference, so I dropped out of contact under pretense of respecting her need to work and to hang out with friends she never sees. In actuality I was irritable and inexplicably depressed, and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I mustered a few preparatory emails to Vitaliy, which I spun to be as positive as possible to keep the psych up, but my mood was really rather foul on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Thursday, however, I became jittery and maniacally excited by the mere thought of where I would be in a day and a half. I reversed my housing decision and began to pack. I apologized to my lady for ignoring her messages and promised to respond to them after the weekend. Vitaliy and I exchanged more emails about our rack and strategy--Pakistani death loop or gri-gri self-belay? 2 mm tag line or 6 mm tag line?--and I confirmed the itinerary for my carpool. Meanwhile I was perfectly conscious of the pathological change in my mood, and I paused to savor this cornucopia of emotion. Though perverse, it was this experience--this subjugation before overwhelming floods of emotion--that I wanted from this trip.
Four of us piled into the car early Friday evening at my house. In a merciful twist of routine I didn't have to drive at all that night. I might have slept, but as a man who lets his mind reel idly for half an hour before dozing off on the best of nights, the odds were slim the night before The Nose. I decided to wake Vitaliy as soon as I got to the valley around one in the morning to announce that we were starting then. He was amenable to a similar itinerary change when I couldn't sleep the night before The Prow, so I decided to abuse the precedent.
My friends dropped me off on El Cap Bridge around one. Without moonlight, there was just a formless hole in the sky in place of El Cap. With such an indefinite outline and with its famous pitches obscured, the daunting and oppressive magnitude of that cliff was lost to me; I just imagined sunny splitters and airy, happy perches when I stared at it. Vitaliy was in his car but not sleeping; he greeted me before I knocked on his window. As he began to eat, I wandered into the forest to use the toilet and imagined that I was immunizing myself against repetition of that horror on the wall. It worked--until I needed my booster. I waddled back to the road and sat in the car with Vittles as he lay in bed and finished breakfast. With four cups of coffee reverberating in my circulatory system, his every mastication was just too deliberate and too slow. I was bouncing and eager! We glanced over the topo and repeated our block plan--
Hamik: Pine Line
Vitaliy: pitch one
Hamik: pitches two and three
Vitaliy: pitch four to somewhere right before Dolt Tower (Vitaliy said something more specific, but I promptly forgot)
Hamik: pitch something to El Cap Tower
Vitaliy: El Cap Tower through the King Swing to somewhere right before the Great Roof
Hamik: somewhere right before the Great Roof to...
Plans be damned! I had a topo in my pocket and wanted to move. We finally left the car and took a moment on El Cap Bridge for the obligatorily incredulous gaze at the hulking mass we were going to climb in a day, though we noted that it looked rather surmountable without all the little features that our brains had learned are pitches and pitches long. On the hike to Pine Line we justified our foolhardiness in attempting the NIAD by fashioning the aforementioned “good adventure” argument. Now if we failed to make the twenty-four hour deadline we could at least brandish the badge of adventuresome alpinism.
Having once soloed and down-soloed Pine Line on a pleasant summer day, the significance of my pressing need to place three pieces on a short 5.7 didn't escape me. Believing it was merely prudence, my backpack, or the vague vertigo which accompanies travel by headlamp, I pressed on and made the only gear anchor of the entire route atop this pitch. Vitaliy followed it free sans pack and zipped by onto pitch one with scarcely a stop to grab some cams. He free-climbed a fair ways above the belay before transitioning into aid and dispatching the pitch. I jugged quickly and grabbed our bloated rack at the next belay.
I climbed the next two pitches in an unmemorable melange of free and aid. If freed these pitches are merely 11b, and as the crux is just crack climbing they're prime candidates for free climbing in the near future for us. I freed most of these pitches with good helpings of bolt steps, bolt grabs, and cam yanks. V took us to the end of four and ran the PDL like The Chief in his own wet dream on five. This means that he fixed the line at belay four at the hundred foot mark and continued to climb, unbelayed, on a hundred-foot loop of slack. Had he fallen he would have stung the anchor and himself with a minimum of a hundred foot factor one. Unlike The Chief, however, who would run it like that on A5, Vittles crept along like that on fourth class.
As I arrived at Sickle Ledge--the end of pitch four--I made a rope management mistake and left a giant loop of rope behind as I slid my jumars towards the anchor. The loop caught on a flake below the ledge and I had to delay putting V, who was already sixty or seventy feet above the anchor, on belay while I dealt with it. Fortunately it was early enough in the day that this unexpected problem elicited only a quick sigh before I sprung into action. The sun came up.
From Sickle Ledge one follows broken ground to a corner, makes a belay just around an arete, then rappels diagonally to the right into another crack system. V did this while I cleaned the previous pitch, so he was halfway up the next one when I arrived at the anchor. I put him on belay again and he took us to Dolt Hole. Here the route goes through a pendulum which would easily be the highlight of any other route in world--the only reason it's not on The Nose is that there's an even bigger one later. To get to this pendulum one climbs chimneys and cracks for a pitch, makes a belay under the Dolt Hole, then goes up a bolt ladder. From here the leader lowers, runs energetically back and forth until he has enough momentum, then lunges for a dynamic hand jam in Stoveleg Crack to the right. I followed this pendulum with a lame lower-out, since the follower can't repeat it, but was rewarded with all the free climbing from the next belay to the top of El Cap Tower--pitches eight to fourteen.
My block started with the top half of the famous Stoveleg Crack--so named because Warren Harding used wooden stove legs on the first ascent to protect it. These pitches were the free-climbing highlight of The Nose for us--they are unbelievably exposed and have unbelievably killer hand jams over a thousand feet above the forest. I'm sure that free climbing the Pancake Flake would have trumped it, but I think I already mentioned why it didn't.
After the Stoveleg Crack one follows widening fist cracks to Dolt Tower. The topo showed a scary-looking 10c offwidth right below the top, but Vittles told me that it's easy to French-free it by holding two #4's as jugs. I cruised that part to Dolt Tower, and soon the only other people on The Nose, another in-a-day party which started hours after us, caught up and passed. V lowered me from the top of Dolt into some broken terrain and I scrambled across to scrappy cracks. I climbed these at 5.7 until I was directly across from Dolt Tower before placing my first piece; I tried not to think about what would happen if I fell. I got to the belay soon after and got all of ten feet up the next pitch before Vitaliy arrived at the belay and saved me from the clusterf*#k horror that is self-belaying on an unmodified grigri.
The next pitch was seventy or eighty feet of steep tight fours, which is awesome for dudes with meaty fists. I sewed it up for the first twenty feet with our two fours, since the crack appears short from below, and only remembered that Vitaliy told me to slide gear on this pitch when I was fifty feet above my last piece. Surprisingly unperturbed when I clipped the anchors, I short-fixed and belayed myself across the next 5.7 pitch. After a couple of minutes on Vitaliy's belay I was at El Cap Tower, the top of pitch fourteen. We'd averaged about thirty minutes per pitch from the ground--a far cry from Honnold and Florine's average of five, but not too shabby! Seventeen pitches to go. Thanks to the runout on the 5.9 fists, I actually caught up with the faster in-a-day party.
Vitaliy passed his jumars to me at El Cap Tower and we made our first major block change. He zipped up 5.9 ground to the imposing chimney behind Texas Flake, for which the other party had advised, “don't clip the bolt in the chimney.” If you clip the bolt in the chimney it forces your follower to jumar inside with a pack, which is unspeakably horrible. If you don't clip it you can just flick the rope around the flake and the follower can jug outside, but that means running it out for forty or fifty feet in a slick 5.8 chimney. V clipped the bolt and I grumbled obscenities as I jugged.
The next pitch was the famous Boot Flake and King Swing. V took a while to lead this pitch since there's some tricky aid before the 10c hands, but after he untied, threaded his rope through the rings, and cleaned, he FLEW across the pendulum and stuck the edge on his second try. This pitch took his party three hours last time, so this was a marked improvement. This was the part of The Nose to which I'd looked forward more than anything, so I was thrilled that I was going to be able to do the pendulum too. Rocking approach shoes and a follower pack, V belayed me as I aided up a few bolts on the ladder under the Boot Flake. He locked off when I was at the right height, and I stowed my aiders on the back of my harness. I looked down at the meadows, up at the Great Roof, and across the valley to Middle Cathedral as I paused for a moment to let my heart flutter in the way it does when a dude sees a pretty lady.
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With a vigorous sprint to the right first, I almost stuck the edge on my first try. However, as gravity sucked me back into the nadir of the pendulum, I clawed a little too hard for the edge and was off-balance when I plummeted back down. Luckily I remembered to hop over the pesky concavity in the wall and didn't smack the other side too hard. My second time I grabbed the edge but realized soon after that I still had had to climb into and up a trough. With the convenient excuse of expediency, I grabbed a loop hanging from the belay after confirming it was fixed and batmanned up to the anchors. When I arrived at the belay, pumped from twenty feet of vertical batmanning and exhilarated from the wildest swing in the universe, I screamed the ten worst curses in the English language. I think it was the first time Vitaliy heard me say something worse than, “sh#t.”
Had Tom been on the bridge and seen the obscene gestures which accompanied the volley of verbal abuses, he might have chuckled in the next few minutes as the climbing turned to aid and as our pace dropped. V led two pitches above the King Swing to a high bolt, from which he lowered to a ledge far to the left. After following I lowered out from that bolt and reached the same ledge, but when I pulled the rope a loop caught behind a flake twenty feet above the belay. After a few sputtering efforts to retrieve it from below, we realized that it had lassoed the flake and would be impossible to retrieve except by going back up. Vitaliy ingeniously suggested that we fix both ends of the loop and that I jumar up one of them. He put me on a back-up belay--on my insistence--as I ascended the rope to the flake to fix the problem. Our morale took a major hit here, especially since one of my climbing shoes spontaneously unclipped from a non-locking biner and fell nearly two thousand feet to the ground.
The next block was mine, so I continued left on a short free-climbing traverse and aided up to Camp IV, where I started to short-fix the pitch to the Great Roof. Unfortunately, the 2mm tag line we'd brought for shuttling gear from belayer to leader while short-fixing kept tangling, which meant that we weren't particularly efficient in aid mode. I'll take 6 or 7 mm cord next time--it would be more than worth its weight for ease of handling.
The next pitch was the approach to the Great Roof. I've climbed 5.10 in my spiffy red approach shoes--I think I climbed 90% of Red Dihedral in them--so you would think that this mostly 5.7 pitch would be easy for me, even with my second climbing shoe at the base of El Cap. I was scared to climb just ten feet above gear on this pitch, though! The difference? The Great Roof looming above. Ominous and sprawling like the alien capital ships in Independence Day, I tried to ignore it and to carry on with the business of leading. It was about as hard as carrying on with everyday life--depositing paychecks, walking the dog, mowing the lawn--when malicious aliens are breathing down your neck.
Too intimidated to short-fix, I waited for Vitaliy to join me at the next belay before leading up to the Great Roof. This pitch is 11d until the roof arches right, and 13+ or 14- under the roof to the next belay. Lynn Hill's free ascent of this pitch is one of the most mind-bogglingly inspiring and awesome accomplishments in the history of climbing. As Vitaliy said, “I have no idea how a human could climb that.” Hell, even the famously brave El Cap frogs keep clear of that thing. I may not have free-climbed the Great Roof, but I did employ a time-honored climbing technique from Vertical Limit: the dynamic cam placement. Faced with a finicky micronut move before the next bomber crack section under the roof, I opted to guess the size of the crack five feet to the right and to lunge for that placement. My yellow Metolius fortunately stuck and I didn't fall back on my daisy chain.
When I arrived at the next belay I had to poo. Yes, we've come full circle to the shitty cliffhanger; I'd had to go for the last few pitches but had been praying it'd stay lodged in my rectum until Camp V, which was just two pitches above and immeasurably less awful for shitting than the hanging belay just after the Great Roof. To make matters worse, I had back-cleaned only half of my placements, which made it hard for Vitaliy to re-aid the roof and impossible for him to lower-out. As I hung at the belay groundhogging it took him forever--through no fault of his own--to clean the roof. When he finally reached the belay with the supplies, it was too late for my impatient little groundhog; it was spring, and no one was going to coop him up any longer.
I aided the next pitch, which is purportedly the best free climbing on The Nose, more out of shame than anything else. After the Pancake Flake and the awkward next pitch, we were at Camp V, the sun was gone, and I had just one more pitch--the Glowering Spot--until it was Vitaliy's show to the top. The aid through the Glowering Spot was the thinnest on the route, and it may have been the only place where I used nuts.
Vitaliy took over around midnight at the triangular ledge above Glowering Spot and took the rope to Camp VI. We had been going for twenty-one hours after a full day of work, and I had woken up thirty-nine hours ago. Our water had run out around sunset, and the drops that fell from the lips of invisible roofs hundreds of feet above dripped just beyond reach into space. I'd burned up my six or seven bars long ago, and my hands were painfully swollen from clutching jumars all day. Yet we had only one rope and couldn't go down. If my whoops after the King Swing were the high point of our day, this was very much the low. As I belayed Vitaliy I turned off my headlamp; there was no reason to keep it on when I was immobile. There was also no reason to stay awake, since I had a grigri. When Vitaliy moved up the rope would come taught against my sagging forehead and I would pay out slack.
At the next belay station, which was Camp VI, the aforementioned drops landed on my head and soaked my down sweater as Vitaliy crept up the Changing Corners. I tried to get them to land in my mouth, but the breeze buffeted them unpredictably and it was hard to get them in. I couldn't drift off anymore; this belay was like Chinese water torture. The topo indicated that one should “change corners” at the second bolt of a bolt ladder, but Vitaliy changed at the first bolt and I worried that the razor-sharp edge of the arete would cut the rope as I jugged. I jugged slowly and smoothly, but as I rounded the edge I noticed that Vitaliy had routed the rope well and that there had been no danger. Despite being cold, hungry, thirsty, and near the end of my physical and mental endurance, I didn't fail to notice that the soaking wet crack up to the first bolt in the ladder looked awesome for free climbing.
The next belay was the worst on the route--almost completely hanging. Vitaliy crack jumared the long red camalot crack above. He was in bad shape at the next belay and asked me to take the next pitch. I was scarcely better off, but I knew he would be back in fighting shape after taking a breather on belay. The next pitch contains the only thought-inducing climbing left on the route; the topo indicates a rightward traverse at the end of the pitch, and I took what looked like easy ground right after what I convinced myself was most of the pitch. I free-climbed twenty feet to the right out of the initial corner looking for the “wild stance” mentioned in the topo, but all I found were hard moves a pelvis-crushing distance from the dihedral I'd left. I scampered back to the corner, fified into a piece, and took out my topo. I realized my mistake and continued up through some aid into a wet 5.6 trough. A centipede wriggled over my foot, which was cammed in a flaring, vegetated, sopping wet crack. I climbed twenty feet up this trough and eventually found the beginning of the traverse. I aided up and right under a roof, but I was too tired to understand which pieces to leave behind and which pieces to back-clean to make Vitaliy's job easier. A few free moves after clipping a flexing piton, I reached the belay. After I fixed the line I realized that my headlamp was ineffective; the sun had come up and I hadn't noticed.
As Vitaliy jugged I tried to take in the wild stance. The Nose splayed out for nearly three thousand vertical feet below. The pastels of dawn were probably beautiful. My memories of this place are from a second trip up The Nose a month later, though; this time I was too tired to form memories and too cold to care. Pitch twenty-nine was done, and as Vitaliy jugged I saw the sunrise for the second time that day.
I led the next pitch, which was short and easy. The next belay was under the final pitch's bolt ladder, which Warren Harding famously hand-drilled through the night after his partner prusiked three thousand feet to deliver a fresh batch of bolts from the ground. Fortunately for us, Harding's fifty-year old bolts have been replaced with shiny new ASCA ones so V confidently skipped bolts and led the overhung pitch quickly. Once the line was fixed I undid the anchor and swung twenty feet into space. Having gone without water or food for twelve hours, my body had a hard time coping with the strenuous free-hanging jug. I would bounce up a couple of moves, fifi into my daisy, and try to catch my breath for a minute. I had run up Iron Mountain--7000 vertical feet--in 2:24 a month prior, but it took me almost half an hour to jug a hundred feet that morning.
When I finally saw the famous El Cap Tree, I stumbled up to it, tripping over loops of rope on my harness, and patted it a good morning. The sun was warm on top, so I found a flat rock and passed out for forty-five minutes. I would have insisted that we nap longer, but Vitaliy mentioned that we would cross a creek on the hike out. We packed our one 30L backpack, coiled our one rope, and hobbled down the East Ledges descent. I would have traded my mother's soul for a sip of water that morning, never mind a little giardia, so I dunked my head in a pool an hour below the summit and sucked water on hands and knees. I'm pretty sure I swallowed one of those water spiders, but I didn't care. Bryan and Gleb were waiting for us with chocolate under the fixed lines, bless them! I don't remember much from the rest of that day except that my new housemate, Fanny, preemptively apologized for snoozing on my shoulder in the backseat of my ride to Pasadena. “No problem,” I said. I woke up six hours later with my head on her lap!
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