The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2
Trip ReportPost-Ferguson fire Nose TR
Climbing El Capitan was something I thought about for 17 years, but I really didn’t think I ever would do it. I got into climbing when I was 20 years old and went to visit a friend who had a bouldering area in his house. I struggled to pull my ass off the ground from a sit start and couldn’t believe the others were finding it so easy. That’s actually what hooked me - not being able to do it. We watched rock climbing videos from Yosemite that weekend and I was shocked at the bravery or stupidity of these athletes. It’s not an understatement to say that it rattled me (that said, we were smoking a lot of bongs....). I quickly got into indoor rock climbing and introduced some other friends to it as well, including my friend Rob who was just as excited as me to go pull on plastic at the local sports complex and flail on 5.8. I really didn’t think I’d ever go further than indoor climbing. It seemed terrifying to climb outside in an uncontrolled environment. But eventually we wore away that fear and bought enough gear to set up a top rope on one of the 30m crags in Ontario. With each new experience my fear became more controlled until I was climbing in a way that a trip to Yosemite was no longer fiction in my mind. Now a note on my Yosemite obsession - since that fateful first glimpse of what was going on there, it’s had a firm grasp on me. Most people who know me realize this. I buy nearly every book, movie or magazine I see that has anything to do with Yosemite. I know the history of climbing here from multiple perspectives. One of the first presents my wife gave me was an El Capitan hat almost 15 years ago. I’ve done 4 trips to Yosemite, spending nearly all my time in a 6 square mile valley that’s surrounded by some of the most beautiful rocks in the world. And maybe most tellingly, I asked my brother Jordan and my climbing partner Rob to spread my ashes on top of El Cap when I die. All that said, my expectations about the experience of climbing El Cap were extremely high, and somehow they were exceeded by such a margin that I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
The formal plans to climb El Cap were put in place last October after I got back from another Yosemite visit. Me and my brother had spent a day at the base of the wall watching climbers on the Nose, the most famous route on El Cap (and arguably in the world). At night we’d laid in the meadows watching headlamps come on all over the massive face. With the confidence of a few beers I swore right then that I was going to give it a go. I emailed the aforementioned Rob as soon as I got home and got an immediate yes. I didn’t know if his confidence came from excitement, ignorance or both. He’d never been to Yosemite so he’d never had the experience of having to crane his neck to see up the highest vertical rock face most people will ever see. But regardless, we were going. Training started in earnest immediately. As we now live on opposite sides of the country, we would update each other on progress via phone or email. When I tore my bicep tendon climbing, I started running. I hate running. But I was able to deal with it by thinking about our mission. We obsessively watched every video of people climbing the nose and read every trip report we could find. We bought all the gear we needed for aid climbing and hauling and sleeping on the side of a vertical face.
And then it seemed to be all in vain…. the Ferguson fire shut down Yosemite just a couple of weeks before our start date. When the re-opening date kept getting pushed back we had to start considering other options (Bugaboos was our #1 in case you’re wondering), but thinking of doing anything other than the Nose was really disappointing. Even when it appeared the park was going to open just before our arrival, we worried about the air quality while doing hard exercise for 3-4 days. In the days before our flights we were constantly monitoring the Yosemite webcams. 5 days pre-flight you couldn’t make out El Cap from the Turtle Dome camera about 5km away. The valley was a hazy mess. But it slowly cleared out and just before we left I sent Rob a screenshot from the webcam where you could make out features on El Cap for the first time. It was on!
Upon arriving in Yosemite we decided to take a day to get a feel for the valley granite. Our picks were a couple of classics – New Diversions and Generator Crack. While I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying these climbs, I can confidently say that neither did anything to prepare us. After thrashing around and losing plenty of skin from all over our bodies on Generator, we had our first of many dips in the Merced river and then drove in to have a look at our main objective. I expected more distress to show when Rob caught his first glimpse of the captain, but he only really showed excitement with a hint of awe. We hiked to the base and were surprised to see no one on the route, or anywhere on El Cap for that matter. I worried that it was too hot for climbing and we were the only people dumb enough to risk the heat stroke. (What we ultimately figured out over the next two weeks, though, was that the valley was largely quiet because so many people had to cancel their trips due to the uncertainty of the park re-opening. We got on classics like Nutcracker, Snake Dike and the Salathe freeblast without seeing another climber and were able to make campsite reservations days before showing up. It was like having the valley to ourselves!). Nevertheless, we made plans to start up the Nose the following morning. We decided to follow the common strategy of climbing up to pitch 4 (Sickle ledge) without our haul bags, then rappel down for some rest, water and food before ascending back up the fixed ropes with our bags. This would be our first time aiding, hauling and ascending (disregarding the backyard tree) so we were counting on learning quite a bit on the first pitches.
The first 4 pitches (5 if you include pine line) went reasonably well. They are tough pitches but taught us a lot about the friction we could expect and about the use of piton scars for protection (offset nuts and cams are a very worthwhile investment in our opinions). At Sickle ledge we realized that there actually wasn’t a third fixed rope for rappelling and had to leave ours. The second rope of the 2 fixed ropes looked fine but was a nightmare to rap on grigri. It felt like the only options were freefall or stopped dead. It was nearly impossible to modulate it at a reasonable pace. That was a scary feeling 400 feet up a blank face on a rope we know nothing about. We returned later that night with plans to get the haul bag up a pitch or two to make our morning easier. At the parking area by the meadows we met Cole and Uzair who were also planning on jumping on the nose the next day. They’d turn out to be the only other group on the wall with us for the whole ascent other than a NIAD party one day. After lugging the pig up to the base, Rob headed up the first fixed rope to haul. He had no experience with hauling so we used this as practice. It didn’t go well. 30 minutes after starting he had the bag a little more than halfway up the first rope length. Since it was dark we decided to leave it there for the night and return in the morning. Cole and Uzair had made it up to the base with their 2 haul bags in the meantime. They had climbed the first 4 pitches before the park closure and were returning to start from the fixed lines. They would have been in for a shitty surprise if we hadn’t fixed the third line that morning. It’s not really visible from the ground so they would have hauled up one rope length and ascended the second before realizing they were going to need to go back to the ground and start from pitch 1. We made a deal that they could launch off before us to use our line and that we’d pull it afterwards. They planned to be going by 5am. That night Rob and I both felt terrible. Headaches and nausea. We weren’t sure if it was the heat, lack of calories, lack of water, anxiety.....? But regardless we decided that we’d delay our start until the next afternoon. Rather than hauling in the heat and rushing for Dolt tower, we would haul to Sickle in the afternoon/evening when it’s starting to cool down and set up our portaledge there that night and start early the following day. That would also give time for Cole and Uzair to get ahead a bit.
The next day we slept in, ate well, drank tons of water and laid in the meadows watching Cole and Uzair. We also saw a second party starting (and hauling) from pitch 1. We were told they were a French pair that were going with minimal water and trying for 3 days from the ground, which is pretty quick. Lying in the meadows all day was awesome, but we felt the anxiety levels rising as the day wore on. The heat, the unexplained faintness the previous night, the hauling and the sketchy fixed rope were the factors we were thinking about. Nothing quells anxiety like action, though, so at our planned time of 4pm we were at the base to start up.
//**A little side note here that might be useful to groups tackling the nose in the heat: staring at El Cap for a couple of days had given us good info on when we could expect sun and shade in different sections. Working with those parameters saved our asses as we took just enough water and would have been screwed if we were in the sun any longer. Stovelegs up to Texas flake went into the shade around 3pm. They grey bands had shade early, maybe until 9am. From the Great roof until the wild stance, there was shade until around 11am. Additionally, the pitches above camp 5 get shade again starting around 3pm. Our plan was to try to be on the stovelegs/dolt pitches in the afternoon shade on day 1, accept that we were going to cook on day 2 getting over to camp 4 and then start early the next day to stay largely out of the sun through the upper pitches. This ended up working brilliantly for us.//
Rob figured out that his problem with hauling had been too short of a throw, meaning he was only pulling the bags up 6 -8 inches per squat. He adjusted his tether when we got back on the wall and finished his haul very quickly. The rest of the fixed rope ascending and hauling went off without a snag and we were on Sickle around 7pm. We ran into the French team there who had decided that they weren’t going to be able to pass Cole and Uzair easily until Dolt tower, and that they didn’t have enough time (or water) for that. So they decided to bail from Sickle. Getting their haul bag back from the top of the Sickle pitch was a herculean effort by one of the two, who we referred to as the beast. He rapped with a 100 pound haul bag on his back. Probably not the most efficient way to do it, but it sure was fascinating to watch. Before they left we took 4 litres of water from them. Given that we still nearly ran out, that was a huge help. With them gone, we settled into the portaledge for our first night of sleeping on a wall. It took me a long time to get to sleep. The nearly-full moon was shining on the 2500 feet of granite above us, and moonbeams were shooting through the Cathedral rocks across the valley from us. I felt like I was in a fantasy cartoon and I couldn’t stop looking around. My excitement levels were through the roof. I couldn’t believe we were really doing this and that it was more beautiful than I had even envisioned. That stoke level came crashing down 36 hours later as you’ll see if you stick with this long-ass report.
The next day was day 1 of our continuous push, even though it had been 2 days since we first started up the nose. We’d learned quite a bit from the first 4 pitches and the hauls up the fixed lines, so we made good time getting over to the Stoveleg cracks. That’s where the wind really started to pick up. We’d learn over the rest of our trip that there’s nearly always a late morning/early afternoon up higher in the valley and in Tuolomne. And it can whip! By the time Rob was 50 feet up on the first pitch of the Stovelegs I couldn’t hear him any more. When he was nearing the top, he stopped to pee and it must have gone 500 feet east before landing at the base. I had the second and third Stoveleg cracks which went fairly well with some French free. It was a little disconcerting to look down while pushing two cams up the final pitch. There were sections where a fall would have been 100+ feet. That said, the likelihood of a fall when pushing two cams is miniscule. We had decided to stop at Dolt for a rest so we hauled to there. That was the worst haul of the trip because the bag was running up the corner rather than up the clean face. After that we got better at planning where the haul bag would run. At Dolt we realized we were going to be tight to make El Cap tower, our planned bivy site, in the light. So our rest was very short. The next pitch scared me as a belayer. The leader lowers down and then climbs back up a crack system 20-30 feet away. Obviously you don’t want any protection in down low or the rope drag would be unbearable, but I could see how nasty the fall would be if he blew it, so I really wanted him to place and back clean gear. I think I’m generally more nervous as a belayer than a climber. For all I knew he was fully in control, but I could only imagine the worst. We got to El Cap tower after 10pm. I didn’t have my headlamp for the 1.5 hours of darkness but with the moon it was fine. Cole and Uzair were also bivying at the tower and had fixed the next pitch, Texas flake. They were beat from the day of climbing so we quietly made a hot dinner on the Jetboil and crashed.
**Another side note – I had read some reports saying that you need to go super light in the haul bags and shouldn’t bring a stove, etc. We took everything we wanted for a 4 day ascent and ended up about 140 lbs. I weighed about 165 lbs during our trip and had no problem 1:1 hauling that weight.
On the morning of Day 2 we were up early but fully expected to be behind Cole and Uzair since they had already fixed the next pitch. But after a bit of friendly banter they suggested that we use their fixed line and jump ahead since we were moving a bit quicker. We jumped at the chance and Rob was jugging within 10 minutes while I finished packing up camp. Rob threw our lead line over the front of the flake so I didn’t have to jug through the chimney, but I’m really not sure which would have been better. The ascent was very overhanging and was tough to do first thing in the morning. I had so much trouble catching my breath after that Rob took the next pitch (Boot flake) which was originally going to be mine. While I was belaying from on top of Texas flake, Uzair jugged up and started their hauls. Because of the weight of their bags they were using a 2:1. It worked smoothly for them but took a hell of a long time. I think they likely would have been faster than us if they were 1:1 hauling. Rob absolutely loved the Boot flake (it was his favourite pitch in Yosemite) and using cam hooks. Next up for me was the King Swing. I had it in my mind that this was going to be a terrifying thing to do 1500 feet up the wall so I had to psyche myself up a bit. In reality it was just fun. You have to run harder than I expected, but I snatched a hold on my third swing. Getting around the corner to Eagle ledge involved getting a couple short lowers from Rob and then finding a small undercling on the other side that I could hold to move my feet around the corner. After that it’s over – Eagle ledge is an arm’s length away. The more intense part of the pitch is climbing up from Eagle ledge to the next anchor while still on belay from the top of the Boot. You don’t have to do it this way, but it makes it really easy to haul your bags and for the second to jug when you’re almost at the same height. I was pretty cautious to avoid the brutal pendulum fall back into the Boot and always had at least 2 cams plugged in as I moved up (and obviously back cleaned them). There is one squeeze section down low that you have to free without gear in but the fall at that point wouldn’t be terrible. I’d highly recommend using this linking strategy. Even if you’re super conservative on the climbing above Eagle and take 30 min to climb the pitch you’ll save an hour compared to hauling to Eagle. We were really happy to be at this point and the coming pitches would likely be much quicker as they involve a lot of free climbing in the 5.8-5.10- range. But then things went sideways…… I was supposed to finish my block of climbing with the pitch that leads up into the grey bands. As I was racking up I started to feel really dizzy, to the point that I thought I might actually black out. Looking up made it worse, which isn’t ideal for leading a pitch. I told Rob I’d give it a go since I knew there would be times we’d both have to push through when we don’t feel right. I made 4 or 5 moves, placed gear, looked up and nearly blacked out again. That was it for me and I lowered back to the belay where Rob volunteered to take the pitch. In case this was a calorie issue, I started eating as many bars and gels as I could handle. Rob was concerned enough to leave me his water ration before he took off as well. I had a lot of bad thoughts while I was belaying and doing my best not to look up (Rob actually took a fall while free climbing 5.10+ on this pitch). I hadn’t given much thought to the commitment level of a big wall until this point. We were almost exactly halfway in terms of pitch count at this point and if I didn’t get better, going down was going to be a long trip. Since I had no idea what was wrong with me I wondered about every possibility, including vertigo. At this point I felt that there was a very strong possibility we wouldn’t finish the climb, and I actually questioned whether big wall climbing was beyond my capabilities. Meanwhile Rob had crushed the pitch and gotten us into the grey bands traverse. The extra calories I took in seemed to help a bit and I was able to at least jug the pitch. We made the call at that point that we’d climb over to camp 4 and call it a day early (we still had 2-3 hours of light) to try and get me recovered. Hauling this traverse pitch really sucked and I would highly recommend the strategy of leaving your haul bag at the start of the traverse and then retrieving it two pitches later, from just under the great roof. Cole and Uzair reached the start of the traverse about an hour later while we were already set up at camp and we yelled that suggestion over to them and it seemed to work well. They slept on their portaledges at the start of the traverse that night. This was our worst day for water as well. We were in the sun all day (as we knew we would be) and the strong afternoon wind dried us out as well. At camp we had about 1.5 litres left. Nearly a litre of it went into our hot dinners and then tragedy struck when Rob spilled the last 500mL. If the ledges weren’t covered in urine we might have considered trying to suck it up. We both went to bed very thirsty. Overall this was a brutal day for me and when we were talking at night I told Rob I didn’t think I’d ever do a big wall again.
On day 3 we woke up around 6am to try and follow our shade strategy. We knew camp 4 would be sunny by 8am, but the pitches from the great roof upwards would be shaded until 11. I felt WAY better in the morning and fired myself up for a good day of climbing. I took the first easy 5.9 pitch to see how I was feeling and cruised it. Rob was on the Great Roof pitch by 8:30 and we were still in the shade despite everything underneath us being in full sun. Rob did an awesome job on the roof. He was moving fast and stepping high (here come the high steppa…) in his ladders and was at the roof proper in no time. With all the fixed gear in the roof I think he was to the belay in 10 minutes from that point. Cleaning the great roof is not an easy task and involved me re-aiding a lot of it, but we were moving really well. I had pancake flake and I’d had it as a goal to free the 5.10c portion of the pitch. 5.10c is well within my free climbing capability, but I knew that being exhausted and covered in heavy gear and way up high would make it really tough. Regardless, I was determined, especially since Rob had to take the majority of the leading and hauling the previous day for me. I ended up sending it which really got me stoked. A few moves of aid on the thinner section up top got us into the corner system that we would follow until the summit bolt ladder. It’s hard to express how great I felt. After such a low the day before, I once again felt that we were going to make it and that I was going to be a useful partner. This was also the point where I realized that I’d become acclimated to the height. As Rob jugged up and then climbed the next awkward pitch to camp 5, I spent a lot of time staring down at the route and the valley and enjoying the view. At one point I noticed a team of 2 entering the grey bands with only small backpacks and assumed them to be NIADers. Strangely then I saw a third person just floating down to them. It took me a bit to put it together but I eventually realized that this was Cole rappelling down to his haul bag, following the strategy we’d suggested. Rob really struggled with the awkward pitch and at Camp 5 he needed to lie down. In chatting later, it seemed he was feeling a little like I was the previous day. This was a pretty awesome example of how a good partnership can work. We were lucky that our bad spells aligned with times that the other partner was feeling strong. After a rest, the sun disappeared again around 3:30 or so and we finished up two long pitches up to camp 6. Camp 6 was not nearly as smelly as we’d been led to expect, but we could see why it would be. The large crack running across the back of the ledge is perfect for pee, poop and garbage (accidental in most cases I would assume). This was our favourite camp ledge (El Cap tower is arguably better, but we shared that with Cole and Uzair). As we set up for the night we were both feeling really positive. The summit was only 5 pitches away, and two of those involved bolt ladders. I decided to blow some battery life on my phone and put on music. Listening to “The weight” on the ledge will be a long-term memory for me. As we set up and cooked, we talked about how strange it was that the NIADers hadn’t passed us yet. We were moving well but had taken a 30 min. break at camp 5. Finally at nearly 9pm the first partner arrived. He asked us if we were “The Canadians” and let us know they’d been following our progress for a couple of days and that we were climbing well. They were doing the Nose in a style I hadn’t really considered – in a single push with no bivy gear, but using no speed climbing techniques (no simul, no short fixing, just fully pitching it out). While they were trying for a 24 hour ascent, it seemed unlikely as they weren’t off our ledge until after 11pm and were aiding everything at that point. Add in the descent and these guys were probably working hard for 30+ hours. One had never done the nose before and said he mostly just climbs indoor. We were pretty impressed, but ultimately I was much happier to take our time and to have the magical experience of sleeping on the wall. The view from camp 6 at night was potentially my favourite – the granite in the moonlight looked like silver waves and the birds buzzing around us added to the experience.
Day 4 was going to be a short day. We expected to be off the wall by mid-day. I decided that I would belay off the portaledge for the changing corners pitch since it was likely to take a while. That was the most comfortable belay I’ve had by far! Rob crushed this one as well and didn’t need to break out the cam hooks at all. As he neared the end I started to pack up the rest of our camp while still technically being on belay. This prompted a discussion about accepted climbing rules that seem to go out the window when you’re on a big wall. For example:
- Never take your hand off the brake line
- Don’t trust ropes/gear you don’t know anything about
- Don’t step on bolts, grab gear, etc.
I actually enjoyed the goal of getting to the top without any style considerations. I find it annoying to listen to climbers debate about onsighting, dabbing, downclimbing to rests, etc. To be on a wall where our only goal was to make the summit was liberating in a sense. It felt strange at first to pull on gear or use rope tension to get across a traverse or even to ascend a pitch that I could have free climbed, but I ended up loving it. It all added to the adventure. The final pitches are not remarkable from a climbing perspective but are unbelievable in terms of position. The ability to hang free in space nearly a kilometre off the ground and feel zero fear was just cool. I wanted to bask in it as long as possible. And fortunately I got to do so on the last hanging belay when Rob couldn’t figure out where he wanted to set up the final haul. The funny thing is that I know if I were to go back now and try and rappel off the top of El Cap my knees would nearly buckle. Despite what my non-climber friends think, I am certainly afraid of heights. Climbing has never come naturally to me, neither physically nor mentally. And that’s what I love about it. Hard things are hard. I was surprised when I pulled over the final lip that there wasn’t a greater sense of relief. I was overwhelmingly happy to have completed a lifetime goal (and to take off my harness), but I also knew that I would miss being on the wall. It really was one of the best things I’ve ever done. We each had a drink of Kessler’s (smooth as silk) whisky, poured a little out on the tree in dedication to some lost loved ones and then repacked for the slog down. I won’t go into the details of the descent while wearing an unbalanced haul bag but suffice to say we were completely drained when we hit the valley floor. We had no camp reservations that night and couldn’t find anywhere to get food or water, so our night consisted of sleeping illegally on the ground under El Cap and drinking a warm Budweiser. Not a hero’s welcome, but waking up in the morning underneath that beast brought a smile to my face that I won’t forget.
//Our recovery took 4 days. We only took one day fully off climbing and then climbed moderates for the remainder, but we would both be ready for bed by dinner every day. The $5 spent on the shower room at Half Dome village was great value, as was pizza and beer on the deck. On our last day we did Snake Dike to kill ourselves before the flight home but I found that I was fine the next day despite 5000’ of hiking/climbing. I think we were finally at a proper valley fitness level right as we left.//
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