Salathe Wall 5.13b or 5.9 C2
Trip ReportSalathe Wall June 2013
I spent Monday playing kickball for the last time with my fourth grade class, completing year-end tasks and arranging the massive pile of gear into something that was at least packable, if not disorganized. Sixteen bustling hours after I bid the last nine year-old goodbye, I switched one coast for the other and exited a train into the warm California sunshine. The scent of sea breeze tousled with a touch of the usual urban mix of food stands, exhaust and sweat as I dropped my haulbag onto the oil-stained pavement, sat next to it and waited.
Moments later, the snout of Bryce's Honda whipped into view and things were right where they had left off a year ago when we rapped from two-thirds of the way up the Salathe Wall, shooting a hole in our belief that the only way off was up after we'd pendulumed into the Hollow Flake. I'd learned to never underestimate the power of my own cowardice and spent the next 365 days kicking myself. Years ago, I'd bailed from partway up Southern Man, my first attempt at a big wall, after falls, fear and unfamiliar nailing convinced me the route was beyond me. It wasn't. My partners – older, more experienced, the classic mentors – called it par for the course. “You need to get into wall mode,” was their most common advice.
Nothing if not stubborn, we schemed, trained and schemed some more to steel ourselves for a climb that was laughable in difficulty in the face of the effort we were putting into it. I'd wanted to climb El Cap for years, and over years of free climbing and gaining experience and climbing all over the country on long routes and short ones, I'd built it up in my mind into something much bigger than it probably was. Or so I hoped. People do this thing once a week in a few hours fer Chrissake, I'd think. It was almost embarrassing.
The year before I had felt as good as I ever had. Trolling camp 4 for a partner to complete the freeblast prior to starting up the wall, I was scared at first. My partner, a longtime climber and valley local, knew as much. I'd never climbed anything on El Cap. I'd purposely avoided the popular cragging routes, saving the wall for a continuous ascent. Once I started climbing, I didn't want to stop until I pulled over the rim into what I hoped would be some spiritual epiphany. Roping up at the base the pitches fell away as fast as we could climb them. I realized it was just another rock climb Starting up the wall with bags the next day, I was felt we had already topped out; the climbing was a formality. We had the skills, we had the experience and each had other walls under our belt. Not exactly resumes to write home about, but more than many parties have who top out the captain. Beat down in the Alcove, down we went.
Anxiety gnawed at me for a the full year from when we hit the deck to when the wheels of my plane touched the tarmac the following summer. Working as a teacher, the fall season wasn't possible for me, which meant that if weather, injury or a simple lack of courage drove us down again, it would be a year before we could try...again. I'd rather take a hockey puck to the teeth.
Prior commitments meant that Bryce wouldn't be arriving for another seven days, which meant that I had a lot of time to prepare, climb, and try not watch the psychological water boil.
Being without a vehicle or means to get to the valley, Bryce had arranged transportation with for me with a friend and local climbing partner, Nick. The cost: one day of climbing in the valley to make his trip worthwhile. Three hours after landing and myself severely jetlagged, we were zipping toward the promised land.
The next day we climbed South By Southwest, Lunatic Fringe and Stone Groove and it felt good, but the rest of the week was filled with waiting. Time waits for no man, but it sure doesn't rush, either. With nothing to do, I had all the time in the world to think about all the things that could go wrong, both realistic and not-so, as well as the climbing itself.
At last, Bryce arrived, psyched as ever...just in time for rain.
We had factored storm/delays into our schedule, but it was still a schedule and a tight one at that. In a year of crazy drought we had picked the stormy week. Shaking heads, we spent a day in the cafeteria hatching and re-hatching plans and waiting. On the second day, we went down to the meadow and checked things out.
Having both done the Freeblast previously, we decided to skip it this time in order to allow for plenty of time on the upper route if we moved slow. We had water for four days and aimed to do the route in three, but weren't overly concerned with time. After all, we had spent two years dreaming about the route, why rush through it? The forecast called for a slight chance of rain in the night and sun for seven days, and the entire left side of El Cap was ours. Early that afternoon, we hauled our kit to the base and blasted.
Contrary to many climbers, I'm big enough and, frankly, dumb enough so that I actually enjoy hauling. Even though it takes energy, the repetitive, uncomplicated nature of it and the opportunity it offers to take things in is something I've come to enjoy, so even though the slabs were the worst hauling of the route, it went relatively quickly. But it wasn't completely smooth sailing. Suddenly thrust onto the wall after such a relatively long period of inactivity, I suddenly realized what a truly wonderful place the ground was and had a hiccup in my psyche. - Are we really doing this?!? - , but I managed to get into wall mode and pilot us through some wet 5.10 and 4th class to Long Ledge. Strangely enough, I actually enjoyed the pitches.
After shuttling the bags, Bryce destroyed the Hollow Flake in no time. Following the pendulum, I remembered the circus Bryce and I were forced to put together to reverse this pitch flake deciding to bail a year ago. The friction traverse back to Lung was too awkward to risk heavy haulbags, and all the times I almost practiced retreat scenarios bit me squarely on the ass as we tried to figure out what to do. We burned hours talking scenarios, unpacking haulbags, fixing ropes across the traverse, shutting gear by hand in several trips across the face. Stuff sacks and cams hanging awkwardly from our harnesses, we glumly realized that Tom was probably getting the show of a lifetime down at the bridge between cigars. Tying off at the base of the flake and pulling the rope through the penji point, I slid a jug up and chuckled to myself.
Climbing the pitch off of HF ledge was less strenuous than I had remembered, and the big cam a friend had loaned us last minute came in handy. Before we knew it, we were kicking back on the ledge with daylight to spare and enough energy to actually enjoy the position.
The next morning went quickly as we led long pitches up the perfect cracks leading to the Ear. Having led this pitch last year, Bryce had asked we switch to play to our strengths, his being wide cracks and mine being height, which would hopefully speed up the long pitch of C1+ above the Ear, which was long and on the strenuous side.
Climbing up to the ear
While I had done a lot of free climbing in the valley, only three easier walls prior to this and a handful of harder aid practice pitches made this pitcha bit intimidating from the ground...which probably sounds funny since it's only C1+. While a few sections were indeed physical and I definitely didn't set a speed record, it went by without too much trouble.
Our location on the face
Bryce on top of the ear
Leading above the ear
From there, Bryce took us up through the Alcove and linked the pitch with a section of 5.10 to the spire and just like that we were officially on new terrain. With plenty of daylight left, Bryce offerred to continue up to fix for the next day. I wasn't about to argue belaying on the Spire.
Bryce hauling up the spire
Jugging up the next day, I made sure to snap the classic shot and we were on our way skyward. For a moment, at least. Having offered to haul the pitch, as I felt it was the least I could do to repay Bryce's lead, I was fifteen feet from the anchor when I felt a yank on the back of my harness. I tried to continue up, but was being held back by the haul line. A few shouts confirmed that the haul line, new at the start of the climb and labled as a 61-meter rope, was a good 25 feet too short in comparison with our 60 meter lead line. Sucking what little stretch was left in the lead line into my jumars, I pulled a few shenanigans and managed to get the haulbags up to the anchor. We were momentarily bummed, as a mis-measured haul line meant linking pitches was iffy at best from here on up.
Bryce on El Cap Spire
My first lead of the day was a long pitch of C1 to the base of the sewer and, being on the tall side, I made it through the first corner to the base of the boulder problem/teflon corner quickly. Surprisingly, nearly the entire second half of the corner was fixed with pins. Old...manky...eyelet-cracked-in-half-pins. Part way up the ladder, one had evidently ripped, leaving a small scar. Despite top-stepping, the next pin was just out of reach, and I hurriedly slotted a brass nut, eager to clip the next pin and get on with it.
Looking down the first part of the corner
As I placed the chock, I noticed that the crack was flared just enough to prevent the nut from locking solidly, sitting mostly on the outside corners. Eh, real climbers don't think twice about standing on these, I thought, not wanting to waste time bounce testing. I gave the piece a final yank, gave the 1,800 feet of air beneath me a final glance and eased onto the nut.
Nothing. I took a step up my aider. Still nothing. Hastily, I grunted upward, unclipped my daisy and reached high, biner open and ready to clip into the waiting pin.
Having enough time to yell an initial, “Whoa!” I careened downward as 180 pounds of moron tore the nut from its placement, the weight of the gear sling flipping me backward toward the void. Following up my shout with something akin to a goat being castrated, I felt myself began to slow as as the rope gently caught me and things seemed suddenly quite still.
“What happened?” Bryce's voice floated up, sounding simultaneously concerned and amused.
“I..it...aagh...” I mananged
“Yah.” He waited a beat. “That was a classic, old fashioned screamer!”
Not wanting to wait around and consider the face that I'd managed to screw up C1, I batmanned back up and found a better placement. The top of the pitch blanked out, but some moderate free climbing led to the anchor. Linking through the sewer and the crack above, Bryce brought us to the Block in no time, commented that the sewer wasn't as bad as he was expecting.
I cast off on the next pitch, supposedly the route-finding crux of the route, which isn't really saying much since the whole thing is the most obvious line on the wall. However, I poked right then, left, then right again before pulling around an arete and onto the exposed face. Beautiful white rock led up, and I mantled toward a fixed sling, trying fish in cams behind hollow sounding flakes. Above, clean face holds provided great, albeit spicy face climbing to a good crack and the sous le toit.
The location of the block
Leading off the Block
Dawn found us both awake early, having not slept well that night on the ledge, which sloped just enough. Packing up slowly, we both started to hear voices. Before long, two climbers arrived on the ledge, and we later found out they had driven through the night and hiked up to work the upper section of Freerider for the day. We chatted, compared plans to stay out of each others way and carried on.
Jugging up the next day, I felt wasted, and as Bryce started the next pitch up a gorgeous corner system to the base of the roof, I became more and more anxious to top out and have it be done with. Bryce climbed smoothly up to the the first anchor and estimated the distance. Deciding he could make the next anchor with our shortened haul line, he cast off again but took a fall in crumbly rock not far above the belay when a cam hook blew. Unfazed, he muttered, more annoyed than anything, and launched himself back up the corner. A few dicey placements and he was on solid ground to the hanging stance at the base of the roof.
Bryce in the corner pitch to the roof
The Salathe Roof
Above the roof a few moves on bomber offset nuts and an occasional fixed head got me 30 or so feet up the headwall. Oh my, the headwall. Just as incredible as I'd imagined it, 180 foot, laser cut fracture led up to another small overhang and our final bivy. Reaching the anchor, I fixed the rope, and hauled the bag.
Organzing the station, I waited. Finally Bryce appeared and made his way up to the anchor. He reached the belay and tied off, where one look said that he needed to eat and drink, bad. Although tired, he assured me he was ok rallied through exhaustion to the top of the pitch. Cam by cam, bit by bit, he worked his way up until he reached the top. At this time, the headwall started to get into that golden afternoon sun, and Bryce kicked himself for not having the camera handy.
While we had planned to link the Long ledge, we decided to play it safe since we weren't sure exactly how long the final stretch of headwall was. Bryce had initially wanted to lead the entire headwall, but turned over the last lead up to long to me. That's one of the reasons I really enjoy climbing with Bryce, when one of us is worked, the other is always there to take over.
Some awkward aid and free climbing later, I pulled onto Long howl. Dropping anchor and unpacking the bags, we traded a few words feeling happy and more than a little worked. Staring off into the near darkness, we watched cars tracing their way around the loop road.
Long Ledge. "Are we there yet?"
Suddenly, two cars seemed be acting a little...drunk. I watched as the tiny lights bobbed and weaved below, careening this way an that until I realized that the lights were too small to belong to vehicles. At that moment they stopped.
“GOOD JOB BRYCE!!!! GOOD JOB MATT!!”
The shouts of our neighbors for the day from Freerider reverberated off the walls and Bryce yelled back in answer. Those guys had already made it back to the valley floor as we hit the bivy. Speed climbers we are not. Nice work boys!
The next morning we suddenly realized we'd been up there for four days. Wow. Getting ready, the pitch off of Long was rumored to be the last crux, with C2 aid followed by mandatory free climbing rated 5.height-dependent. With offset brass, the aid was a cruise but I bounce tested everything, since a fall sideways across the ledge would be bad/terrifying. I thought the free climbing on top was about 5.9.
Sitting on the great belay ledge, I caught some sun and watched Bryce aid up the final corner to the base of a chimney, the last real pitch.
Bryce on lead, P33
Scuffling up the pitch, Bryce suddenly hollers aloud, and then hollers again. The last stretch is perfect, hero hand cracks with jugs. With the last bit of hard climbing behind, we take it in, then he finishes the pitch and fixes the rope.
Bryce topping out!
I scrambled over the top and took it in. A group of tourists from San Diego were there, watching us. They said they were on a rappelling trip and asked me to tie their rope off to the anchor for them. Adventures never cease!
On the walk down, we chatted about the climb and how physical it seemed at times. There was much more in and out of aiders than I had expected, but I was happy as I managed to get around some potentially tricky aid.
Hiking down the descent went much faster than I figured, or at least it probably seemed that way since we were on such a high. Marching past the manure pile, we each had one thought: RIVER.
Bryce's wife and daughter, Marcia and Eva, were there to greet us and ready to whisk Bryce away to a family gathering in Utah.
Then I looked up again and started wondering...
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