The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2
Trip ReportThe Nose of El Capitan First Ascent Stories from Wayne Merry
A while back i did an interview with Wayne Merry. He told some great stories about the nose that i have not seen published elsewhere, here is the interview. Everything is a quote from Merry unless its obviously a question from me
Quotes From Wayne Merry on the First Ascent of the Nose
The disorganization of this ascent was absolutely mind-boggling. The climb
was a terrible thrash. For food, everybody just brought whatever he thought
was best. Somehow we ended up with way too many Kipper Snacks. Dick brought
a whole case, and what with the shortage of water (less than 2 quarts most
days, often a quart or less), they somehow lacked appeal. But we ate 'em
and were grateful, and belched a lot of fish.
We communicated to the ground crew by throwing messages in cans. Love
letters were tossed from Dolt Tower and Camp IV in a Hunt's tomato can
once, and maybe fruit cocktail cans other times. Got a picture of the can,
too, and Cindy has a couple of those letters. I remember writing one very
long one, but the can hung up on the way down. I wonder if anyone has
In an effort to raise a few bucks for the fixed ropes I had offered to toss
down some dispatches for a San Jose newspaper, but someone there didn't
think it was newsworthy. I wonder if he kept his job.
We knew the wall was assailable. The question was - was it climbable.
Several years before, Gary Hemming and I had looked carefully at the route,
wondering if we could lower supplies from the top to ledges along the way.
We also examined Half Dome, plotting to climb out horizontally from the
east side to stash supplies for a frontal assault. Needless to say we never
got to it, and the nearest I came to it was loaning Joe Fitschen my
Kletterschuhe when he arrived for the first ascent without any climbing
shoes. It seemed like expedition tactics were all that would work on those
big walls at the time. Summer of ‘57 I remember looking through binoculars at El Cap with Harding and Powell, and insisting that the Salathé wall
was a classier route.
Called Dolt Tower because Bill “Dolt” Feuerer was prusiking downward from Dolt Tower to
reroute some fixed ropes when he got his beard stuck in a prusik knot.
Earlier on, bill earned the nickname “Dolt” when he frantically clipped his
aider to a piece. He stood and breathed a sigh of relief - which instantly
became a scream as he realized the sling he had his foot in was the wrong
one, clipped only to his waist.
El Cap Tower
On El Cap Tower a bushy tailed wood rat ate through Warren Harding's
sleeping bag in several places as well as a plasticized tarp. We were never free
of loose down and feathers from that point on. Thank God they didn’t have
an appetite for the fixed nylon ropes.
The closest call on the route came for me on Camp IV. I rested a haulbag on
the ledge not clipped in to anything - and carefully stacked the haul line
beside it. I underestimated how much the pitch traversed and when I
lowered myself out to start prusiking the fixed rope the line started
zipping off the ledge. I waited for the line to eventually come
tight on the haulbag and jerk it off the ledge. The line came
tight and the bag shifted but thankfully stayed put on the ledge. It would
have fallen a full rope length and snapped tight on my waist. It was a 50lb
haul bag and a coil or two of rope. I was struggling
with the knot where the haul bag was tied into my waist, my eyes like
targets, knowing there was no way I was going to get it undone in time. I
knew I was a dead man. I was very introspective the rest of the day.
Between Camp IV and Camp V
We got pretty fast at prusiking. It eventually only took 10-15 minutes to
prusik a 150 feet of rope. However, that was unloaded. It depended on the
load being carried. We didn't haul the loads up on ropes, but carried them
attached to the waist. They were up to 50 pounds.
Incidentally, the climbing rope was tied to us with a single bowline around
the waist. Swamis came later. But we rigged up some pretty elaborate
prusiking outfits, which were actually quite comfortable. The rappel
technique of the time makes my hair stand on end now, and I still have a
white scar on my back I got rappelling from Camp V to Camp IV on a single
strand of slick new rope. I'm not sure, but I think we originated the
prusik safety for rappelling. At least it seemed like our idea at the time.
On Camp V there were ledges named: Warren’s bedroom, Wayne’s bedroom and the
Sun Deck. Warren's was the large middle one. Mine was the small one down
below with its anchor way up above on Warren's bedroom, so there was strong
incentive not to roll over. Or even sleep for that matter. The Sun Deck was
the highest one.
We had a can of fruit cocktail that night, and about a pint of water left.
I took my share of the water in the cocktail can and tucked it onto a
little ledge just below "my bedroom" for that awful time at about 4 am when
you wake up with your tongue sticking to your palate. I woke up then,
fumbled the can, and listened to it tinkle down the face. Bad night.
"One of the low moments of the climbs came high on the route when Harding
and I were climbing above Camp VI. We had been drinking slim rations of
often foul tasting water so one day George Whitmore decided to bring us a
treat. He prusiked up 2,500 feet with a big 48 ounce can of tomato juice.
As Harding and I descended from the days work of leading, George opened the
can but then fumbled it. He let a terrible scream as the can rolled into a
large crack and became fixed, upside down, just out of his reach. We all
had to watch and listen as the tomato juice went "glug, glug, glug" and
emptied inside the crack. I'm sure that can is still down there somewhere.
On the way to the park we stopped in Merced and picked up a bottle of
champagne and four champagne glasses. This was our "summit kit", to be
carried to the top by the support party. Since there weren't enough
surviving glasses hauled in by the support party (John Wittmer and Ellen
Searby) I used for the toast an aluminum cup that I had hauled up the wall
for some reason. After a celebratory glass of the bubbly we tossed the
glasses off the summit. Don’t tell the park service.
At 6 am Harding called down: Can you hang on for one more bolt? I
thought, "Jesus - can "I" hang on! I had been standing there looking up
all night at this little spidery figure halloed by its headlamp, dangling
under overhangs and banging away above his head - and he asks me if I can
Why did Harding drill the final bolt ladder at night instead of waiting
We had just gone through a 2-day snowstorm and were scared of
the weather (although it turned out great). We were beat, short of food and
water, there was no reasonable bivouac ledge above Camp VI and we sure as
hell didn't want to go down again.
A reporter asked when we got down, "Do you think it will be climbed again?"
I said, "I can't even imagine anyone going through that for the sake of a
second ascent!" and I believed it.
50 steel and aluminum oval biners with lead team
125 bolts (the bolts were bloody awful. I wouldn't hang a picture from them
today, but belayed from them then.)
2 European, wood hammers
Original Salath» lost arrows
3" oak wood wedges (rarely used)
4 stove leg pitons
3" aluminum t sections
Kipper snacks (way too many)
Canned fruit cocktail
2-gallon military surplus plastic bladder water container (tasted awful)
Candy bars: O Henry, Baby Ruth and Hershey’s
Canned cocktail wieners
Heavy cotton plus-fours (like long knickers), military mountain pants
Dacron t shirt
A wool shirt and sweater
A thin Dacron batting filled vest
Nylon-cotton parka stocking cap
Marine corps combat boots (with modified Vibram soles.), Kletterschuhe
No rain gear (we got wet a few times)
Down parka (the most sophisticated garment on the climb)
Number of people involved in the ascent: 8
Amount of rope used on the climb: 4000+ feet of yachting rope and manila
How to lose weight fast with the el cap diet: water rations: 1-2 quarts per
day. Merry weighed 15 pounds less when he summated due to dehydration
Hauling method: prusiking with 30-40 pound duffel bags attached to the waist
Training method: lots of $1.25/gallon red wine and pull-ups on doorframes.
Shelter: 8x10 rubberized nylon tarp for a lean-to on camp six.
Portaledge: a Stokes Litter was hauled but never used.
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