Trip Report
The Shield, 10/10, A Trip Report by John Fine and Mark Hudon
Friday February 18, 2011 7:46pm
John and I each wrote our own feelings of the route. We've combined them here along with our photos and videos.
edited by Pete Zabrok

Looking down at Chickenhead Ledge as the clouds roll by below.
Looking down at Chickenhead Ledge as the clouds roll by below.
Credit: Mark Hudon

BIMD – meaning Back In My Day – we believed the only way to climb big walls safely was to climb them quickly. Hammocks were cramped and uncomfortable to sleep in and their flies useless, the food was both cold and heavy, and our “bad weather clothes” consisted of wool and Chouinard Foambacks, which was a essentially a rain slicker lined with a thin layer of foam. A typical day started about the time the first sliver of light glinted on the horizon, and you were woken by the cold after a miserable night. You were so uncomfortable, you almost didn’t mind getting your ass in gear, if only to try and warm up. You wiggled out of your sleeping bag – if you were lucky enough to have one, though a down jacket and legs stuffed into your pack usually sufficed – then you gobbled some granola, gorp or Vienna sausages, stuffed your hammock away, got your rack assembled and then you took off on lead. If you were not on the sharp end by the time the sun hit the top of the crag, you were going too slowly. One to one hauling dictated that you brought only the minimum of food, water and gear, and often the slightest sign of bad weather forced you to retreat. You were always a bit hungry, always had an eye on the weather, and were always looking down, keeping aware of your position on the wall in case you chose to bail.

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Bivy on the Magic Mushroom, Spring, 1977.

Some adventures are cursed and others are blessed – with good luck, good weather, or good omens. On my first big wall, eleven years ago, I pulled up to the Meadow, lept out to gaze in awe at the looming Captain, and promptly locked the keys in the car. At the Great Roof, I dropped my grigri - in the dark. Topping out five punishing days later at sunset, my partner and I were afraid of sleeping on the summit with the bears (I swear we were!) so we spent all night hiking down the Falls Trail, barely able to locate it in snow and in standing water up past our ankles. I had to throw away my brand-new Five Tennies after just that one ascent

On my second attempt on the Nose, my partner and I climbed to Sickle with three ropes, ready to fix. Ominous clouds threatened. My partner - even less experienced than I - urged us to push on. I refused and we bailed. It rained day and night for the next 72 hours.

Last fall when attempting the Shield, I had walking pneumonia and we bailed below the Shield roof, where I was barely able to make upward progress without fainting

Then last spring, I had ropes fixed and bags ready to haul up Mescalito. My partner jugged thirty feet off the ground, said his shoulder hurt, and bailed.

This trip was different. Right from the start and only a half hour away from home, some sixth sense made me ask Mark if he had seen the ledge go into the van. We had been planning our gear list and packing our stuff for months. We’d reviewed the final list at least five times together. We both saw the whole pile of Mark’s gear get tossed into the van. Really I thought we had the ledge, but I’m a little anal retentive, so I asked, as casually as can be, “Hey, um, Mark - didja happen to see the ledge go in?”

He said, “I think so...” So we drove on a bit farther. If we hadn’t taken the full-on luxury-ocean-cruise kit of gear, I’m sure he would’ve added, “ moron.” But past a certain gear load, the mind just cannot keep up

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Do you see a ledge here?

With horror, it finally dawned on me that we might actually have left the ledge behind. I said, “I really think we should check.”

Mark looked at me and said , “No, we have it. Well, ah, maybe we don’t… And now that you mention it, maybe we’d better stop to check”.

We stopped and checked. No ledge

Was Mark’s wife surprised to see us pull back into his driveway, or what?

Video: We forgot the ledge.

Then, after having lost only an hour - god a’mighty I am so thankful it was only an hour! - to the retrieval of the ledge, we drove almost all the way to Yosemite. Had we not remembered in time, and had we later that night opened the back of the van to find no ledge, the phrase “It dawned on me with horror” would have taken on a whole new meaning.

After the close call with the ledge, we continued to skirt catastrophe, whether by force of will or by dumb luck I don’t know,. As we drove through the empty Oregon grasslands, the phone rang. A friend had to postpone a climb; that caused my carefully made pre-launch plans with other friends to fall through. People were going to be disappointed; the pressure was now on us to skimp on our wall time in order for me to fulfill my obligations. We frantically changed our campaign tactics; the cell phone rang again; we changed them yet again. We actually had a sheet of paper on which we wrote out our activities with each different pre-launch friend every day, to make sure that we didn’t accidentally short-change our Shield ascent. Finally, I called to cancel with my friends - the wall came first. As soon as I did it I was heartsick. I could hear the silence on the other end of the line. I was letting them down. Worse, I knew that bad juju is poison on a big wall.

Just as the ship seemed like it was foundering on the reefs, another call came in. A postponement turned into a cancellation. I could uncancel with my friends but - no cell service! I monitored my phone’s bars for what seemed like ever. A few tense hours later, I got through to them, heartfelt apologies were made, plans were changed one final time, and magically we stumbled into a super fun way to start a wall: the 4-day liftoff.

When I first attempted the Shield in 1982 with Eric Barrett we started from the ground with one pitch fixed and none of the gear humped or hauled. Community fixed ropes down from Heart were not “de rigeur” in those days. Our plan was to climb and haul the Free Blast. I’m sure we planned for a four-day ascent, and we managed to climb to Gray Ledges that first day – pretty much halfway up El Cap – a total of 14 pitches led, hauled and cleaned. I had brought one of the original Gramicci portaledges, and Eric had a hammock. We had also both brought “reading” material – Me a Playboy, “just for the articles,” I claimed although Eric’s Penthouse offered him no similar pretext.

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Mark Hudon and Eric Barrett on Gray Ledges in 1982.

We arrived at Gray Ledges that day in 1982 just in time to see a slow team head left up the first pitch of the Shield proper, rather than following the rightward Muir Wall traverse on the Triple Direct. They had climbed four pitches in the time it took us to climb fourteen. Since they were going so slowly we were sure they could only be a Triple Direct caliber team, for no Shield team could possibly take so long. Our plan had been to climb to somewhere low on the Shield, then to Chickenhead the next day, and off the next. We were feeling sort of beat the next day, but when the team above didn’t get out of their hammocks till one in the afternoon and then dropped a huge rock on us without any warning – which exploded only twenty feet away and cut our haul bag and my arm. The team ahead of us was tragically slow and we were both a bit freaked about the rock fall. We climbed one more pitch and bailed.

Back on the ground and in present day, our 4-Day Liftoff not only allowed us to hang with friends, but it was also calculated to avoid exhaustion. Our first attempt on the Shield the previous year - Ground to Gray in a day, fully loaded - was just too punishing. (I’m glad to know that even Mark found this to be true; I thought I was just a wuss!) I clearly remember on our previous attempt that dragging the pigs across Mammoth felt almost impossible; this time, in three parts over four days, a few easy steps got us there. Yes, that’s right, we jugged to Mammoth *THREE* times, taking one third of our load each time.. Unorthodox, but nice and easy. Our food went up in the last load to hopefully prevent it from being raided by wall rat, both the four- and two-legged variety.

As you have been reading, my second attempt on the Shield came almost thirty years later in the fall of 2009 with John Fine, and we didn’t get much further than in 1982.. I was still living in the past, and believed that climbing fast was the way to go. In our 2009 attempt, John and I humped two loads each to the bottom of the fixed ropes, then we hauled to Mammoth, and then climbed and hauled to Gray Ledges before stopping, all on our first day. What the hell was I thinking?? Even so, I had been hoping to climb two pitches higher still and bivy where the Shield goes left and the Muir/Triple Direct goes right.
At some time during my vertical forced march, John began to complain about feeling weak and sick, but I tried to ignore him and kept pushing. I hadn’t been successful on an El Cap route in many years and I sure as hell wasn’t going down easily. The next day, when John called down from mid-point on lead that he needed to take a rest because he was dizzy, I pretty much figured our fate was sealed. After taking stock of John’s weakened condition, we really had no choice but to bail.

Video: Bailing from below the Roof in 2009

When Mark and I first tried the Shield together in 2009, my body was sick and it made my mind weak. Belaying Mark on the pitch before the roof, after he went around the corner where I couldn't see him, I suddenly burst into tears. I always think of my family when I'm feeling bad on a wall. I was hanging there, blubbing out loud, "I love you mom <sob, sob>!" Jeezus, if you ever saw my mom and I together over the last forty years, you'd know that I was seriously messed up to be doing *that*. It’s lucky for Mark that he didn't have to watch.

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That’ll work.

Then again, the next night, after making the bailage decision, we're sitting on our portaledge, both facing out, looking at the valley, drinking whiskey, lost in our own thoughts. Out of nowhere, Mark starts blubbing - full on as bad as I was the day before! "I-I-I'm sorry, I'm sorry", he sobs, "But I was feeling so good in my steps, I was feeling so good..."

Damn, what would Bridwell do in my shoes? I mean, this is Mark Hudon, and he's a *guy*, and I'm a *guy*, and we're sitting shoulder to shoulder, and he's *crying*. I did what seemed right: I put my arm around him, gave him an awkward manly hug, and said,"It's OK, it was my fault, I was sick. We'll get back here and send this thing".

That night on Gray Ledges had been my first night on El Cap in years and I had thoroughly enjoyed it. I began to question why I needed to race up the cliff, why try to shorten the very experience that I longed for? That winter I decided to solo an El Cap route and while I was on it I was hit with the double whammy of “two pitches a day is as fast as you can climb and you’d better be happy with it”. It turned out that I was, and it changed my whole attitude. All of a sudden I saw that being on El Cap was the point of the game, not just racing to the top. Gear is now far better and lighter than BIMD, clothes are lighter and better, food, portaledges, flies, the whole nine yards, the game had changed. Back then we used to joke about how the best part of climbing El Cap was being in the bar telling stories about it afterwards. The feeling of being “at home” which I wrote about in my solo trip report is I think what we all go up there for. And those who don’t might well be missing out. The whole experience is so wild and strange, yet paradoxically so comfortable and comforting. The paradigm had changed, we could now take our time, enjoy the experience of hanging out on El Cap, maybe telling stories about drinking in a bar somewhere instead of rushing to the bar to tell the story.

Days later on our drive home, John and I discussed how we would take a more casual start next year when we came back, starting with getting some youngsters to haul our bags up to Mammoth for us.

Well, we never did find those youngsters, so we ended up doing our own hauling, but at least we took it easy. We would take four hours at a time to shuttle “light” loads up the fixed ropes to Mammoth, over the course of three days, and then hang out with our buddies on the valley floor in between hauling trips. We were lucky once again; a fixed rope welcomed us at the ugly pitch between Heart and Mammoth, and Mark devised a cool “no brake, no pump” hauling method - just walk down the face till the bag jams the pulley. It turns out that one third of a big wall load is just the right weight to counter-balance Mark and me – both lightweight guys - on the low angle pitches up to Heart.

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The pulley is a 36kn rescue pulley.

Relying only on the haul line for my life gave me the willies. After mounting the hauling pulley at the anchor and backing it up, at first I tried to back myself up on the fixed line. But Mark was using it to jug so that wasn’t going to work. Then I tried using only the grigri as a clamp on the haul line (backed up, of course!). My thought was that if I used my ascenders (which I needed for climbing back to the anchor after walking myself down as the load went up), a sudden jerk on the rope - like if my weight more than countered the load and I screamed down until the load hit the pulley, then suddenly stopped - might cause the ascenders to cut the line. But after Mark passed me by the first time, jugging up the fixed line as I was fumbling to re-attach my ascenders, and shot me a skeptical, “what are you doing?” look, I gave up and just went for it, figuring that I couldn’t take a real leader fall on a tight rope (I did use a biner through one ascender to ensure it couldn’t pop off the rope). The real truth was that I just sort of gave in to Mark’s more bare bones version of safety systems. We had to rely on the haul line not failing, and on the locker connecting the haul line to the pig not failing. But we had a fat haul line and a fat biner. Time to suck it up!

Video: Jugging and Hauling to Mammoth

This fall, John and I again planned to climb the Shield. This time though we planned to haul a few loads up to Mammoth and then to not climb any more than four pitches a day, in fact, we figured that since the Shield headwall is such a unique place, we should spend as much time on it as possible. We planned to bivy above the Roof and then again above the Triple Cracks. We vowed to stop and set up camp regardless of the time of day.

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John on the Fixed Lines

October came and we drove to the Valley, and within an hour of arriving we were humping loads to the base. That first day we humped all the water plus some odds and ends, a total of probably a bit more than a hundred pounds.

Our chosen method of hauling up the fixed ropes to the base of the Heart was to simply use a 2” sheave rescue pulley, back it up with a quickdraw, unclip from the anchor and run down the cliff till the bag hit the anchor and then jumar back up. No suffering, hardly any work and lots of fun. After our first day of hauling, we stashed our gear on Mammoth along with a note that we were coming back soon and this was not water left from a bail. We found dozens of half gallon water bottles all over Mammoth and later, when I led the pitch above, I found forty or so 1-liter bottles! All these water bottles are essentially litter and garbage. In the future, I’ll be emptying and carrying any unlabeled water bottles off the cliff.

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Our water stash on Mammoth.

The next day we humped and hauled another load. Our part of the cliff was alive with activity – there were people on the ropes above us, people rapping down the ropes, a party sleeping on Heart and two parties starting up Freerider and the Salathe. Luckily for us, there was no one heading for the Shield.

John and I were actually having quite a good time hauling loads, we’ve climbed together a lot in the past two years and were really starting to understand each other’s “flow” on the rock. I had climbed a dozen El Cap routes before John ever tied into a rope, so I was the oldtimer, the grizzled veteran of El Cap routes back in the day before three bolt anchors, cams and even topos. John, on the other hand, had learned how to climb with quickdraws, 3/8 inch bolts and Grigris. In my humble opinion, a lot of new climbers these days are blinded by safety and by the system they’ve learned, and some can’t think out of the box. John suffered from this a little I thought and I went to lengths to explain to him how to be fast and efficient yet still be safe. I told him of how Max Jones and I had climbed Mescalito years ago and had not yelled a single climbing command during the whole route. I told him, “look, when I’ve been on the lead for a while and all of a sudden I pull up a bunch of lead rope and a few minutes later the haul line starts to get pulled up and then comes tight and starts to lift the haul bags, what do you think is happening? Do you think I’m up there climbing with the haul bag dangling from my waist? And if you figure out that I’m hauling, don’t you think that I’ve tied off the lead rope and it’s ready to jug? What else could be happening?”

John is a very analytical guy and I could see the gears turning in his head. We’re both technique geeks and we would discuss the best way to do something faster and easier at every opportunity. He began to get it and eventually it wasn’t more than ten or fifteen minutes after he had arrived at an anchor after completing his lead that the haul line would come tight and the bags start to move.

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The route overhangs a bit right in here.

Big walls are hard enough that every opportunity ought to be taken to make them easier and more enjoyable. On my solo of Grape Race/Tribal Rite in the spring, I had developed the idea that “if you’re manhandling something, you’re f*#king up”. John and I both have 2:1 hauling down to a fine art. In the summer, before leaving for Yosemite we had set up a hauling system in a large tree at his house. We practiced hauling and worked out the details of setting up the system quickly and making it as efficient as possible. I would say that 2:1 hauling has taken hauling off the table for us as far as big wall suffering goes. It’s still hard work, but it’s not gruesomely hard work. Docking tethers tied in Munter hitches are another technique that have taken a bite out of wall climbing, as they are easily tied and more importantly, easily untied.

All in all, these little techniques and tricks allow us to enjoy the actual climbing a lot more. Clothes are now lighter, warmer and more weather resistant. Warm sleeping bags are small and lightweight. Efficient and easy-to-use stoves have opened the door to warm and nutritious meals, not to mention big wall coffee. Throw modern portaledges and their flies into the mix, and you now have a big wall experience that doesn’t have to involve suffering.

Launch Day Minus 1 was an easy day of guiding a friend up Higher Spire Regular Route. I felt strong and competent. But as night fell, my usual ghosts emerged. Around the campfire, I tried not to drink too much, but then I couldn’t sleep no matter how much I tried to relax. The 5AM wake-up call preyed on my nerves. I willed my mind to stop spinning, but no luck. The alarm buzzed me out of a short pre-dawn doze and after a cuppa joe, I failed the acid test of being a real big wall veteran: I couldn’t poop! I probably sat there on the crummy campground can reading the topo twenty times over. How many times can you look at a little line labelled “The Groove”? No luck. Not even a walnut. I have never - not once in 7 walls - pooped pre-launch. Nevertheless, off we went, up to Mammoth one last time and on to Gray Ledges.

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Mark, on the other hand, can pretty much poop on demand. Bastard!

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We’re blasting!

A few days later, with our third and final load packed we awoke at 5 AM, had coffee and breakfast then drove to El Cap. The forecast predicted clear and warm weather for the next five days. Three hours later we had arrived on Mammoth with our final load of three, fully packed and ready to go. We easily had more than a couple hundred pounds of stuff but our 2:1 hauling system had made it casual.

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Shorts, T-Shirt, Sunglasses, 2 to 1 hauling on El Cap, it doesn’t get any better!

From our high point a pitch above Mammoth, John took over the first aid lead while I laid back on the pigs enjoying the sun. Last year, John had been sick and had crawled up this pitch, but this time he was moving rapidly upwards, and I barely had time to get comfortable before he finished his lead. I led a short easy pitch and then John aided into a vile 5.8 flaring chimney that ends at Gray Ledges.

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It’s really and truly 5.8 but it’s VILE!

Video: We have good attitudes!

I should set up a mailbox at Gray Ledges, I’ve spent five nights there over the years. My second night ever on El Cap was spent there, sharing the 2x5 foot ledge with Eric Sanford, shivering in our down jackets and cotton painters’ pants under a plastic tarp while it snowed and rained on us. Our friends in the Valley were, of course, yelling up the whole time that we were going to die. We rapped the next day.

But this time our evening was different, with warm food, cold beer, music and clear skies.

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“You’re gonna die”! Mark trying to stay dry on Gray Ledges, Spring, 1974

Before leaving Hood River, John and I had discussed the best way to make coffee on the wall. Earlier in the year, I had tried a small gold filter that fits into the cup, but I didn’t like the time it takes to brew or the sediment it leaves in the cup. I had bought a collapsible cone filter holder at the Mountain Shop in Yosemite, and had cut notches so that it fit snugly on top of my “Big Wall Coffee Cup”.

When John suggested coffee pods, I almost unfriended him on the spot.

Incidentally, everything was “Big Wall” on this trip – Big Wall Coffee Cup, Big Wall Pillow, Big Wall Sponge, Big Wall iPod, Big Wall Spoon. You can make an Anything into a Big Wall Anything, just add a clip-in loop. I had counted out enough filters and measured out enough coffee to last us for several days. I may be a wizened big wall climber with years of experience, I may be Mark Hudon and I may even be Badass, but being the guy who was doling out the coffee is what really sent my stature rising to the moon.

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Coffee care of Hood River Coffee Co.

The next morning, I free climbed almost all of the 5.11c pitch above Gray Ledges, and then John set to work on the long, beautiful C2 corner above it. While belaying, I was happy to find that I was enveloped with the feelings of my solo in the spring, where “everything was important, yet nothing was important”. I was finally on the wall, and there were only so many places to go and only so many things to do. These days it seems, with cell phones, texting, email and the internet, every waking moment of our days could be taken up with “being productive”, “staying in contact” or “keeping up to date with the News.” Instead, being on the wall focuses your mind. You wonder, What’s important? What really matters? When you’re on the wall, life is simple – all you have to do is lead a pitch, clean a pitch, haul a pig, keep your partner safe, eat and sleep. In a way it feels like meditation to me, with all your extraneous thoughts eliminated.

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Awesome corner!

I led the pitch to below the Shield Roof and John cleaned it enthusiastically, eager to take on the Roof. I set up my new Parke Belay Lounge, sort of an adjustable three quarters length single point hammock, and got comfortable for the show.

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The Belay Lounge

Even unrelieved, the 4-day Launch worked: I was left feeling strong and psyched climbing over the Shield Roof. This was, for me, the emotional crux of the route. After being unable to muster the energy last year to even move up at all on this pitch, I knew that failure here would be the end of everything: my wall partnership with Mark, probably my wall career, certainly my self esteem. I live down the street from Mark; the spectre of facing him shamefully year upon year made it easy to be unflinchingly focused on success. I had to go up.

I remembered how I felt the previous year. Mark had said (flat out - he didn’t ask), “We’re going down, aren’t we.”

I had to answer, “I can’t lead the Roof. I can’t haul, I don’t even know if I can follow.”

Mark paused, then said, “I can’t do it all alone.” You don’t ever want to be the guy who broke Superman. It was an awful thing to hear. The instant after you decide to bail, the very first instant that you take a bailing action, you feel as small as a mouse. As small as a speck of dirt.

So this time, Mark and I didn’t even chat at the belay below the Roof. I just said, “Gimme the gear,” and got above that shameful spot as fast as I could.

We had talked with the friendly Polish climber Regan at the bridge who had solo’d the Shield the year before. He mentioned that there was a blind nut placement at the lip of the Roof. This sounded spicy. When I got to the lip, however, I met an ugly-ass pin scar (the first of many) right on the edge - this was going to be my first sawed-off placement ever! Luckily, I had previously asked Mark how angle pitons were placed, so I understood that the pin goes in sideways, and that it was important to choose the size that would allow the backbone of the piton to touch the groove on one side of the scar while the two legs touched the two grooves on the other side. I tried a few sizes and found the one that fit. It slid in effortlessly and seemed snug. A hand-placed sawed-off at the airiest spot on the whole route, oh yeah. I yelled, “Hand-placed sawed-off!!” to let off a little stress, and then I stepped in my aider. To feel this piece lock into place was the defining moment of the whole adventure for me. As soon as my hips reached the Shield Headwall, I knew that I had swept another skeleton out of the closet. I whipped in a nice #4 HB in a pin scar, flaring and lots of gold showing but secure, got on it, then I reached down to the lip and pulled out the angle out by hand -- r-r-r-i-n-g

Video: At The Lip.
Look for the pinscar that will take my first-ever hand-placed sawed off.

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John enjoying himself on the Roof.

To tell you the truth, I’ve always been a bit freaked about getting up on the Shield headwall. It seems so vast and sweeping, so blank. Retreat appears almost impossible, and maybe the best way off in emergency would be upwards. But John was psyched and excited so I figured that I’d do the best I could to keep it together. I’ve done a bunch of hard aid walls in my day, the Magic Mushroom, The Mescalito, an early attempt on the PO, The Zodiac all in the first five or ten ascents. The routes were hard and I got up them in good style but I always thought I was faking it. I always thought that I had lucked out somehow. Maybe because I’ve never weighed more than 125 pounds, pieces that were “body weight” for other guys seemed pretty solid for me. On every wall I had ever done, at least once, I was totally scared shitless. I always managed to pull it off though, I got up the routes - maybe only by the skin of my teeth, but I got up them.

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The Shield Roof. photo by Tom Evans

After John cleared the roof, I heard his shout of “Off belay!” and soon the haul line came tight. I cut the haul bags loose without lowering them out, and we both hooted and hollered as they went winging out into space. I found it easy to clean the pitch, which is mostly bolts, and before long we had finally gained the Shield Headwall. We bivied right there and celebrated.

Video: Cutting the Pigs loose.

Video: John and his pillow, BWP

Video: Weather coming in.

The next day, my first lead on the Headwall was the long, overhanging corner up to the base of the Groove. This pitch soars up perfect granite, undulating softly and accepting bomber nuts the whole way. I can’t say John seemed excited to start up the Groove, but he seemed determined and resolved. I was comfortable in the belay lounge and John moved upwards surprisingly quickly. At one point he stopped and yelled down for me to watch him as he was moving up on a rotten sling attached to a RURP. He got on the ratty tat, fiddled for a bit and then suddenly whipped fifteen feet! He told me that the sling had broken and that now he was putting a Beak on top of the slingless RURP. A few seconds later he fell again! This time, the Beak had pulled out the RURP. Once again he went back up, put the Beak in the RURP scar, and then he promptly fell again this time falling backwards and hitting his (helmeted) head.

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John leading the Groove.

I was thinking, “Jesus Christ, John, whale in a frickin’ pin!” But no, not yet, I think he placed a small nut, which pulled, causing his fourth fifteen-foot fall in a row. Had it been me, by this time I would certainly have buried a pin or a beak. Even from my viewpoint far below at the anchor, anchored to all the bolts and safe in my belay lounge, I was pretty freaked!

So John goes back up there for a fifth time, and decides to nail. “Right on,” I’m thinking, “about friggen time!” I’m expecting to hear full-on whacks with his hammer, but what does he do? He taps a beak! He TAPS it ONCE! “Dang, John,” I thought, “you are the MAN!”

The hammer proved a sore temptation. Until the Groove pitch, I had never really swung the hammer. For the first half of the Groove, relying heavily on fixed gear, I just sailed along easily. But then I arrived at a fixed RURP whose original blownout wire was replaced with a grayed bit of webbing. A loop of better cord had been girth hitched onto the knot to serve as a clip-in point. Above was another RURP, but with a cable. The piece I was standing on was a good RURP.

I’ve always felt comfortable using crappy fixed gear (stupidity, this!), so without any fuss I clipped that puppy, tested it a bit (it stretched ominously), and started climbing. I got almost to my second step. “Aahhhh”, I sighed mentally, “I’m good.” But then I looked down - dammit, I had forgotten to collect my ladders from the previous piece. So down I climbed, and back up. That rotten piece of webbing passed right in front of my nose laughing at me 3 times. Almost there....then, silently, I was hanging 15 feet lower. The webbing had blown, as had the Screamer I had on the previous piece.

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Drat that tat!

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A Screamer having screamed.

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The RURP that held the falls.

I got a bit amped up. My arse was hanging two thousand feet off the deck, off of an old copperhead! Mark was in sight, and I could see him watching closely. We gave each other the “Oh, sh#t...” look. I still had no thought of the hammer - it didn’t even occur to me. Back up and I pulled out the BLTs (Beak-Like-Things). I tried one on top of the RURP. Seemed good to me. Now I was inching ever so gingerly up my steps, 3rd my feet into the 2nd step, starting to stand up, and jangle! I was 15 feet down again, upside down, my rack tinkling around me like churchbells.

This time Mark asked, “Are you OK?” with some concern. I was a little shaken. I’ve had some bad upside-down falls over the years - I guess I’m top-heavy. I took a moment to right myself. Yes, only scraped up a bit. But now I was getting frustrated and scared. The adrenaline edge had worn off, and a bit of grim resolve had to take its place. Back to it.

Arriving at the RURP, I saw that it had vanished. The beak had pulled it out! I had not taken a stick with me (at Mark’s insistence), which had always been my tool to bypass previous A3-ish spots. It would’ve been the tool of choice here, but I see now that the battle for upward progress relying on only spit and bailing wire is sweet. Letting the stick steal this from me would have been a mistake. Grimly I stated, “Moving up.”

I tried hand placing a beak directly in the back of the Groove. There was a razor thin crack back there, but it had no “shelf” for the beak’s point to bite. Time after time, with different beak sizes, the point slid out when I weighted it the littlest bit. Frustration! I felt embarrassed to be moving so slowly in front of Dr. Fast, Mark Hudon.

I switched to cams. The groove of the Groove here was a smooth 70-degree flare. Placing a flexible cam sideways - pointing straight out - was my only hope. There was the faintest of bumps on the side of the groove on which a cam lobe might gain purchase. After some fiddling, I got a cam to sit in place on its own. I was horrified to be considering this placement, but still my mind was in “clean climbing” mode. I used the “ease on” technique of holding my good piece with one hand, while standing with one leg in a ladder on the good piece, and the other leg in a ladder on the poor piece. I eased my weight onto the new piece. It blew before I was even 50/50, and I used my holding hand like a human Screamer to absorb some of the energy of the tiny fall. I tried this 3 or 4 times, with bigger and smaller cams, but no dice. Nothing stuck. No progress. I was at a mental dead-end, worn out. Why oh why had I forgotten to collect my ladders the first time on that damned crap sh#t piece?

The “clean” door closed in my mind. Like a train lurching to a halt, then moving again in the opposite direction. I took a minute to rest, then yelled, “Using the hammer!” to Mark. This was unknown territory for me. What exactly was I supposed to do? Well, some things are so obvious, you just do them. I knew the theory. This was no A3 placement. I just held a beak in place and tapped it once, lightly - tink. Through the handle of the hammer I felt that beak set securely into the seam. I holstered the hammer and tried to pull the beak out with my hand. Not a wiggle - it was so bomber! I clipped an aider to it and got on it with “ease on”. It held. Jubilation! I wanted to hug that beak like a security blanket. I called down, “Moving up!” In my mind, the sun came out from behind a cloud. Everything changed for me, everything about wall climbing, for the rest of my life, right there. I felt so empowered by the hammer, like Thor the Thunder God - but there is a dark side to that power.

After that moment, I had to resist the urge to pull out the hammer whenever a piece looked sketchy. In fact, those were the last leader falls I took for the rest of the climb, and I did indeed swing the hammer 4 or 5 more times. When I got scared, more often than not, I whipped out the hammer and made C3 or 4 into A1. That first hammer swing of the trip was weightiest because it ruined the challenge of the team climbing a wall “clean”.

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Vertical Freight Hauling

From there on, John just rambled to the anchor, placing a few more beaks with a few gentle taps, no big deal. It seemed to me that John found his mettle on that pitch.

Me? Well, I’m another case altogether. I cleaned the pitch without thinking about it too much. The Triple Cracks were heavy on my mind, and the start didn’t disappoint me. Right off the anchor was a RURP with some thin little one mil cord strung through it, and above it even more crappy pieces. I was directly over top of the anchor and didn’t want to fall straight onto it and John, so the minute I got to a halfway decent placement I whaled something in, eventually hammering four pieces consisting of two beaks and two sawn angles.

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Leading the Triple Cracks.

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Only on the Shield.

The whole mythology of “clean aid” is really just a fiction that makes the adventure seem measurable, makes a better story - just like the myth of pioneering the unknown. It mixes together the notions of preserving the rock and being willing to take some risk. Anybody who saw the sorry state of the pin scars on the headwall section of the Shield would want to clip fixed gear rather than hammering further damage into the rock. But fixed gear leaves me feeling both hot and cold. Certainly I was happy to be falling onto a good-looking fixed RURP on the Groove. If the Groove had been cleaned of every single fixed piece, would I have been happier? Looking back now, I'll claim the answer is "yes". At the time, I'm sure I would have shat my pants thinking about climbing it hammerless - some sections were so devoid of any semblance of a crack thicker than RURP size! Yes, I'm sure of it, clean of any fixed gear would've been the better experience. Climbing that pitch not just "clean", but "clean-clean", would have been a badge of honor I'd be proud to wear. (Not as proud as if it had never been altered by anyone's hammer at all, but that experience was meant for a generation earlier than ours).

But then there is the environmental preservation issue. If everyone swung the hammer with the same force, then you could say that it's acceptable to use hammered aid on the Groove. All metal Groove placements were either beaks in former RURP slots, or sawed off angles in giant square pin scars, both of which required just a light 'tap' to set. The pieces could sometimes even be removed by hand after having been set with a tap of the hammer. Surely this didn’t cause too much further damage to the stone. But who can guarantee that every climber taps lightly? One man's tap is another man's wallop. For that matter, who really can guarantee that even a light tap doesn't damage the rock *a little*? In fact, standing on even a hand-set sawed off probably enlarges its scar a bit.

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Hmmm... can’t we get more creative than this?

To take this feeling a little further, if a fixed piece is removed from even an obvious crack, who is to guarantee that somebody, lacking the correct-sized cam or just scared witless, won't hammer in a piton in the future? Is it better to leave such a fixed piece in place? No, that's going too far. Cracks are meant for cams, aid climbing with cams and nuts is the heart of the leading experience for me, so I want obvious cracks to be clean. There has to be some balance.

If I were the guy making the rules:

• For the sake of the rock, clippable fixed gear in non-cammable placements should stay. Only one fixed piece per ladder-length - extras can be cleaned
• Fixed gear in cracks that could obviously take a cam should be removed
• Fixed gear placed by your leader should be removed by your follower, unless you’re replacing a required fixed piece where a clean placement won’t go
• The term "clean-clean" should be added to the aid-climbing lexicon, to mean "didn't swing the hammer, didn't clip any fixed gear"

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Bomber and nice but certainly overkill.

The anchor at the top of the Triple Cracks was the usual Shield affair of six or seven bolts. I thought back to reading Gary Bocarde’s article about the Shield’s first ascent and his fear of running out of bolts. He wrote that they had placed “usually only one bolt” at the belays. I clipped into all six of them and set up the anchor so the ledge hung on the right and the bags on the left to line up with the door on my fly. The evening before, our wives had informed us by cell phone that we had some bad weather coming in. The forecast was 70% chance of rain for the next few days, and we didn’t want to take any chances. In fact, we were actually happy at the thought of spending a storm day up here, and that we could enjoy another night hanging out on the mighty Shield headwall. We set up the ledge and fly, but left the fly in “quick deploy mode”. Good thing – at two in the morning it started to rain, so we jumped up and pulled the fly down and around the ledge. By the time we were finished, it had stopped raining, and we went back to sleep.

Mark’s efficiency, speed, and expertise came to me as a welcome new challenge. In my ten years of walls, I had never climbed with anyone more experienced than myself. I was accustomed to making all of the battlefield decisions either solo or with a non-authority-figure partner. This time around, I felt the tremendous relief of being told, more often than not, what to do by Mark. Ah, the carefree life of the enlisted man! He told me how to set up his ledge quickly and how to properly deploy his assembly-free chongo ratchet from its stuff sack. He told me how to haul without a ratchet on the fixed lines and how to set the final haul at hip height on a summit tree. He hauled faster, cleaned faster, and led faster than me. If I finished cleaning a pitch before he finished hauling I gave myself a gold star. Same if I finished hauling before he arrived (I don’t think that ever happened). Each time I told Mark to do something that he hadn’t already thought of - big gold star. I think that my only technique contributions on the climb were the BWP (Big Wall Pillow) and the Big Wall Siphon (a 3 ft length of plastic tubing to siphon water from our unwieldy gallon jugs into a hand-sized 1.5 liter bottle - a magically easy Better Way technique). Oh, and for our weather day, Big Wall Poetry (so difficult to select the correct Big Wall Poetry for a wall, I always spend long hours pondering this decision). For the Shield I went with Paradise Lost by Milton, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge: "There was a ship," wrote Coleridge, and we were on it!

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John leads out during a clear spell in the storm. photo by Tom Evans

Video: John needs coffee!

By 9AM it was looking nice enough for John to get out and lead the next pitch. We didn’t know how long we would be stuck there so we figured we should get some climbing done whenever we could. I belayed from the door of the fly and John did a good job on the pitch, one tapping only a couple of pins or beaks. Just has he got to the anchor the weather turned cold, windy and looked threatening so he rapped back down to the ledge where we got the Stones’ “Some Girls” going on the Big Wall iPod and made some oatmeal and more coffee. Out came the Big Wall Poetry. John settled into decipher “Paradise Lost” and I to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I shuddered when I thought of how Eric Barrett and I would have fared in this same situation back in ‘82.

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Belaying from the door of the fly.

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Just another day at the office.

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Home Sweet Home photo by Tom Evans

Mark’s bivy setup was another technique revelation for me. I had always feared a long bivy under the door-less, windowless A5 fly that came with my other partners’ ledge setups. I’m something of a claustrophobe, and every time I had practiced setting that fly I felt panicky underneath it. Mark’s fly, on the other hand, came complete with a little triangular “astronaut’s” window. Moreover he had gotten his fly modified with a big fat zipper to make a door, and had a little cloth shield installed at the peak of the fly so the door zipper could be left open at the top for ventilation, while still keeping rain out.

This little vent calmed me. Just knowing there was a little opening in the fly calmed me. In our sleeping positions, my head was pointed toward the door, giving me control of the zipper. So when the wind kicked up (it was sudden and violent), and it was time to batten down the hatches, I didn’t panic. I’ll admit that I felt tense. We were in a horrifically exposed position. We didn’t know what might happen. Tom Evans wrote about us that day on his blog, “They are not in the best of positions if the weather gets bad but I assume they have the necessities to weather any event.”

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Aaah, a door, fresh air, I can relax...

I zipped us up. We looked around our little yellow world. The wind started to buffet us - we could feel the ledge move under us. The fly snapped back and forth. Mark said, “The ledge is too high - it isn’t filling out the bottom of the fly.” He sounded calm. I felt that I had to match his blood pressure, so I forced myself to reply *slowly*, “I’ll lower my side.”. “We have to get the ledge sitting against the reinforced area of the fly or we could damage it”. We each pulled ourselves up momentarily by the ledge straps and simultaneously slackened them. “OK, is that enough?” “No, lower.” 6 inches lower, the fly was taut. We looked at each other. We sat in silence. The wind came in pulses. I adjusted the fly tensioning pole to press out a baggy area that was snapping. Then, the wind stopped. Rain started to splatter. We laid down. Calm returned. We had done what we could. We called Pass The Pitons Pete on the radio and traded jokes. I was enduring my first ever bad weather bivy on El Cap quite enjoyably.

Video: Story In The Fog.

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Is it coffee yet?

I had wanted to get up on the Shield headwall for a long time, and although the situation is unique and spectacular, the actual climbing is easily the most disgusting experience I’ve ever had on El Cap. The whole of the Shield is the most continuously and severely pinscarred crack in all of Yosemite and probably the world, even worse than the first pitch of Serenity Crack. Where Porter placed RURPs we now hand place large sawed-off angles and cams in huge square holes. A once beautiful thin crack is now a pockmarked pegboard. I felt ashamed to have hammered the four pieces I did. I looked down the Triple Cracks, and considered asking John if he would mind rapping down there and belaying me again so I could try to climb it cleanly.

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This used to be an A5 RURP crack. Charlie Porter, what have we done?

It rained a bit more that afternoon and evening, but the next morning looked promising and we prepared to move on from where we had now spent two nights. Even though the topo showed my next pitch to be C4F – harder even than the Triple Cracks – I was determined to climb it clean. I can’t say it actually was any harder than the Triple Cracks though. Maybe I was more relaxed, more aware, or even more knowledgeable? This time I was able to feel comfortable hanging on hand-placed beaks and sawn angles. John and I started to joke that the new medium and large beaks ought to be illegal since they are so bomber in so many sketchy situations.

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A bomber, hand placed beak.

After climbing this pitch clean, I felt a little better about myself, but then I sighed when I saw the horrendously scarred start to the pitch above Chickenhead Ledge. It went clean easily for me, and I was glad to be past it and up to the anchor and bivy on the long, narrow and sloping Chieftain Ledge.
Now high on the wall, and with the summit in sight, John and I were having a great time. By this time we were fully in synch setting up the big wall bivy program, and soon we were enjoying beers and BW martinis (Guiness mixed with a shot of gin - John’s drink of choice), making popcorn, listening to music, watching a beautiful sunset, laughing together and just enjoying being on the wall.

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It doesn’t get much better than this!

Video: Big Wall High.

The 2 pitches I linked above Chieftain (a whopping 65m lead!) were an unexpected no-hammer test. Placement after placement in the first 100 foot corner was in big ugly pin scars, all above a ledge. I wormed my way up my ladders, cursing the insecurity of the hand placed angles and trying not to pull outward. My corner aid technique sucked! Mark had just taught me the traditional “rest step” - a giant speed improvement as I had been relying totally on adjustable daisies - but it did me no good while stemming. 4 hours of worming, sweating, and “Watch Here!”’s later, spent, I had managed not to swing the hammer. But the game, as they say, isn’t over till the pig is on the summit.

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John’s last lead. Close to 65 meters!

On the next pitch - the last real pitch - Mark and I finally hit the unknown. He was linking 2 pitches - a sideways lead out a roof followed by a long 5.7 chimney. To free climb without rope drag he chose to back clean the roof, after leaving some gear far below it. We had a very brief discussion, as in “We’ll figure it out”, “Yeah, no problem, you go” - before Mark took off leading. 50 feet up he called down, “You just jug up to the last piece I’m leaving here, then down-aid until you can safely lower-out.” “Sure, no problem,” I called back, “It’ll be fine.” By the time he finished leading the roof sideways, the rope angled from his last piece with ominous acuteness of angle.

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Have fun cleaning this pitch, John!

But I wasn’t worried. We had just spent 5 days getting dialed in with technique. I was confident! Yeah, that seemed like the best idea. Down-aid. I jugged up to his last piece - a small cam, now being pulled sideways by the tensioned rope - and gulped as I looked at the fearsome swing I’d take were it to pop. “Goddammit, John, just get going, every foot down is safer”, I muttered to myself as I began down-aiding. I couldn’t even complain to Mark as he was out of sight and hearing.

As soon as I started down, I realized that Mark had backcleaned pieces below as well, so I had to re-place an intermediate nut to make it from one piece to the next. I didn’t have the right piece, so I made do. Downaiding is awkward especially when the pieces are far apart, because you need a little more reach to remove a nut above you than to place it. Just as I was standing in the bottom step of my ladders, all crunched up, struggling to step into the top step of the ladders below, swearing like a sailor, I heard that distinct sound, the one you never forget - plink! Suddenly I was shot off like a rocket. Upside down and sideways into space. No sense of up or down. Complete disorientation. 3000 feet off the deck.

I really like control. So when I lose it, I go totally ballistic. Ask my wife how horrible it sounds when I puke. Well this was one of those “I’m puking” times, but worse. Here I was, tumbling sideways into space and swinging upside-down across the face. I really let loose screaming. Not a “oh sh#t, this is bad” scream but a savage howl, like my legs were being amputated and I was certain that I was in the middle of dying. Truly I didn’t know if I was still connected to the rope, or in freefall. “Aaaauuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhaaaaaiiiiiiiieeeeeeeee!!!!!” Damn, I used to hate it when my mom screamed at me like that, and now here I was, just like her. I must’ve gone on like that for an eternity.

Video: John survived but he has gas!

During the swing I smashed the wall pretty hard with my elbow so I screamed some more (I have a nice bone spur there now). Once I stopped moving, I hung for a while, collected my wits, and assessed the damage. Still dangling from the rope, which looked undamaged - that was good. My arm hurt but I could move it. No spurting blood - that meant we were going up. OK. Emotionally, I was done for the moment. 100 feet above, Mark popped his head out of the chimney and called down to check on me. How was I? “Not sure, I hurt my arm.” Slowly, painfully, I clamped my ascender on the rope (good thing only the grigri was on the rope when I popped since this was perilously close to a leader fall during which an ascender could have cut the cord) and inched my way up to the belay. Poor Mark - he was more shaken than I was. You’re not supposed to scream like you’re dying unless you are, in fact dying.

Topping off the day, the climb, the whole experience, was Mark saying, dead pan, “Your lead!” This was the summit pitch. A few moves of 5.7 followed by a bunch of 4th class. But I was wearing my floppy wall five tennies. The rock was slick, and my psyche sucked! I climbed up a few feet, then down. sideways a few feet, then back. I couldn’t face falling off the edge of El Capitan. But Mark, to his credit, calmly waited me out. I whimpered a bit, hemmed a bit, then sent the ferocious single 5.7 step and arrived on easy terrain. I looked at Mark with a sheepish grin and said, “I suck!” But I knew, and I knew that he knew, that wasn’t true.

On the Shield, I broke on through to the other side; I joined the ranks of wall climbers who take it slow and easy. I think I want to spend a whole day on each wall in a single, hyper-exposed spot, just relaxing and taking in the view. Too little of my climbing life is left to rush through walls any more; what awaits on top is nothing more than an awful hike down and a long drive home.

Our ascent was the first wall for me (out of eight all told) that didn’t feel like constant war. We had a few moments, but the overall tone was lazier, more civilized. No midnight pitches or paralyzing chaos. Plenty of time hanging out on our ledge. I credit Mark’s big wall techniques for this (heavily informed by Pass The Pitons Pete), plus our decision to take the necessary food, water, and attitude so we never had to rush. Except for the descent, I never once exhausted myself by using all my strength or working for longer than my body could handle. A very nice, “I’m fifty years old and don’t need that hero crap anymore” experience.

A few weeks later, at a brewpub in Hood River, John and I discussed our next route. We looked at Zenyatta Mondatta and decided to do it, feeling that we needed to take a step up in route difficulty. We played around with who gets to lead which pitch and how many to fix and so on. I pointed out to John that if we fixed two and then climbed three pitches a day after that, the route would take us 4 and a half or 5 days.
John sipped his beer and studied the topo.
“Don’t you think we can stretch that to seven days?” was all he said.

Video: We are blessed

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We may be old, but we ain’t dead yet!

Click here to view all the photos we took.

Video: A 5 minute compilation of all the videos.

  Trip Report Views: 33,315
Mark Hudon
About the Author
Mark Hudon is a climber from Hood River, OR.


Trad climber
Stockholm, Sweden 🇸🇪
  Feb 18, 2011 - 08:13pm PT
It doesn’t get much better than this!

it really doesn't.

Trad climber
  Feb 19, 2011 - 12:26pm PT
Wow. Nice one Mark and John!
Edit: just went thru it a second time, so flipping awesome. Its hilarious, you're drinking beer, eating sardines and popcorn. You guys ROCK!
this just in

Justin Ross from North Fork
  Feb 18, 2011 - 08:13pm PT
Proper mates, some of the best photos I've seen around here.
Mighty Hiker

Outside the Asylum
  Feb 18, 2011 - 10:19pm PT
Thanks, guys - a nice report, and a good climb!

Trad climber
  Feb 18, 2011 - 08:43pm PT
great job on the report guys!!! brings back good memories of when i went up there with little sue. thanks for putting in the time to give us all those great details!!!

Trad climber
Sacramento, CA
  Feb 18, 2011 - 09:17pm PT
Nice work and great trip report Hud! I never did get back on that thing after our attempt but I'm glad you finally went back and finished it after all these years. Thanks for the memories!

Eric Barrett

Trad climber
East Coast
  Feb 18, 2011 - 09:32pm PT

Way to up the ante. This is a cool trip report. I like the way it integrates awesome photos, an expanded narrative, historical perspectives and video.

Does Eric have a younger brother? I climbed The Beast @ Cathedral Ledge (the 5.10 way, not the complete 5.11 way) on a rainy day with Jeff Barrett who did a ten-day solo of The Shield, self-belaying with a clove-hitch the whole way.


Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
  Feb 18, 2011 - 10:13pm PT
Awesome- You have taken TRs to a new level. Enjoyed your refreshing approach and attitude about the route and the kudos to Porter. Encore from the blessed!

Big Wall climber
  Feb 24, 2011 - 01:24am PT
Good TR John & Mark.

You have TR's dialed!


Big Wall climber
Sedro Woolley, WA
  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:25am PT
Super, Stellar!!!


Trad climber
going big air to fakie
  Feb 19, 2011 - 02:39am PT
AMAZING! What I loved about this TR too, is that I never quite "got" exactly what Big Wall climbing was like, but with your photos of various placements, and thoughts on climbing styles, hauling systems, gear, etc, I feel I have a better understanding. It made it sound much more appealing than I've ever thought. If I ever try a big wall, I sure hope to have it go with the efficiency of you two, and I like the "no rushing" policy. The 2:1 hauling is the idea that makes it sound less stressful than I'd imagined.

Excellent TR and great to get both your points of view! Well put together!!!

Trad climber
Mental Physics........
  Feb 19, 2011 - 02:57am PT
Mark, you are getting more motivated with each passing year, and are a great template your your aging contemporaries.....

why don't you come on down to the Josh Party in April so we can shoot the sh#t in person?
Frank Sanders

Trad climber
Devils Tower. Wyoming
  Feb 19, 2011 - 03:30am PT
Was Blessed to climb The Shield, with JayBro, back in 1981? We "flipped a coin" to see who would get The Groove and who would get the Triple Cracks. I won!! Chose The Groove. We knew that the Tron Brothers; Troy & Tracy, had been the last folks on the route, and the Whole Valley knew that one of them had taken a Screamer, out of the Groove, removing all the fixed gear.

We bivvied, in ledges, right at the base of the Groove. On a starry, cloudless night, I had to pull my rainfly down; I couldn't stare up at my next lead...."Removed All the fixed gear..." ?An exageration? NO! It proved to be True. I was Blessed, to lead the Groove, with no fixers. Happy Boy!

Mountain climber
  Feb 19, 2011 - 03:41am PT
Thanks for posting up.
Way cool guys.
So nice to see what it looks like up there.
NOOB living vicariously through you.
Those pin scars are terrible.

Trad climber
Hustle City
  Feb 19, 2011 - 03:58am PT

Boulder climber
santa cruz, CA
  Feb 19, 2011 - 04:18am PT

super thorough and engaging, everything a good TR needs.

glad i could make your trip up the Cap more comfortable with the belay lounge.

Zack Parke

Big Wall climber
the range of light
  Feb 19, 2011 - 04:23am PT
SO AWESOME! My personal favorite is the picture of John on the Shield Roof.

You fellas kick major butt. Thanks for the AMAZING trip report! Your enthusiasm, spirit, and general psyche is truly infectious

Captain...or Skully

Boise, ID
  Feb 19, 2011 - 07:41am PT
Nicely done & documented, fellas. Big ol' TFPU there, fo' sho'.

  Feb 19, 2011 - 10:07am PT
Ya good stuff man. Yer still inspiring us "old" young uns growing up and chasing yers and maxs FFAs around tahoe.

  Feb 19, 2011 - 10:45am PT
Bitc'n TR guys!
Cool, to see yours and Tom's pic's, great job!

  Feb 19, 2011 - 10:51am PT
I don't know where the "badass" thing originally comes from, but this is BADASS!!!

congrats... super duper report!

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
  Feb 19, 2011 - 12:13pm PT
"My name is Mark Hudon and I'm a total badass at posting killer TRs!!!111"

If you haven't said it yet, you should.

thanks for sharing!
John Fine

Trad climber
Hood River, OR
  Feb 19, 2011 - 12:47pm PT
Checkout this 5-minute video for more footage of Mark and I having Shield fun:

Jiffy Pop on the Shield

Enjoy. -John

  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:16pm PT
Nice Mark......

Psych for 2011 walls.....................


Dazed, Confused
  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:20pm PT
Wow, great trip report. Makes me want to get back on a wall.

Trad climber
'cross the great divide
  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:32pm PT
Really great report. Looked like a blast. Thanks for sharing.

  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:34pm PT
Fantastic TR! That's a keeper.

Trad climber
  Feb 19, 2011 - 01:54pm PT
Excellent TR. I am jusgt above the Roof entering the headwall.

Great stuff.


A long way from where I started
  Feb 19, 2011 - 02:55pm PT
Thanks for putting this up.

I've always been a fan of tales from two points of view.

  Feb 19, 2011 - 03:02pm PT
Nice ! Thanks,
Double D

  Feb 19, 2011 - 05:00pm PT
Great TR Mark & John. Makes me really miss being up on the big stone. I especially enjoyed the "leasure class" approach.

Social climber
San Francisco
  Feb 19, 2011 - 05:14pm PT
Thanks a lot for the report! Really enjoyable read - looked like an amazing climb!
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Feb 20, 2011 - 04:51pm PT
Mark, and John, that was alpinist quality writing, seriously Bad A$$
Thanks, good prose and good pics.
james Colborn

Trad climber
Truckee, Ca
  Feb 20, 2011 - 06:19pm PT
TR's like this are what keep me checking out this site. The poli-tard crap can vanish.

Thanks again for a quality trip report.

I was telling a friend about your solo tr, while we were in yosemite with our families and not 5 minutes later you pulled up in your van, I had just walked away but my buddy got to talk with you Mark. Living near donner, we have a ton of admiration for the standards you set, keep it up, you are an inspiration.

Social climber
  Feb 21, 2011 - 11:38am PT
Thanks for the story- That was great
John Mac

Trad climber
Breckenridge, CO
  Feb 21, 2011 - 11:52am PT
Don't know how I missed this.

Excellent TR guys.


Trad climber
  Feb 21, 2011 - 12:07pm PT
Fantastic TR, Mark and John! I will revisit this one several times. Thanks for letting us vicariously share in the experience.
Ben Doyle

  Feb 21, 2011 - 02:19pm PT
These photos are rad, do you mind if I use a few for a web site that Im building for an html class?
Ben Doyle

Big Wall climber
Portland, OR
  Feb 21, 2011 - 03:53pm PT
Hi Mark. Great seeing your trip report and reading about how your personal wall style evolved over the years. Also. . . good meeting you in person last week at Portland Rock Gym.

Trad climber
Bellevue, WA
  Feb 21, 2011 - 06:42pm PT
That's more than a trip report, that's a fine piece of journalism recounting an even finer piece of climbing and a great story of partnership. Nicely done, Mark and John. As John would say, "I worship the gas that surrounds your body..."

Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 21, 2011 - 08:53pm PT
As John would say, "I worship the gas that surrounds your body..."

MX, you know John, eh?

BTW, John and I want to thank you all for your comments, and again thank Pete for donating his time to edit it for us.

Trad climber
The pitch of Bagalaar above you
  Feb 22, 2011 - 03:12pm PT
World class TR Mark!

Photos, as usual, are SICK!


Mountain climber
Portland, OR
  Feb 22, 2011 - 05:13pm PT
Awesome TR, and a great read!

I've only been on one El Cap wall climb, when Survival, Robbie and I headed up Mescalito only to spend a week hanging below the Molar in an ice storm. We, like you guys, were prepared for spending some quality time on the wall. We had two ledges (including a Camp Curry cot) with flys, a stove, lots of food, whisky, a boom box, and a good supply of smoking herbs. I remember how the wind picked up our ledge a foot or two and then dropped it back down on the anchors while we held down the fly. Woo hoo!

Yeah, when the weather broke we bailed, as sheets of ice the size of a house and the thickness of a razor blade fell past us. We downclimbed 3 pitches, linked up with another team, tied all our line together and rapped seven ropes free to the ground.

Somehow I never made it back to the Captain after that, so I appreciate stories like yours all the more. Thanks from a fellow Oregonian.

Trad climber
  Feb 22, 2011 - 05:27pm PT
best TR EVER! Nice work man.

Trad climber
  Feb 22, 2011 - 05:29pm PT
Is it just me or did anyone else notice that they foged out the Playboy Pic?


Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 22, 2011 - 05:58pm PT
Prod, it's Penthouse, it was a little bit too explicit.

Trad climber
100% Canadian
  Feb 23, 2011 - 01:11am PT
Well Planned, Well Executed, and very Well Written - many thanks to both of you for the fine examples you set for us in the "over 50" crowd. Reading these experiences and the sharing of knowledge here has transformed me since I joined ST.

Favorite term: "Chongo Ratchet"
Favorite photo: Mark and John in El Cap meadow after the ascent

Bravo Gentlemen !!!
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
  Feb 23, 2011 - 11:11am PT
One of the best TR's ever! Thank you guys!
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Feb 23, 2011 - 09:51pm PT
Great trip report, guys! You really left yourself a hard act to follow, Mark, after your Grape Race to Tribal Rite solo trip report from last year, but you have definitely kept up if not exceeded the standard with your Shield trip report above. When I saw Big Wall Pillow, I was thinking some little inflatable jobbie. Little did I expect to see a gigantic green furry-ass mofo - now that's stylin'!

So here are my questions for Mark and John:

Mark, I think you really did your partner a huge disservice below that final roof you backcleaned, and if you make a habit of sending your partners on dangerous fifty-foot upside-down traversing falls, sooner or later you are going to kill one. A guy who has done ten El Cap routes should know better than to set his partner up thusly.

Similarly, John, you made a pretty big mistake, allowing yourself to take that huge fall. A guy who has done eight El Cap routes should know better than to have allowed himself to have gotten into that situation, and should have put the proper preventative precautions into place before getting himself stuck beyond the point of no return.

You guys make light of the situation, and it shows your level of commitment to the partnership that you remained friends on the summmit! It's a damn good thing there weren't any corners or ledges to hit when John swung across, which could have caused a nasty injury.

Thousands of people will read this trip report, and may think that such a seconder fall is either inevitable, OK, or part of the game, when in fact it's not. It's stupid and dangerous, and your trip report doesn't really tell people this.

Mark - what are the several things you could have done to have prevented John's fall from happening?

John - what should you have done differently when faced with this dilemma to have prevented your fall?

I was up there a few days after Mark and John, and I led this pitch after having climbed to that point via Albatross. I sure didn't have to leave my partner risking a huge swinging fall. To describe the pitch, you go up and slightly right on pretty decent gear, with a few not so good pieces, to more good pieces [some fixed] continuing more or less vertically to the roof. At the roof, you make a sharp left and traverse under the roof clipping about ten fixed pins in a row, each pin equipped with a fixed sling or piece of tat.

I left my partner with no danger, and I linked both pitches same as Mark.

Cheers, and thanks for a great trip report. Make sure you-all click on the videos, eh? And also the rest of the photos are worth a look.

El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson
  Feb 23, 2011 - 10:15pm PT
Pretty much the best wall tr ever.
The Shield is siiick.
Thanks for bringing us along.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 23, 2011 - 11:35pm PT

didn't you tell me that you left one lead rope at the middle anchor and continued on with another lead rope? That would be the slick way to do it.

The guidebook indicates that to combine the two pitches the leader should back clean "the whole roof". That sort of confused us and we didn't realize that merely back cleaning the whole roof would give us no advantage since the rope would still end up running in the exact same place as if the roof hadn't been cleaned at all.
I should have back cleaned the whole entire pitch from John's anchor to the mid-pitch anchor and then continued on to the top from there.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Feb 24, 2011 - 08:31am PT
"The guidebook indicates that to combine the two pitches the leader should back clean "the whole roof"...I should have back cleaned the whole entire pitch from John's anchor to the mid-pitch anchor and then continued on to the top from there."

Can you please explain exactly how you would do this safely, so other people finding themselves in a similar situation, if not the same situation, will know? What you describe sounds like climbing the entire pitch without leaving any pro to protect yourself [the leader].
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 24, 2011 - 11:21am PT
I don't exactly know, Pete, anyway you do it, someone, at sometime, ends up looking at a pretty bad swing.

"Back cleaning the whole roof" doesn't do diddly to help the leader. Somehow, safely, back clean the whole dang pitch. The aid is easy, and it would take time, but sort of climb it like that guy who soloed the Zodiac without a rope. Use a few daisies and always be clipped into three pieces.

Either that or simply do it as two short pitches and belay at the middle anchor.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Feb 24, 2011 - 04:24pm PT
All right, kiddies - listen up. You really don't need to set yourself up or set your partner up for long dangerous falls when you're climbing big walls. Backcleaning pitches, especially traversing pitches, should never be your first choice. Even experts like Mark and John can blow it, like they did here. There is always a Better Way, and you need to consider what this is in all situations.

John got lucky here, he didn't hit anything in his big fall. Imagine if there were a corner in his way?

Incidentally, I have the utmost respect for Mark as a climber and leader, and I'm not trying to pick on him or anything. It just kind of bugged me that his trip report talked about this huge swing, and made it either sound not that big of a deal, or not that dangerous, or perhaps something that you can expect when climbing traversing pitches on big wall routes, none of which happens to be the case. In fact, you seem to read a LOT of big wall stories where "exciting" things like this happen. And they just don't need to!

There are any number of solutions to this problem. You just have to figure out what will work best for you in your given situation, because the Better Way is whatever works best for you, and does so safely.

 The biggest mistake they made was taking off too quickly, without really sussing beforehand what they planned to do. Both are experienced wall climbers, and since wall climbing is a continual problem-solving process, most of these problems you can solve on the fly through experience. In this case, both climbers jumped the gun, and left each other open to hazard. Why? Because they assumed they could figure it out and solve the problem on the fly. Dr. Piton describes this mentality as the "sin of pride," which is the erroneous assumption that you are bitchin'er than you really are. Look no farther than the Doc's right ankle if you want a stellar example of what pride can cost you! Better communication before blasting on this pitch would have been a great start

 Two way radios could have helped - maybe Mark and John could have figured something better out?

 Mark already nailed the easiest solution to the problem, which is to climb on double ropes like the Brits. When you look at your topo and see big traverses, linkable pitches, and most especially penjis you should really consider taking a second lead rope. Extra weight yes, but nice to have as a backup should you damage your lead rope. This way you can protect yourself on zig-zaggedy pitches or after penjis without concern for rope drag. If you have one, take your skinny-ass sport climbing pussy rope for this purpose

 If Mark and John did have a second lead rope with them, and didn't think to use it here, they owe me a beer. When I did this pitch, I didn't actually lead with two ropes, I led with one rope and a tag line. When I reached the end of the horizontal traverse - C1 fixed pins - I tagged up the second lead rope, and led the next pitch using that, having fixed the first lead rope at the end of the pitch for my partner JP to jug and clean

 Mark could have pulled up all the lead rope, and short-fixed at the lip. Mark could have continued rope solo leading the next pitch while John cleaned the traverse, and then rapped back down to release the pigs. John would need to remember to leave the end of the lead rope tied off at the belay anchors where the pigs were, so he could get back! An extra long zip line connecting leader to cleaner at all times is handy if you are short-fixing like this. A bit slower than using double ropes - but not necessarily much slower when done correctly - and at least no giant swings!

 In the Department of Dumbass/Not Communicating Clearly Beforehand Department, JP and I had our own communications failure here under this roof. I asked him to clean the roof on his aiders, and wondered why it took him so damn long to finish so he could help me wrassle the pigs around the roof. Turned out he was setting up a 4:1 lower-out on every one of the fixed pins' existing lower-out slings instead of "clipping and climbing" the traverse to clean it, same as I led it - sheesh. Safe and effective, but way way slow. I and my partners always have two-way radios with us on the wall, but I don't recall if one wasn't working, or if one of us had forgotten to take his radio with him, or if we simply forgot to check with each other partway through the pitch. I seem to remember yelling to try to establish communication, but without success. What can I say? I always seem to be able to find new and creative ways to make mistakes on the wall

 John should have seen his dilemma from below, seen the problem coming, and taken action ahead of time to prevent his huge swing. The problem is that Mark didn't leave as his last piece of gear before backcleaning a reliable piece of fixed gear. He left one of his own cams. John came up to his last piece to "suddenly" discover it was a rickety cam, not good. Down-aiding is ludicrous - you should never put anyone in that situation, especially in the place where I think it happened, which is where the crack is a bit wobbly with harder-to-make placements going up, and as you saw virtually impossible-to-make placements going down

 In the situation that Mark left John in, and seeing this from below, John could have tied the bottom end of the lead rope to a fixed piece of gear well below him, and then continued up the rope using his Grigri as an ascender, along with a jug. I'm pretty sure that the wall here is a little less than vertical, so in theory upon reaching Mark's last piece John should have been able to tie off the lead rope to his harness below him, keeping the rope fairly tight between him and the fixed piece below, before popping the cam to begin the swing. He would then have been stopped from swinging very far by his backrope. He would then have to rap down on his Grigri to untie the fixed end, potentially tricky on a diagonal rope and under tension, but better than what happened

 If there were enough rope available, and this pitch is short so I'm pretty sure there would have been, John could have used all the excess rope to double his backrope to the fixed piece below him, popped the cam, got stopped on the doubled backrope, and then used the doubled backrope plus excess to lower himself out across the face, if only partway. No matter what, being lower with any extra rope would have put John in a much safer and far more controlled situation to begin his lower-out, hopefully at least partially under control and not upside-down!

Anyway, he lived to tell the tale [and what a tale!] so it's all good. Mistakes happen, live and learn, and don't beat yourself up. Better to read it here than to do it yourself, eh?
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 24, 2011 - 06:54pm PT
I think leading the first half as normal, clipping into everything, then pulling up the remaining lead rope, tying it off to the mid point anchor and me rope soloing/short fixing to the top would have been the easiest, fastest and cleanest way to do it. The last pitch above the mid point anchor has a couple big cam aid moves that are totally C1 and then it's a 5.7 chimney to the top. There is no way I would have fallen. That would have been the best way to go.

Your "sin of pride" and not talking about it and really figuring it out before I even left the anchor with John is spot on, Pete. We won't let that happen again.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Feb 24, 2011 - 06:57pm PT
It takes one to know one. You should have seen me the day I busted my leg. Synergistic effect where the whole net result was greater than the sum of the parts, which were a bunch of stupid little mistakes. I should have been a LOT more careful. Pride pride pride, stupid stupid stupid. Lucky I can still walk, let alone climb.

Yeah, you'd have cruised after the short fix, and it would have been no biggie for John to return to the anchor.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Feb 24, 2011 - 08:48pm PT
Pete, in my last scenario, John could have waited till I got to the top and set up the haul before taking off. He'd have cleaned the first half of the pitch normally and then moved his jugs onto the top part of the rope, above the mid point anchor and continued on, no need for him to go back down to the original anchor.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
  Feb 24, 2011 - 09:59pm PT
Oh true, that is an option. I was thinking he could get a head start cleaning the first half while you were leading the second half, then go down from the midway point to release the pigs. It doesn't take long to jug eighty feet on less-than-vertical rock like this place is.

The tradeoff being, he is cleaning the first half while you are leading the second half, and in theory could clean it faster than you could lead the second half, although in practice that might not be the case cuz of the first half traverse vs. the second half free climbing. Anyway, you trade off that gain in speed vs. having to go back down, maybe the simul-movement would be faster?

I like short-fixing and simul-leading-cleaning, especially when there is:

 shorter pitches
 easier pitches
 team of three or more
 extra long zip line to keep leader and cleaner attached at all times, so cleaner can zip stuff up to leader, and still have enough zip line left to pull it back down to resend
Trad Climber

Trad climber
Alexandria, VA
  Feb 25, 2011 - 12:40am PT
Mark and John,

What a great job with the TR! You've really out done yourselves this time. I wouldn't have thought it possible to surpass your Tribal Rite report, but I think you did it. Way to capture the El Cap experience. It looks like you had a lot of fun up there too ... well except for the blood curdling scream near the top of course!

You've really got me psyched to get back up there again. Thanks again for the inspiration and the motivation to give it another go after all these years.

BTW Mark, the SMC pullies finally arrived in the mail the other day. I've been trying the ratchet out on my basement wall, but I need to get outside and put some weight on it. I'll shoot you an email and let you know how it goes ... and hit you up with another 20 questions!

Awesome job.

P.S. Calling Frank Sanders.

Frank, I doubt if you'll remember me, but I met you on my very first wall about 30 years ago. We were on the Chouinard-Herbert route on Sentinel and you passed us on the Afro-Cuban flakes pitch. We were the high school kids with the red VW bug from Virginia. The last time we met was about 15 years later when I topped out on my last El Cap route. I was just about to mantle onto the summit of Zodiac and I looked up and there you were peering down at me. At the time I didn't know it, but you book ended my big wall career! I hope all is well with you. If you're in the Valley the first couple weekends in June this year maybe we will run into each other again. Mark's amazing TR's have roused me out of my big wall hibernation.

Take Care,
John Fine

Trad climber
Hood River, OR
  Feb 28, 2011 - 05:03pm PT
Pete IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! Mark and I committed the big wall Sin of Pride.

It chills my spine, right now, to reflect that it is just at the moment when you feel most confident that you're most exposed to danger on the wall:

* I *knew* that sideways falls, if you hit something, can damage your body more gravely than downward falls. The Staying Alive article by John Dill draws my attention at least a few times a year, like looking under the porch to see what evil lurks in the shadow. "Pendulum falls are particularly dangerous..."

* I *knew* that if a piece blew I'd be in for it.

* I read the AAJ accident reports. I understood that injuries and deaths actually happen. Even on El Cap.

* We both knew that Mark could have led a short pitch with no risk to me. But we had discussed linking those pitches for months before. *Our thinking had become rigid*.

* Even given Mark's leading method, I did realize later that I could have 'belayed' my swing from below by anchoring the lead line to the anchors below me until I cleaned the gear, then lowering to the anchor, then lowering myself out. My mistake was: *I didn't think I would fall, so I didn't consider what would happen if I did fall*.

* Mark and I could have puzzled out one of the several safe solutions that Pete describes here. If we only had taken the time to stop at the belay and think about them. But my previous lead took an extremely long time, and we had summit fever.

I knew these things, and yet I made the mistakes. Why? The big wall Sin of Pride. May I not commit it again.

"Discretion is the better part of Valor". A 400-year old saying. Still so true.

  Mar 25, 2011 - 02:07pm PT
that pitch below the shield roof (and just before the A0 traverse pitch on muir wall) is AMAZING. it's a shame they aided it.

Trad climber
Being held captive behind the Orange Curtain
  Mar 25, 2011 - 03:18pm PT
Awesome trip report. Man the pics of the pounded out cracks are really disturbing. Thanks for posting the pics of the hand-placed beaks! Clean - Clean. I like that!
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Mar 28, 2011 - 11:45am PT
that pitch below the shield roof (and just before the A0 traverse pitch on muir wall) is AMAZING. it's a shame they aided it.

Both times I've been up that pitch I've looked at it for it's freeclimbability, I'd love to go up there to freeclimb it!

Trad climber
Hustle City
  Mar 28, 2011 - 12:27pm PT
Keep em' coming!

Trad climber
El Dorado Hills, CA
  Mar 28, 2011 - 08:51pm PT
As expected.
Nice work

Big Wall climber
Lakeview, OR
  Mar 29, 2011 - 08:58pm PT
A very intense route! I would prefer to climb it at night so I wouldn't be bothered by the exposure.

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Mar 30, 2011 - 01:47pm PT
Great!!! Don't know how I missed this first time around. I love the "belay lounge"!

Social climber
granada hills
  Oct 21, 2011 - 07:05pm PT
WOW! Nice TR. Awesome send.



Trad climber
  Oct 26, 2011 - 11:35am PT
Mark,Is that the belay lougen,you and Max made on his mothers machine in the late 70s
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
Author's Reply  Oct 26, 2011 - 11:53am PT
Ha, no, I had forgotten about that. I got it from a guy name Zack Parke in Yosemite, it's sweet. email me for info how to get in touch with him if you want one.

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
  Oct 26, 2011 - 03:56pm PT
One of the best TRs i've ever read, thanks!
dirt claud

Social climber
san diego,ca
  Oct 26, 2011 - 04:30pm PT
Great read, I will have to finish when I have time. thanks
Big Mike

Trad climber
  Oct 29, 2011 - 05:06am PT
Amazing TR! Thanks for the big wall stoke!

Trad climber
Oakland, CA
  Apr 20, 2012 - 06:35am PT
Great TR! So detailed, I felt like I was there.

Trad climber
Girdwood, AK
  Apr 22, 2012 - 12:23pm PT
That was an awesome trip report! I love reading what the old and experienced climbers have to say. I took a lot from that. Thanks for posting.

Big Wall climber
santa cruz, ca
  May 30, 2012 - 03:13pm PT
Bump for an awesome TR! Loved the videos, keeping the stoke alive and well
Fat Dad

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
  May 30, 2012 - 04:59pm PT
Wow, can't believe I missed this the first time around. Great report. Brings back great memories of my ascent in '91. A beautiful route. Thanks for taking the time to tell the story so well.

Trad climber
Mountain View
  Sep 26, 2012 - 03:26pm PT
Bump for wall climbing Season!!

Social climber
boulder co
  Sep 26, 2012 - 04:07pm PT
Sick photos and tr, I think I'll have to put the shield at the top of the list for next year
Myles Moser

Lone Pine, Ca
  Apr 16, 2013 - 03:33am PT
Awesome read!

Thanks for sharing.These stories never get old.

Also informative!

Gotta love the air time.

Edit: the first photo on Chicken Head Ledge is a banging shot.

Grey Matter
  Jan 14, 2015 - 04:59pm PT

  Apr 8, 2015 - 08:45am PT
The benchmark for trip reports.

The Good Places
  Mar 7, 2016 - 04:28pm PT
alright Donnie!

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
  May 17, 2019 - 07:38pm PT