It started out casually enough. I had just moved to Seattle and was desperately trying to find new climbing partners and still clinging to old ones that lived elsewhere. My friend Dave had been unsuccessful on the Salathe Wall a couple of times. Weather and bad or injured partners had conspired in various combinations to keep him from completing the climb. So in a simple phone call to Boulder in September, I said, 'Dave, if you still want to do the Salathe, I will go with you'. This was said in good faith but with the total expectation that Dave would consider me an unsuitable partner for such a climb. Much to my surprise, he jumped at the offer and suddenly I was committed to a big wall, my first big wall. The climb was tentatively scheduled for August and Dave sent me a topo so I could see the route. I had never even been to Yosemite so the topo didn't mean a lot.
In May, Mike, another old climbing partner of Dave's, joined the expedition. Mike had fallen in love and quit climbing about 4 years ago. He also had bailed from the Captain at least once and had been thinking about it for 7 years. He started climbing again in June, hoping to cap off his climbing career with an ascent of the Salathe Wall and move on to other things. Mike and I had never met as it was due to Mike's quitting climbing that I was able to gain Dave as a climbing partner. Dave assured each of us, that the other was capable and compatible.
We met in Lee Vining and spread our generous rack on a tarp in the post office parking lot. It was a sight to behold, a gear maven's wet dream. We had double and even triple sets of nuts, Camalots, Friends, and TCU's plus four Big Dudes. Mike proclaimed, 'We have enough rack for the climb' and was content.
Monday we drove into the Valley. I patiently followed Mike's wheezing but fuel efficient Honda up Tioga Pass. We dropped down into the Valley and suddenly there was a very big cliff on the right. Mike and Dave pulled over, so I did too. My stomach began to get queasy thinking that the hulking cliff must be El Capitan. It was. It sure looked big. I felt a bit nervous, but Dave had warned me about the mental aspects of big wall climbing so I kept quiet. While Mike soloed Royal Arches, Dave and I spent the day getting the haul bags organized and retying strings on 25 2-liter bottles.
Tuesday morning we started up the Free Blast, 11 pitches of unabashed sling grabbing and hanging, in the interest of speed, of course. Quite a climb and probably the longest day climb I had ever done. To avoid the mind-sapping effects of the Valley floor, we had planned on hauling and climbing the next day. But near the top of the Free Blast, 2 Koreans blew by us. They were clearly climbing much faster than we were, so we graciously decided on a rest day so there wouldn't be fights over bivy ledges. Not to mention that their belaying technique of running a rope through a carabineer seemed to leave something to be desired. Maybe it would be best not to be directly below them on the wall.
Wednesday afternoon was hot but we wanted to start hauling so we could sleep at Heart Ledges. Despite the fact that the Free Blast is 11 pitches, there are only 5 pitches to the Heart. Still, hauling those pitches would take some time. Elvis, the big white haul bag, definitely needed to diet, but it would take a few days to whittle his weight down. Sloan, more discrete and not nearly so corpulent, was a duct-taped duffel bag. We tried to haul the two together but it soon became clear that two hauls would be required. Dave hauled Elvis, Mike jugged up and hauled Sloan, then I joined them at the first ledge. Mike came over as I reached the belay and said 'Let's go over and talk to Dave'. Dave had decided that what we were doing wasn't climbing, wasn't fun and he wasn't going to do any more of it. Mike was still gung ho and was willing to continue if I was. I was confused. Dave had gathered us all together for this trip and now he was bailing. I had met Mike 2 days ago but I figured if he was comfortable going with me, I would give it a shot. We repacked the haul bags then and there. Sloan was demoted to the ground and Elvis would be our companion. We hauled two more pitches then we rapped down to sleep on the ground. Thursday morning we finished the hauling to Heart Ledges and finally started climbing. It was hot on Lung Ledge so we took a leisurely lunch and Mike psyched up for the Hollow Flake, one of the most notorious off-widths in the Valley. Mike led out, pendulumed over and began climbing. After about an hour, I said, 'Mike, how's it going?'. 'I can't climb this, I'm coming down' was the reply. The trip emphasis had been on safety and Mike just didn't want to run it out, especially when a fall meant swinging into a dihedral. In the morning, as I reconstituted Elvis, I noticed Mike was trying to hook a #6 and #7 Big Dude together with carabineers. It never seemed stable enough, but I wasn't surprised when he said that he wanted to try again anyway. Dave had told me that no one had more motivation than Mike. After about 45 minutes I said 'Mike, how's it going?' The reply was 'I got higher than yesterday, but I still can't climb this, I'm coming down'. He said the pendulum was cool and suggested I do it just so I could see the Hollow Flake. Sounded good to me. Besides, I knew it would freak out Dave, who was undoubtably watching, to see me head toward the flake. I had never led an off-width and had no intention of starting with the Hollow Flake, but I did want to look at it. Mike was right, the pendulum was cool. As I prepared to descend back to Lung Ledge from the pendulum point, Mike looked up and said 'I have another idea but I think you should stay there a minute. I don't want you throwing rocks'. Mike wanted to leave Elvis, go the ground, beg, borrow, steal or even buy a Big Bro and try again on Sunday. We discussed this a while. It represented a subtle but noticeable shift in our 'safety first' motto. We only had 2 ropes so bailing would mean jugging three of the old fixed lines back up to the Heart. On Tuesday, we wouldn't even consider rappeling these lines, now, we were going to jug them. I'm not one for quick decisions and I always like to leave my options open so we bid adieu to Elvis and rapped off.
The most productive thing that happened on Saturday morning was that I finally memorized my 14 digit calling card number. I called every store within a 100 mile radius of Yosemite that had the slightest chance of having a Big Bro. The really sad part of all of this was the Big Bro sitting in Mike's bedroom in New Mexico that he had decided was unnecessary for the trip. We didn't have time to order one as Sunday was the last day we could start up the wall and still get back home on time. Of course, that didn't keep us from fantasizing about Mountain Tools' claim that they deliver anywhere. We would sure have liked one delivered to Lung Ledge. If only we had had a cellular phone. Next we swung through Camp 4 and randomly walked up to people with haul bags to see if we could find a Big Bro. We even asked at the rescue tent where we received the best beta for the whole trip. Tucker Tech, himself, proclaimed that we couldn't use a Big Bro on the Hollow Flake, 'Man, it'll only put a Z in your system; you just gotta grit your teeth and suck it up, dude'.
On Lung Ledge, we had decided to let the availability of a Big Bro be the final decision maker for the trip. But then, sitting around Curry Village, Mike said he was sure a car jack would work. Then a voice, which sounded suspiciously like mine, said that's ridiculous, a 2x4 is much more sensible. Ever since I had first seen El Cap on Monday a little part of my brain was hoping for an honorable way out of climbing it. Fate seemed to keep handing me outs, but some other part of me kept ignoring the offers. Mike and I ultimately compromised and headed back for the wall armed with a car jack and a 2x4 duct taped to a # 7 Big Dude.
Five a.m. Sunday morning found us jugging the fixed lines. Our 4 a.m. awakening had been filled with streaking meteors and now our head lamps were flashing responses back to the heavens. At Lung Ledge, Elvis was looking as robust as ever and no rodents had managed to chew through his white vinyl suit. About 9:30 Mike disappeared around the arete for one more shot at the Hollow Flake. This was really it. If he didn't get it this time, we absolutely, positively were going down for good. Because of the pendulum and the slow nature of the climbing afterwards, it was very hard for the me to tell if progress was being made. My mental state alternated between being scared that we were going up and being scared that we were going down. At one point, I heard a shout from Mike, I frantically started hauling in rope, nothing seemed to be attached, my heart pounded as I braced for what would surely be a huge impact as Mike hit the dihedral. Then suddenly a clear word, "SLACK!" Whatever I had heard earlier, it obviously wasn't 'falling'. It was some time before my heart rate approached normal. Then more words from around the arete, 'Susan, I made it!'. The 2x4 had worked like a charm. We were going up after all.
We had jugged 5 1/2 pitches, climbed 3 and had 6 more to go before the next bivouac spot at the Alcove, but we sat down on Hollow Flake Ledge to eat a decent lunch anyway. We were on our way. The next 4 pitches went smoothly including the dreaded 'Ear' pitch which turned out to be a cruise. But it takes time to aid, haul and clean and the hours were adding up. In nice symmetry with the morning, the headlamps came out and the last pitch was finished in the dark. We would have like to slept on El Cap Spire, but one pitch in the dark was enough. Seventeen hours after we started, we sat down to a dinner of cold canned lentils at the Alcove. They tasted great! The rodent that tried to drag our cans away in the night obviously agreed.
Only six pitches to the Block. Should be a piece of cake after yesterday. We hoped things would get better after the suspiciously (under)rated 5.6 chimney up to El Cap Spire. Glad we hadn't tried it in the dark. Then the 2x4 made a repeat appearance in a 5.9 squeeze above the Spire. Ten hours of straightforward climbing took us to the Block. Plenty of time to relax and enjoy the evening. Too bad it is the most uncomfortable ledge on the whole route. It slopes precipitously away from the cliff and has several large, precariously balanced rocks along the edge. Presumably these are to keep you and your gear from sliding back to the Spire, but their instability was quite disconcerting. Once again, the rodents agreed with our choice of dinner. What are these critters doing 26 pitches up El Cap?
Six pitches again today, but the overhanging headwall is the aid crux of the climb. Two hours was standard for getting up, doing our daily rituals and restuffing Elvis. This boy still needed a diet. Why wasn't his weight going down yet? The first pitch went fast. When I reached Mike, he said 'I don't know what they are talking about with a pendulum on this pitch. There wasn't any pendulum.'. About an hour later Mike spoke again, 'Susan, look at the topo, I think we are off route. What do you think?' After ascertaining that he was not looking at a nice straight crack up to the headwall roof, I had to agree. He slowly downclimbed to a pin and I prepared to lower him. He said he was ready to lower then something made me ask 'Mike, you are lowering through a 'biner, right?' The answer made my blood curdle, 'No, just a bunch of slings'. I insisted that he leave a 'biner and lower through that instead, but I will never know whether he did or not. Guess maybe the topo was right, we did need to pendulum.
As Mike led the pitch to roof, he suddenly shouted,'What was that?'. An instant later I was reeling from a sharp blow to my right thigh. That was obviously a rock. Mike kept shouting 'Are you alright?' I struggled to stand up and gladly realized that my femur was intact. I was so glad that my leg wasn't broken, the blood coming through my pant leg wasn't even an issue. The rock had shattered on impact; better it than my leg. Shrapnel had ripped the spring out of the bottom of the watch on my left wrist and bent the top spring. Everywhere I looked, there were little bits of granite. But, my leg was clearly functional and no rescue from Tucker Tech would be necessary, thank god. The main casualty was that I no longer enjoyed the whistling sound of the birds swooping along the cliff.
Elvis turned out to be a savior at the sling belays on the headwall. Nothing like have his fat, soft head to stand or kneel on at a belay. Who says sling belays suck? We never even used our belay seats. I had been told by friends to be sure and clean the headwall roof so I could cut loose and swing. Mike made sure that I would enjoy myself and didn't clip any gear until the top of the roof. Trying to maneuver off the belay was very tricky, what with my jugging rope heading off behind me at a crazy angle. After much delicate clipping and unclipping of pins, bolts,and slings, I was down to one sling on a pin. I thought about lowering out, but instead pulled into the wall on the sling and unclipped. I shouted as I flew into space. What a ride it was! Mike said he looked down when I shouted only to see me disappear back under the roof. The swing time was so long he had time to find and unclip his camera before I came into view again. The first couple of swings were fun, but the thrill gradually faded as I couldn't stop swinging and began twisting in the wind. I needed to start jugging. We had lost a lot of time this morning when we missed the pendulum to Sous le Toit Ledge and had to keep pushing to make it to Long Ledge before dark.
The sun was just setting as I reached Long Ledge. For the first time, I felt a surge of panic. The rope went from a pin across the face and behind a horn onto the ledge. I was sure the rope would cut as I swung off the pin. After some tense moments, I pulled it together. Getting foul-mouthed furious at the pin as I tried to unclip it helped me to regain my focus. After passing my jugs around the horn, I free climbed onto the ledge. Long Ledge is about 20-30 inches wide. The two ends of the ledge have rock ribs forming a cradle but the middle section is flat and has a straight drop to the valley, some 32 pitches below. Mike had picked one of the cradle spots for sleeping which left me the flat spot. After the sloping Block, flat looked real good. In fact, I slept better that night than any other on the wall.
Only three more pitches to the top. We were ready to be off this mother. Mike doesn't like to rappel, so the East Ledges descent was out. Hopefully, Dave and his girlfriend, Jackie, would meet us at the top and help us carry our gear 5 miles out to the campground. If not we would carry it ourselves and hope to hitch a ride back to the Valley. Although, finding someone willing to have our ripe bodies in a car with them might prove difficult. The aroma was beginning to get pretty intense. I'd spent 10 days climbing in Alaska and hadn't smelled this bad. On the second pitch of the morning, we heard a unique grunting noise from the top, "Hernt, hernt". Dave was there! It was a great psychological boost to know that he would be waiting for us. El Cap never lets up. The last three pitches were hard and serious. The 2x4 made a final appearance on the last pitch amidst much swearing and fuming on yet another 5.9 off width. It was good to be on top but the bad news was that it was 8.5 miles out, not 5 miles. Oh, well, didn't really have a choice, did we? The cairn which marked the climb was made of rock that looked suspiciously like what hit me. Some joker must have pitched it off the top; probably of the same ilk as the guy who walked up to us, pointed towards the valley floor and asked if it got steep down there. We hung out for quite a while eating and talking with Dave and Jackie. Before we left, Mike recited Maya Angelous' inauguration day poem to celebrate our safe ascent.
It was a very long walk out, up and down hills. We had 4 packs, counting Elvis, and four people. We took turns carrying loads since they varied from very light to very heavy. Our shoes had long since lost any structural integrity and were duct taped together to keep our toes from flapping in the breeze. We made it back to the Valley just as it was getting dark. Dave and Jackie had spots in Camp 4, but Mike and I didn't. As we prepared to spend yet another unauthorized night in the Valley, a Park Ranger pulled up and got out of his car. His menacing demeanor changed instantly when he heard Mike and I had just done El Cap. He excitedly asked about the climb and regaled us with stories of trying to catch people parapenting off the top. He did get around to asking where we sleeping, though. Dave and Jackie said they had spots at Camp 4 and Mike said we were heading home. He asked where and Mike said the Bay Area. After he drove off, I asked Dave if we had adequately confused the ranger. Dave agreed saying that since Mike had New Mexico plates and I had Washington plates, the Bay Area seemed like an unlikely place for home to be.
Rather than hike back to the base of El Cap, we slept illegally at Camp 4. But I paid my dues the next day by waiting in line for 3 hours to get our first legit camp site since arriving in the Valley 10 days ago. Mike and I were too tired to savor our accomplishment on Wednesday, but sitting in the Meadow on Thursday afternoon scoping the route with binoculars, we felt pretty good. Mike completed a 7 year dream and intends to hang up his rope for good and limit any climbing to bouldering. I had gone to Yosemite for the first time and all I climbed was the Salathe Wall, but who could complain about that?
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