By Paul A. Brunner
Here's the scoop on, yes, a great climb. Story, rack, and beta.
The idea of soloing an El Cap route had been rattling around the back of my noggin for some time, but I could not decide which one to do. Zodiac? The Trip? "Feh!" said Steve `Roadie' while we were knocking back a Baldwin & Cooper Ale at the Sound Brew Pub in Squamish (August, '98). "Dude, do yourself proud and climb a REAL El Cap route, something long and obscure. `Ol Ben "Huckleberry" here just did Dihedral, think about that one." D-d-d-d-dihedral?! I remember checking it out in '94 when we did Lurking Fear, some character told me to forget about it, saying it was a nailing-horror-hell. Like lotsa stacked, tipped-out pins, and BC" rusty anchors with no screws/hangers. And, other things to make you load your trousers. Ben barked, "Nawwwww, man, it was great, here's the beta."
What a difference time makes. In one year, I had moved back to the States from Hong Kong, sunk a killer job, Coleen and I got married, and we bought a great house on the beach in Marin. Sure, who cares? Well, the point is that all the mojo was right to do a solo - no excess bagage to lug up the wall. My plan was to fix 5 pitches the weekend before 4th of July, then blast over the holiday period.
Coleen and I cruised in the valley and made the mistake of staying in the tent cabins for the weekend: screaming brats and chubby tourists galore - not worth the value. I was up at 3:30AM on Saturday, mainly so I could get in as much as possible before the sun hit the face at 1PM. That was the beauty about this climb, even though it was approaching July, as long as I got an early start, I could spank out as much as possible and get as high as possible before the bake-fest.
Although I had not done a big wall in 3 years and had not soloed in 5 years, I was surprised how easy it was to slip back in aid mode. Since I usually use the counter weight haul method (bag on fifi hooks), I can do a pitch in about the same time as with a partner (lead/clean/haul, 2 hour-ish). I also used the Silent Partner which worked pretty well the whole time. While the detailed beta is listed below, I'll mention some of the fun points.
I staggered up the short 3rd class pedistal, then launched into a little free but broke out the aiders for a hook + sawed-off maneuver before going back to free climbing to end the pitch. The second pitch was all clean, a total sweeeet nut-fest. After that, the next 3 pitches involved a couple larger sawn pins + an LA. Heck, nothing harder than A2. In the early afternoon, Coleen appeared at the base, swatting mosquito's, while I fixed 4 ropes down from the top of pitch 5. I left 6 liters of water hanging from p5 anchors. Wooooo-eeeeee, done for the day! We immediately went to El Cap meadow, swam in the river, and had a great picnic at the big oak tree, viewing the mayhem on Zodiac.
After another evening of fat, screaming rug-rats and a gay pride party (music: "It's fun to stay at theY-M-C-Aaaaaa.") at the tent cabins, we had a great time climbing at Glacier Point Apron - then back to the river before cruising back home. Coleen took off to New York to visit some friends and avoid my pre-wall jitters. On Thrusday, June 29, I hit the road at 5:15AM, drove straight to the valley, and shouldered that pig on my back for the slow-mo 45 minute approach. I left most of pins and some of the water at the base the week before, but with a double ledge, water, and other supplies, it was a hoof.
My original plan was to have 24 liters of water (enough for 6 days) - 18 liters were in the bag - but by the time I got to p5 anchors (and had dropped my fixed lines), I noticed the 6 liters of water I left hanging were GONE! Flapping in the breeze was the webbing that "was" duck-taped on the bottles. Eeeek gads, what to do? It appeared that the sun had baked the bottles and the duck-tape had turned to goo. Crap! I hung at the belay for about a minute, mulling over what to do, then did the math, compared it with my ability and figured I could definitely do it. I didn't even look back.
P6 breaks out right from the long, first dihedral, and gets steep by climbing out a triangle roof. A couple fixed pins and I get to inspect those BC" posts, placed so long ago. I was prepared for these babies, and had a pocket full of BC" screw tops, which I left on all the posts. This pitch went by el fasto, nothing harder than A1.
P7, with all it's scary warnings (McNamara super topo, etc.) of having "expanding" flakes and "thin A3" was nothing more than A2 and A1. Camalot's, nuts, and a couple hook moves, a pin or two, and some rivets. Caj pitch. Hell, I don't remember anything expanding on the whole route. And, the ASCA did a stellar job beefing-up the belays. I left more nuts on the rivets, hopefully making the next team's journey less stressful.
I wanted to get to p7 since it was labeled a "bivy" belay (sb), and wanted to do the Black Arch before the sun hit that section the next day. I was organized and flopped on my double ledge by 6PM - digging into my ravioli and logistimosizin' the topo to compensate for my 6 liter water deficit. I figured I had to do 5 pitches a day, one more than planned, so I would still do the early start and try to get out as much as possible before the afternoon sun-bake. Still, I felt great and even more relaxed as I popped the top on my beer, flicked on the tunes, and rested my back against my pillow. Feelin' good!
Up at 4AM (iced coffee and danish for breakfast, nice starry view), climbing a little after 5AM, the Black Arch was the sweetest pitch of the route. Man, ya gotta love those cam hooks. Pitch 9 combo was more of the Black Arch, before getting real steep on the rivets. The ascent team must have been short, it was easy to reach all the rivets. I left more nuts on the rivets, passed the old belay and launched into free/aid mode up the corner to the top of the pedestal. Since I was continuing on, I set up a natural belay, instead of down-climbing the 20' to The Ledge. Beautiful plant varieties started to appear in the cracks. Nice floweres and sweet smelling varieties.
Pitch 10 (after The Ledge) was mainly A2, since the rivet ladder by-passed some to the old, rotten, A3 corner. Pitch 11 was more A2, and The Flake (pitch 12) was pretty tame (A1+), no expando. The hauling had been pretty easy, surprising, since I had a double ledge, 18 liters of water, 4 monster cans of beer, and heaps of food. I was only using two ropes: one beefy 11mm lead line and an 8mm static haul. Maybe it was the light static line or maybe it was my secret big wall training: two hour runs + working on my property all day.
I set up my ledge on what looked like a good bivy spot, pitch 12 anchors, but at night a 60 second intermittent drip gave me the `ol Chinese water torture. The water was coming from the A1 plant section on pitch 13. Luckily it was slow enough so I did not get soaked, but was happy for the 4AM wake-up.
If my iced coffee did not wake me up, the flaring section off the belay on pitch 13 sure did. At the top of the pitch, I felt a little at home with the A1 plants on the upper section. Yee-haw, down on the farm, enough greenery, but not enough to use my nut tool (like I was told) to farm the crack. The real fun was pitch 14, with the festering, oozing slime, pulsating from the crack. Ick! A rusty fixed pin by-passed the 10 ' goo section, with some of the glop sticking to my rope and aiders.
I was told that pitch 15 was the crux of climb and it continued the steepness from the previous pitch. Crux? Bah! It was fun: mixed gear going out and over the triangle roof, then up a corner system to belay under a roof. Man, those off-set Aliens are great! A pin or two kept things in the comfort zone. On the climb, whenever I felt a little nervous - getting spaced out on marginal gear, nothing worked better than whacking in a solid pin.
I was prepared for pitch 16, by duck-taping the sharp roof edge and keeping my runners spaced. There was always a fixed pin to start each pitch off, probably part of the old belays, so positioning off the belay was always quick and easy. The steepness continued along with the gear variety - I even threw in a hook move after the double bolt traverse to the C1 crack. At this point, the sun rounded the bend, but I was happy knowing I only had one pitch left for the day.
Or did I? Looking up at pitch 17, it eased back and had a variety of plants and free/semi-aid sections plus a natural anchor at my discretion. Things went smoothly until I decided to go up too high on the splitter crack, leap-frogging #1 Camalots in the process. The crack merged back to the flaring groove which made my belay set-up awkward - damn, I went too far! No chance of bivying here. The bag got snagged on a minor lip which made my counter-hauling operation grind to a halt and man, I was looking forward to the airing my toes on the ledge!
The reward of going to pitch 18 paid off, nice bolts on the face with a stellar view, I added one of my hangers to the ASCA post that was hanger-less. What a day! 6 pitches - wooooo-eeeee! I was stoked, just psyched that I was ahead of schedule and things were going well. I had been going to sleep at 9 PM, but tonight stayed up to watch some of the stars appear and some guys rapping off the Turret, across the valley. Ironically, I found out it was Clint Cummins, whom (along with Paul Friberg) had given me the Horse Chute beta (Dihedral sections). I thought, "Poor lads probably had a rough go at DNB." Far from the truth, however, with Clint on his own route, Ho Chi Minh.
Did the usual agenda of waking up at 4AM and was eager to blast to Thanksgiving Ledge. But, the final 3 pitches up to Thanksgiving proved to be the slowest. Pitch 19 was awkward in places, due to the flare, and longer than expected. Luckily, I knew to go past the Horse Chute merger belay anchors which made hauling on the next pitch (2) easier. However, for pitch 19, the haul bag got snagged in a couple places.
The real fun(!) began on pitch 20, the Black Cave. First of all, there were many cans of food, left from a 1992 (according toTom Evans) 14 day ascent! Chili, beans, sardines - the usual wall delicacies. As for climbing, way awkward and hard doing the chimney. I tried to leave most of the gear behind and it was still tough. However, I was trying to be cautious and not become a chockstone, only to be discovered years later. I was a happy amigo to reach the bolts leading to the A1 section, which led to another natural belay anchor. Okay, there was one rusting BC incher - no way I was going to clip that baby. The ASCA had run out of bolts by the end of pitch 18, so the rest of the anchors were fixed pins and natural gear.
Pitch 21, the final up to Thanksgiving, was a true moaner. Due to its low angle, shrubbery, chimney/off-width - it sucked. Took me forever just to whack my way up, plus I made the mistake of being too far to the right and had to do the A2 crack - lotsa pins. Man, give me the steep stuff back! After the added pleasure of getting el piggy up to Thanksgiving (couple snags, errrrRRR!!), the sun came out and I was whipped and hid under the lone pine tree to regroup.
Last time I was on Thanksgiving Ledge was in 1994, when I did Lurking Fear, but that was 600' to the West. I wandered 100' in that direction, rapped down the short 40' 4th class section - lots of manky fixed lines - to check out the Dihedral finish. Damn, it looked just like that last pitch - except 5 more pitches! No way did I want to relive that experience. So, instead, I fixed a line along Thanksgiving for the first 60m, after the short rap section, and hoofed my stuff 180m (600') to the West Buttress exit.
If you have wandered around Thanksgiving Ledge, it's kinda cool, with wide/narrow sections and caves. I bivied on my portaledge, hanging below the 5.10a, exit pitches. It was also nice to have a fairly level ledge to re-organize my stuff - nothing like 4 days of wrappers/cans/plastic bottles/general mank floating around the bag. Ahhhhh, final night on the wall with a frosty beer and starry sky.
The final day was easier than expected. Anyone who has ever done the West Buttress exit knows about the endless 5th class at the top. I led each pitch with the 2 ropes and all the rack, then rapped down and carried el piggy on my back. After a couple 60m pitches, I was at the top, wayyyy elated. RaaaaaaAAAAAA!! Did the gear sort and headed to my favorite summit bivy - I love topping out and spending the night on the summit! That night, I had a great fire and enjoyed, again, the beautiful star show.
Next day was a careful hoof down the East Ledges descent, and used the fixed lines for a speedy rap. My first encounter with people, in the Manure Pile parking lot, was fat tourista's munching on hot dogs and swilling beer - well, of course, it was 4th of July! Back at the car, I ran into Tom Evans and Jim Bridwell, and had an enlightening conversation regarding the Dihedral and some wild Bridwell stories - but, that's another story.
Did the usual afternoon stuff: clean the fixed lines, pick up trash, swim in the river, took a zillion hour shower, and got booted out the Ahwahnee for not having a dinner jacket (the stinky shoes probably did not help either). Dinner at the Mountain Broiler Room, and a "cleansing ale" at the Iron Door Saloon topped off the day on my way back to Muir Beach. What a day! But, the real fuzzy feel was waking up in bed with Coleen, knowing that I had fulfilled my dream.
6 LA's: 1 #1
Angles: (Lucky short angles work well)
2 5/8" (one which is sawn)
2 3/4" (one which is sawn)
2 1" sawn
1 1.25" sawn
1 set brass offsets
2 sets offset nuts
1 set blue/green/yellow regular aliens
1 set off-set aliens
cams: 2 ea. to 4.5"
hooks: Pika big hook & cliff hanger
Big Leper cam hook
2 aluminum heads
8 rivet hangers
4 " coarse wingnuts
Overview: My rating (not new wave mucky-muck): VI 5.9 A2 This climb may go clean, if it has not already. And, as I write this, some guys are trying to free the whole enchilada. So far, the first 4 pitches go at 5.12ish. In general, this is a good climb with lots of variety and is a good intro to nailing. The upper pitches (pitch 20+) get interesting with chimneying and lower angle gullies - unless you traverse Thanksgiving Ledge for the West Buttress exit.
Topo: McNamara's super topo; Brad Jarrett, Tom Evans topo in Mtn. Store (Curry village); and Reid's Big Wall Book.
Sun - hits the face at 12:30PM for the rest of the day.
Approach - takes 30 to 45 minutes from El Cap flats.
Hauling - good for first 16 pitches, some snags for remaining pitches.
Anchors - the ASCA re-bolted until p18. Old or natural belays at p17, and on/after p19.
Bivy options - p5, p7, p9 (ledge for one), p13, p15, p18, p21/22 (Thanksgiving Ledge)
P1: 5.7, A1+; 165' from ground, 95' from top of 3rd class pedestal. Width 0.4-2.0" Scramble up 3rd class section to rough stance with bolts. Free 5.7, then A2 with hook and large sawn, back to some free, 5.7, before reaching spacious ledge.
P2: C2, 120', width 0.4-1.0" Free climb up left to a nice nut-frenzy crack. Cam's too.
P3: A2, 120', width 0.4-1.0" Large sawn helpful.
P4: A2, 120', width 0.4-3.0" Large sawn helpful. Make sure you go beyond the old belay (under the roof). 3 (50m) ropes make it down to ground via anchors on face. Face anchors are okay for hauling, but I would back em up by tying onto upper fixed line.
P5: A1, 120', width 0.4-3.0" Large sawn helpful + an LA. 4 (50m) ropes will make it to the ground via anchors on the face. Face anchors are okay for hauling, but I would back em up by tying onto upper fixed line.
P6: A1, 115', STEEP, width 0.4-1.5" A couple fixed pins + some of your own stuff gets you to the BC" rivets. I placed nuts on the rivets and left them, so all you have to do is sling with a beefy rivet hanger. There are about 8 rivets.
P7: A1+, 140', width 0.4-2.0" Forget the expanding, thin section. Cam's, nuts, rivet hangers and two (big Pika) hook moves. Good (sb) bivy below the Black Arch.
P8: A2, 130', width 0.4-2.5" My favorite pitch of the climb. LA' s and cam hook.
P9: A2 (lower) & 5.9 or 5.6/C2 (upper), STEEP, 165', width 0.4-4.0" Continue on Black Arch (cam hook, LA), rivet ladder for a ways, pass old belay and free/aid (cams/nuts) up corner system. Use long runners to scramble down 20' the left-side of pedestal, through weeds to belay/bivy ledge. Haul from bivy ledge. If you are not staying at this ledge for the night, I suggest a natural belay at top (right-side) of pedestal (#1/#2 camalots, slung block) to save the down-climb hassle.
P10: A2, 110', width 0.4-3.0" Off the upper pedestal, reach high for that first rivet (right hand undercling in pin scar), then up multiple rivet/heads plus the occasional cam/nut/pin.
P11: A2, 120', width 0.4-4.0" Usaul rack with sawn pin or two.
P12: A1+, 100', width 0.4-3.0" The Fake pitch. The flake is NOT expanding. Rivets on the top-side of the flake. Usual rack with sawn pin or two. Water will drip on you if you bivy here.
P13: A2, 120', width 0.4-4.0" Flaring in the beginning (awkward) then easing to A1 plants (the farming pitch). Better bivy.
P14: A2, 110', STEEP, width 0.4-2.0" Festering, oozing, slime on the first section (notice rusty pin in slime), then return to steepness, passing a mini roof with two bolts (one lower, one after mini roof).
P15: A2, 110', STEEP, width 0.4-1.5" Probably the crux of the climb. Triangle roof. Lots of variety with rivets, pin, nuts, off-set cams. Watch the rope from getting wedged after the Triangle roof. Belay under roof off. Variety of good bolts, okay bivy location.
P16: A2, 130', STEEP, width 0.4-4.5" Watch the rope on the sharp-edge of the roof (may want to duck-tape the edge) off the belay. A2 with two rivet transfer (plus optional hook) to wider crack + some plants. Upper section is 5.10 or C1+.
NOTE: Hauling from pitch 17 to summit is lower angle and may have some snag sections.
P17: C1+/5.9, 140', width 0.4-4.0" Another farming pitch, lots of greenery, but the angle eases off. Variety of clean gear and climbing. Natural belay on the left 5.9 crack (multiple #1 camalots), belay takes 1-3". Don't go too high, otherwise the next pitch awkwardness will make your belay difficult.
P18: C1+, 140', width 0.4-4.5" The 5.9 (1-3") crack goes back over to the awkward flaring section higher up. Nice bivy belay with multiple bolts.
P19: A1, 150', width 0.4-4.5" Flaring, awkward 5.9 ramp on lower section, A1 higher. Pass obvious roof (visible on the right) via left side and go past the lower fixed pin belay (Horse Chute merger) and go to upper fixed pin belay at base of the Black Cave.
P20: 5.9 chimney, then A1+, 130', width 0.4-4.0" Awkward, hard chimney to rivets across lower part of the roof, then A1+ variety. Natural belay in gully next to old bolt on right side of gully. Belay takes 2". Nuts, #1, #2 Camalots.
P21: 5.10 gully to Thanksgiving ledge, 165', width 0.4-4.0" A huge grunt. Moaner pitch. Take the whole rack or have your buddy pass the pieces. At the end, try to stay left, on the 5.10, 3" section. Otherwise, the A2 exit on the right takes many, many LA pins. Haul on the left, from the tree and fixed pins in the crack on Thanksgiving ledge.
P22: 5.8, traverse. Go 100' west and rap 40' down 4th class section (manky, fixed ropes). Climb (5.8) for approx. 100' and set up natural belay.
P23: 5.8, A1, 140'. 5.8 up and A1 on left side or tension to chimney, then up. Bolt and natural belay.
P24: 5.9, 165'. Up corner, 5.9 initially, then EZ section (?). Belay in huge gully.
P25: EZ chimney, A1, 165'. Up EZ chimney, traverse right on A1 bolt section, then up to natural belay stance.
P26: 5.10 squeeze, 160'. Pitch climbs a series of large blocks. After first one, climb on left side. Rumor is that the 5.8 and 5.10 squeeze sections are mandatory free climbing.
P27: 30' of 4th to the top!
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