By Howard Young
Jeff woke me at 5:00am. It was time to begin. All the preparations had been made the previous day. Our food, water, and most of our climbing hardware were already at the base of El Capitan. All we had to do was hike up to the base of our route and summon enough courage to leave the ground and begin climbing.
After an hour of silent hiking we arrived at the base of our route, Lurking Fear. A fitting name for I had fears lurking in mind ever since Jeff Ward and I had decided on climbing this route. Standing at the base of the route I found that these lurking fears have turned into screaming mind numbing fears; however, I remained silent about them.
Lurking Fear climbs the far west side of El Capitan in 20 pitches. It is a grade VI and is rated 5.9 A2. Our ascent of Lurking Fear will be done in 4 days and 4 nights if all goes well. Our gear includes: 2 ropes, 40 pounds of climbing hardware (friends, nuts, pitons, carabiners, etc..), a portaledge, 2 sleeping bags, bad weather clothes, 20 pounds of food, and 6 gallons of water. We will climb it using the Yosemite Method. This consists of one guy leading a pitch, fixing the rope to the anchor and hauling the haul bag on a separate rope. The second guy ascends the fixed rope using mechanical devices called Jumars and removes all the hardware that the leader placed.
The first two pitches go quickly because we had already climbed them the previous day and left ropes anchored on them. I hauled the haul bag for the first time on the climb and it was extremely difficult to move. After a strenuous struggle with the bag, Jeff, the haul bag, and I were at the top of the second pitch.
As Jeff prepares the rack to lead the third pitch we I notice a party of two climbing above us. "Shit! those guys are going to slow us down," Jeff says. "Don't worry Jeff, those guys have got to be faster than us," I answer. We agree to just climb at our regular pace and hope that the guys above us will stay far enough ahead to keep from slowing us down. The third pitch is spectacular. Jeff climbs a blank face with dowels and hooks for progress up to a massive roof. Once at the left edge of the roof, Jeff pendulums 20 feet right to a crack system. From all the screaming he did during the pendulum I deduced he was either in mortal terror or having a great time.
I lead the fourth pitch and learn something new. I have read and heard talk of "expando flakes" but never experienced one. Now I get my chance. As I weighted the cam which I had placed behind a solid looking flake, the flake expanded 1 or 2 inches. "This goddamn flake is loose it's going to break off," I scream to Jeff. "It's just "expando" man don't worry," he calmly responds. Reluctantly, I climb the rest of this expando flake and it doesn't break. Amazing! A few hook moves, a pendulum off a manky fixed nut, and an easy aid crack lead to the belay at the bottom of the fifth pitch. Jeff begins leading the fifth pitch about an hour before dark. "You better hurry on this one Jeff, it will be dark soon;" I warn him. "No problem dude, this pitch is short according to the book," he assures me. Sure enough, I am surrounded by utter darkness when I hear him yell "Off Belay!" No problem I think as I put on my headlamp and begin jugging up the rope.
By the time I arrive at the belay, Jeff is already working on erecting the portaledge. As small and uncomfortable as this thing is, it is lifesaver when you have no natural ledges to bivy on. The greatest thing about it though is if you look just at you immediate surroundings, you can't see the ground and feel the dreadfully awesome exposure. Once the ledge is set up, we consume a bland meal of cold Progresso soup and a bagel. I enjoy the stars while I chew some tobacco then go to sleep.
I arise at 5:30am dreading but accepting the hard work that we must perform today. You can't be lazy on a big wall. If you don't work, you don't go anywhere and God knows you don't want to stay where you are at on a big wall. I lead the sixth pitch and it goes fairly easily. I have to share the hanging belay with the two other climbers, Lou and Guy. After discussing the climb with them we come to agreement. We would lend them what hardware they needed and Lou and Guy would climb all of the pitches today and fix our ropes. In return, Jeff and I will climb all of the pitches and fix their ropes the following day. It seems like a good arrangement; Lou and Guy are much more experienced than us and hopefully will climb faster.
"These guys are fucking slow!" Jeff exclaims as we set up the portaledge only 3 pitches above our previous nights bivy. "I know. I think we made a mistake by not passing them," I reply dully. My mind is filled with feelings of doom. "Two days on El Capitan and we are only eight pitches up. We are way behind schedule. What if a storm moves in? Were fucked man." I yell at Jeff. "Calm down, weathers fine, we'll make it," he replies reassuringly. This is a change, usually I am the one trying to reassure Jeff. My appetite is diminished by my state of mind; however, I manage to eat a cold can of ravioli. Dawn wakes us again at 5:30am, so does my need to take a crap. Oh great, my first real big wall dump! One of the worst aspects of big wall climbing is performing the seemingly simple task of relieving your bowels. I did it perched on an unstable portaledge, into a small paper bag, with my partner 2 feet away from me. A humiliating but necessary experience.
By the time I had jugged up the ninth pitch to Lou and Guy's bivy, Lou had already climbed and fixed the tenth pitch. Soon Jeff and I were at the beginning of eleventh pitch and Jeff prepares to lead. After a whole day of waiting around, Jeff and I were eager to climb and make some progress. Jeff easily leads the eleventh pitch bypassing a nasty crux by stick clipping a bolt. The twelve pitch is a spectacular series of small roofs which you must traverse for eighty feet. I am somewhat apprehensive about leading this because our guidebook calls it an A3 pitch. The first eighty feet are steep but easy because there is lots of fixed gear (nuts, bolts, pitons, and copperheads). I bash in a few pitons and get to the end of the traverse. From here one must ascend a blank face straight up to the roof. I stick clip a rivet, do a shitty hook move, and then freeclimb over a mantel in my $20 Kmart hiking boots. Soon I am at the belay feeling smug about my lead.
After a long wait, Jeff arrives at the belay. Because the next pitch goes mostly free and because I am a little more confident about freeclimbing we decide that I should lead the next pitch. Laybacking up some expando flakes and jamming beautiful crack leads to a somewhat sloping ledge. "At last a ledge to stand on! After 2 days of nothing but hanging belays we finally have somewhere to stand!" Jeff exclaims. I climb one more pitch of somewhat rotten rock to a perfect bivy ledge. An attrocious session of hauling which takes the efforts of both of us gets our haul bag to the ledge. Guy and Lou decide to bivy a pitch below us. Jeff and I enjoy a dinner of cold soup and canned peaches. We are both in good moods. "Man we did great today! Climbed 6 pitches to this great ledge." I say to Jeff. "Yeah those guys slowed us down but we are back on schedule now that we are in the lead!" Jeff replies. We decide to stay ahead of Lou and Guy tomorrow.
I will lead pitches 15 and 16 because they are rated 5.10 and I think I can free a good part of them quickly. While I am leading the fifteenth pitch Jeff makes a deal with Lou and Guy. Jeff and I will climb all of the pitches today if Lou and Guy haul our bags. That's fine with me I want to climb. Pitches 15 and 16 are an awkward combination of free and aid climbing. I climb them quickly to a hanging belay at the base of pitch 17, a dirty grassy corner. Jeff aids this with more than a few profanities uttered.
At the top of pitch 17 is one of the most beautiful ledge systems on El Capitan, Thanksgiving Ledge. It is 10 feet wide and several hundred feet in length. There is a small cave on the ledge littered with full water bottles, canned food, and other gear left by past climbers. "Shit Jeff, you could live up here for a week on all this stuff," I say. Once all of us on Thanksgiving, we have a disagreement. Lou and Guy wany to continue climbing together and Jeff and I want to go our own way. Guy takes charge and does it his way. Due to some weakness on Jeff and my part, maybe we were to nice?, we continued climbing with them. Things went badly. The rest of the route consisted of low angle slabs which presented a friction problem with hauling. I though it only made sense to carry all of our gear on our backs and dispense with hauling. Guy didn't agree.
Just before dark I finally could put up with no more of Guy's flawed decision making. I knew that due to the late hour we should set up a bivy there with Lou and Guy; however, I was so frustrated with Guy that I had to get away from him. I put on my headlamp and told Jeff to belay me. "If we keep climbing it will be dark soon and we are bound to have an epic," Jeff said. "I don't care Jeff, I have got to get out of here," I say. "I don't care either, lets keep going," he replies. Guy and Lou warn us not to go. We ignore them. Three pitches of carrying all of our gear in the dark up rotten slabs gets us to the summit of El Capitan. It is 11:30pm. We are both overjoyed to be on solid ground and away from Guy. "That guy was like a dictator, telling us what to do. The only problem was he did not know what he was doing. We should have left him on the first day," I exclaim bitterly. Jeff agrees but even our frustration at Guy could not cloud the shining accomplishment of climbing El Capitan, the Big Stone.
It took us most of the next day to hike and rappel back to the valley floor. We hitched a ride from some other climbers back to our car. They gave us water and congratulated us on our ascent. They knew what we had been through.
Climbing El Capitan has been my goal for the past 5 years. It has been my obsession for the past year. It has haunted my dreams. Climbing it was harder than I imagined it would be. This four day climb of intense physical and mental hardship has left me broke and unemployed. Satisfaction and good memories are all I got out of the deal.
Aid Climbing: using artificial hardware such as friends, nuts, bolts and pitons for upward movement.
Bivy: a place to spend the night such as a ledge or a place to put the portaledge.
Belay: an anchor from which you belay or safeguard the climber with a rope.
Bolt: a fixed, drilled anchor in the rock
Cam: a mechanical device which expands when placed in a crack and weight it. It is an excellent anchor in a parallel sided crack.
Carabiner: A gated aluminum link which connects the climbing rope to anchors
Expando: a term which describes cracks and flakes which expand when weighted
Fix: to anchor the rope so the second man can ascend it
Fixed Gear: any permanent anchors left by past climbers
Free Climbing: using only the natural features of the rock for upward movement
Guy: An arrogant, know it all climber who does not know so much
Hauling: a tecnique in which one uses a pulley, ascenders, an anchor, and his body weight to move the haulbag up a pitch
Haul Bag: a durable nylon bag in which all of one gear is transported up the wall
Hooking: a tecnique of using small metal hooks to climb blank sections of rock
Jugging: ascending the rope using jumars
Jumars: mechanical devices which clamp onto the rope and allow one to ascend directly up the rope
Liebacking: a tecnique where one uses body opposition on a flake or crack to climb it
Lou: a 53 year old climber who although uses somewhat dangerous climbing techniques is an all around nice guy
Manky: a term used to describe rock or gear in horrible condition
Nut: a tapered piece of hardware used in constricting cracks as an anchor
Pendulum: a technique where one swings back and forth on the rope to reach a distant feature off to one side
Piton: a steel spike which one pounds into the rock to use as an anchor
Portaledge: an aluminum framed cot which hangs from one anchor point. It is used to sleep on on ledgeless routes.
Route: a weakness in a mountain or wall which one climbs
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