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By David Hill, June 1997
Closing individual chapters in your life and beginning anew is never an easy task. Foregoing the certainty and security of your present existence for the unknown may be either frightening or exhilarating, depending upon your outlook, but is bound to be accompanied by a sense of trepidation in any case.
The past six months had been a frenzy of activity; a demanding mix of writing and revising thesis chapters, jousting with journal referees who insisted on nit-picking over details inconsequential to the messages of the manuscripts, researching, applying and interviewing (unsuccessfully) for jobs, teaching at San Francisco State, and trying to climb as much as possible. Events grew to a crescendo over graduation weekend, which was a wonderful celebration and gathering of friends and family. Then, my family left town and I came crashing back down to find myself without a job, without an advisor (on sabbatical for two years overseas), soon to be without a place to live, and unsure of the worth of the degree I had just spent four years obtaining. Added on top of this was the frustration of having spent the past nine months 2000 miles away from my sweetheart who had made the difficult decision last year of foregoing the nirvana lifestyle of a graduate student at Cal for greener academic pastures at the University of Illinois.
Unsure of the direction in which I was headed, I knew that if I was going to climb El Cap, now was the time...
I began climbing three and a half years ago, when I first came to Cal from the midwest. You see, we're a bit geographically challenged in that part of the country (please, no jokes...) and rock climbing was something very foreign to me. I quickly found some of the finest friends and partners in the world through the Cal hiking club, and a love affair with the vertical was begun. From the very first outing, which involved my pawing my way up Farewell to Arms at Cragmont Rock in my Asics running shoes, I knew that this was how I wanted to spend my time. The mechanics of the gear, the thrill of movement, and the joy of the summit all combined into an experience new and exhilarating to me.
Trips to Pinnacles, Lover's Leap, and Donner Summit all followed, but it was not until the subsequent April that I made my first trip to Yosemite. It was a CHAOS (Cal hiking club) outing, and was, as usual, large and fairly disorganized. We drove up in the dark of Friday night and so, it was not until the following morning that I awoke and got my first look at the immense granite walls that form Yosemite Valley. There was an enormous disparity between the number of leaders and total number of climbers in our group, so a group of FIVE of us all roped up to climb After Six on Saturday morning. As we were getting ready to go, I got into a discussion with an older fellow who was raving about the climb while he hip belayed a partner up After Seven. His claim of having climbed After Six hundreds of times was met with a bit of skepticism on our part, but he was very likable so we thanked him for his comments and encouragement. After he left, another climber approached us and in a awed voice informed us that we had just been speaking with T.M. Herbert. This meant nothing to me at the time and I looked on blankly as he told us of the various first ascents that Herbert had made in the valley.
Three years later, I still chuckle to myself about this chance encounter and marvel at my lack of knowledge of valley history at the time. For having read and reread by now the exploits of the valley pioneers of the 50's and 60's, I feel like they are old friends.
At first, I was content to merely follow on the rope, telling myself, "I'll never want to lead climb." But as I progressed, this milestone was easily passed and I revised my estimate of my ability and desire to, "oh, I'll lead, but I'll never get into aid climbing, that looks far too hard." This barrier fell as well last year, when longtime friend and partner Eric Renger and I climbed the South Face of Washington Column. The thrill of that first bivy on Dinner Ledge etched itself indelibly in my mind, but still I set limits, telling myself, "well, I'll never get up El Cap, I'm just not cut out for that." You see, to me El Cap was the big league, the majors, the show...and only REAL climbers could get up the big stone, not some flatlander from the midwest...right?
Well, if you never push yourself and are forever saying that you can't do this and you can't do that, you are not going to live a very interesting life. So I decided that before the prospect of employment (yeah right, I should be so lucky) made week-long excursions to the valley logistical nightmares, I had better take advantage of it.
Eric and I began discussing plans for an El Cap assault a month or so ago. He assured me that he would reserve the last week of June for the effort and we thumbed the big walls book, looking for a suitable route. I was adamant about wanting to climb one of the long routes and he had already climbed the Nose, so that narrowed the candidates down to the Muir Wall and the Salathe. I was unsure of my ability (more accurately my mental wherewithal) to lead the Hollow Flake, and from an ethical point of view, I did not want to do a climb unless I felt capable of leading all of the pitches, so I argued for the Muir. Furthermore, I did not want to merely be one party in a string of parties on a route, sharing bivy ledges and getting in each other's way, and this further tipped the scales towards the Muir. He readily agreed and we had a plan. We asked around for beta, but got very, very little; merely some advice on a rack and tips on a few pitches to string together. If you compare this with the pitch by pitch beta which is available for the Nose and the Salathe, you can appreciate the much greater sense of adventure which we felt.
A few weeks before heading out, our friend and partner Scott got wind of our plans and expressed his interest in making it a party of three. Eric and I weighed this option and decided that it would be fantastic to have his companionship along, not to mention his rack and portaledge!! We divvied up the tasks of food buying and gear borrowing and studied the topo, deciding upon a five day ascent in order to make maximum use of natural ledges on the route.
The day before departure, we were planning on meeting at the Pyramid Brewhouse for beers before catching the Alex Lowe slideshow at REI. Eric was a bit late in showing up, so Scott and I were sipping our first brew when he pulled up a chair with a rather long face. This was followed by the heartbreaking statement of, "uh guys, I have some bad news...I don't think that I can go with you tomorrow." Bam! Scott and I exchanged disbelieving glances and sputtered, "but, but, how? What? Why? What gives?" It turns out that Eric and his adviser apparently had wildly differing ideas as to how much vacation time was appropriate for the summer and Eric's was the losing estimate. This left Scott and I with the gut-wrenching decision of what to do. Part of me felt like bagging the attempt out of a sense of loyalty and friendship, but the other part knew that I would not have another chance to climb El Cap this summer. And if an out of state job came up, what then? Eric, being the outstanding friend that he is, urged us on and even gave us the blessing of his haulbag and a whole lot of gear. How he sat through that slideshow without changing his mind is a mystery to me and speaks of his sense of responsibility to be sure.
Driving up to the valley with Scott the following afternoon, I still felt a little upset and confused. It didn't seem quite right to have all of Eric's gear, but not Eric himself, in the car. After all, it was he and I who had hatched the plan in the first place. I tried to stay focused on the task in front of us and take solace in the possibility of future walls with Eric.
As we cruised through Manteca, a red light went on in my head. "Hey Scott! Did you get around to fixing your ledge?" You see, Scott has a homemade ledge possessing a rather dubious history. A support buckle broke while up on the Nose, dumping its two occupants out for one hell of a rude wakeup call. He grinned, shook his finger at me, and reached into the glove compartment. "Here you go Dave, this is our salvation" And he pulled out a bag of cable ties. "Whoa, are you serious?! We're going to fix your ledge with these?" I looked at him in disbelief. A dollar bag of cable ties from the hardware store and we're going to be taking them for a test drive 2000 feet off the deck, sheesh! We continued on amidst the strains of Led Zeppelin II from the tape deck and the cool breeze through the windows.
Coasting down the last few miles to the valley floor, we pulled over at the first convenient spot for a look at the captain. There was a full moon out and the upper reaches of the wall were as brightly lit as I have ever seen them. It was an awesome sight and got the adrenaline pumping. The monumental nature of our undertaking was becoming clear in my head and I was absolutely raring to go. We snuck off to a clearing near the base of the wall and tried (yeah, right!) to get some sleep. We awoke early the next morning with the aim of fixing and hauling the first three pitches. As such, we loaded up with as much water and gear as we could carry and strove off the base of the climb. As we began hiking in, we came upon an elderly gentleman who looked suspiciously familiar and who was accompanied by a young fellow. He enthusiastically asked which wall we were headed for and after responding, I curiously inquired, "umm...your name wouldn't be Tom would it?" When he answered in the affirmative, I knew I had him pegged and pressed on. "Umm...your last name wouldn't be Frost would it?" He nodded with a smile and I thrust out my hand and pumped his, exclaiming my great pleasure in meeting him. He asked us our names and introduced us to who I presume was his grandson?! He had the same last name at least, and looked to be 20 or so. I was absolutely giddy to finally meet such a valley legend, one who wrote the book on wall climbing. I searched for something meaningful to say, but was so tongue-tied that we just exchanged pleasantries and moved on. If that is not a good omen for one's first El Cap climb, then I don't know what is.
We humped our loads to the base of the route, and as Scott had won the requisite rock- paper-scissors, the first lead was his. I must admit to not being too disappointed about this, as it is a burly flared and tight chimney. He squeezed and grunted his way up, finding good gear the whole way, and then pressed on to link it with the second pitch. I jumared up, which was incredibly awkward. I actually had to paste myself in there for a few free moves in order to clean the pieces. From the top of Moby Dick, it was my turn and I eagerly pendulumned off to begin the third pitch. It goes at easy A2 and it wasn't long before I was at the belay. We quickly rapped with the intent of coming back and hauling later in the day. After sorting food and eating lunch in the shade to escape the heat, we headed back up the wall with the rest of our gear and water. A few steps from the car, Scott stopped dead in his tracks and asked if I had seen the wall hauler. I answered with a slow, "nooooo...," meaning, "I thought that you had it." We searched the car and came to the sinking conclusion that it was somewhere back in Berkeley. Weighing our options, we figured it came down to buying a new one at the mountain shop, or rigging one up with a spare pulley and a Kroll ascender. We opted for the latter, although this ruled out the option of doing a z-pulley system, as we would be one pulley short. We pressed on, and it turned out that the haul went pretty well, leaving us feeling pretty smug at our resourcefulness. It was to bed early that night, with the intention of getting to Mammoth Terraces the next day...
We awoke at the first hint of light in the sky and set out, for the third and last time, for the base of the climb. The butterflies were fluttering pretty hard as I squinted up at the upper dihedrals of the route. I still could not fathom that I would up there in a few days. But, back to the task at hand. Pitches four and five are straightforward A2, more like A1 it seemed. And then Scott drew the first A3 of the route, a dead horizontal traverse left. As he moved steadily away from the belay, he found several fixed pieces and bolts, rendering the pitch somewhat less than challenging in his mind. Pitches seven and eight were mine. They are easily linked together and are more of the same...easy A2 in a corner. The day was steadily wearing on and began to really heat up as the sun worked its way around to our side of the wall. Scott cruised the A1 of pitch nine and I set off on pitch 10, which dumped us out on Heart Ledge. It was about 5pm at this point and we were both pretty worked, due in large part to the excruciating hauls. Furthermore, we were boneheaded enough not to leave any food near the very top of the bag and, as such, had not had lunch. After a brief break therefore, Scott headed up the 10a free climbing that takes you to Mammoth. We were using a gri-gri for belaying (ahhhhh.....the luxury!) and I was having a hard time getting it to feed without jamming, which resulted in Scott almost peeling a few times as he was trying to make clips! Anyway, we established ourselves on Mammoth and found ourselves completely alone, which was a treat indeed. We hogged the best ledges therefore and enjoyed the ability to completely unpack and spread things around.
As we settled into bed, we listened to the howls of the Bandaloop Dancers up on the Shield Headwall. They had been putting on a show all day, with synchronized lunacy thousands of feet off the deck. We were jolted awake several times by loud BANGS, which I was convinced were rockfall, but were in actuality fireworks and bottle rockets.
I slept rather poorly for whatever reason, and sooner than I would have liked, Scott was tugging on my leash, informing me that it was time to climb. Gotta keep moving! The pitch off of Mammoth is very fun free climbing and ends at a superb belay ledge. After that, pitch thirteen is a pendulum to A1 and easy free climbing. Pitches fourteen and fifteen go together and bring you to Grey Ledges. Fourteen starts up these awesome double corners, so you have your pick of where to go. Lots of thin nutting brings you eventually to the belay. But there is no stopping there! Slap on those climbing shoes and it is time to head up, what else, but a slot! Hoo-wee! We had consulted three topos, and this slot had been given a rating of 5.8, 5.9, and 5.10d. Okay, that's real helpful. Although, as we all know, the only appropriate rating for a slot in the valley is 5.9, irrespective of the true difficulty. I grunted up, with something less than grace and style and, as it was only noon, we decided to press on. The next two pitches follow this terrific A2 corner up towards the Shield Roof, with some burly 5.9 at the start. At least Scott claimed it was burly...who knows, maybe he was actually trying to free climb some of the A2! We were hot on the trail of climbers on the Shield and when they asked us what route we were on, they seemed a bit relieved to hear that it was not theirs.
Pitch eighteen is a traverse on a bolt ladder, followed by a pendulum to easy aid up the left side of a pillar. I then set off on pitch nineteen, and this is where things got a little devious. I climbed up A2, as per the topo, got to a fat anchor, fixed the line and hauled, rather pleased with my efficiency. It was only after Scott got to the belay that I craned my neck waaaay over to the right and saw another set of bolts 30 feet up! Groan...the REAL anchor. I apologized profusely for my lameness and set off to set things right. We repeated things and after getting established at the new belay, I looked waaaaaay up and right and saw, goddamn it, ANOTHER anchor 30 feet up! Groan...surely that must be the REAL belay! I was a little pissed off by this point so set off to get to the real top of pitch nineteen. After getting established yet again, we decided to call it quits for the day and set up the ledge. A quick dinner and a little organization was immediately followed by sleep. Oh, by the way, the cable ties held, just in case you were wondering.
At first light the next morning, we repacked and studied the topo to figure out where on earth we were. We quickly realized that we were, in actuality, at the top of pitch twenty and not nineteen! So somewhere in the confusion the previous evening, I had knocked off another pitch and not even realized it. This made me feel somewhat less lame.
It is at this point that the route starts to get incredibly aesthetic. Steve Roper has used the metaphor of a cut diamond to describe the upper pitches of El Cap and this is dead on. Beautiful planes of perfectly smooth rock surround you and your existence becomes very geometric. Scott headed up pitch twenty one, which starts with a wild slot, which can be aided, or would make for some hardman free climbing. I then had the pleasure of climbing pitch twenty two. This long pitch is all A1, and is virtually the same size the entire way! I clipped a selection of cams into the top each aider and backcleaned like mad. It was so rhythmic and soothing. Step, step, fifi in, stretch up, clip, ad infinitum. You end up belaying in a bomber vertical crack, with a bolt on the left, about fifteen feet below a z-ton.
Pitch twenty three is where the nailing potentially begins. Scott pendulumned over to a very thin crack, but did a masterful job of cam hooking his way up the LA slots. He found occasional nut and alien placements, so it was an outstanding lead. The pitch finishes up a slab, which was very unexpected up that high. Pitch twenty four was mine and started off with probably fifty to sixty feet of 1/4" crack up this massive dihedral. I was like, "whoa, give me the hammer!" Nonetheless, we were determined to do the wall as clean as possible, so I resolved to try nuts and cam hooks first. It was amazing! Perfect cam hooking interspersed with tiny constrictions for #3 and #4 stoppers. I was running out of small nuts despite the copious hooking, but did three hook moves in a row to a bomber fixed pin and breathed a sigh of relief. From there the pitch heads up and right around a bulge with some variation in size so that you can get in some odd pieces. I fiddled in a lame pink tri-cam and leaned back on it to test it and discovered the joy of taking a daisy fall onto your previous piece...feels like someone kicking you in the pelvis! After that nonsense it was bomber cams for awhile to a loose block which made me very nervous. Out on the face there was a head pasted into what must have been an old bolt or rivet hole. It looked absolutely ridiculous but I clipped it and cautiously moved up to the belay, whew!
We had beta that pitches twenty five, six, and seven could go as two, so Scott set off on the last lead of the day. He climbed out of the belay alcove to a thiiinn crack up a less than vertical face. It was awesome A3 and he avoided the hammer by cam hooking and using five brass nuts! He ended up at a huge sloper ledge partway up twenty six and we called it a day there. It was luxurious to be able to spread things out a bit and eat sitting on the ledge. We determined that the static coefficient of friction between bagels and granite was sufficient, but that between a tuna can and granite was not, so exercised appropriate caution!
The next morning, which was to be our last (it had turned into a four day ascent instead of five, much to our pleasure!) I was to link the rest of twenty six with twenty seven. Thus began the scariest pitch of aid I have ever led. If you look at the California Climber's Network version of the topo (see their web page), it says A2 expando. Not anymore...The pitch heads up and left from the sloper ledge and the first few placements were sound. Then you encounter this table top sized loose flake. I pounded on it with my hand, and some dirt fell out the bottom. I was none too pleased about this, especially as I was standing on a cam hook and trying to figure out how to get around it. I squeaked in a two cam blue alien which brought me to an impasse. There was no way around the flake. I reasoned that it would be best to drape an Ibis hook over the top, rather than place anything behind it, but I was none too excited about this option. I oh so carefully eased onto the flake, knowing that if it ripped, so would my alien, and I would fall three placements. I stepped up, and salvation came in the form of a bomber yellow TCU in the crack above the flake. I was saved! As I started to move onto the TCU, I felt myself start to fall. I screamed as I realized what was happening. The flake had ripped and both it and I were heading down. I popped to a halt on my daisy, but the flake roared by, just missing the belay to the left, kissing off the wall, and sailing into the void. Scott and I exchanged horrified glances and he yelled "Rock!" at the top of his lungs. There was nothing we could do as we watched it plummet towards the talus and explode somewhere between Sickle Ledges and Free Blast. I kept repeating, "that was bad, that was so bad..." I was shaking and all I could think about was whether or not any climbers on the lower pitches of the Nose had just gotten pasted.
I collected myself and realized that there was nothing to except continue climbing. So I continued up very slowly and deliberately, managing to clip some bolts far out to the left for peace of mind. I moved up on cams to a fixed pin, then stretched over left to get a cam hook into a pin scar in a different crack. Stepping onto this, I was airborne once again and did not even feel the fixed pin as it ripped out of the crack, sending me on a twenty footer. I screamed again, with a few choice expletives. It was seven in the morning, I was on the first lead of the day and so far I had ripped a flake loose and gone for a long fall. I was NOT having any fun whatsoever. It was at this point that our clean ascent came to an end. I was shaken, tired of falling, and began banging in pins with gusto. I was no longer in the mood to run it out on hooks. After an eternity, I finally gained a belay with a nice stance, tied off the rope, and just hung. Scott arrived, we exchanged some words of encouragement, and then it was back to business.
Our beta said to run together twenty eight and twenty nine, but that it was a full 200 feet, and as such would be a stretch. I do NOT recommend trying this. It starts off with A1 up this amazing dihedral, and goes on forever. I was watching the rope disappear with some alarm, as Scott still seemed to be miles from the belay. Finally, just as he's getting into the sketchy A3, that's it...end of rope. I had to untie the haul line, tie it to my belt, clip my aiders into the top piece of the anchor and climb into the second steps in order for him to reach the bolts. Then, in order to tie in the ropes, he had to extend the anchor way down by using my aiders! Not a lot of fun for either of us...
Pitch thirty was mine and was my first A3 of the route. I was still a little nervous and probably placed a few more pins than was necessary, but was placing safety first. The pitch is wild as you are banging pins straight up under this roof! You end up at a gear anchor in a right facing flake and at this point, you are out of the dihedrals and can smell the summit! Scott pendulumned his way to the left on pitch thirty one which gains no elevation whatsoever. After that I set off for the summit via a little chimneying and some rather sporty A1 over the lip. From there it was a miserable ramble to find the best place to anchor and haul from. There is loose rock and manzanita all over the place so it is a real pain. However, all things do come to an end, and in short order, Scott, the haulbag and I all stoop atop the summit of El Cap, triumphant suitors of the Muir Wall.
I couldn't believe it at first. My mind simply refused to register that I was on top of EL CAPITAN and that I had just spent four days climbing among the features that I had for so long gazed at from the valley floor. In the twilight, we hauled the bag to a flat spot, unpacked, and gorged ourselves on the extra food, water, and gatorade. That night atop the wall was one of the most satisfying I have ever experienced. I woke in the middle of the night, donned my glasses, and took in the milky way, the planets shining bright above, and the reality of what I had just accomplished. For no matter where the next chapter takes me, I will always be able to go back and thumb my way through this one with a smile on my face and satisfaction in my soul...
Useful Info: Gear: 200' lead and haul lines 2 sets nuts 1 set brass nuts three each purple and blue tcu's four yellow tcu's four .5 camalots three each .75 and 1 camalots two each 2, 3, 4 camalots something bigger! (we had a 2 big bro) tri-cams six lost arrows (mostly short and thick) four angles (1/2" and 5/8") variety of hooks (cam hooks crucial to keep pin count down this low) rivet hangers a few heads Strategies: link 1&2, 7&8, 14&15, 25, 26 &27 (make 2 pitches out of 3) Misc: Very, very little fixed gear. You'll earn every foot of this climb. Gorgeous upper pitches. Absolutely no crowds!!! The feature shown on pitch 26 of Reid's topo (next to A2) is now gone.
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