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The Pacific Ocean Wall

By Steve Sosa

Are you sick of beta that's heavy on long-winded drivel and light on meaty climbing goodness? Me too. Here you go. A report on the classic and historic P.O. Wall--once the hardest route on El Cap and one of the first, if not the first, to actively name pitches according to their character and situation on the wall.

Thanks to copious amounts of fixed gear, the route is now MUCH easier than it was when first ascended. Bear in mind, however, that most of the resident gear consists of heads--typically small ones--and that a careless or naive approach to some of the harder pitches will result in big air time as well as the need for a large reservoir of spare heads and the knowledge how to use them if you expect to progress upward. Consider retreat impossible after pitch 14. Even if you have to bail from the Continental Shelf at the top of pitch 11, you're far better off rapping down to Easy Street on the N.A. rather than trying to reverse the long pendulum of the Nothing Atolls. The route is now rated a new wave A3+, far harder than Zodiac and the Shield (way old A3+), both of which now weigh in at about modern A2+, possibly easier.

The beta:

The first five pitches are uneventful. Do be aware of a sharp edge over a roof on #2. Pitch 4 is long and awkward, a good warmup for some of the easier but physical pitches higher up. From the top of five you can fix either three 165's or 2-200' tied together. Pitch 6 is the first hard one, with manky fixed gear and some bad nailing to boot (rurps and KBs). Pitches 8 and 9 are almost entirely fixed (heads) and can be done as one pitch with a 200' rope. Bring a 2" bong on #8 or be left scratching your head. Some folks consider the Nothing Atolls pendulum on pitch 10 as the non-technical crux. My partner took five hours to snag the key holds. It's an all-out, ankles be damned penji. Half ass efforts will result in failure.

The Continental Shelf is a decent bivy. Sloping, but you can stuff the haul bags in a wide crack behind it and not worry about dropping stuff. Some kind soul placed a fat new bolt high off the ledge for easier hauling. Pitches 12 and 13 can also be linked with a 200' but be very mindful of drag. I thought the Central Latitudes (#14) the crux of the route--bad fixed rurps (some flex), marginal rurp placements of my own and lots of hooking. Pitch 16 is fixed at the A4 section and rather short. Pitch 17 is more of the same but beware a sharp edge as it turns a corner. I freaked and clipped into a back line when cleaning the pitch. Probably not necessary, but I felt much better--it's probably the airiest pitch on the route.

Though the Meyers topo is quite accurate, it does show pitch 18 as a short section of A3 followed by an A1 crack...my ass! The A3 is there but the section that follows is good old fashioned El Cap A2 to A2+. i.e. lots of #1 Bd stoppers, #2 RPS (many of which pulled out when the rope was weighted) and tied off Arrows. A cheater stick move from a rivet saved me some circleheading to reach the belay. Pitch 19, the Bearing Straits, is similar--a long, leaning, tiring pitch. Conserve gear and back clean if convenient. Pitch 20 is chossy but leads to the Island in the Sky, a decent ledge bivy. Bring rock shoes for the 5.9 to the top of the Black Tower. The face leading up to the crack is runout with marginal pro but much easier to free climb than aid. After that a 5.8/9 flare leads to a slippery 5.9 o.w. Bring two #4 Friends or Camalots and get ready to grunt.

Some consider pitch 23, the Illusion Chain, the technical crux of the route. I found it pretty sane: a tension traverse to reach several hook moves (an interesting manuveur if you've never done it) leads to an expando flake. Seemed solid enough but my partner said the flake groaned as he plucked out gear. Easier to nut than nail. You can link the next pitch (#24) with a 200' but with a ton of drag. Pitch 25 reaches the Highbrow, with small crappy ledges and only a pair of bolts for fixed anchors. The top of the 26th would actually be a better bivy. Rock shoes will simplify pitches 26 and 27 but bring your aiders too. The last pitch is not too long and takes all cams. Though you may be tempted to belay at a tree far back from the rim, don't haul from there. You'll never move the bags.

Be safe and have fun.

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