By Pat Mclaughlin
After pondering this issue over many conversations I must admit a sense of inferiority. After all, if I really were a climber surely I would have climbed EL Cap, right? What the heck else would you want to climb as you drive into the Valley and are confronted with that magnificent wall of stone? I try to explain that I've climbed the East Buttress of El Cap, a long free route that at least shares the honor of topping out on the same formation as the venerated multi day aid routes I know the questioner is referring to. The explanation goes nowhere. The would-be admirer quickly loses interest. I am not a real climber. I haven't climbed El Cap.
I have done a fair amount of climbing in the 6 years I have pursued this passion. I have climbed crumbling desert spires and ventured into the Sierra backcountry. I have attempted first ascents and planted my ice ax on the tops of some of the highest Andean summits. I have climbed multi-day wall routes. I have taken 30 foot whippers. I have shivered through a few unplanned bivvies. I have moaned and whimpered, grunted and cursed, loved and despised many a fine climb. But I have never climbed El Cap.
The Big Stone. I have laid in the meadow and stared up at the awesome tower of granite, resisting its pull. I have walked along its base sifting through the climbing detritus. I have watched climbers preparing in the parking lot, staggering under their haul bags on the way to the base, lounging in belay seats half way up their routes, hunkering down during a chilly night with their headlamps twinkling from some precarious ledge seemingly adrift in that vast sea of mysterious granite. I have seen their exh austed but content faces on top. I have seen their weak and weary bodies rappelling down the East Ledges. I have seen them grimy and comatose in the Manure Pile parking lot. And I envied every one of them.
So I did the only sensible thing a REAL climber could. I made plans to climb the Salathe Wall on El Capitan with Pat McLaughlin.
Originally, Doug Ward & I had planned to climb the route in the beginning of June. However, due to his wife, Lauries, pregnancy and other scheduling conflicts we pushed the starting date up to May 10th. We calculated that, if we pushed it, we could potentially finish the route in a minimum of 4 days of climbing. However, I proposed a more relaxed schedule that included half a rest day after the first day, and a half day on the last day, which Doug gladly accepted. We were in no rush, and the schedule w ould allow us more time to enjoy the route without pushing ourselves to exhaustion.
Unencumbered by the heavy haulbag that we would have on the other days, we would be lighter and faster during the Free Blast. At least, that was the theory. We still had a backpack that contained our water for the day, fleece jackets, and three of the five ropes needed to reach the ground at the end of the day (we climbed using the other two).
At 6:30am, we arrived at the start only to find a German couple at the top of the first pitch. Damn! So, much for having the route to ourselves. One advantage of climbing the Salathe versus The Nose is that it does not see as much traffic. Such was not the case today. The couple, a man and woman, was hauling a large plastic drum which functioned as a haulbag for all their supplies, so we were concerned that they would slow us down. We waited awhile for them to start on the third pitch before Doug racked up and took the lead. Supposedly, you can link the first two pitches with a 60 meter rope (which we had), but with the Germans ahead of us we decided it wouldn't buy us any time. However, by the time we completed the first pitch the Germans had managed to put some dis tance between us. I was both pleased and disappointed--pleased because it seemed that they wouldn't hold us up, and disappointed that we werent moving fast enough to catch them.
Doug quickly dispatched the second pitch, and the following two pitches were mine to lead. It felt good be out on the sharp end. When I finished the first of my pitches, I pulled up the slack, tied off the lead rope for Doug, hauled the bag, and started the next pitch on self-belay. By the time Doug cleaned the previous pitch I was a third of the way through the next pitch, and was in need of extra gear which Doug sent up on the haul line. Despite my efforts to catch the Germans, they still retained th eir lead.
After finishing my section, I turned it back over to Doug, who dispensed with 5.11b and 5.10b slab sections with a mixture of French free and aid techniques. Supposedly, the first slab pitch had a crux that required the use of a hook or a cheater stick (or 11b climbing), but Doug somehow managed without either. This brought us to the Triangular Ledge, a notorious spot for accidents.
Just the previous week, the owner of SF's indoor climbing gym, Mission Cliffs, broke his leg in 3 places on this ledge during a 1-day speed attempt with his wife in a pre-dawn accident. To prevent another mishap I made sure to put in plenty of protection, especially right off the deck. Midway through the pitch I caught up to the Germans, and had to wait 45 minutes on a little ledge, below a small roof. During our wait, I discovered to my dismay, that the woman had an obnoxiously whiny voice. Everytime she shouted up to her partner it was like fingernails across a chalkboard in a foreign language.
When she finally left, I finished the pitch, and Doug & the haulbag soon joined me at the belay. This brought us to the base of the Half Dollar, a prominent feature which the topo showed to be a 5.8 chimney. No problem. I aided the first moves around the corner, and was presented with a very flaring corner which didnt look much like a chimney and certainly didnt look like 5.8. Welcome to the Salathe. We would find that many of the sections rated 5.7 and 5.8 were some of the hardest sections of the cl imb. I grunted, aided and French freed my way up the chimney.
Near the top of the pitch, I reached my hand into a crack which had moss and wetness running down the back of it. I slid my hand down the crack to a small ledge to get a better grip, but felt something soft and wet. I pulled my hand out, and looked in to find a small frog peering out at me. Here, 600 feet above the ground, it was an unlikely encounter, but I gave the little fella some space, and found a higher spot to put my hand, and my next piece of protection.
As I sat at the top of the pitch, waiting for Doug and looking out over the valley, a hummingbird landed three feet away from me on the ledge. This was a sight I had never seen before--a hummingbird at rest. So as not to scare it away, I froze. With the typical hyperkinetic energy of a hummingbird, it cocked its head to one side and gave me a curious glance. I doubt it knew what to make of me this high off the ground. After moment, it resumed its flight, wings beating at lightning speed, and darted off . For whatever reason, I took this encounter as a good omen for the climb.
The last two pitches went quickly. Doug ran them together, requiring us to simul-climb about 20 feet, bringing us to Mammoth Terraces. From here we had to move to the far side of the ledges, and rappel down to Heart Ledge 120 feet below. From there we would fix the 4 & 1/2 ropes to reach the ground.
When we arrived at Heart Ledge, the Germans were beginning to rap down to the ground, and I noticed they were bringing the plastic drum with them. Going down?, I asked the obvious question. Yah, came the response. Well, I guess theyre bailing out. Shame they had to haul that big drum 10 pitches up, only to rap down with it at the end of the day. He probably couldn't face the prospect of listening to that whiny voice for the next four or five days. One day was more than enough for me.
With the other party bailing out, wed have the route to ourselves. Bummer for them, but great for us. My two main concerns for the climb were crowds and the weather, and now one of those was taken care of. There was another party a day ahead of us, but theyd be out of our sight after our rest day.
With a little hesitation (who would steal our gear way up here?) we left all our gear on Heart Ledge, and rapped down to the ground. Done for the day. We reached the car around 7:30pm, a little later than I had hoped. The Germans held us up a bit, but we were moving a little slower than I expected.
It was time to try out the new all-you-can-eat buffet near the Mountain Room, where we ran into Sabine Schirm, Sue Edwards & Chuck Carlson. After our day of climbing I was ravenous, and gorged myself until I was nearly bursting. Afterwards, we all returned to the campsite for a little wine & socializing before turning in.
On any wall climb, weight is always a concern, and the heaviest single item to carry is water. Doug proposed that we bring four liters of water per person per day. We figured we would need four and a half days worth of water, which would total 36 liters. I suggested we could save weight by cutting the water ration down to 3.5 liters per person per day, for a total of 31 liters. In the end, we compromised at 33 liters. That would mean hauling 72.6 pounds of water alone. (Note: When the Salathe Wall wa s pioneered in 1961, the first ascent team brought 65 pounds of water for the 6 days it took them to climb from Heart Ledge to the summit. With three members in the party this worked out to a mere 1.7 liters per person per day!)
Foodwise, we had four nights of dinners, consisting of cans of beef stew, Spaghettios, chicken chili, ravioli, and fruit cocktail. For dessert we had tapioca & chocolate pudding. Breakfasts included a couple oranges, an apple, bagels, and apple walnut bars. We also had more Clif bars, Power bars and Stoker bars than you could ever want.
Sitting in the picnic area near Manure Pile buttress, it slowly became obvious to me that we would not be able to fit everything into the haulbag. In addition to the food & water, we had our sleeping bags and pads, rain gear and a layer of fleece for each, a first aid kit, headlamps and a few other items. Additionally, we carried a 4-inch PVC pipe with a screw top on one end which would carry our solid human waste. This would hang from the bottom of the haulbag, along with six liters of water that would not fit into the bag. Altogether it must have tipped the scales around 110-115 pounds.
I gave Doug the option of carrying the bag to the base of the climb (a short distance when he was fresh but the bag was heavy), or carrying it down at the end of the climb (a long distance when he would be exhausted but the bag would be much lighter). I thought I got the good deal when he chose to carry it to the base. While the approach was only a 15-minute walk normally, I knew it would be hell with the haulbag. Plus, since we left all the climbing gear on Heart Ledge the day before, I knew that there would be nothing else to carry.
At the base of the climb we met Michael Brodesky and friends. Since we would only need three ropes on the climb, but had needed five to reach the ground from Heart Ledge, we would drop two of our ropes to the ground as we ascended, which Michael was kind enough to retrieve.
We finally started up around 2pm. There was no backing out now. The Free Blast had been great climbing, but seemed disconnected from the rest of the wall. It was not as steep as the upper two thirds which defiantly towered over us during our first day of climbing. There wasnt the same level of commitment, since it was so easy to retreat to the ground. Now, we were on the Salathe.
Threatening clouds blanketed the valley, so I suggested we wait before beginning our two pitches for the day. As thunder rumbled in the distance we pulled out our rain coats and sat on Heart Ledge, pondering the skies. After thirty minutes or so, Doug had had enough pondering and decided to start climbing. He was thirty feet out when the rain began to fall. It was a light rain, and not too windy, so Doug continued climbing for a little while, then thought the better of it and came back down to the ledg e to wait it out. Not the most auspicious start, but we could see clear skies in the distance, and knew the rain would not last long.
Above us, the water ran down in a liquid tapestry, and funnelled towards Heart Ledge by the shape of the wall. A cascade streamed over a roof above the area where Doug had just been climbing. Small pools formed at our feet on our ledge. Silently, we stood waiting out the thunderstorm. A friend, who had stopped in El Cap Meadows to check on our progress, later recalled seeing two forlorn figures on Heart Ledge, standing apart, staring out into the rain.
After the rain abated and the rock was allowed a moment to dry, Doug jumped back on the sharp end and finished the pitch. A short series of 4th class climbing brought us to Lung Ledge, our stopping point for the day. Due to the rain delay, twilight caught us as we settled down for our first dinner on the wall. We celebrated by breaking out the Trader Joe's Northwestern beef stew, which I promised Doug would render his Dinty Moore obsolete. It was manna from heaven
>From our perch 1,000 feet up the westside of El Cap we couldn't see the last light on Half Dome, but had to settle for views of the Cathedral Rocks and El Cap meadows. The towering mass of Middle Cathedral rock was striking, and would be our relative altitude gauge in the days ahead. Our view wouldn't change much during the climb, just our vantage point.
5:30am came quickly. I was in no rush to get up, knowing what awaited me on the first pitch. We scarfed down bagels, split an orange, and then christened the PVC pipe container. We repacked the haulbag, and brought it up to a higher ledge before beginning the next pitch--the Hollow Flake.
Mention the Salathe Wall to climbers who know it, and they will invariably mention the Hollow Flake. Its infamous reputation combined with the substantial backing of reality has stopped many Salathe attempts dead in their tracks. The Hollow Flake is a huge detached flake, separated from the wall by a space too narrow to squeeze your body into, but wider than your leg. The dreaded offwidth. The rating was not too stiff at 5.9, but to reach the Hollow Flake you must pendulum over from Lung Ledge. This m eans that you cannot leave behind any protection to catch you if you fall until you are above the pendulum point, as this would introduce a large Z into the rope and produce severe rope drag. Without any protection you face a potential swing across a 40-foot gap that would smash you right into a corner. The further up you go the greater the arc of the swing and the better the guarantee for bodily injury.
A few weeks earlier, at a gathering of climbers, Doug said there was something hed been meaning to ask me. He wanted to know which of us would lead the Hollow Flake. Without pausing for an answer, he proceeded to mention how he was recently married, and how he & his wife were expecting a baby, blah, blah, blah. It was clearly evident that I would be the one climbing the sinister pitch. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to climb it, but everything I knew about the Hollow Flake dealt with how fears ome it was.
Of all the different types of climbing, offwidths are my least favorite. Scratch that (too much of a euphemism). I hate them...with a passion. Theyre awkward, uncomfortable, and a pain in the butt. Climbing offwidths is an exercise in masochism. You jam as much of your body into the crack as you can, and wriggle, writhe and scrape your way higher, while constantly battling to keep from slipping out. It's definitely an acquired skill, which I do not have, and in my few offwidth encounters I have come away bruised, battered and beaten.
So it was that I found myself at the pendulum point staring over at the Hollow Flake first thing in the morning. Up until this moment, I had managed to put the whole issue out of my mind. Once it was decided that I would climb it I accepted that it would happen, and blocked it out of my mind. I didnt want to build it up to be more than it was. I knew that if I blew it out of proportion, I would be too terrified to get through it. And, I was sure it was doable.
The beta I had was that the only protection possible was a #5 Camalot or a #4 big bro, which you had to walk up with you as you climbed. I brought along a few other pieces, which I thought might come in handy to set up the anchor at the end of the pitch.
As Doug lowered me from the piton I was able to pull myself along a fixed rope into the bottom of the Hollow Flake, skipping the pendulum. While no swing was necessary, I felt that the real challenge laid ahead. However, looking back, making the pendulum would probably have driven home the idea of what would await me if I slipped out of that offwidth--extra anxiety Im not sorry I missed.
During the last ten feet of pulling myself along the fixed rope to the flake the rope began to dislodge a rock the size of a microwave oven. I yelled for Doug to stop lowering me, and was able to continue pulling at an angle which, thankfully, did not pull the stone free. Not only would it have sent me swinging, but it could have killed anyone below. I reset the fixed line so that it was wedged behind another, more stable rock, and contemplated what lay before me.
Directly ahead was a slot with a slightly overhanging bulge. Supposedly, this lower 5.7 section was harder than the 5.9 section above. I pulled out the #5 Camalot. In most places it was just a little too small, but I was able to find a spot which barely allowed the cams to grab both sides of the offwidth. I wriggled my arm, part of my shoulder and my right hip into the gap, and pushed/pulled up on the Camalot, wedging myself a good six to eight inches higher. Boy, this was going to be slow.
I pulled out the #4 big bro, but it was too wide to fit. So, I switched to the #3 big bro which was just what the doctor ordered. There was only one problem: I had never placed a big bro before. To me, this tube chock was an esoteric piece of gear reserved only for aficionados of the wide stuff. Sure, I knew the general idea, and had played with them at the campsite. But, it was different up here when I had to depend on it. Hmmmm. I put it in the gap, and pushed the trigger. The spring expanded the tube, and, after a slight adjustment, I twisted the screw lock to (hopefully) set it in place. It held. Push, pull, wriggle, grunt. Okay, another six to eight inches. Only another 100 more feet to go!
There were times when the #5 Camalot was too small, and others when I used it as a chock, because the tips of the cams just barely grabbed little nubbins on the walls. On the upper section of the flake it was slightly wider, and I put the #5 away altogether. Only the #3 big bro did the trick.
Time was crawling, and I knew I was going slow, but to move faster would mean to climb without moving my big bro with me, something I was not prepared to do. Doug must have been falling asleep at the belay, wondering why he had to get up early for this. He couldn't even watch my meager progress, since the Hollow Flake was around the corner from the belay.
At some point I looked over, and was surprised to see that I was above the pendulum point. Finally, I was making measurable progress. However, it also meant that a fall from here would be bad news. I could not allow myself to think about that. Just keep moving the big bro and inching along. Besides, being partially wedged in behind the flake provided some sense of security.
Slowly, but surely I flailed upwards, and eventually flopped onto Hollow Flake Ledge. With a mix of relief and triumph I let loose a primal whoop at the top of my lungs. Phew! As the adrenaline faded I realized how completely spent I was. It felt like I'd been wrestling an 800-pound gorilla, and then run over by a Mack truck. From the ledge, it was satisfying to look down at the section I had just climbed, but it was a little eerie to see that there was not a single piece of protection for the entirel ength of the flake.
Oddly enough, early accounts of the climb barely mention the Hollow Flake. The first ascent team only noted that after the pendulum they struggled up a jam crack for 120 feet to Hollow Flake ledge. What most written accounts do mention is the formation know as the Ear, located four pitches above the Hollow Flake. Its innocuous listing on the topo as a 5.7 chimney (5.8 in the new guide) belies the terror awaiting the unaware leader. Luckily, I had been advised ahead of time by previous ascensionists th at whoever doesnt lead the Hollow Flake should get stuck with the Ear. So, it was Dougs turn to grunt & groan.
The formation gets its name from the shape of the rock as seen from the ground. However, what you see when youre sitting underneath it is that the Ear forms a chimney which narrows at the top and flares out towards the bottom, and must be traversed 30 feet horizontally on polished granite. This sight so frightened the first ascent team that they spent several hours trying to find an alternate way around the Ear. Unable to do so, they finally resigned themselves to the direct approach.
From the belay anchors, I was not in a position to see Doug as he led the pitch until he reached the outside edge of the Ear, after the worst was over. What I heard was grunting--a lot of it--but probably no more than when I was on the Hollow Flake.
When I followed, and rounded the corner from the belay, I could finally see the Ear in its entirety, and was duly impressed with Doug's lead. What I found, however, was that seconding the Ear was no easy feat itself. It involved ascending the rope high into the corner to where the rock pinched down. Doug not only left two camming devices in the corner, but also left his helmet which was wedged between the two walls. High up in the chimney it was so tight that you could not turn your head without scrapin g your nose against the rock. I also had to remove my helmet, and attached them both to the rope dangling below me.
From the corner I had to repeat Doug's traversing moves as he had clipped the rope to a piton 20 feet directly out from corner. The only alternative would have been to take a swing arcing over 90 degrees down & out on a 20-foot radius from the piton--not an appealing option. Following the traverse was a scary experience, despite the fact that, unlike Doug, I was at little risk of injury had I fallen. The rope was above me, and if I fell I would swing out away from the corner.
Due to the exposed location of the Ear, the climber looks straight down 1,500 feet to the base of the climb. Add to that the flaring nature of the gap, and one gets the impression that the rock is actually trying to spit you out. Luckily, there are a couple small ledges midway across the traverse, just when the wall becomes more polished and desperation starts to set in.
From the Ear it is only two pitches to the Alcove below El Cap Spire. The first is a 150-foot aid pitch that starts in a flaring, slightly overhanging corner. It was during this pitch that I took the only fall of the entire climb.
I was about two thirds of the way up, and had put in and bounce tested a #3 offset. I was in the second steps of my etriers, and was stretching high for the next placement when the next thing I knew I was airborne. I let out a yell that was more frustration than fear (it happened so fast I didnt have time to be afraid). It was over almost as soon as it had started, but with slack and rope stretch I fell about fifteen feet. The next piece down was an old fixed pin that I remember thinking wouldn't hold a fall, but thankfully it did.
The fall was a non-event. The wall was perfectly flat except for the crack I was climbing. Since I was close into the wall when the piece blew I fell straight down, not even touching the rock inches away. However, it was sobering to see how easily it could have been more serious. Had there been a small ledge below me to hit on an ankle, elbow or chin, it would have been trouble.
Even before the fall, I was going much slower than I would have liked, and now the sun was rapidly descending. By the time I reached the anchors and hauled the bag it was almost completely dark. Clearly, we would not be sleeping on top of El Cap Spire as originally planned, but would settle for the Alcove a short pitch away. As Doug cleaned the previous pitch by headlamp the cool night air had me diving into the haulbag for my jacket.
The only good thing about climbing at night is that darkness eliminates the exposure. Doug started up the days last pitch, but a faulty headlamp gave him trouble. I sent my headlamp up to him on the haul line, and was forced to follow the pitch in the dark. For the remainder of the climb we were stuck with only one headlamp. Hopefully, there would be no more climbing in the dark.
The Alcove was spacious enough, and fairly flat. It sloped ever so slightly, but this would not prove to be a problem. It was about 10pm, and we were both tired and hungry. Doug and I wolfed down a can of ravioli and Spaghettios, respectively, and finished up with fruit cocktail and pudding. Then, we quaffed some water and Gatorade before settling down for some much desired sleep. I set the alarm for 5:10am to give us a little more climbing time the next day.
7:20am, and Im looking down at a 40-foot drop as I contemplate a step across a 5-foot gap. Good morning! The first move leading up the chimney behind El Cap Spire certainly has a way of getting your attention. Again, the topo fails to show the severity of the pitch, misleadingly listing it as a cruise at 5.6. The 80-foot chimney started with some wide stems between the wall and the spire, leading to an easier narrow section above. The crux was the transition between the lower, wider section and the upp er, thinner section.
El Cap Spire. 1,800 feet up the wall. Over halfway. Pitch 21 out of 35 (36, if you count the 5.6 scramble at the top). One of the few features of the route that stands out when looking from the ground. It was made famous by the historic photo taken from above during the first ascent, that shows Royal Robbin's lounging on the spire's 15 x 25 top. In the photo the top appears as flat as a tennis court. In actuality, the top has several small dikes criss-crossing it, making the surface a less than perfe ct bivy spot (just barely).
From the spire, a beautiful crack led up to (once again) an awkward, wide section. Out came the big bros, which I sent up to Doug on the haul line, and more grunting ensued. The Salathe would make Doug proficient at climbing wide cracks whether he wanted to be or not.
A couple pitches later, Doug was making his way up a thin seam in an intimidating corner that leaned to the right and overhung ever so slightly. He used a lot of the thin gear, relying heavily on the offsets which work so well in pin scars. Suddenly, I heard him yell, Rock! I ducked against the wall, only to see our entire set of offsets clang to a rest on the belay ledge about 10 feet away. Besides the relief of not losing about $100 worth of gear we both knew that the offsets had been absolutely ind ispensable on our ascent. Silently, I thanked the God of Dropped Gear for watching over us, and offered up a peanut butter chocolate chip Clif bar as a sacrifice. Of course, knowing that the all-powerful climbing deity didnt indulge in petty snack foods, I humbly scarfed it down in homage as Doug continued.
It was early afternoon, and we only had a couple pitches to go before we reached the Block--our goal for the day. The next pitch, while not particularly difficult, had a bit of a reputation for being wet. It was nicknamed the Jungle, and it was easy to see how it earned its moniker. Algae & moss carpeted the corner, and a thin sheet of water ran down one side. The back of my shirt was soon soaked and covered with slime & mud. I was concerned about getting my clothes wet, especially since I had been st upid enough to wear a cotton t-shirt. Even on a warm day, wet clothes and a bit of wind could lead to hypothermia. However, the sun was high in the sky, the wind mild, and there was still plenty of time to dry off before dark.
Several times I thought that the sludge in the cracks would prevent the camming devices from gripping the rock, and that they would come sliding out. But, each time they held. After my amphibian encounter on the Free Blast I was surprised that I didnt see any frogs on this swampy section. It was a strange pitch. It didnt feel like rock climbing, and I wasnt disappointed when it was over.
The pitch ends underneath a huge block which juts out from the wall. The anchors--two rusty quarter inch bolts with spinning hangers--were worthless, so I set up a new anchor in the crack behind the Block. Then I brought up the pig which was getting noticeably lighter, making the hauling less of a chore.
A 40-foot pitch up the left side of the Block would put us on top. Due to the position of the haulbag and the anchors (with me on the left) it made more sense that I continue leading. Unfortunately, I used up all my medium-sized cams on the anchor, and was left with very little appropriately-sized gear for the pitch. I managed to salvage one non-essential piece from the anchor, and was ready to leapfrog a couple cams up the side of the Block. As it turned out the crack accepted a variety of pieces, but still it was more sparsely protected than I normally prefer.
On the ledge, I sat and relaxed on some rocks, enjoying the sun as it began its descent over the California's Central Valley. It made me wish we had more beers than the two we were saving for the last night. (Mental note: next wall, more beer.) I was content to hang out on the ledge and soak up the remaining sunshine. However, when Doug came up he had other ideas on his mind. Since he only got to lead two of the day's six pitches he wanted to fix the next pitch, and give us a jump on the following day' s climbing. Fine with me. We had plenty of daylight, and it didnt involve me moving from the ledge, so I was all for it.
The only problem was that, thinking we were finished for the day, I had tied off the lead rope at several points, and had clipped lots of gear (i.e. - shoes, water bottles, camera, etc.) onto the rope. Rather than breakdown this mess to free up the lead rope, we had Doug switch to the haul line to lead the pitch. He climbed two thirds of the way up the pitch, stopping short of a pendulum move. It was a logical stopping point, so Doug set up an anchor and rapped back down to the Block.
We had been warned about the Block. More specifically, we had been told, The Block sucks! Certainly, the top of the Block was spacious enough, about the size of the Alcove, but it sloped outward. Not dangerously so, but enough to ensure a sleepless night with the tie-in rope pulling against your harness as your body attempts to slide toward the edge.
In an attempt to avoid the painful harness hang, I emptied out the haulbag and jumped in with my sleeping bag. My theory was that with the haulbag clipped in, there would be slack in the rope attached to me, thereby avoiding the pull on my harness. Well, the theory worked, except it didnt account for the fact that the pressure of my feet against the floor of the haulbag was worse than the harness hang. I later relented and shortened the slack in my tie-in rope, but continued sleeping in the haulbag.
Don't know how Doug slept, but I tossed & turned all night. It was colder than previous mornings so we slept in an extra half hour hoping things would warm up. Actually, since I had the alarm on my watch Doug didnt know he slept in. We began our morning ritual of breakfast, repacking the haulbag and gearing up to climb.
After Doug completed his morning business with the PVC pipe (a.k.a the Shitter), it was maxxed out. Since I built the container for use on 2- to 3-day wall climbs I knew it would not have the capacity to get us to the top of the Salathe. I settled for the previous night's empty Dinty Moore can, which I then duct taped tighter than King Tut's tomb. We would have to figure something out for the next morning.
Doug finished the pitch he began the previous day, bringing us to Sous le Toit ledge. Since neither of us spoke French we made wild guesses as to what Sous le Toit might mean, but were miles off. (It means, Under the Roof.) We could see the terraced Roof two short pitches above us. Above that was the famous Headwall, a 200-foot section of slightly overhanging granite, almost perfectly blank, but split by a single vertical crack from top to bottom.
Before we got to the Roof or the Headwall, however, we would have to deal with the aid climbing crux of the route. A short pitch after Sous le Toit ledge brought us to the beginning of pitch 29, rated A3 (downgraded to A2+ in the new guide). I had been instructed to bring tricams for this section, because nothing else would work. Like big bros, I had never placed a tricam, so I was hoping that the placements wouldn't be too tricky.
With a bit of trepidation I started up the 80-foot corner which would bring me to the terraced overhangs of the Roof. The corner was fairly shallow and flaring, but didnt seem too bad. There were a couple of fixed pieces of gear in spots. A couple placements out from the belay I was having a difficult time placing my next piece. Standing in my etriers and struggling to keep a grip on the flaring edge of the corner, I was getting extremely frustrated and a bit flustered. I began shouting obscenities at my gear. Come on, you f***er! Get in there! I didnt know if Doug had seen this side of me yet, but hoped I wasnt scaring him. With a little more effort, I finagled the next placement, and the panic subsided.
The upper section involved a very flaring corner in poor quality rock. I was surprised to find such crumbly rock on a climb of the Salathe's popularity. Due to the quality and flaring nature of the rock I could see that it would be difficult to put in gear in the back of the corner. Instead, I chose to put medium-sized camming devices further out. Even though only the two inside cams were truly gripping the rock the placements were solid. In less than thirty minutes after leaving Doug I was sitting at the anchors below the Roof. Aid crux...not!
The Roof is quite an imposing feature. If you had a 30-foot long staircase with about five steps, each step about six feet per stride, and turned the staircase upside down, you would have an image that approximated the Roof--similar to your average Etch-a-Sketch drawing. Now, put that inverted staircase about 2,700 feet up the side of a rock wall, and youd get a much closer approximation. The route traversed right for about 20 feet then cut straight out to the final lip of the Roof. The hardest part wo uld be surmounting this lip to reach the wall above.
Doug drew the short straw and hopped into the driver's seat. In order to reduce rope drag we would cut this pitch in half, and belay just over the Roof (instead of belaying further up the wall). Then, we would combine the rest of the pitch with the first pitch of the Headwall. At least, that's the beta we were given. The advantages for Doug were that it would be a very short pitch, and the hauling would be a cake walk. The bag was probably half its original weight, and it would be dangling out in spac e for a free hanging haul.
Gingerly moving sideways on old, rusty pins Doug traversed right and up. It's unsettling to know that one day each of those rusty pitons will eventually break or fall out (unless someone comes along and intentionally removes them). It's simply a numbers game. Some of the pitons have been there for years, perhaps decades. The only thing you can do, short of removing & replacing them yourself, is to keep your fingers crossed and think light thoughts. In a couple places Doug was able to place a camming d evice, adding more reliable protection.
The wind had picked up, and Doug found himself struggling to get his feet into the steps of his etriers which were being blown about. Once he moved outward from the wall, and could no longer touch it with his feet, he began to spin slowly in the wind. This made an awkward process even more difficult. It was probably poor comfort for him to know that, should he fall, there was little chance of injury. Under the terraced overhangs there would be nothing for him to hit, and he would safely come to rest o nce the rope went taut.
The lip of the Roof gave Doug the hardest time, and he was forced to put in several pieces close together to overcome this hurdle. Safely ensconced at the anchors, he tied off the lead rope, and prepared to haul the bag. I lowered out the pig which swung 30 feet from the wall. It would take the more direct path over the Roof.
As I disassembled the anchor and prepared to follow, I looked up and a wave of anxiety swept over me. The last time I could remember following such a traverse was the last pitch of The Nose during my other ascent of El Cap. Then, my upper ascender popped off the rope due to the angled torque exerted on it during a traverse. I was tied in short to the rope, and my other ascender caught me, but it was the single most frightening moment of all my big wall climbs. Sitting under the Roof, I was having flash backs to that earlier traverse, and I could feel my heartbeat quickening.
Fortunately, due to the malfunction of my right ascender on the Free Blast, I had one of Dougs. His were a different brand, which were less prone to coming off during a traverse. After a couple deep breaths, I started across. Aiding out as Doug had done, I reached out and clipped my etriers into the first piton. Then, I stepped across, slid the ascenders along and moved to the next piece. Once safely on the second piece I would reach back to the first one to retrieve my etriers and the carabiners. I did this until I got past the first few horizontal placements.
As the rope headed up as well as out I put my weight on the ascenders, and jugged the line. Like Doug, I too began to spin in the wind as soon as my feet no longer reached the wall. This did not help my mental state, but I was able to occasionally steady myself using my hands on the inverted steps of the ceiling. The spinning gave me additional motivation to get to the belay as soon as possible.
The Headwall of the Salathe. It signalled the beginning of the end. The two pitches of the Headwall would bring us to Long Ledge, and the end of our climbing day. The next day would only be 3 pitches long, and we hoped to be done by noon. Psychologically, the Headwall represented the last major obstacle of the climb. It was fitting that it consisted of two parts, allowing both climbers a chance to lead a section.
From our belay, we could see a small roof about a half a football field away. According to our topo there should be a set of anchors just below that roof, although we could see nothing from that distance. Shouldering the rack, I set off up the slightly overhanging crack. Every 20-25 feet there was a fixed nut, which sped my progress. However, one of these came loose even before I bounce tested it, another reminder not to blindly trust fixed gear.
Thirty feet up I reached a couple bolts which marked the standard belay for the Roof pitch. Had Doug continued to these bolts he would have fought rope drag the whole way. At this point I was not convinced that the rope was long enough to make it to the small roof. One thing of which I was convinced was that I would not have enough gear to make it unless I started back cleaning more. Up to now I was leaving in every other piece, but I switched to every two pieces. Later, when I was running out of appr opriately-sized gear, it was every three pieces.
Midway through the pitch, I was unhappy with the progress I was making. Every time I looked down, Doug appeared closer than I expected. After finishing Day 3 in the dark, I was concerned about burning too many hours on one pitch, regardless of its length. Whether or not he was concerned about my speed, Doug never once rushed me. My impatience was completely self-inflicted.
Only 30 feet away from the roof, and I still could not see any anchors. Was I wrong? Were the anchors above the roof? The angle of the rock must have lessened after the roof, because I could not see beyond it. Well, if I made it to the roof, I could set up an anchor in the crack running lengthwise at the back of the roof. However, I wasnt sure I had enough rope left. I yelled down to Doug, How much rope? The answer came back, Thirty-five feet. Looks like I would make it.
Just below the roof there was a triangular pocket. When I was five feet away, I could finally see three bolts denoting the pitchs end. Great! A few more moves put me at the belay, and I was soon hauling a featherweight haulbag, which blew in the wind like an oddly-shaped, upside-down kite.
From that vantage point, the view down the wall was unbelievable. The expanse of granite filled my vision to either side. Below my feet the sea of gold swept down the wall and crashed on the shore of evergreens below. The exposure was dazzling. There are few moments which encapsulate all of the natural wonders of climbing into a single sensory experience. This was one of those moments.
The topo made it look as though the second headwall pitch was as long as the first one. However, a short way past the roof, Doug saw that the crack arched to the right, towards what potentially was Long Ledge only 40 feet away. Nonetheless, it would not be a simple matter getting there. Three times, Doug had to place the puny #3 brass offset, the same piece on which I fell two days earlier.
We had been told that Long Ledge did not look like much at first, and this was true. It was only three feet wide. However, it was close to forty feet long, hence the name. Besides being fairly flat, it had the added bonus of a cradle-like rise at the outer edge for much of its length, making it ideal for sleeping.
By the time I got to the ledge Doug had much of the gear tied in and organized. It was still quite early, maybe 5pm, and we contemplated fixing the next pitch. After a short rest, however, our motivation was sapped, and left the remainder for the next day. It was obvious that we were not in a rush, and that inwardly we didnt want it to end. This would be our fourth & last night on the wall, and we were just settling into the idea that we were actually living up here, not simply bivying for the night.
It's often said that big wall climbing is vertical backpacking, and the full meaning of the phrase was beginning to sink in. For the past five days, climbing had been our lives, our focus. I didnt long for the summit, I longed for the wall. Sure, I wanted the climb to culminate with us cresting the final summit ridge. But, somewhere along the way, by concentrating solely on the tasks of each given day, the focus shifted from the end goal of reaching the top to the actual process of climbing. After fi ve days of long, hard work, the summit was suddenly and unexpectantly close. The climb would be over soon, and we wanted to savor it.
We sat, staring out, with our feet dangling over the edge, and basked in the sunlight. Looking down, we could make out the circuitous path we had taken. El Cap Spire, which had seemed so high, was a mere speck a thousand feet below us. It was time for celebration, so I fetched our two beers out of the bottom of the haulbag. The indestructible Sapporo cans were dented but intact, and despite its warmth the beer tasted like nectar.
From our perch, we could see the lights of Merced blinking on in the fading light. By this time the next day we would be feasting on hot food. One thing we would not miss is eating out of cans. After dinner we before pulled out our sleeping bags one last time.
We went though our daily routine of eating, packing and racking gear at a more leisurely pace than usual, almost reluctant to get moving. However, Doug had to get back to the Bay Area for a 7pm birthing class, so we hoped to be on top before noon.
The first lead of the day was mine, and it started in a small crack just off the right side of Long Ledge. From the ledge, the crack was hidden from view around a tiny corner, and Im not sure how the first ascent team knew to look for it. To reach it, it was necessary to lean over and blindly place a small nut--a tenuous situation at best. Fortunately for me there was a fixed nut at about shoulder height, so it was not too sketchy. Sometimes I feel that using fixed gear takes away from the challenge o f the climb, but that feeling is rarely strong enough to keep me from using it when the gear is sitting right in front of me. Besides, the fixed gear is often at the only spot within arm's reach that will accept protection. Such was not the case here, but I wasnt about to argue. Clip, test, go.
It took me a couple placements to get my rhythm first thing in the morning, but I was soon getting into a groove (no pun intended). The crack brought me to some 5.8 free climbing, and up a tricky, sloping ramp to the belay. Doug followed, as I hauled the seemingly weightless haulbag and arranged the ropes for his lead.
Doug aided and French freed his way up the second to last pitch. We were so close we could almost taste it. However, we still had a little way to go, and did not want to have an epic so close to the top. We needed to fully concentrate on the climbing at hand, and not to underestimate it. After Doug yelled Off belay, signalling he was done, I hurriedly got ready to jug my last pitch.
The belay was in an alcove beneath a large overhang. I took a minimum of gear from Doug, and set out for the summit. The overhang was surmounted by traversing out along the left side of the roof. Turning the corner, you encounter a large slot, maybe twelve feet high. Above the slot there was a nice hand crack with several holds to either side on the rock face. The crack went up about ten feet, where it widened and led up to the summit ledge.
Others had told me that the climbing above the large slot was beautiful, and that I would kick myself later if I didnt free climb it. While the climbing did look amazing, I was more concerned with not making any mistakes than I was about free climbing the last twenty or so feet.
I clipped into the final anchors. Hey Doug! Guess what?, I yelled down. Im at the top! Whew! Looking back over the edge as I hauled the bag I could see all the way to the base of El Cap. Across the Valley I looked down upon the Cathedral Rocks. They had seemed so huge and impressive only days ago. Now, while I was still impressed with their beauty, they seemed so much smaller than before, like returning to the house where you lived as a child and finding it much smaller than you remembered. The ma ssive spray from Bridalveil Falls was merely a wisp of wet smoke.
From here the topo showed the ever-insidious dotted line with an arrow, indicating a wandering scramble to the actual summit. Too often this translates into difficult climbing over questionable terrain. Our beta was that the true summit was only half a pitch of easy 5.6 climbing away. Doug grabbed the haul line, dumped most of the rack, and took off. He was on easy terrain, but moved carefully, not rushing. I think he only placed a single piece before disappearing over a ridge fifty feet above. Anoth er twenty feet, and the roped stopped. This was soon followed by, Off belay! He hauled the bag, then belayed me up the last section.
We made it! We were psyched. It was only 11:30am, and it looked like we would make it back to the Bay Area in time to get Doug to his birthing class at 7pm. Both of us were full of energy, and were surprised at our lack of soreness. Still, it was a long way back to the Valley floor. Although the hard part was over, in reality, we were only half way done. The climb wouldn't be finished until we were back to the truck. There are plenty of stories of climbers getting injured or killed on the simplest o f descents. That can easily happen when youre tired and you let your guard down.
In a short while, the haulbag carrying straps were attached, the gear was racked, and the ropes coiled. It was time for the obligatory summit photos. Doug took a couple self-timer shots with his good camera, and I snapped a couple at arm's length with my Walgreens special. Taking stock of our water, we found that we had just under two liters for the decent. Perfect.
Now it was time for me to pay for my decision to carry the haulbag later rather than sooner. Usually, I prefer carrying the haulbag, as long as the weight is not insufferable. I find that it snags less on branches than ropes do, and doesnt shift as much as the gear rack. After a brutal adjustment period, the body compensates for the extra weight, and I find myself making moves I would never expect with a 60-90 pound pack on my back.
The walk down the East Ledges was a lot longer than I remembered. Not only was my memory fuzzy, but the Salathe tops out much further West than the Nose. It seemed like we walked for hours, meandering back & forth. Sometimes we were following a cairn trail, and sometimes we felt our way along the most footworn or obvious path. From the growing pains in my shoes I could tell I was getting multiple blisters on both feet.
After awhile it was an effort to maintain the focus necessary to keep my knees from buckling on every downhill step. I had to pause often, and rest my hands on my knees, taking the strain of the haulbag off my shoulders and giving relief to my aching back. Finally, the gently sloping slabs steepened, bringing us to the first of three rappels, a different set than I had used in the past, not starting from a tree, but from chain anchors.
Doug rapped first, then I followed with the haul bag. During the second rappel, I could see Doug below, scrambling through some bushes on a ledge, not far from the ground. He yelled up to inform me that he couldn't find the last set of rappel anchors, and that he thought he could downclimb from the ledge. However, he informed me that he did not think it would be possible to downclimb with the haulbag, and recommended that I search for the third set of anchors.
Scanning the wall as I descended, I spotted the anchors forty feet to my left. Why would anyone put rappel anchors so far off the natural line of descent?! It was idiotic. I tried swinging over to them, but the weight of the haulbag kept me from getting enough momentum. Giving up, I continued down to the ledge, reaching it just as the end of the ropes passed through my rappel device. Doug passed me some slings, and I slung them around the manzanita. Using the bushes as an anchor I lowered the haulbag from the ledge, and then downclimbed to the ground with Doug.
Terra firma. We werent quite to the valley floor, but in the large gully between El Capitan and the formation known as Manure Pile Buttress. There was a short, 20-foot drop-off to negotiate, and it became clear to me why the last set of rappel anchors were so far to the left. They avoided the hazard that was now in front of us. I located a way down between two huge boulders, using a large tree branch for support. At one point, I found myself off balance, and the weight of the haulbag threatened to pit ch me backwards down a slope of rocks. Only pure adrenaline kept me from falling, and it was another vivid reminder of the potential danger during a descent.
Once we were down in the gulley proper, the foot path became a well worn hiking trail. I took a final swig from my water bottle, and offered Doug the last gulp. It wouldn't be long now.
Picking up speed on the easy trail, Doug left me far behind. No longer trying to keep up with him, my pace slowed, and I suddenly became aware of my aching legs and the blisters on my feet. I couldn't wait to get to the parking lot and take off the haulbag. My concentration waned, and my energy level took a corresponding drop. Alone, and stumbling along like a drunk, completely soaked in sweat, I no longer withheld the groans and whimpers which I previously kept inside.
Reaching the dirt road, which marked the last hundred yards to the picnic area, I felt a surge of energy, and quickened my pace. I found Doug in the parking lot next to a truck with the gear and ropes in a pile. It felt so good to shed the haulbag. Relieved of the weight, I felt like I had springs in my feet, and jumped up and down to celebrate the freedom of movement. This energy was short-lived, however, and I crumpled in a heap on a nearby rock. Fatigued, beaten and hurting all over, I inwardly lau ghed at our physical assessment on the summit. Full of energy and lack of soreness? Not anymore. Now, it was lack of energy and full of soreness.
Two climbers were loading and reorganizing all their camping and climbing gear in the back of the adjacent truck. They offered us a cold soda out of their ice chest, and I leapt at their offer. Never had a Coke tasted more refreshing or glorious. We asked if we could get a ride with them back to El Cap Meadows, a mile or two down the road. The inside of the truck cab still had that new car smell, and we offered to put our stinky, sweaty bodies in the back, but they wanted to hear about the climb.
Doug later recounted how he once ran into a pair of climbers years ago after they had just come down from an ascent of El Cap, and how they had inspired him to climb it himself. Things had finally come full circle, and he was now passing along the same inspiration to these climbers. They talked about wanting to climb El Cap themselves one day, and wondered aloud what it would be like. A damn lot of hard work, I thought, but worth it.
Coming down off a climb like that, you feel as though you should see the world through different eyes, and perhaps you do. You certainly never look at El Capitan in the same way again. But, later, walking through Curry Village, I felt as though other people should see me in a different light, as if there was now something profoundly different in me that pure strangers should detect. This, of course, was utterly ridiculous, and if people noticed us at all, it was because of the peculiar odor emanating fr om our direction.
The descent had taken us three and a half hours, much longer than anticipated. Now, even had we immediately departed for the Bay Area, Doug would not be able to make his birthing class. So, the first order of business would be to call home to report our success, then take long, steaming showers, followed by excessive gorging on hot, non-canned food.
On our way out of the park, we stopped off at El Cap Meadows to take a few last photos, and to lay in the grass and gaze up at what we had surmounted. Once again, the Captain looked unconquerable. Regardless of any macho posturing, we knew that we had not so much triumphed as we had survived. I surveyed the two routes I had taken up the monolith--the Nose and, now, the Salathe Wall. Both routes were so different, and yet, in many ways, quite similar. We spotted two parties inching their way up the Nos e, but none were on the Salathe. Scared off by the Hollow Flake perhaps.
The greatest rock climb in the world? Who's to say? The world's a pretty big place. But, I can't imagine many other climbs offering so much in the way of interesting and challenging climbing in such a spectacular and majestic setting. Im just happy that we had such favorable conditions for the climb, and am especially happy for Doug, because I knew he would not have as many opportunities for such activities once the baby was born. Did he succeed in his quest to become a real climber? Well, that's mor e of definitional issue. Many real climbers I know have never climbed a big wall. But no real climber can deny the awe of such a stirring sight as El Capitan, or consider scaling its walls without a mixture of fear & desire. In my book, Doug was already a real climber before embarking on our Salathe adventure, but Ill bet he's looking forward to the next time someone asks him if he's ever climbed El Cap.
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