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El Capitan, The Shield (VI 5.9 A3+)

Author's note: This climb marked another (major) turning point in my life, a fork in the road and accepting the consequences with open eyes. Basically, it's another long, personal one.

by: Paul A. Brunner (pbrunner@infolink.net)

El Capitan, The Shield (VI 5.9 A3+) Report - September, 1995

On September 11, 1995 I sold my soul for a lower tax rate. An unexpected phone call was followed by three days of negotiation and a quick resignation from my job. I had to be in Hong Kong in two weeks, with everything packed up, shipped out or sold. More sane individuals would have contacted friends and family and hung around pondering. I only contacted two individuals: The first being the Tricks who, after hearing that I was returning to Asia (she had also lived in Hong Kong), said, "Do you really think it's worth it?" The second was to E-man who said, "El Cap? The Shield? Yeah, definitely, I'll move things around and meet you on Saturday, Camp 4."

"Gawd, look at those guys up there!" E-man and I were in the meadows, gawking through binoculars at some spec's on the Shield. I could make out the Groove pitch and above it looked like cat scratches - the Triple cracks. "Urkkk! I think I'm gonna pass out." Back at the parking lot we sorted gear, answered tourista questions, and met up with our new support arrangement: Miss Yosemite, Miss P.O.W. (piece of work), Miss Super Feisty - Michelle Sass!

Ah, yes, unfortunately the queen of the feisty-female's, Candra Trick's Canning, was off saving some poor corporate marketing disaster and could not make it. But, even though this is a Shield report, Miss Sass deserves mention. E-man and I met Miss Sass over a month ago when we came up to do Liberty Cap, but were rained off before even setting out. Instead of wasting the weekend, we filled our wall jugs with Gin & Tonics and boarded that familiar Green Tourista Wagon for a 3 hour tour. And, yes, Miss P.O.W. was our tour guide. Michelle is a true character: the vegan to end all vegans, can talk faster than anyone I know, and has a pet rat named "June." Our scheme was simple: We would talk to her tour group via radio three times a day.

On Sunday, we marched to the base of the Free Blast and (yikes!) met two other groups. The Free Blast is like the main road which eventually forks off into different directions. One group was going to do the Triple Direct and had a haul bag - wonk! extra points, but end of the line for you. The other group was doing Salathe, climbing the Blast, and fixing for today. A quick arrangement found us swapping leads with the Salathe climbers. It was a fun day, swinging leads, stories and background (later, one of them would ship my rope back from Chicago which they retrieved after I discarded it when we jugged our fixed lines). On Mammoth, we met some Swiss guys that boldly stated, "Ha! Your plan is to top out on Friday? Well, vee vill start a day later and top out before you!" By 6 PM we were fixed to Mammoth and back on the ground looking for my manky pack which contained even mankier wall shoes, an orange peel, and two gallons of water. "Ahhhh, I can't believe someone skanked my pack - fuckin' bastards." A perfect day was overshadowed by thieves and a quick rush to the Mountain Shop to purchase new wall shoes.

Being working stiffs, we hit the office early Monday morning, hauling to Mammoth and chucking 3 hopes (ropes that we hoped to see again!). The plan was simple for the day: haul and fix 2 pitches over Mammoth. However, after I fixed pitch 11, the Triple Direct boys showed up (having bivied above the Half Dollar on the Blast), and were eager to make it to Grey Ledges. We let them jug our lines and fix 12 for us. Basically, we were done by 2 PM, but super feisty for more action, so we fixed another pitch and bivied on the pitch 11 ledge. We yelled back and forth to the Salathe gang, exuberant that they had just completed the hollow-flake.

After an evening of sleeping on a sloping ledge, we were eager to get moving. Besides, we were roasting in the bowels of El Cap and wanted to get an early start before the sun baked us some more. We passed the boys at Grey ledges and fixed the next two pitches for them. But, E-man cut school early and belayed at the lower bolts on pitch 16; the cut-off for the free version of the Muir, which meant I had 20 more feet of fun added to my pitch. Pitch 17 haunted my sub-conscious since everyone I talked to, said they ripped on the early part of this pitch. "Yup, see dis bruise? Yup, ripped a sawed-off, a TCU, and-a nut - yup, was a beauty of a whipper." But, there was too much chaos going on during the early section. The Triple Direct boys turned off towards the Nose and we were taking pictures/howling at each other. Then, while I was wiggling in a purple TCU came a loud "EEEERIIIIIIC, PAAAUUUUL." It was Michelle's tour group yelling up at us. I peered over my shoulder to see the green snake pulled over by the meadows, hmmmm, they look tiny. "Yup, Michelle, got Eric here. The Brune-dog's shitin' sea urchin's now." But, the pitch went easier than expected. Maybe I was paying too much attention to E-man as he explained to a guy from Iowa how we do the #2 on a wall - pure entertainment.

The E lowered out the bags and joined me at the belay under the roof. We were both roasting in the mid-day sun and questioned whether the 9 gallons of water that we took would last. E-man studied the roof and decided to tackle it in the morning. No problem, it was an excellent day and we were on schedule, better to kick back and enjoy the evening. It was a spectacular evening. While hanging our shaggy hides over the double ledge munching on various morsels, we watched with gaping mouths as the valley changed colors. Then, bats and swifts came out of various nearby cracks, swooping around us. The face took on various hues, radiating the glow from our faces. We talked with another tour group and felt like astronauts peering down on another world. E-man was asleep but I was staring at the Milky Way, thinking. Was I making the right decision? Why was I taking this job, when I knew it would suck? Was it worth it, chucking an excellent quality of life for money? When would I see the Milky Way again? Hell, I felt like I was in the Milky Way.

The morning was spent with the roof-master twirling around in his aiders, as he clipped one fixed piece after another. But, there was big entertainment going on below as someone knocked a haul bag down from Heart Ledges - a lot of frantic yelling, followed by a loud thud, followed by interesting vocabulary from the (almost) projectile victims. At the lip of the roof, the master whacked in a RURP followed by a 1" angle and polished off the rest with nuts. The next pitch was long but my favorite on the entire climb. Nut after nut was placed and I almost thought I would run out of the 2 1/2 sets of nuts that we brought. Close to the anchors I hastily put in a brass offset, high stepped, put in another nut, unclipped my lower piece, and as I was about the clip the higher nut - ping! - I was airborne. I flew for 25' with the greatest of ease since it was overhanging, bouncing like a bungy jump 7' from the face, unscathed. "Hi Michelle and gang, Eric here, yup, you saw it too, the Dog just racked up more frequent flier miles." I looked down and saw the now familiar green snake parked by the side of the road.

"Wwwwatch me!" The E-man was groovin' out on the Groove pitch, struggling with the mystery fixed blobs, trying to tie-off whatever was left. High up, he also took a whipper, zipping out 3 mysterious pieces. The Groove-master, upon studying the mystery pieces, still could not tell if they were heads, nuts, RURPs, fingers, or bones - probably a little of everything. Pitch 21 and E-man was singing "Cat scratch fever" as I tapped in RURPs on the Triple Cracks. Three hairline cracks mixed in with funky, 1" boxed-out notches marked the path. By the time I got to crack #2, the headwall was taking on an evening glow as the sun made it's final mark on the valley. Funny, it was only a couple days ago that I was staring up at this pitch.

Overall, the day had been spectacular. The headwall is stunning: overhanging, smooth granite in both directions with only one crack going up. Since we cranked the roof, the winds picked up, cutting our water consumption dramatically. The winds were howling at about 30 to 40 mph: aiders whipped around, the belayer swayed at a 30 degree angle. The day before, we saw a team higher up flying their portaledge (unexpectently) like a kite. I also looked forward to Michelle's green wagon coming to the meadows, the familiar yell from the group, and chatting with kids and families. The climax of the day, however, was as E-man and I were setting up the ledge in fading light, with smirks on our face from a day well done, and Michelle called us on the radio below. For 45 minutes, she played Mozart, and we both fell in a fuzzy, warm state. What more could we ask for? We were on the bow of El Cap, making our way up a classic line.

At 5:15 AM the next morning, I thought a huge block was going to hit us. E-man and I instinctively rolled towards the wall as we heard the whistling of something big coming down. "Wooosh, wooosh." Two objects jetted past and became smaller and smaller. Just as I said, "They're gonna deck," two chutes deployed and floated towards the meadow. Damn, what a way to wake up! Thursday morning, and we thought the toughest part was behind us. But, pitch 22 proved to be daunting. For over 3 hours, E-man slaved away, working hard for each boxed-out placement. Nothing seemed to fit, but even though the frustration level (must have been) high, he kept at it, while I was cozily kicked-back on the portaledge. Cleaning the pitch revealed tied-off pin after pin, some stacked, with the final pin missing a biner since he ran out. All the pins had been used. The next pitches eased in excitement and we made good time, even the supposed A3+ was A1 due to more rivets that had been placed.

While E-man made his way to Chickenhead ledge, I pondered my circumstance. Big walls scared the living dookie out of me, but I kept coming back for more. I craved to be outside, climbing backcountry or surfing a glassy face. But, something drastically wrong was happening, I was supposed to be a climbing/surfing bum, but got off course and went to grad school and was at a desk wearing a suit and tie. Maybe I was too spooked from being broke during grad school, eating a bag of potato's to subsist. It was such a sharp contrast. Where or when would there be a balance?

Even though Chickenhead ledge is bumpy and sloping, it's big enough to stroll around on, and we were happy to wander more freely. But, we first had to fix 25 to Chiefton ledge, which I heard was rotten for the first couple of moves. Those moves were a bit dodgy, but the rest of the pitch eased, taking a wide variety of gear. Free climbing towards Chiefton, I grabbed a refrigerator sized block that shifted. "Jeeeezus, don't wanna trundle that sucker." If the block went, it would miss E-man, but probably take out all the parties from Heart Ledges on down. E-man came up to study the next pitch and deemed it "cake city" from here on out.

Ahhh, last night on the wall, and the feast was on! Another beautiful sun set, another chat with Michelle, and more talk about life. "Man, I can't wait to get my pilot's license," croaked the E between corn nut crunches. "Yea, let's get a Cessna 185, throw our toys in it and cruise to our favorite spots." While slurping down ravioli and chili, we figured out how long it would take to save up for the plane but gave up since it deeply depended on dating circumstances, big wall equipment, and employment conditions. Chocolate pudding was next which brought deeper conversation. "The Tricks says that each of us has only a certain number of walls and big mountains in them before they get whacked. The key is quitting before your number is called." "Dude, don't say that, we're not off the climb yet." "Naw, we have good karma since I loaned those Zodiac guys my #4 Camalot." Staring up at the stars, another moonless night. "Gawd, it's so beautiful up here. Almost makes you wanna stay up here." "Hmmmm, I was kinda looking forward to swimming in the Merced instead of looking at it." "Yeah, and I was looking forward to the Ahwahnee brunch."

Friday and end of the work week. I felt stiffer than ever jugging the lines in the morning and was glad it was E-man's pitch. Michelle had the day off for green snake tour duty and was on the radio. "Yee-haw, big tips thanks to you bone-heads." We both chanted, "Beer, beer, pizza, pizza." "You two animal killers better eat vegetarian this time." "Hmmm, better not tell her about our idea to have the Beef Industry sponsor our big trips!" E-man made a quick trip out of the roof and belayed in a cramped area, which made it a bit awkward to squirm by. While I was wiggling up this pitch, Michelle was in the meadow with someone playing the violin - more serene music for grunting! Passing some new bolts after the gully, I ran it to the top - the location where rock turns to sand and pine trees sway in the breeze. "Yeeeee-hawwwww!" E-man joined me and both of us were yucking-it-up on the radio to people in the meadow. "Ice the brewski's, were comin' home."

It was 3 PM, so we wandered to the top for more photo's, then the long slog back to Camp 4 via the falls trail. Towards the end of the march, we met some guys that had just topped out on the Nose. Just as E-man and I were talking about how, a year earlier, we saw a stunning blond in a red bikini (after our Lurking Fear climb) stroll by, perking us up, Michelle popped out from behind some boulders giving us big smooches. Wow! Her perfume was a pleasant change over us and the Nose boys. And, she had brewski's! Instant cocktail hour was established and we had a nice buzz for the final voyage. But, there were more surprises: That feisty Trick's, along with Stevo met us in Camp 4 with more brewski's! It wasn't until the following day, during brunch at the Ahwahnee, that eyesight came back. A total success: Miss Sass got big tips from her tour group, the Trick's saved the corporate disaster, and E-man and I had a blast on an excellent route.

Before leaving the park, I stopped in the meadow and stared up at El Cap. I could still see the Swiss team on the headwall and it looked like they had two more days to go. I chuckled at this sight, but was more pleased with the warm, fuzzy feeling of just completing the climb. I would go through with the new job and move in another day. For now, I took in the beauty of the valley, not knowing when I would return, but certain that I would.

Epilogue: A year later, a year wiser?

E-man got his pilot's license, Candra is busier/feistier than ever, and Michelle switched to leading tours across the world.

All my anticipations/anxieties about returning to Hong Kong were true: the money is great, the employer sucks, the 16 hour work days grate my mind, pollution is the norm, and the shark expatriate society remains - totally soulless. But, Asia is extremely fascinating and I max whatever I can out of any free time to explore, I just wish I had any free time. But, why complain, when I perfectly knew what I was getting myself into?

I escaped in June, 1996 on a fabricated boondoggle biz trip to climb Liberty Cap and be with people I had not seen in awhile. It was a quick fix to satiate an unexplainable urge. However, whether I'm standing at a crowded train station or blurred by another meeting, I seem to have more and more of these urges.

Is it worth it, selling your soul and a couple years for a lifetime of work freedom? Yes. But, to be whacked by a bus tomorrow would be a waste, except to be an asset to my beneficiaries.....

Live your life, be free.

El Capitan, The Shield (VI 5.9 A3+) Beta & Gear List

Mammoth Terraces - Either climb Free Blast and fix 6 ropes down or jug fixed lines. Heart Ledges to Mammoth is technically one pitch, but requires 1 major haul a couple of shorties to get established on the ledges. Possible to bivy, pitch 11 may be better.

Pitch 11 - 5.9 5.7 free up a corner on the left side of the ledges which steepens to 5.9. Although there are bolts on top, continue over the top and down about 50' to two bolts at the beginning of a thin crack. Haul from here. Ledge is ok for 2 or 3 to bivy.

Pitch 12 - A1+ A long pitch that takes small to medium stoppers, small TCU's and some LA's if you feel like it. Bolts and a stance for the belay.

Pitch 13 - A1 More of the same for 100' to a hanging bolt belay.

Pitch 14 - 5.9 A1 The slot from hell! Free climbing, but can be easily French freed with small/medium nuts and TCU's. Lands you on the right corner of Grey ledges. Bolts, # 1 Camalot, nuts and slung horns for belay. Bivy spot is uneven, you may want to hang the portaledge.

Pitch 15 - 5.7 A1 Fast! Mostly free taking a range of free gear, but not a lot of any size. Ends at a fixed 3 pin belay (awkward) stance right at the beginning of a long clean corner.

Pitch 16 - A2 A long pitch with occasional fixed gear that takes mainly small/medium stoppers in old pin scars (HB offsets helpful). NOTE: Make sure you belay at the upper belay, NOT THE LOWER ONE! The lower one is the free version cut-off for the Muir.

Pitch 17 - A3 The beginning of the Shield proper, break out the iron! A long corner that takes 80% nuts and TCU's, but also a few medium Cam's, LA's and angles. 160'.

Pitch 18 - A2+ The Roof, the point of no return! 90% fixed, but takes a big sawed-off, a RURP, a couple LA's, and some nuts once you turn the lip. Airy belay in small corner.

Pitch 19 - A2+ A nutting frenzy! Tons of medium wired stoppers, some pins and a #2 Camalot for the belay. 165'.

Pitch 20 - A2+ The Groove. 90% (mystery stuff) fixed, but 100% scary! Bring a few LA's, Beaks, and wire/webbing to tie them critters off. Traverse out right on rivets to belay below the Triple Cracks. 155'.

Pitch 21 - A2+ The Triple Cracks. Start of the thought provoking, 1" boxed-out placements. RURPs/Beaks work best, nothing big needed.

Pitch 22 - A3 The thought provoking, 1" boxed-out placements turn into a migraine! The technical crux of the route. Bring all iron. Lowe tri-cam's, small brass off-set nuts, and larger Aliens may be helpful.

Pitch 23 - A2 More of the same, but easier. Ends in the middle of a bolt ladder (bring hangers). The ledge to the right takes a few big hook moves to get to.

Pitch 24 - A2 A short and fast pitch that takes you to Chickenhead ledge. Mainly a continuation of the bolt ladder, but take some small nuts, cam's and heads. Chickenhead ledge is big, but sloping and has "chickenheads," therefore hang the portaledge.

Pitch 25 - A3 The scary crux of the route with vertical placements in rotten, expanding rock. Possible to deck on the ledge. Go up, diagonal over and then traverse about 60' left to the beginning of a corner with a 3 pin, 2 bolt belay. Be careful of the large, loose block right before the traverse on Chiefton ledge. Bring all gear. 160'.

Pitch 26 - A2 Medium length pitch (120') that goes up a corner. LA's, large sawed-off's, nuts and TCU's.

Pitch 27 - A2 The second half of the corner, 150'. Angles, LA's, TCU's, brass off-sets and medium nuts. Pass the overhang corner and belay on bolts in a sloping dihedral.

Pitch 28 - A1 80% fixed, but the initial part takes stoppers. The belay is at the end of the roof and is very packed and awkward.

Pitch 29 - A1, 5.9 A few aid moves get you into the water drainage trough. Long and unpleasant climbing. Belay is possible once you break free of the slot on new bolts, but with longer rope you can continue to the top.

Pitch 30 - A hauling pitch Possible to walk off, but you may have to go higher to haul. It would be a long way to fall!

Note: all belay bolts on headwall are new and hanging bivy spots are adequate at all headwall belays. You'll roast in the sun until you crank the roof, then the (usual) winds will cool you on the headwall.

Gear List

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