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It has been a long time coming

Triple Direct, El Capitan. September 30 to October 4, 2000

By Russell Callender

This was my third attempt on El Cap in three years. The first attempt was in June 1998 with a really strong team: Norman, Barry and I. Norman and I had been spending long days at Seneca and the New River Gorge climbing as many pitches as we could in a day. We were climbing pumpy 5.10 cracks at the New River Gorge and doing 12+ pitch days at Seneca trying to work on endurance and efficiency. We had climbed hard since the winter to get ready for a June attempt and felt focused and strong. Barry had been training hard on Texas granite all winter and spring and was in excellent free climbing shape and was going to be the "rope gun" on all the offwidth pitches. Norman and I met Barry in California and headed to the Valley on a serious mission to do the Salathe. When Norman broke both his arms on the 10c first pitch we lost our focus and motivation and headed home in abject defeat. Even though before we left the Valley, Barry and I got up an 18 pitch grade V in a day, it didn’t make up for our dismal failure on El Cap

A year later Barry and I decided to attempt the Nose. We arrived in the Valley in late August 1999 and were greeted by 90 degree temperatures. We made several major logistical mistakes, particularly trying to treat the endeavor as a sprint rather than a marathon. Due to the heat, we tried to haul too much water. So much in fact, that it took both of us to even move the haulbag. This meant that we both had to be at the top of the pitch to haul, thus negating the normal time savings of having one guy clean while the other one hauls the bag. This hauling nightmare really slowed us down. Additionally, we were so focused on the climbing and trying to deal with the exposure and hanging belays that we stupidly neglected to eat and drink enough during the first day. Looking back, that mistake seems obvious; it wasn’t obvious at the time. We started the day with about 1.5 liter of water out of the bag and available to drink, thinking that we’d get to Dolt ledge by mid-afternoon. The rest of the water was buried too deeply in the haul bag and we couldn’t get to it at the hanging stances. We were so slow climbing and hauling that we spent the first night hanging in slings in the Stovelegs, completely trashed with fatigue and dehydration. I was so hammered setting up the hanging belay at 3:00 am after being on the move since 4:00 am the previous day, that I was seeing stars. After the miserable hanging bivy, we got to Dolt ledge the next morning and turned fetal. It took us all day to recover enough to start going down with our tails between our legs. El Cap:2; Russell and Barry: 0.

After the Nose defeat, neither Barry nor I really wanted to ever try El Capitan again. It seriously kicked our butts and left us totally demoralized; doubting our abilities, fitness and motivation. However, the attempt and shared suffering left us as closer friends so I felt that it was worth the pain and frustration. In the winter and spring, I was doing a lot of running and was training to do something completely different. It was time to try some alpine climbing on Rainier. An unexpected family crisis caused me to cancel the Rainier trip at the last minute and suddenly the sickness started turning in my brain. Hmmmm, maybe I could get away this Fall for a couple of weeks and try El Cap "one last time". Maybe we had learned enough in our two attempts to get it right this time. I promised myself that this would be the last attempt and that I would put everything I had into getting up the beast. Nervously, I broached the subject with Barry and he immediately agreed. "Let’s do it!"

We decided on the Triple Direct, a route that combines the first 10 pitches of the Salathe, the middle section of the Muir and the upper third of the Nose. There were lots of bivy ledges to accommodate our projected slow ascent (based on our previous times on other walls) and we also hoped that by climbing the Triple Direct we would avoid the crowding on the lower part of the Nose. After a series of problems with Barry’s transport (i.e., a dead transmission in his van), a friend bought him a plane ticket at the last minute and I picked him up in Sacramento. (Thanks, Rebecca!!)

When we got to the Valley conditions were perfect; highs in the 80’s and lows in the 50’s. We met up with Jeff from Charlottesville and spent a day doing some hard cracks in the amphitheatre under Lower Yosemite Falls. Since they turn the falls off at the end of the tourist season to save water, we were able to climb several amazing cracks that generally are soaked and thus normally not accessible. We ended up doing a couple of 10c’s, a 10a, a perfect 5.8 and an awesome, long, overhanging 11a. Jeff dragged us up the 11a, and when I got to the top, I thought I was gonna puke. It was nice to be back in the Valley.

Barry and I spent a day in El Cap Meadows glassing the face to check out the route, seeing where people were climbing, and packing and racking. We were very psyched and, dare I say it, slightly less intimidated than last year. We rented a portaledge from Mark Degan (Outside Magazine "coverboy" for October) and got some beta about the Muir section from Scott Cosgrove. We got to bed early in preparation for doing the Free Blast (the first 10 pitches of the Salathe) the next morning.

We arrived at the base of the wall at about 5:00 am and were dismayed to see a fixed line hanging from the first pitch. We started getting ready to go when some sleepy looking Russians popped their heads out from a nearby bivy. They were as unhappy to see us as we were to see them. Our presence spurred them into action and they got moving up the fixed lines as Barry and I waited impatiently. Then a couple of Californian guys showed up. One guy in their party made noises about how fast they were and how they should jump ahead of us, but their leader, Dennis, a very tan and fit looking guy, told his buddy to chill as "these guys earned the right to go first since they got up earlier". I liked Dennis right away. Then a party of Swiss showed up to start the Shield (via the Salathe start). When the Swiss team realized that it was a serious crowd scene, they mumbled something about going off to haul and they left.

Meanwhile, the four of us impatiently watched the Russian circus. They only had one pair of ascenders between them and some very sketchy-looking homemade gear combined with a few modern pieces. They were planning on doing the Salathe in 3 days and so only had a backpack for the second person to wear and a small daypack to haul. After their slow start, they really started cruising and soon left us in the dust.

Barry got the first pitch, a 10c fingercrack. Barry passed the spot where Norman took the armbreaking whipper two years before, but then he started looking a bit shaky. Barry came off and took a 3 meter fall hitting his tailbone HARD on a flake on the way down. It looked really painful and I thought our attempt was going to end right there. Barry sucked it up and said "the real pain will be tomorrow so let’s at least do the Free Blast". I got the next pitch, a fun but awkward, leaning 5.8 fist crack, and cruised up to the next hanging belay. I fixed a line for the two Californians and brought Barry up.

Barry got the initial aid of the route, a rightward traverse under a roof on small aliens and funky fixed junk with ratty slings. With only minor whimpering he got past the roof, turned a bulge on micronuts and thrashed up a wide flare to the belay. I followed the aid part by clipping to the fixed junk and moving across. As I followed, one piece that I was hanging on ripped out with a loud snap and I dropped a few feet in a hurry. Wahoo! Too much excitement for the early morning! I started the next thin crack pitch via a few free moves and then ended up aiding the rest of the crack to the belay. It was pretty fun climbing on nuts and small cams with a steep bulge near the top to aid some spice to the pitch.

Barry started up the next pitch, a continuation of the thin crack that ended in a bolt ladder. He ended up running out of slings by the time he got to the bolts so he rigged a funky belay off the bolt ladder and brought me up. After I got there, we moved the belay to the "real" anchors. The next pitch was a blast! Do a couple of face moves, clip a beefy bolt, and repeat. It was probably my favorite pitch of the Free Blast as the climbing was exposed and fun, the wind was howling, and the protection was bomber! I got the next lead too, since Barry really wanted to lead the upcoming Half Dollar pitch one pitch above. My pitch was fun 5.8 free climbing up a thin corner, past some rotten rock, and then a few aid moves to a semi-hanging cam and chockstone belay under a roof.

By this time it was about 4:00 pm and we were baking in the sun and somewhat toasted from the climbing too. Barry started up the Half Dollar pitch and did a fantastic job of getting around the corner into the flared, funky, smooth crack/chimney. I couldn’t hear him at all due to the wind and the fact that he was way up and around a corner, so when the rope stopped moving, I just started jugging. By the time I got to Barry we had two more easy pitches to go to Mammoth Terrace and about an hour and a half of daylight left. The two Californians didn’t have a headlamp so I yelled down to them that I would leave them one of ours at the belay on Mammoth Terraces. In the interest of speed, Barry lead the last two easy pitches so we didn’t have to trade the gear rack, and I followed the cruiser pitches in warp speed mode. We got to Mammoth at about 6:00 pm with an hour to get down before dark.

To start the descent, there is a bit of fairly stupid climbing from the main belay on Mammoth down to a lower belay at the edge of the void leading down to Heart Ledge. We belayed each other across this short section to avoid the 300 meter tumble. From looking at the face with our binoculars the day before, we knew that there were fixed lines (supposedly from Yosemite Search and Rescue) from Heart Ledge to the ground. We had also heard from some Germans that the ropes were in decent shape. However, we weren’t sure if there was a fixed rope from Mammoth to Heart or not. Luckily there was, so we saved some time by not having to rig our own rappel. We started rapping the fixed lines and got to the ground in about 45 minutes. Wow! From 300 meters up El Cap, to the ground in 45 minutes. It was kind of surreal. Even more surreal was the fact that the two Swiss guys we saw earlier in the day were standing at the base of the fixed lines. They had started hauling but decided to bail because they had too much stuff! Within about 30 seconds of reaching the ground, they handed me a beer! I gratefully accepted and was happily swilling warm beer when Barry arrived on the ground in the fading light. In exchange for the beer, we helped the Swiss guys carry some of their stuff back to the road. On the way down we met Jeff, hiking up the trail in the twilight to check on us. It was good to know that someone was looking out for us. We headed back to camp for dinner and good night’s sleep.

Barry and I spent the next day practicing setting up the portaledge, eating, rehydrating, and hauling water to the base of the route. I was fairly tired from the Free Blast day but wanted to continue the momentum, so we planned to start up the next morning. The plan was to haul our stuff to Mammoth then shoot for bivies at Grey Ledges, Camp 4 (or the supposedly better ledges below Camp 4), then either Camp 5 or 6 and the top. We figured that with our slowness, 4-5 pitches a day would be about the right pace. If we were going too slow or ran into conflicts with other parties for bivy ledges, we had the portaledge as a backup. We planned for 34 liters of water; 4 liters per person for the first two days when it would be hotter close to the ground, and then 3 liters per person for the last three days. That’s a little over eighty pounds of water! Ouch! It turned out to be just enough.

We woke up at 4:00 am and carried the rest of our stuff to the base: the haulbag with food, warm clothes, storm gear and sleeping bags, the rack of hardware, the portaledge and three ropes. When we arrived at the base of the fixed lines we were unpleasantly surprised to see a party of four Italians getting ready to start up. They each had a backpack or a small haulbag and consequently were able to move fast since they simply jugged with their loads on their backs. They soon were off the first rope and so we started struggling with our loads. The Swiss guys that had bailed the day before had left a bunch of full one-gallon water jugs at the base of the fixed lines, so I grabbed one and clipped it to my harness and started jugging.

Our goal that day was to haul the six rope lengths to Mammoth Ledges and possibly fix a pitch above that. Since our load was so heavy, we ended up space-hauling with me acting as the counterweight. This meant that Barry would jug first and drag the haul line and set up the hauling system in the wall hauler. I would release the pig from the lower anchors and then jumar to Barry. Then I’d pull out about 10 meters of slack, tie in, and clip my jumars to the side of the wall hauler opposite of the haul bag. This meant as the haul bag moved up, I would drop down and then re-ascend the haul line. It was brutal, exhausting work in the hot sun, and a couple of times I had to rappel down and coax the pig over small overhangs. It went fairly smooth until the section between Heart and Mammoth where the numerous roofs and flakes forced me to rap down three times to wrestle the pig and get it unstuck. Each time I rapped down to fight the bag and jug back to the anchors, I moved a little slower. Tempers flared a bit as we struggled but we eventually got the pig up onto Mammoth.

We got to Mammoth at about 6:00 pm feeling pretty hot and wasted. A Russian team had just topped out on the Free Blast and were continuing up the "Flight of the Albatross". Since their next pitch shared our route we decided to stay out of their way and set up the bivy, instead of trying to fix the pitch. At almost dark a couple of Germans, Alex and Volker, arrived. They were heading to the Shield. Their route was the same as ours up to Gray ledges and then a couple of pitches past it, where they would diverge left and go up over the impressive Shield roof. They were more impatient than we were so they went ahead and fixed the next pitch in the twilight. That was fine with us as I knew that they were going to be going a lot faster than we were and it made sense to let then get up ahead of us now. We settled into our comfortable bivy and the alarm went off much too soon in the 5:00 am darkness.

I was pretty impressed that I felt rested considering how tired I was from the previous day. I got the first lead and made reasonably quick work of it with a bit of free and aid up a short, steep corner. I suppose I should have free climbed all of it as it was only 5.9 but I figured that it would be just as fast to aid the short steep section. The belay anchors were about 10 meters down and right from the top of the corner so I lowered down and joined Volker at the belay. I flipped the haul line over and hauled the pig with a fair bit of cussing and straining. By this point, Alex was finishing the pitch, a long thin crack. When Barry arrived, Volker was gone and we were going to be by ourselves until we met Volker and Alex up at Gray Ledges at the end of the day. Barry had a "fun" time on this pitch as it was pretty thin and insecure in a few spots. I think it was probably one of the hardest leads of the route for Barry. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the spacious ledge and watched the sunlight move across the upper face. I saw what looked like a Peregrine falcon glide by and took it as a good omen. It was good to be on the Capitan.

The next pitch was probably the hardest one of the route for me both physically and mentally. It started up a thin crack that eventually turned into a flared chimney/groove at the top. Starting from the belay I got in a couple of #1 rocks, followed by a couple of small HB offsets. Wham! Suddenly I was upside down looking eye to eye with Barry. I had just popped both of the offsets. My thumb was kinda ripped up, and my hip hurt from the impact, but mainly I was just really surprised as it happened so fast! I flipped back right side up and immediately thought that I was glad I had my helmet on as I had almost hit the belay ledge with my head. I told Barry that I was ok but I wanted to clip back into the belay and chill out for a minute. I looked down to the ground, looked back up at the pitch, and resolved to be more careful next time. I realized quite clearly at that point that taking whippers 13 pitches up is just a bad plan and decided that I didn’t want to take any more falls on this route. I took a few deep breaths and started back up the pitch.

This pitch was supposed to be able to be linked with pitch 14 with a 60 meter rope. Since it was stopper-sized for the first 50 meters, I did a lot of back cleaning so I would have enough gear to complete the pitch. I passed a ratty-looking fixed belay and was glad I wasn’t gonna stop there. The sun was baking on me by this point and my mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow. Then I got into the awkward groove part of the pitch. I cussed and thrashed in the awkward flare and was starting to really fade energy-wise. Unfortunately, I had no options except to keep going. I finally gave up on thrashing with the aiders and started free climbing up the polished flare. By the time I flopped onto the belay, I was completely spent. I wanted to go into the fetal position but I resisted that urge and instead hauled the bag up the 55 meter-long pitch. Then I curled up in the partial shade of the bag, shut my eyes, and just waited for Barry to clean the pitch. I was so wasted that I could barely set up the bivy and eat. Barry said later that I looked REALLY bad and he was pretty worried about me. After I was finally able to eat, I felt a lot better and we hung out and talked with Alex and Volker and watched the stars come out. I ended up sharing a long, 30 cm wide bivy ledge with Volker. The ledge wasn’t level so he kept sliding down and pushing me off the end of the ledge. We jockeyed for ledge space all night long. Barry had a worse night and slept in a partially sitting-up position. I never understood why we didn’t just set the portaledge up except that we were too lazy.

[Barry’s comments: I wouldn't change anything except to add a few details like how after the groove pitch you looked worse than I have ever seen you. I mean really wasted, big bags under your eyes, sort of a green gray tint to your skin. I remember thinking this may be it. If he doesn't recover we have to go down, and placing a waterbottle in your hands telling you to drink. Then putting food in your hands telling you to eat. I knew it would be all right when you came up to the ledge with the Germans and could talk.]

The next day the route steepened as we went up a beautiful corner system for a couple of pitches. Barry got the first "A2" pitch and dispatched it pretty quickly. I jugged up to the hanging belay and looked at my pitch. It was a long pitch up a beautiful, thin, exposed corner to another hanging belay. This corner was supposed to be "A2" with cam hooks, but I thought it was definitely A1 with tons of good nut placements. No cam hooks needed here! Nevertheless, It took me a while to get up this pitch, and by the time I got to the belay, an Austrian party was crowding Barry at his belay. Barry jugged up and started across the bolt ladder that marked the beginning of the traversing pitches toward Camp 4 on the Nose.

The afternoon wind was howling by this point and Barry’s aiders were blowing sideways as he struggled to just get his feet in the rungs. To compound matters, the Austrian guys had arrived to share the hanging belay with me! The rope eventually stopped moving and I assumed that Barry was at the belay although I couldn’t hear anything due to the wind and the fact that he was up and around the corner. The Austrians helped me lower out the bag, and collectively we were able to avoid a rope and bag-eating flake. I left the company of the Austrians and jugged up to the start of the bolt ladder. After leaving the belay, I looked up and the rope I was jumaring on was stuck behind a thin sharp flake and was moving back and forth as I jugged. I had these horrible visions of the rope sawing through and sending me tumbling into the void. I made a conscious effort to not think such dark thoughts and tried to simply concentrate with getting the rope unstuck. It was difficult to get the rope from behind the flake as my full body weight was wedging the rope in place. I finally got the rope out with a big tug and it was a great relief to clip into that first manky bolt on the bolt ladder. I followed the traverse on aid and at the end of the bolts, lowered out and swung over until I was below Barry and could start jugging up to the hideously exposed hanging belay.

The wind was really screaming as we coiled up the ropes and I prepared for the next pitch. Barry handed me the rack and as I was putting it on, something got tangled up in the back. I asked Barry to see if he could untangle it and he did. Then he started yelling "Rock! Rock! Rock!" I asked what he dropped and he said "the hooks; all of them". He looked pretty upset so I just said "bummer, hope we don’t need ‘em". It ultimately didn’t matter in any case as they were gone. I took the whole rack but it was simply dead weight as I ended up not placing any gear on the pitch. I lowered out about 10 meters and tensioned over to a funky weathered dike and started free climbing. The free climbing was pretty easy once I was able to make the first moves. I climbed up and over to a spacious ledge and was able to actually stand. It was the first real ledge we encountered since leaving the bivy at Grey Ledges. We rapped down to a 2 X 3 meter wide mostly flat ledge and let the Austrians pass us. In the rapidly approaching darkness they climbed up to Camp 4 and fixed a rope for us in return for us letting them pass. "No, don’t just use one biner to fix the rope! Here, take these three locking biners and a couple of slings." (I had noticed that they had a MUCH more casual attitude to belays and belaying than we did…..). They huddled on Camp 4 and we stretched out on the spacious ledges below Camp 4. When we arrived at Camp 4 the next morning, we realized that we had a MUCH better bivy location.

Our spirits really soared on that bivy, and for the first time on the route we really relaxed and laughed. I felt like it was kind of a turning point in the ascent. We were both concerned about the traversing pitches as we had no beta about them besides the topo. The traverse turned out to be pretty straightforward and we avoided the purported haulbag-eating flakes. Plus we had already done what was supposed to be the crux aid pitches of the route. I think that we also both realized that we were probably gonna make it to the top this time. We celebrated with a couple of tins of sardines in mustard. Yum!

We got up and were moving by daybreak. As I started jugging I was really surprised to see a couple of guys just finishing the traverse to our ledge! When I told Barry, he looked at me like, "this is a joke, right?!" They turned out to be a couple of Spanish wildmen on a one day ascent who had started at 4:00 the afternoon before and had climbed all night to get to where we were. Barry came up and lead the next pitch above Camp 4 and waited at the belay while they passed us. This belay was the least solid belay of the entire route. After this Euroclusterfuck we were all alone and ended up having the entire upper third of the route to ourselves. The Austrian and Spanish guys apparently topped out sometime in the middle of the night.

The Great Roof pitch. This pitch was the only pitch that really intimidated me. I’m not sure if it was the incredible exposure or the history tugging at my psyche or the cruddy belay, but for some reason I was a little freaked out at the start of the pitch. There were only a few fixed pieces on the vertical part of the corner, but the roof section itself was completely fixed with old, barely-seated, wired nuts. I had a couple of exciting small HB offset placements to get to the fixed junk under the roof but otherwise the lead wasn’t that hard. The leaning moves up to the roof were probably the crux. Barry on the other hand, had a hell of a time getting out the gear that I left. He ended up using my gri-gri as a hammer to try to get nuts out and ultimately left several nuts fixed. He was beating the shit out of my gri-gri and shouting bad things about me, my heritage, my appearance, my breath, my dog, and all things I stand for. Part of his frustration was because he was forced to leave stoppers behind, and part of his frustration was that the cleaning was awkward as the crack leaned to the right. I didn’t respond to his frustration as I could do nothing, but instead simply watched the ropes blow in the wind below me, organized and reorganized the gear (and studiously avoided all eye contact!) My belay was in a spectacular position; three bolts and a 6" ledge to stand on with nothing but air between me and the ground over 2000 feet below. Barry was frustrated but I was happy, having lead one of the most famous pitches in the world. It was a very cool place to be!

Barry had been lamenting that he really wanted to do more free climbing so I kept priming him that when we got to the Pancake Flake he could easily free it at 10b. Ultimately however, he did what I would have and shamelessly aided the whole pitch. On the ground this would be a well-traveled, classic free climb. Up here, there’s no shame in aiding (especially for weenies like us). Barry took a short fall at the transition between the flake and the thin crack above, as he was trying to hurry, but otherwise he cruised it.

The next pitch was the "nasty flare" I had heard bad things about. It turned out to be pretty straightforward, although it got dark about halfway up the pitch. My biggest difficulty was being able to see my aiders in the darkness due to the constrictive, flaring nature of the crack. At the top of the flare I clipped an old _ inch bolt and ran it out about 30 feet to the belay. The climbing wasn’t hard, and would have been trivial in the daylight, but it was pretty exciting free climbing friction moves in the dark — particularly as the last move was an unprotected mantle. That mantle deposited me on a nice, mostly flat ledge with a couple of good anchor bolts. I hauled and brought Barry up. We got settled and watched the headlamps of the Eurocluster boys up above us. We ate the last of our canned dinners and just enjoyed the buzz of being waaaay up in the sky on a nice ledge.

First thing in the morning we moved the belay up about 30 feet to the start of the Glowering Spot pitch. This pitch looked fairly hard and insecure and started right off the belay on tiny wires. Barry was so focused on the small nut placements that he almost missed the occasional medium cam placement because his frame of reference was the tiny crack! This pitch took him a while, but he got to the Glowering Spot with no incidents. I had been looking forward to checking out the Glowering Spot belay itself, but when I got there I just re-racked and focused on the next pitch. I can’t even recall what the Glowering Spot looks like…..

The next pitch up to Camp 6 was one of the most fun pitches of the route for me. It was a long mixed aid and free pitch. I was concerned when I looked at the topo and it mentioned that we needed a #4 camalot. Uh oh, we left that piece in the car…. As it turned out, I was able to easily bypass the wide section with a #4 Friend. I went up an aid crack on cams for about 25 meters to the start of the free climbing. The free climbing section traversed right, then up a 5.8 squeeze then back left. There was an old 1/4 " bolt at the start of the rightward traverse that I was supposed to clip, then as I climbed right, up and back left, I needed to back clean so that Barry would have a straight line to jumar. After doing the zig-zag traverse, I just launched up a 5.7 fist crack, made a few moves and then looked down in horror to realize in my frenzy to free climb, I had neglected to clip the bolt! I had just launched cavalierly up the fist crack "knowing" that there was that bolt below me. Instead I started the fist crack with a 10 meter runout below. Yikes! After that scare, I arrived at the triangular ledge of Camp 6, and after hauling the bag, got to nap while Barry jumared.

The next pitch was the famous "Changing Corners" pitch first lead free by Lynn Hill at 13+. Barry started up the initial crack free and then sketched out and landed on my leg as he took a short whipper. He then decided to start aiding. This, of course, allowed me to continue my nap…… This pitch was steep and strenuous and was much steeper than it looked in the photos. It involved going up a nice small-medium cam crack, but then leaving the security of the bomber cams, to switch over to a shallow corner with tiny wire placements. It was steep and exposed and Barry did an awesome job leading it. The jumar was so steep that I was pretty pumped when I arrived at the hanging belay. We talked about fixing another pitch and then rapping to back to Camp 6 or just going for a late night (probably 2:00 am) epic finish. We didn’t make a firm decision so I just took off.

This pitch was another fun, straightforward cam crack. Unfortunately, it was the same size for the first 15 meters, so I had to do some creative back cleaning and leave some runouts. The initial crack leaned up and right and thus was sorta overhanging. Then it turned a corner and went back and left. After turning the corner, I was able to free climb at about 5.7 to the belay. Since no decision was reached whether we would fix ropes down to Camp 6 or continuing to the top, I just hauled the pig. By the time Barry arrived we had about 30 minutes of daylight left. We felt good and briefly considered going for the top that night but decided it would be more fun to actually see the last couple of pitches. Plus the idea of sleeping in the portaledge with 2700’ of exposure all the way down the route seemed like a very cool thing to do! We set up the portaledge and settled in. We were out of our canned "dinner" food but we shared some gorp (very hard to chew with a dry mouth and no water!) and some sausage. Sausage grosses me out normally, but that night it was a supreme delicacy and we both enjoyed it immensely.

Morning dawned crystal clear. What an incredible place to wake up! We are the kings of the sky! We packed up the haul bag and Barry took one last dump. He filled his paper bag and pushed it down in the last remaining space in our foul-smelling "cookie jar". He pushed the paper bag down into the cookie jar but pushed just a little bit too hard and punched his fingers through the bag and into the warm goo. The look on his face was priceless. Complete disgust! I was trying not to laugh as he was so grossed out holding his brown fingers up in the air. Apparently, I must have enjoyed his discomfort too much as he decided to wipe his fingers off on my web-o-let. (Reminder: don’t hold the web-o-let in my teeth ever again).

Two pitches from the top. Never thought I’d be in this position and it’s great to be here! Looking down the route — the entire route — it seems a mile to the ground. Oh well, enough stalling…… Barry takes off on his last lead up a long crack to "the alcove" and then traversed out right to the belay. Looks like my luck is holding as Barry got hard pitches yesterday and starts off on a hard one today! It takes him a while and a bit of bitching but eventually he gets out of the alcove and over to the base of the last pitch. I jugged up, lowered out past the alcove traverse, and soon gained the belay.

The last pitch started up a medium sized camalot crack to the final bolt ladder. The bolt ladder pitch wasn’t as steep as I was expecting, nor as continuous. Instead it went up a bulging overlap to a vertical section and then over another bulge. I was glad I was leading as following it didn’t look like much fun. After the bolt ladder ended, it was easy free climbing up slabs to the belay. Of course, the rope drag was hideous so I had to pull out 30 feet of slack just to make a move. I clipped the belay and easily hauled up the pig. Then I untied and scrambled up some sandy slabs. Whoa! No slipping here; it would be a heck of a flight! I scrambled up about 30 meters to a tree and set up the haul line to get the pig away from the edge. Then I sat down with a big grin and waited for Barry. Barry arrived about 20 minutes later and confirmed that following the bolt ladder was pretty strenuous. We humped the bag up to the tree and shook hands. It was about 1:30.

We topped out with about _ liter of water left for the descent. Barry hung out while I went in search of booty water. It only took me about 10 minutes and I found a stash of about 5 liters in some Russian bottles! We hung out for a while slamming water and eating a couple of power bars but mostly just reveled in being untied. The water went through me like lightning and I went off to get sick. Oops! Better slow down or I’ll never get hydrated. We were basically alone until some guy came walking by and said that he was setting up for a photo shoot for Rock and Ice Magazine and interviews for PBS of people as they topped out. Luckily we just missed that circus.

We organized the gear and started down. Barry had three ropes and most of the rack. I had the portaledge and the haulbag. Since Barry had carried the cookie jar down after our last wall, I ended up carrying that nasty thing too. As we were heading down, I got flagged down by a couple of guys who had just topped out on Mescalito. They wanted to know if we had a pair of shoes that one of them could borrow as they only had one pair between them! They had dropped the other pair on the 9th pitch and had duct taped a pair of socks that the second wore! I gave ‘em my smelly rock shoes, that were a couple of sizes too big for him, and he was REALLY appreciative. However, he almost reconsidered my offer when I joked that in exchange for the shoe loan, they would have to carry the full cookie jar.

We eventually made it to the raps on the East Ledges and ran into a few parties that had just topped out on the East Buttress. We started rapping and a couple of guys caught up to us on the last rap. They had also topped out on Triple Direct. They said that collectively the pair of them had been up El Cap about 75 times! We told them that this was our first trip up the Capitan and we were sorta embarrassed about how long it took….. They congratulated us on our ascent and said "Who cares how long it took? You made it! Congratulations! We finished the raps right as it got dark and then thrashed and stumbled down a nasty loose scree-filled gully to the Manure Pile parking lot arriving at about 9:00 pm. I left Barry with the gear and staggered down the road to El Cap Meadows to get the car. I picked up Barry and we weaved back to Camp 4 and crashed in the dirt in the shadow of a bearbox.

It has been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to climb El Capitan ever since seeing black and white images of the initial ascents by the true masters (Robbins, Harding, Frost, Chouinard) in the early 1960’s. We weren’t fast but we felt in control. We functioned as a true team, splitting the work 50:50 and pulling a little harder if the other guy needed it. Most importantly, we had fun, remained friends, and didn’t get hurt. Finally getting up the monolith was, without doubt, the most significant climb for me in over 24 years of climbing. Simply stated, it was the culmination of a dream — or maybe the culmination of an obsession.


Next time we would refine our system a little bit. We took 2 full sets of wired nuts, but having three sets along would probably be better, as we fixed quite a few. There were lots of thin cracks on the Muir section of the route that ate wired nuts. Maybe taking a hammer to unseat the wires would be an alternative (and save my gri-gri from abuse). The biggest offsets (#4-6) worked great in pin scars. Aliens, particular the offset Aliens, were also pretty bomber in the pin scars. The biggest cam that we took was a #4 Friend.

After the first day going up the slabs to Mammoth, we could each haul the bag by ourselves, so we didn’t overload it this time. We had about the right amount of food and water although we cut it pretty tight. For the first three days we used a MSR 6-liter water bladder with a drinking hose that we could access easily from the haul bag. However, standing on the haul bag at the hanging belays on day 3 blew out the bladder and we lost about a liter of water. I also dropped about a liter of water when I rolled over at night on Grey Ledges and the bottle somehow came unclipped. We ate a can of stew or pasta for dinner and split a can of fruit apiece at night. For breakfast we each had a bagel and half a can of tuna for breakfast — although drinking orange juice with a tuna juice chaser was definitely eye opening. During the day we each had one to three power bars. Having a couple of tins of sardines and a sausage stick to supplement the canned dinners was also nice. Fig bars and gorp were too hard to eat with a seriously dry mouth. Baby wipes were really nice to wipe the grime off our faces and clean off the aluminum oxide off of our hands. A one gallon container for human waste was the perfect size for 2 people for 5 days (although Barry wished it would have been just a little bit bigger….. J

The only way that we could have gone any faster was simply to aid faster and stay motivated enough to fix a pitch above each bivy. Or free climb up to mid-11 and aid less (yeah, right!)

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