When I first rode into Yosemite Valley and sat below El Cap, it looked other-worldly; too big to contemplate. It evoked the same intense emotions that Everest would one day.
El Cap is an iconic part of the Earth we live on and has continued to inspire generation after generation of climbers. It demands you climb harder and stretch further.
Sheets of granite cut by cracks and pillars of infinite height. Golden granite with fearsome black streaks. Light that reflects off sun and clouds as the eyes rise skyward, revealing multiple worlds of rock. And the higher it goes the steeper it gets, until it all just seemed to tower up into the clouds and touch the sky.
No picture, no video does El Cap much credit. You get the shape and the fact it looms into the clouds. But the overwhelming immensity is only felt when you physically get to El Cap Meadow and look up. Then when you walk to the base, it gets even bigger. Climbing up a short route at the base of the wall, you ascend a 100 meters and look up again and realise you have really gone nowhere. It is all bigger, steeper and more blank than expected. It defines immense. It doesn’t really look climbable at first look. Which means of course, you want to climb it.
At night, in your sleeping bag in Camp 4, you feel it looming down the Valley, then it fills your dreams. With my background climbing 100 meter crags in Colorado, this loomed nearly 10 times taller in reality and even more so in the mythology of my mind.
I met another climber in Camp 4 with Half Dome and The Nose route on El Cap already to his credit. Bill said, ‘Let’s do the Salathe. You can do the free climbing.’
We climbed a nice hard free route on Middle Cathedral so he knew I could actually climb. Then I spent a day tied up in etriers nailing up a crack on shaky pitons and over a roof.
We were ready. Actually Bill was ready. I was still just dreaming.
Bill had a huge polyester sleeping bag that filled the bottom half of our haul bag, his insurance policy after getting caught in an early season storm on Half Dome and nearly freezing to death. I had an Army surplus down bag probably filled with chicken feathers. But it was light.
The first day was actually fun. Steep, sculpted rock and thin cracks, difficult pitches to make me think. Long leads up smooth slabs originally done and written eloquently about by Royal Robbins.
We were climbing through an El Cap postcard. Then we disappeared into steep dihedrals, around the Half Dollar, moving quickly and hauling bags over the smooth granite. We reached Mammoth Terraces, and rapped down into the base of the Heart. We galloped up two fast leads and I pendulumed to the base of the Hollow Flake as the sun set.
The Hollow Flake was legendary. You lower off the belay, swing into it, and then run the rope out 40-meters with no protection up a 5.9 crack off-width crack that turns into a shallow dihedral at the top. I climbed up 10 meters in a comfortable layback. It was getting dark. I feared falling and retreated.
I was a Colorado rock climber, with strong fingers, good footwork and long arms to pull me over overhangs. A crack in a rock was not my strong suit. I didn’t sleep well, I’d never imagined a pitch like this before or been so intimidated.At dawn I swung across and went back up the initial crack to a tiny stance. The crack was another 30 meters of smooth granite. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I made it up. A combination of jamming, pulling and pushing, got me up so far that I knew I couldn’t get down. The rope dangling down into infinity and across to the belay convinced me I would die if I fell. There is power in imminent death.
After 20 meters the granite flake on the left curved gently in. I could get stemmed out, my legs spread wide and the rope dangling in an endless loop all the way down between them to Bill at the belay. I was back in my element and with toes touching granite slabs and no crack to grapple with, I finally reached the flat ledge at the top. I crawled up and lay there on my back at the top looking at the sky, shaking. Very glad I hadn’t fallen off and slid down 100 meters of granite.
Another few pitches on we reached the ‘Ear’, another of those uniquely El Cap features. It’s a full body chimney you go up into, then climb sideways out into space and then up and out the top, with no further protection that will save you from crashing onto the rocks below.
It wasn’t supposed to be hard, but I didn’t really have a clue as to what I was doing. Falling was suicide, or at the least mangling. By the time I got to the hard part, the protection in the corner was worthless and I’d have hit the jagged ledges before the rope saved me.
I got all the way out to the edge of the chimney and realised I was facing the wrong way. I turned around with my feet dangling and struggled back up into the squeeze and out of the top and flopped onto the flat ledge. The haul bag got stuck. My arms were shot. My mind was shaky.
By nightfall I was up yet another another long chimney and atop El Cap Spire, surely the best big wall campsite in the world.
We were really into the heights now. Cracks, dihedrals, with the rare and crazy and tiny green El Cap frogs climbing along beside us. Frogs are living on El Cap, hanging out at belays. What are they doing?
Earth was left behind. Hanging belays were home. We’d found a Clorox bottle (the eco- friendly, reusable, and of course free water bottle of choice for El Cap climbers) half filled with water on a ledge left by others ahead of us. After allowing just 2 litres of water a day for ourselves, the June heat was melting us. A single sip never felt so good, before or ever since.
I was tied up in my etriers again, one pitch took me 2 hours. Bill took over and led us up onto a small ledge below the roof leading to the final headwall. We had been climbing from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. My hands were raw and torn and swollen from ropes and pins and rock and hauling; always hauling, the too heavy haul bag.
We nailed our way up to the roof – the spectacular out and up and around and over into space on the headwall pitch. The headwall was a single flaring crack, all gently overhanging, 700 meters above the earth – a full strung out lead and a half.
The winds funnelled up the rock and the ropes floated straight out from the belay, hovering, with just enough wind to suspend them, hanging in the sky, not tangling, just dancing in the wind.
We reached a long skinny ledge, the Long Ledge, at close of day, only a few pitches to go. We knew we would make it. There was no way we were going down, nor could we.
The sun slipped thankfully out of the sky and into a pure red blazing sunset over the dark forest. The Valley was a different life below. It went dark and then to sleep. A can of meat, a tin of fruit, someone had extra water and had left it again. We had our last supper, drank our fill and slept 10 hours.
At dawn we climbed and clambered up pitches that just blurred into all the rest of the 36 pitches we had done. We were climbing animals. I took the last lead up a strange twisted chimney looming just below the top, a final fun obstacle that all the climbing below had trained me up for. Finally, I had the knack for these cracks and chimneys.
A lone pine tree lurked just back from the top, heralding our arrival back to flat ground, forming both an anchor and admittance back to the world of growing green living things.
Sitting upon the earth felt strange. We coiled the ropes, the packs were unfamiliar on our backs, the trail felt like stepping from a rocking boat back to land as we learned to walk again.
Back in Camp 4, lying on flat ground. The circle from Camp, to El Cap and back to Camp completed.
Still like a very real dream, those first excursions into the heights in the vertical world of El Capitan.
…To Everest – to be continued