Jun 012011

This past weekend, Luke and I decided to climb Lurking Fear, a ~20 pitch route on the Southwest Face of El Capitan. The upper pitches are on the slabby side, so most advice was to travel light, because hauling would be bad on the upper part of the route. We decided to fix ropes up to the top of pitch 5 on our first day and then blast up the second day with light bivy gear. We were confident that we could at least make it to Thanksgiving Ledge (top of pitch 17), and possibly even top out.

As planned, we woke up before 5am and Luke was starting to lead pitch 6 before 7am. We were doing well until the 12th pitch. It started getting particularly cold and windy while Luke lead the pitch, and by the time I was finishing jugging it, it had started pouring (rain + hail) and the rock was running with water. Luke had already started short-fixing the 13th pitch, in an effort to get us moving towards shelter on Thanksgiving Ledge, so he had to finish and rap the pitch before we could start down. The weather continued to pound us as we went down, but we made it safely to the ground and retreated to the dry comfort of the truck.

It was disappointing because we’d been making good enough time to easily make Thanksgiving: we started rapping around 4pm, so we would have still had ~4 hours of daylight to climb the remaining 4 pitches of mostly free-climb-able terrain in good weather. However, it was also a huge learning experience for both of us. Here are some of the key lessons that stood out to me:

Looking across the Valley at Middle Cathedral Rock from the top of pitch 3.

(1) Be prepared.

We thought we were pretty well prepared (some bivy gear, small stove, plenty of food/water, extra layers), but we ended up facing some conditions we hadn’t anticipated. When you’re expecting a nice, sunny day and end up getting pounded with hail and wind, you’ll need all those extra layers (and be glad you’re not wearing cotton). It took us around 4 hours to rappel down from pitch 13 (and then another hour to get back to the car), and that was a long, cold time, even wearing all our layers (I was wearing a technical t-shirt, my R1, my nano-puff, my soft shell, and Luke’s nano-puff, and I was still fairly chilly). If we’d decided to continue, it still would have been several long, cold hours until we made it to the cave on Thanksgiving Ledge. Whether you’re rappelling or pushing upwards, one person will often be hanging around at a belay, getting cold.

The bottom line is: climbing long routes in Yosemite might feel like vertical cragging when the weather is nice, but you’re still in the mountains, crazy stuff can happen, and you need to be prepared in case you start having an epic. It’s even more important when you’re planning on moving fast rather than going more slowly with a portaledge and extra food/water/gear.

Lizzy following (not jugging) pitch 5 on our first day.

(2) Practice makes perfect.

Aid climbing is already a slower process than free climbing, so being efficient becomes even more important. On our first day, I had to take many breaks jugging up fixed lines to adjust the lengths of my footloops and daisy chains, or to rest my arms. By the later pitches on our second day, I had my technique down and I only needed to stop to clean gear. Little things like figuring out the most efficient way to transfer between jugging and anchored in to the belay (and vice versa) can mean a couple of minutes per pitch, and when you’re hoping to climb at least 12 pitches in a day, those minutes add up. I consider myself pretty efficient and well-practiced when it comes to multi-pitch free climbing, but aid climbing involves more gear and rope management (ascenders, fixed lines, haul bags, etc.) and more awkward situations (like hanging belays) that I’m not used to dealing with.

(3) If you find yourself doing nothing at belays… you should probably be doing something.

Aid climbing may be slow, but when you’re doing a full day of climbing on a big wall, there are almost always things you should be doing. For me, these things include remembering to eat food and drink water, or to put on an extra jacket if I’m cold. When we’re free climbing, we often move quickly enough that I won’t bother to put on an extra layer because it’ll only be minutes until I’m climbing again. However, when it could be a long time, it’s worth it to tie off the belay device for a second and throw on an extra jacket to avoid getting cold in the first place. There’s also rope stacking, gear organizing, etc.

Nice folks let us pass them at the pitch 5 belay in the morning. Thanks!

(4) Take the extra time to double check everything.

Climbing is dangerous. We all know that. When you’re way up on a big wall, there are tons of opportunities to accidentally drop things (including important things, like the rack, the haul bag, your belay device…), or forget to be attached with at least 2 points at all times. It’s worth it to double check everything. These are all things we do when we’re on a multi-pitch free climb, but on a steep, exposed route like a big wall aid climb, I’ve found that being deliberate and mindful about double-checking everything helped calm some of my nerves.

Accidentally dropping gear sucks for you and any parties below you. When I’m cleaning gear, I make sure to check that the piece is actually clipped onto my gear loop, either visually or by giving it a sharp tug. When we’re transferring gear between us, we always confirm with a  “got it?” “got.” before letting go of anything.

When we were bailing, we always pre-rigged my belay device on the rope before Luke rapped (the ropes were wet and heavy, and my hands were cold and clumsy) and he fire-manned me while I rapped second with the haulbag. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re cold and in a rush to get somewhere (like the ground…) and doing this allowed us to make sure both of our belay devices were set up right and locked before we started the next rap.

Luke pulling over a roof on pitch 10/11 (linked by accident because the pitch 10 belay is crappy) before the weather really sets in.

(5) Memories of suffering fade fast, and that’s good.

Waiting at a hanging rap station, trying to stay away from the stream of water pouring down the wall next to me, I told myself that this was it, I was not going to try to climb El Cap again – I would be satisfied with single pitch projects (the only other route I’d tried, several years ago, it was insanely hot, and we only made it 4 pitches up the Nose before deciding we didn’t have enough water). Less than 24 hours later, we were already discussing what our next attempted El Cap route would be and (hopefully) what would make it less epic. (Salathe? Nose? West Face?)

I’m sure if I told this to my shivering self mid-epic, I would have been outraged. But really, if I let a little epic scare me away from future adventures, that would be pretty sad. Yes, I may have been uncomfortably cold and not having tons of fun up there, but we were safe. We did nothing wrong except maybe not checking the weather report the night before (instead of 2 nights before, when it looked great). I’ve learned that I don’t enjoy aid climbing as much as free climbing, and that the exposure of El Cap makes me nervous, but does that really mean I shouldn’t try again? Of course not.

We probably won’t be up on El Cap for quite a while (June is a busy month, then it will be field season for me and High Sierra season for Luke), but if you want more vicarious Yosemite big wall action, I’d recommend reading the El Cap Report.


  16 Responses to “Lessons from Bailing off El Cap”

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  1. You two are awesome. One of my ultimate climbing goals is El Cap. Good to hear you made it down safely without incident.

    I agree on your lessons completely. I have done some multi-pitch (not tons yet) and if you aren’t doing something at belay changes, you are doing something wrong. A coordinated duo makes for really fast belay changes and you can get a lot of pitches in. I find that people who start out take a long time because they waste tons of time at the anchor.

    Great article!!

    • You’re totally right that belay efficiency is a skill that’s useful for any type of multipitch climbing. I’d much rather speed through the belays and get the chance to chill at the summit than spend too much time chatting/eating/dealing with gear at the belays. One thing my friend SK and I did when we climbed a long multipitch (free) route together was each carry our own small backpack with our food, water, and layers. I think this can be a really good idea because it means you don’t have to wait around for your partner to arrive to eat/drink/etc.: it can save a lot of time and help both partners keep themselves adequately hydrated and fed.

  2. good stuff! how was the climbing on Lurking Fear, not fun enough to want to go back?

    My best wishes to both of you for your busy June 🙂

    • Good question… I still don’t have a ton of aid climbing experience, but I’m pretty sure I like free climbing better. I was interested in checking out the free-climb-ability of the non-5.13 parts of LF, but the “splitter” 5.12 cracks are more like endless laybacking than real jamming (I was hoping for Tales of Power splitters), and some of the other pitches, the crux would probably be placing the small fiddly gear while climbing 5.12… it’s not something I’d go back to in order to free climb, and I’m not sure repeating it as an aid climb would be my first choice either. There are SO many routes on El Cap, it seems like it would be more fun to try something new next time!

      • ah, I see. That’s what I was wondering about, going back to free climb as much of it as possible, because it looks so great in the pictures I’ve seen. Thanks for the additional info on how those cracks climb!

  3. Enjoyed reading about your “learning experience”. Wish you had been able to finish, but sounds like you learned a ton about how to make the best out of sucky weather…thanks for sharing =)

    • I wish we had been able to finish, too! I think they’re having better weather in the Puget Sound than we’re having here in NorCal this spring!

  4. Great tips, and great story- the story can still be great even if you have to bail. I’ve never climbed a big wall, so to me it’s all a little more than freaky. Someday…maybe. I think the most important of all your tips is to be prepared and know how to rescue and get down.

    • I’ve climbed plenty of multipitches, but the exposure you get from climbing a wall that steep was freaking me out, especially when I was cleaning traverses and had to take a lot of swinging almost-falls. It was definitely uncomfortable at times, but I think it’s worth it to climb something as huge and inspiring and ridiculous as El Cap.

  5. Hey, I was looking for some recent beta on the route and came across this. I met you guys that night as my friend and I were coming to do the route and ended up switching to West Buttress due all the parties you told us about. We ended up bailing too because of the rain. There was lots of water in the offwidths already though, so it was probably for the better. We worried about you guys and hoped you made it to the cave. Glad you got down safe. I’m thinking of going back up there and soloing it this weekend -guess I’ll just tough it out in the crowds this time.

  6. Psyched to see my photo on your site! And you even described my partner and I as “nice folks.” Clearly we don’t know each other that well… 😛

    We bailed that day too and we were wondering about you two the whole ride home and for the next week or so… I’m REALLY REALLY glad to hear ya’ll got down safely.

    See you around.

    O-lips & The Oriental Express

  7. You guys are awesome. And give yourself a break. Pass the piton pete bailed that same weekend as well, and he’s extremely experienced. Word around the valley was that a party had to get bailed off the wall by YOSAR and that there was ice up there and stuff. It’s really unusual for memorial day weekend to be as bad as it was. It was pouring rain that afternoon. Next time you’ll run up it. When experienced big wall climbers bail off a wall due to rain/weather the last week of may, you didn’t “bail”, you made the right choice. Keep up the good work!

  8. 1. Great write up of the route…just really good writing, period.
    2. I love that you do a “lessons learned” after facing challenges on a route; and really glad you share them…that is really smart and helpful!
    3. Of all your lessons learned, the reminder that Yosemite is indeed a mountain, with lots of unpredictability, is, for me, the biggest lesson to pass on to your readers. There is a strong temptation to think that Yosemite is safer and more civilized than it is….things just seem so accessible, and “civilization” seems so nearby….until problems happen, at which point the reality of how difficult it really is to help someone on a vertical, solid granite face 2000 feet in the air is HARD. There are, in fact, no transporter beams, and when the weather changes for the worse, the sheer number of people needing real rescue can overwhelm even the huge YOSAR aid capabilities. Your decision making was awesome in the circumstances, IMHO..In 1999, a giant 3 day storm hit Yos, with heavy rainfall that melted the record-deep snowpack on the tops of the rocks and turned every face in the valley into a thundering, hypothermic waterfall. We were rained off the NW face of Half Dome, and watched YOSAR perform something like 34 risky technical rescues of teams all over the valley in 3 days. Even with that, there were people who would have died (of hypothermia) had not OTHER CLIMBERS rescued them while they themselves were self-rescuing. A German team rapped 24 pitches to get off Salathe Wall, and found a soloist hanging on a lower pitch in a waterfall, so hypothermic he had been unable to use his hands to open his locking biner when he had decided he could suffer no more and wanted to just jump off. When he realized he couldn’t even end his suffering by jumping off, he hung there in his harness, waiting to die, and one of the German climbers CLIPPED THE GUY TO HIS HARNESS AND RAPPED THE LAST 12 PITCHES WITH THE GUY TO GET HIM DOWN. Yosemite only looks like climber’s Disneyland until the weather changes. Huge lesson.

    Thanks for your awesome blog!

  9. Hey Lizzy

    Are the rappells pretty straightforward? I am thinking of heading to Lurking Fear in December and would love a relatively easy retreat should weather roll in.

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