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:
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.