It was dark and I had not moved in over an hour. The air was still warm from a beautiful spring day in Yosemite. Below I could hear the occasional signs of movement, a flash of light from a headlamp and perhaps a curse aimed at the rock. In spite of the ropes tethering me to my comrades, I was alone.
I had gotten myself into this situation. Was it a mess, a disaster, or just slow? I had to keep a positive attitude. We had to keep going. Every day on El Capitan is a good day!
Ambition mixed with obsession and two willing friends had gotten me eighteen pitches up the Triple Direct. I had spent way too long on the crux of the route before we veered off towards the Nose. Night had fallen as I waited at the belay for Jonathan and Casey. The darkness had come quickly, reducing the world to the eight foot bubble of my headlamp. At least the darkness had taken away the exposure.
After climbing the Nose, I was anxious to get back on the route to have another crack at the amazing upper pitches. I thought it would be fun to try and free climb more above the Great Roof. Jonathan and Casey are two of the most psyched climbers I know and they are always up for a challenge even when its something of a whole new level. Aid prep included a mere week and a half of notice. Techniques were described by email and I spammed them heavily with diagrams, links and photos.
Casey, Lizzy and, I spent our first day jugging up to the Mammoth Terraces and hauling the bags. We also fixed a rope on the “first” aid pitch of the Muir to give us a head start the following day. The next morning Casey and I climbed the Freeblast while Jonathan, having just drove in from the bay, jugged the fixed ropes to meet us at Mammoth. I pulled on gear as needed so the Freeblast was not very free, nor much of a blast, but we got back to up to Mammoth by mid day. Jonathan was eagerly waiting for us and thus began the three man shuffle.
I’ve climbed a few walls before but this would be my first time with three people. One plus was that I have done a good amount of short fixing, so I was confident that I could self belay as long as the aid wasn’t too hard. Another plus was that I had already climbed both the Freeblast and the Nose. This made me look past the fact that my partners had no aid experience beyond jugging up the fixed lines. I consoled myself with the notion that solid fitness and enthusiasm can overcome most things.
Over my years of multi-pitch and aid climbing experience, I’ve learned that you are never as fast as you want to be. Once we got the three man machine in motion, we made good time up to the Grey Ledges. Unfortunately, our momentum had to stop for lunch and it took time to discuss and figure out the next pitch, which involved free-climbing, traversing, and getting the bags safely to the next belay. Logistics are more complicated when the hauling monkey has to be lowered out onto a free-hanging haul line. You don’t want to send your friend on a 50 foot swing of doom!
I lead off towards the Grand Dihedral of the Muir Wall and became the slowest link in the chain. Jonathan was our hauling monkey and would zip up the haul line once I fixed it. Casey would wait for Jon to start hauling before he could ascend the lead line. In the meantime, I would keep on leading by belaying myself. When everyone was moving this system was perfect!
This brings us back to the darkness, the isolation, and the pondering. How much is too much? How far out of my comfort zone do I want to be? I can imagine that these are things you ponder when soloing big walls. At least when I was short fixing there was not much time to think. The day flew by with constant problem solving and perpetual upward motion.
Eventually the team reunited and I lowered off into the darkness to start the first horizontal pitch. Swinging towards the Nose, I found myself inside a veritable geode. Quartz exploded from the wall in a variety of shapes and angles. Free climbing was a nice change as I scampered up the 5.7 pitch until I found an anchor. The shining lights from Casey and Jonathan were barely ten feet above me but 100 feet removed. We hauled horizontally with the bags attached to both sides. We pulled off the complex engineering as the clock ticked closer to midnight.
The horizontal jugging and been a hassle and my anchor was 50 feet above our sleeping ledge. More headlamp powered shenanigans were had before we could settle in for a short night of sleep. The ledge was large but neither flat nor “awesome” (as quoted by the SuperTopo). A portaledge would have been divine!
With the morning unpleasantries sealed up in our OpSack (smell-proof industrial ziplock), it was time for rock climbing. Casey free climbed and lead us to the Nose where our pace was sure to quicken. The bomber cracks of a trade route were a nice change from the less (much much less??) climbed Muir. We speed up to the great roof, where I made a mistake with pitch lengths and basically ran out of rope (supertopo shows you using a higher belay that currently has only one bolt) . Some shenanigans later, we were all moving again and the short fixing machine was well oiled. The climbing was so much easier than the day before and my recent ascent of the Nose was paying dividends.
I was really getting better at french free and we were at Camp Six in no time. There are some hard moves to get to the glowering spot, but I was flying up the easier cracks, happy to cam jug and back clean as frequently as possible. Despite our forward momentum, I didn’t want to hoard the experience. For a complete El Cap experience, Casey and Jonathan “needed” to lead some aid.
I was relieved that the changing corners were no longer a faucet of water and green slime (as it often is in the early spring). The ascent had come full circle as I lay upon the smooth granite of Camp 6. A bubble of light turned on as Jonathan arrived at the belay after the changing corners, his first aid lead. Casey’s light moved upwards, leaving me momentarily alone. Our forward progress had slowed down as the three man machine stopped at each anchor, lingering and regrouping before heading up into the darkness.
Before long, chaos broke as a NIAD team came upon us. New voices added excitement and frustration to the final steep pitches. It was amusing to see the bag-less team shuffle past us hoping to make the summit before their 24 hour curfew expired. The five of us were a mess of ropes and headlamps working to regain level ground.
As Casey lead the final pitch the unmoving bodies of his followers were subjected to the wind and cold of night. The reek of urine filled my nose as I shivered at the last belay. Lost in the darkness, Casey couldn’t find the anchors on the summit. As the first rays of twilight filtered across the valley, the ropes pulled tight. Hours had passed without communication and we were hopeful that the ropes were properly fixed and Casey was safe on the summit. Jonathan’s silhouette bounced slowly skyward on the free hanging line. It was almost over.
Morning light gave us a second wind on the summit. We were now many hours overdue and my wife was surely worried. I had planned on going into work, but it seemed that El Capitan had other plans for me.
The march down was easy in the daylight with gear distributed among the three amigos. We had topped out a little less than 48 hours after leaving the ground. Sleep was sacrificed for the experience and we got a full helping!
Always remember that every day that you spend on El Capitan is a good one!