There comes a point in every great climber's career when technique, or fitness or even genius falls short, that moment when success depends on brute willpower. During those first few instants on top, curious reactions are the rule. Whether you've taken one day or one week, you are a different person than the one who started some 3000 feet below -- John Long
My mind boggles at the amount of effort I have put into being able to start a trip report with that quote.
Almost exactly a year ago, I had just failed on my first attempt at climbing a "big wall". As a consolation prize we did the East Buttress of El Capitan, a route that shares a descent with the "real" El Cap routes. On the way down, we met a party coming off the Salathe Wall and for me, an obsession was born.
One member of their party was clearly not the same person who had started up the route days before. He was miserably dehydrated, beaten, starved, spindled and mutilated. But, he had a gleam in his eye and I was intensely jealous.
We all arrived at the East Ledges rappels just as the sun was setting. They had headlamps and we did not, so we shouldered some of their loads in exchange for light. Back at the cars, after an epic descent, we split up to go in search of food. An hour later we all ended up at the bar empty handed, it's late and the valley is closed up tight. In the bar, my new friend with the gleam lays his story on the waitress:
"I just got off El Capitan" ... "I haven't had anything to eat or drink for two days" and, the kicker, "Today is my birthday!"
The waitress takes pity on us and goes in search of leftover sandwiches. With the first bite of that sandwich, my karmic debt to the Salathe is sealed. I feel like I've basked in unearned glory and vow to someday earn that sandwich.
But, the road to karmic equilibrium is long and trying. This past year, almost all of my climbing has in some way been related to getting up the Salathe Wall. I've worked hard on my crack climbing, hoping to free some of the many moderates on the route. I've honed my off-width and chimney technique knowing the several notorious wide pitches on the route. I ticked other walls to dial in my skills and build up my confidence.
There have been detours on the road as well. Relationships suffered, work schedules needed to be juggled, gobies needed time to heal. Perhaps most significantly, a close friend I considered a kindred spirit was killed in a climbing accident. Stephen was driven by a similar passion to climb and his passing caused me to stop and consider many things beyond the obvious "why climb?"
But, even with my desire to do the wall reaffirmed, El Capitan does not give in easily. Three times this year I'd stood in the meadow beneath its shadow expecting to reach its summit and three times I'd been sent home with my tail between my legs. Would this time be any different?
My partner for this attempt is Michael Brodesky. He obviously doesn't know me well enough to know that he doesn't want to be on a wall with me, and I use that to my advantage. Elapsed time between realizing we both want to do the wall and getting on it: about a week. Total time devoted to planning: about two hours. Number of functional eyes my partner has: one.
When Michael calls to let me know he has injured his eye, I'm almost ready to call it quits right then. All of my past failures have been due to partners with problems, and his call fills me with a dark sense of deja-vu. I'd wheedled out of other commitments for the chance to go up with him, so maybe this was my just deserts.
But Michael is a solid, experienced climber and first light of August 28th finds him efficiently running the first two pitches together. He frees them with only a couple of hangs, and I breathe a sigh of relief as we move by the point where one of my past attempts had essentially ended when a partner crashed onto a ledge injuring her back as well as her spirit.
Our lack of planning is apparent at the start of the third pitch. Michael wants to lead in blocks, I'd been planning on having us alternate leads. Eventually I concede to his strategy and have to begin scheming up a new plan to give him all the unpleasant pitches...
This is my fourth time on the Free Blast this year and I spray beta almost as efficiently as Michael climbs. The only bit of excitement comes while I'm trying to talk Michael through one of the hook moves on the first slab pitch. At this point you need to free climb left a bit, then hook a crystal, then free climb left again to a bolt. Of course, "real(tm) climbers" just free this whole section, but I've always found the hook placement to be pretty solid. Michael doesn't agree, and to prove his point he manages to break my crystal launching himself for a 15 foot fall. By the end of the pitch he is pretty worked and is happy to hand over the sharp end.
I quickly work my way up to the hook move on the 2nd of the slab pitches. In the past, I'd found this move very difficult, hooking on the tiniest of edges, but this time around I come up with a new strategy. There is a blown bolt here and I manage to make a hook stick to a small shard on the face of the shaft. This is way sketchy but there is a solid bolt 5 feet below me so I give it a try and it goes!
The rest of the free blast (including my 4th lead of the Half Dollar) goes uneventfully as well. By now, these belays seem like old friends to me, and I can't help wondering if this is the last time I'll do these pitches carrying five ropes.
We make it to Heart Ledges by around 5pm and early evening finds us back on the ground racing for a hot meal at the pasta place. Sitting at a table gulping down breadsticks and Gatoraide it's hard to imagine being up on the route. We are both a little worn out from the days festivities and I manage to talk Michael into sleeping on the ground instead of hauling back to Heart Ledges that night. I know how hard the pitches are from Heart Ledges to the next bivy at the Alcove and I'm convinced we'll be better off with a days rest.
Eventually Michael buys into this, but then goes off the deep and commits a sin of astounding severity: he takes a shower. I try desperately to reason with him, "Dude, just because we're on the ground doesn't mean we're not still climbing El Capitan. You can't take a shower, it'll offend the gods. Orthodox climbers wont even change t-shirts over the course of a wall." But, Michael is not to be strayed from his heretical ways and we march over to Camp Curry so he can shower while I wait outside and fret with all the other impatient spouses.
Back at the official illegal campsite at the base of El Cap, we listen to the committed ones do their thing. It's a sad night. We are lonely for the wall, jealous of the climbers above. Their curses and shouts are a melancholy lullaby that eases us off to sleep.
The next day a big breakfast and a last minute gear fondling session at the mountain shop bring us back to the meadow. We mingle with the tourists while undertaking our hydration duties. Michael entertains himself baiting the tourists ("Well, Gollllly Geee, those boys must be crazy...") while I contemplate the upper heights of the wall. So many times I've stared up at those roofs, will this finally be my time to touch them?
The tourists eventually wander off to do other tourist things. Michael and I get our gear and hump it all to the base of the wall. During the schlep in Michael gets a copious nose bleed and spends the rest of the day looking vaguely satanic with blood splashed all over his face. He keeps catching me staring, but what do you say? "Ummmm, excuse me, but you look like and extra from a bad vampire movie. Want some garlic Gatoraide?"
My first attempt on the Salathe failed when I chickened out of rappelling down then jumaring back to Heart Ledges (forcing my partner to attempt a solo haul). Complete reliance on gear has always made me nervous and jugging fixed lines really gets into my head. This time I decide to confront my fears before they paralyze me. Leaving Michael to do battle with the mosquitos I grab the first haul.
The bag weighs more than either of us and the hauling is really a problem. The least awful technique I could find was:
Surprisingly, you don't see this technique documented in the popular Big Wall books. Personally I think it's a conspiracy.
We take turns with the hauls and it goes surprisingly smoothly. At some point the wind shifts and The Valley suddenly fills with smoke from the nearby forest fires. It's distinctly eerie not to be able to see the ground as we slave our way the 600 ft back to heart ledges, but the escape from the cruel sun is greatly welcome.
Once on Heart Ledges there is no rest for the wicked and I prepare to lead our one pitch of the day. I'd watched Dennis (a much better climber than either of us) have a hard time with this pitch so I wanted to get it out of the way today, giving us a leg up on tomorrows suffering.
This pitch wanders left, then pendulums left, then wanders back right. It's mixed aid and free on poor quality rock with a few mandatory reachy moves. I'm throughly baked by the time I reach Lung Ledge; but I've been able to backclean most of the traversing so Michael's jumar is only moderately awful.
On Lung Ledge the wind has changed directions and the smoke clears from the valley below. It's a perfect evening on the wall. We are tired, but content, as we munch on extra special tropical fruit cocktail(very winning) and watch the fading sunlight do the Picasso thing on the tapestry that is Yosemite Valley. Snug in our nests on a grand ledge watching this sort of spectacle it's hard to imagine why everyone doesn't climb big walls. Of course that question would be answered the following day.
I awake to the shout of "Off Belay" a party below us is trying to fire the Muir In-A-Day. Wow! it's amazing to watch them move. We chat a bit, but then they are busy doing their thing and we need to get started with ours. My thoughts center around the first pitch of the day. Gulp, the Hollow Flake. I have been dreaming (or more accurately nightmaring) about this pitch for more than year, I can't begin to estimate the number of sleepless nights it's caused.
Michael gives me a hard time as I carefully select the rack to take (a couple of nuts, #5 Camalot, #3 Bigbro, #4 Bigbro).
Michael: Hey, what about all this other stuff? (pointing at 35 or so pounds of assorted climbing gear). Evan: Umm, thats for you to carry... Michael: Huh?!? I thought you were a hardman(tm)? Evan: Dude, there is difference between "hard" and "stupid"...
I've spent so much time dreading and anticipating this single pitch that my skin tingles with a surreal electrical feeling as I begin the pendulum over into it. But, once there, things quickly get grim. The Hollow Flake is infamous for being hard and unprotectable. For the bottom third my plan is walk my #5 Camalot along with me. But this turns out to be more precarious than I'm ready to accept. The cam is completely tipped out, just barely nestling in the crack, and the climbing is hard, way hard. I am well and truly scared. The bottom is not supposed to be the crux and I'm already gripped out of my mind. If I fall and the dicey cam pulls I'll whip 50' in a sideways fall and slam into the wall where I began my pendulum.
My fantasies of cruising the hollow flake die a quiet death as I slam in my #3 Bigbro and yard on it. With this help I'm quickly above the difficult part, but now I've introduced a Z into my rope. Midway up the pitch I get my #4 Bigbro in and then lower off to backclean the #3. Finally, I'm poised at the final smooth bit. I look up at the theoretical crux and wonder what else the Hollow Flake has in store for me. But this part goes easily. I don't find the climbing difficult and manage to place both the Bigbros, keeping two pieces between me and the now fatal looking fall. In what's an eternity for Michael, but feels like no time at all for me, I'm standing on Hollow Flake ledge. It may not have been pretty, but I've made it, and let out a triumphant yell! Congratulations echo back from the party on the Muir. We are a happy family on El Cap today and I bask in their praise.
Our days labor is just beginning though. Miraculously Michael and I manage the haul without the pig getting stuck in the bag magnet that is the Hollow Flake. Michael only needs to glance at the ominous looking chimney on the next pitch before handing the rack over to me. I've led this pitch before and know it's not nearly as bad as it looks, so take off walking my #5 for 60 or so feet before placing my one and only piece on the pitch. That done, I get to rest while Michael takes up the sharp end.
Chomping at the bit to get on lead, Michael is quickly pulled up short as he gets his first real taste of Salathe Sandbag. "10a my ass" he yells down between pleas to watch him. I know the feeling and belay as attentively as the Gri-Gri allows.
On his lead the sun pokes its ugly head around the corner and I realize we have a problem. In the few minutes it takes the sun to round The Nose it's gone from "pleasant in the shade" to "frying like an egg on the sidewalk" It is unbearably hot and I suck down water at a breakneck pace. It's a losing battle though and I can feel the cruel rays make off with whatever meager strength I had.
By the time it's my turn to lead again heat exhaustion is setting in and it's a struggle just to look up at The Ear never mind climb it. The regular topo neglects to mention the 30 feet of 10d(A1) that starts this pitch, but it goes by all to quickly and soon I'm faced with The Ear itself.
The Ear is a huge (20 feet tall by 40 feet wide) chunk of rock that juts out from the main wall. It is attached only at the top, so it forms an upside down V with the maw at the bottom being about 4 feet wide. You come up the left side of this, then need to traverse across its width exiting the feature at the upper right. The climbing is improbable, it looks very very hard, and it's not at all clear where you should be. Do you go down low where the chimneying might be a bit easier, or squeeze yourself into the claustrophobic top where the chimneying is more difficult but there is some hope of pro?
I have beta, but my beta is contingent on the fixed gear that is traditionally there and that fixed gear is gone. I not only have to climb this thing, I have to leave it in a state that Michael can clean. If I just put a single piece in on the far left and then go low, Michael will face a huge swing as he attempts to clean that piece. I need to place gear close enough together to minimize his troubles. That means I need to take the high road, so I go up to scope it out.
I'm crushed up into the apex of the chimney and I need to take my helmet off to be able to turn my head. The abrasions I get on my nose will turn out to be my most lasting physical souvenirs of the Salathe. As an added bonus, every time I look down at my feet it's hard not to notice the talus 1500 feet below. This thing is wild and scary and for the first time the exposure starts to bother me. But, the climbing isn't as hard as it looks and I eventually make it across having placed all the big gear I brought. The cleaning is tough for Michael, but he's cleaned a lot of hard pitches before and dispatches it quickly.
I didn't really want to lead the long aid pitch that follows. I'd caught a huge fall by Dennis on this pitch which made me apprehensive about leading it. Unfortunately, I'd told Michael the story so he doesn't want to lead it either. Somehow I lose the stare down so rack up and head off. The bottom of this pitch, to a small roof, is very continuously sized, so I back clean a significant runout for fear of leaving an essential piece. Above the roof I've been warned not to leave any gear. When the rope is pulled tight by the follower it can bury the cams making them impossible to clean and there is a gear museum in the back of the crack as testament to those who didn't follow this advice.
Due to all the backcleaning this is a tense pitch and I'm 75 feet out before I get a bunch of solid gear in and can relax. The aid is thin, but not particularly hard and I make slow but steady progress. As I labor up the wall I reflect on what a game of inches climbing is. It would only take one placement being just out of reach to completely shut us down. There are so many times when I wish I could reach "just a little higher" to get that "perfect" nut placement instead of the marginal one I make due with. I can see the belay bolts now, only a few moves away. On this pitch I've made extensive use of the HB Offset Brass Nuts that I bought just for this climb. These things are amazing, setting solidly in completely improbable scars. I set one and move up on it looking for my next placement. As usual I can't find anything great so I set another, smaller, brass offset and move up on that.
The belay is now tantalizingly close, it seems like this pitch should be done, but I still can't quite reach so I begin searching out my next placement. I inch higher and higher up in my aiders searching for a suitable scar. "plink!" I hear the nut I'm on blow and the rock begins to whip by, "Arggghhhhh!!!" my scream rips the still evening air. It seems like I fall forever and I'm sure I hear piece after piece tearing out, but when I finally come to a stop I can see that I've been caught by the first brass nut. A hormonal cocktail whips through my system and I vent in that most traditional of ways, "FUUUCK!!! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck me Harder!!!"
When I'm finished ranting and the quivering eases off I take stock of the situation. I've fallen only one placement, but due to rope stretch I've gone a good 25 feet. Scary, scary stuff high up on El Cap and I take back everything I said about this pitch being easy. The worst thing about falling in a situation like this is that you need to go back up and climb what just spit you off. After hauling myself up the rope I reset the same small brass nut but this time I'm careful not to lean out on it. It sticks and I quickly place another piece and then free climb up to the belay. Whew... My climbing for the day is done.
Which is a good thing because I am throughly thrashed. Mentally, physically, emotionally; I'm completely spent. I tie off the rope for Michael, get the bag off the anchor and then collapse into a puddle on my miserable little ledge. I dread the thought of having to haul the bag and I can feel rational thought slowly starting to slip away. The things I need to do don't seem at all clear and I can't seem to organize my priorities. Like a cold water drowning victim, all I want to do is sleep for just a few minutes. I haul the bag a bit, rest a bit, then haul the bag some more. I'm secretly glad while Michael struggles desperately to get a #4 Camalot out because I figure I can sleep as long as he's stuck at that spot.
Luckily we are only one short pitch below our bivy for the night. Michael quickly dispatches the pitch (via the "bashies about which you just don't want to know" variation), and we both collapse in the Alcove. Things are grim; we are both totally wrecked. We open cans of soup but find that we are so dehydrated we can't swallow the soup without some water to wash it down. The effort it takes just to eat dinner is beyond us. We fall into a rhythm of 3 bites of soup then a shot of water followed by a 5 minute nap, repeat. The Alcove is a great bivy, but we are too exhausted to move to any of the nice spots. We both have lousy nights, sleeping essentially where we fell.
Usually I sleep well on walls but that night I toss and turn. My dreams are haunted by thoughts of getting 3/4 up the wall and running out of water. When I wake in the morning I'm really afraid. When you think of dying on a wall you usually think of falling, but I begin to contemplate just how easy it would be to get heat stroke and pass on before even your partner knew. But, I'm also dreadfully afraid of mentioning this to Michael. I've bailed from this ledge before and don't want to repeat the stunt. We take stock of our water and find that despite the excess we drank yesterday we still have one extra bottle over our rations of three liters per person per day. We both begin talking about making a serious effort to get off a day early and Michael racks for the days first adventure.
The days climbing starts with those most fateful of words: "Come on man, how hard can 5.6 be?" I've led this pitch before so know better, but I figure he needs all the encouragement he can get. The chimney behind El Cap Spire starts with a wide stem, then some subtle route finding keeps you either on good holds or in a solid squeeze. Unfortunately the protection is really sparse on the bottom half. I can't help but smile as Michael is gripped out of his mind and calls down "Take!" Been there, done that.... If you stay with the squeeze, eventually, just as things are looking really bleak, a crack appears that takes incredibly good nuts and the rest is a cruise.
El Cap Spire is simply spectacular. It's a 20 by 20 foot free standing pillar that juts out from the side of El Cap. Standing there, it's hard not to feel like you own the world. We relax and take some pictures before Michael sets out on the next lead.
I make myself comfy leaning against a block while Michael climbs. The whole situation seems very casual until the sun comes creeping around The Nose. I'm again flabbergasted at how quickly things go from pleasant to unbearable. The direct sunlight bites into me like a lash and I begin the game of "Hide From the Sun" that will go on all day. First to the far corner of the spire, and then, when even that is lit I cower behind the haul bag.
Like so many pitches on the Salathe this one contains a difficult wide section so Michael isn't exactly enjoying the view either. But, after I send up the Bigbro's up he finds a way and I quickly clean the pitch and take over the lead.
My first lead of the day is straightforward A1. That is except for the tension traverse, the crappy pins and the requisite rampant back cleaning. There are not a lot of "gimme" pitches on the Salathe...
All day our prayers for a cloud or a breeze have been denied, but the reward for our desication is that the infamous "jungle pitch" is bone dry. This pitch is awkward and wide; I find it plenty hard dry and can't imagine climbing it with water running down the chimney. I call down for the #5 Camalot and get that most classic of responses, "I thought you had it." Turns out that somewhere between El Cap Spire and here, this monster of pieces has just disappeared. Neither of us remembers leaving it or dropping it, but it is nowhere to be found. Oh well, we can only hope we wont need it higher up.
In yet another episode of gut wrenching runouts I back clean the traverse over to the next pitch and run it together with the jungle to skip a hanging belay. If this pitch were on the ground it would be ultra-classic: steep, leaning hands in a beautiful corner. I lose a karma point for aiding the whole damn thing. This pitch screams out to be freed at 10a.
"Whoa! we're supposed to sleep here?!?" We are both bummed, the block sucks! It's a huge ledge, bigger than my bedroom, but it slopes out steeply and it's impossible to get comfortable. To add insult to injury it's infested with large aggressive ants. What a drag...
I pull out the can of lentil soup that is supposed to be my dinner and gag just looking at it. We drank our extra water in an effort to stay hydrated today, but we are both in bad shape. Choking down the soup is an incredible battle with nausea. It's a struggle to keep each bite down, but I know I need the energy for tomorrow. I brought along two cans of "Beanie Weanies(tm)" as a joke but they turn out to be much more palatable than the soup. As usual, the only thing either of us feels like eating is fruit cocktail. On my next wall I'm just bringing a barrel of the stuff. The reality skew on a wall is drastic. In Safeway I had a hard time imagining myself eating those petrified grapes and little fluorescent red cherries (the stuff you thought was garbage, even as a kid). But, here on The Block, I'd defend my 8oz can to the death. A few times I catch Michael surreptitiously eyeing mine, but I growl and bare my teeth until backs off.
This evenings entertainment is Michael's nightly grooming procedure. He has an unnatural fascination with HandiWipes and spends half an hour each evening dabbing and wiping until he pronounces himself tidy enough to eat cold soup out of a can. The first night I gave him a hard time, but the ensuing lecture on how HandiWipes are the cure for everything from alzheimers to cancer has since caused me to hold my tongue. Tonight however, his hands are trashed. Despite the gloves he has been wearing his hands are badly blistered. He gasps and cries out as he tries to clean the few bits of skin that remain. Somehow this strikes me a perversely funny and I giggle madly from my precarious little nest. Michael has claimed the only pseudo flat spot so I snuggle with the boulders that have been stacked ever so precariously on the downhill edge. Certainly not the best place I've ever slept, but far from the worst as well.
We have beta that the pitch off The Block is "the" place to get lost and have an off-route epic, so we choose our starting crack carefully. I of course manage to have an epic anyway. The problem with this pitch is that the pendulum point is indistinct. I go off the first likely pin and soon find myself doing a dicey tension traverse on a small sloping ledge. All too quickly I'm 30' to the left of my last piece and looking at a horrendous fall. This turns out to be a bit too much reality for me first thing in the morning so I drop to my knees and slap in a piece. Hand traversing to the end of this ledge puts me in a bad place. I've put a huge Z in my system, I can't reach the sling hanging from a fixed pin, and I'm still looking at a very ugly fall. I manage to bury some very small cams behind a very loose flake and eventually get to a spot where I can swing over and back clean my chicken piece. This is all very costly though. Gone is our head start on the day and gone is my good attitude. At the belay I apologize profusely to Michael for being such a lamer, and he responds with the only sensible thing to say "Just do better on the next pitch."
Our plan is to link the next two pitches, skipping another hanging belay. I start off with some 5.7 and then switch to mellow aid. I've regained my rhythm and everything is going fine until the character of the rock suddenly changes.
My nice clean aid crack goes away and is replaced by a soft grainy flare full of those hateful boxy pin scars. So, maybe I'm just a wimp, but this seems really hard. The scars are too shallow and too flared to take any cam. My first move is to place two equalized Lowe Tricams and then move onto them. The next decent placement is still a long ways away and my options are looking bleak. I finally manage to make a hook stick, but I know I'm just driving it into soft rock, it's not a great placement. I inch further and further up on it, eventually, in my 2nd steps I make a long reach and finally place a semi-solid nut. I let out a whoop and Michael joins in. We both assume I've just done the A2+ aid crux of the route.
The going eases off and I move past the bolts that comprise the belay we are skipping. Then I look up and my heart stops. It's grim, very grim. It looks harder than the section that had me maxed out below and it's 30 feet long. I hang in my harness and just want to cry. I don't know how to climb this; I can't imagine any combination of gear thats going to get us across this section. This is the 29th pitch and my mind boggles at coming this far only to be stopped cold by one short stretch. I think about going back to the belay and letting Michael try, but figure if there is a way, I should be able to find it, so I vow to give it my best shot.
The first piece is a pink Tricam, followed by other improbable Tricams and hook moves on top of old wireless fixed nuts. Every piece is tenuous and I have no confidence in the ability of any of it to hold a fall. Towards the end of this section I try to stop thinking about the fall I'll take if anything blows. I'm as scared and mentally taxed as I've ever been while aid climbing. I swear over and over that if I just get through this section I'll never do hard aid again. Eventually I get a few solid pieces in but the nightmare continues. The last 20 feet of the pitch is a leaning flare. Experimentally I stick a #2 Camalot in. The inner two cams are completely over cammed, the outer two flap in the wind. If I was free climbing I'd laugh at this thing, but here I have no choice. I give it a serious bounce test and it sticks so I precede two leap frog my two #3's the rest of the way to the belay.
In the here and now, so much of the climb is a foggy blur, defocused by the endless series of mind bending events. But even now, I have an intense memory of staring up at a sling hanging from a fixed pin at the belay. That sling is just out of reach and I need to place one more of these ridiculous cams to reach it. With each one of these placements the fall has gotten longer, the consequences have gotten greater and the probability of the piece failing has remained distinctly real. If I had a choice I wouldn't place this piece, but so much of long committing climbs is the acceptance that you'll have to deal with things as they happen. I don't want to stand on this last manky cam, but the decision to make this move was made on the ground when I started the route, not here at the top of the 29th pitch. I place the cam and it holds; I stand up and grab the sling; I breathe a huge sigh of relief and begin constructing an anchor. Another pitch down, six more to go.
With almost all the water gone the bag is now trivial to haul. I have plenty of time to soak in the view while Michael cleans the pitch. My belay is free hanging on a blank wall 3000 feet above the trees below. Before the climb I was terrified that I would get to this location and freeze up. For a week before my first attempt on the Salathe I would wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming about being frozen at this spot. But, in the present tense, it's not so bad. The sloping buttress of the nose is beautiful from this perspective, I think of it as the train from natures wedding gown. It's a stark contrast to the austere looking wall to the left. I'm actually starting to relax and enjoy myself by the time Michael arrives at the belay.
This is the most common view on a Big Wall.
Me under the roof, about to start going out.
Last night I'd confessed that I didn't think I had the stomach to clean the roof, so this pitch is mine as well. The roof on the Salathe is absolutely wild. You traverse a bit to the right on pins that look like railroad spikes and then you start moving up and out. "The Move" is to pull yourself up on your aiders and then reach way behind you to clip the next pin. Moving from one set of aiders to the next is like wrestling with a float toy in a pool. Every time you weight something it skates away and the thing your trying to get off of pulls you back. Eventually I'm 20 feet out from the main wall dangling from my aiders in mid air. It's a bizarre perspective to be looking in at the belay. The only difficult part of the pitch is turning the final lip where I have to do a couple of ab-busting blind placements.
Thinking I'm doing a good deed I back clean almost the entire roof, but when I call down "off belay!" Michael announces he wants to follow the pitch instead of jugging it. I'm skeptical, but put him on belay. He gets across the traverse before he realizes it's not going to be practical and finally has to lower out on his jugs. Watching him spin while doing the free hanging jug way out in space I'm eternally grateful that he let me lead the pitch. Of course, the three pieces I did leave in are a colossal pain to clean and he is justifiably cranky by the time he reaches the belay. So much for good deeds.
A tele photo of The Roof and The Headwall. The Line shows about where the route goes.
The day is gone and twilight has come. I'm so lame! It's taken me all day to lead three pitches. Sigh. Michael is a good sport about things (like he has a choice) as he takes off to attack the headwall. It's amazing to me how well we have gotten along. We really didn't know each other that well before we started, but there have been no major problems. We've each snapped a couple of times when the going got tense (I can't count the number of times each of us screamed out "Slack!!!" in desperation, Gri-Gris do have their disadvantages), but the bad times have been few and far between and we've laughed a lot more than we've cried. All in all, he's been a fantastic partner cleaning all the scary pitches and being constantly supportive despite my lameness. When it's all over, we'll both remark that there isn't really a crux to the Salathe. Each pitch has something about it that makes it hard or interesting or scary or "something". The challenge is to keep it together over the entire course of the route and a smiling joking partner makes all the difference.
But right now, Michael isn't smiling or joking, he is up on the headwall and it's his turn to be scared. It's very thin and the fixed gear is really poor (nuts cracked in half, etc...). The calls of "watch me" echo with the days final light. Above the crux he calls down for water and his headlamp. We are now borrowing from tomorrows water supply, but we are both whipped and need to hydrate. I take each swallow of water in my mouth and gargle it for minutes trying to make that wet feeling last.
This is another hanging belay and I break out the butt bag in an attempt to get comfortable. I don't think it actually makes a difference but having more things to fuss with keeps me entertained until Michael finishes the pitch. Climbers hear a lot about the famous Salathe Headwall, but from the belay it doesn't look that steep. Of course, all doubts are erased as I cut the bag free and it sails out into the dark. Minutes, later it will swing by, startling me, and causing my heart to stop for a good long while. You don't really expect things to sneak up behind you thirty pitches up El Cap.
The pitch is straightforward to clean and the next belay is yet another hanger. On the off-chance that I've had my fill of hanging belays Michael graciously offers me the next lead. "Ummm, no thanks I've had enough climbing for one day, thank-you-very-much!" So he sets off on our last pitch of the day.
The topo for this pitch says "thin," but then it also says 13b, so it shouldn't be that much of a surprise when Michael finds a distinctly non-thin distinctly unpleasant surprise. There is a short but severe flare in the middle of this pitch. I'm sure if you're a 13b climber you don't even notice it, or if you do, you think it's a fine rest, but for Michael on aid it's a real problem. There isn't much I can do snug in my belay seat watching the starlight play over the dark walls. I take in a bit of rope and listen sympathetically while he wails from above. Like all the other challenges on the route this one too eventually falls and the rest of the pitch goes more quickly. Following this pitch is a bit of an adventure. Michael has run it out a bit in places and it's steep enough that I swing out as I clean the pieces. For me, while cleaning, few things are worse than the dreaded "spin" so I stretch outward like a ballerina trying to keep a toe in contact with the rock.
This pitch ends with a hand traverse onto Long Ledge. I'm sure it wasn't a piece of cake to lead but it's really unnerving to follow. The climbing isn't particularly hard but it's a challenge to keep my jumars snug while still doing the moves. Quotes from warning pamphlets about how self belaying on jumars can cut the rope drift through my head as I struggle through. Thankfully Michael has put in as much pro as possible and I make it safely over to the ledge.
At first glance Long Ledge looks pretty lousy, but the details save it. The big negative is that it's less than a three feet wide. But, it slopes in and is shaped almost like a cradle so I feel more secure sitting there with my feet hanging over the edge than I ever did on The Block. Michael and I take stock of our situation, we have less than two liters of water left. We resolve to get up early in an attempt to make it to the top before the sun hits us. The descent is likely to be a horror show, but there isn't much we can do about that now.
There isn't enough water for our ritual of washing each bite of food down with a capfull so we each choose a meal we think can be swallowed dry. For me, it's a can of Beanie Weanies, for Michael, it's our last can of fruit. We have a huge supply of cliff bars, granola, gummi snacks, etc... all of which have been rendered inedible by our dehydration. It seems like each wall is a lesson in what to and what not to pack.
It's our final night together and we are both melancholy. I settle into my cocoon and call out to Michael, "I'm going to miss you man!" He responds in kind. We are both joking and serious. Walls are an escape from reality. If all goes well tomorrow we'll be back on the ground with the rest of humanity. Michael is starting a new job, I need to deal with my troubled love life. For 5 days our existence has been compressed into that next short stretch of rock. By the end of the day tomorrow all the complexities of modern life will be back in full force. "Hey man, maybe we should just do it again instead of going home, what do you think?" "ZZZzzzzz.." Oh well, for at least tonight El Cap holds me, and I think I can imagine it rocking me to sleep.
So much for our early start, we sleep through the alarm and start the day in a flurry to get moving. Problem is, we can't find the damn pitch. There is an obvious crack with a conspicuous fixed pin leaving from the middle of the ledge, but it looks distinctly non-A1 and the topo claims our pitch should be way to the right. Michael goes over to take a look and concludes that he'll have to do a blind placement of a micro nut off the far edge of the ledge. Good Morning El Cap!
It's micro after micro and Michael's sense of humor is waning. I give the classic useless advice "Dude, if you fall, try to push out. It's looking kinda grim." Not amused, he eventually gets some real pro in and quickly knocks off the free climbing above.
I'm not looking forward to cleaning this pitch. The first piece is low and way off to the side. I contemplate just bungee jumping off the ledge but eventually come up with a better plan. I give the rope a good shake and Michael's first three nuts pop out. Cool! now I can just swing over. While I'm occupied with the cleaning Michael keeps calling down about how nice the next pitch looks. I debate weather I should be elated or terrified.
It turns out my pitch really does look kind of nice and I lose another karma point for not even trying to free it. Then it's my turn to play the game:
Evan: Hey man, *your* pitch looks really special! Michael: Hows it look? Evan: Well, it's steeper than Generator (a notorious Yosemite crack) Michael: (silence) Michael: (more silence) Michael: How's the pro look? Evan: As many Bigbros as you can carry Michael: We only have two Evan: That would be it then!
The pitch looks really grim. It's a radically overhung squeeze chimney that narrows down to fist size. It's clear that whoever leads it will need to exit the chimney way before it's convenient and it's not at all obvious what to do next.
My pitch ends in a cave with a floor that slopes out at 60 degrees, it's not very comfortable but at least it's protected from the sun. As Michael jugs to a point where he can see the next pitch, our dialog continues:
Michael: Hey man, you are right, *your* pitch looks really good Evan: No way, it's all yours Michael: I just couldn't, its got your name written all over it Evan: Rock Paper Scissors? Michael: Two out of three? Evan: No! Michael: ok.
So at a cramped belay below the 35th pitch we get ready to choose who'll lead the last hard pitch. The obvious thing to pick is rock, so maybe I should do paper, but then, will he know thats too obvious and throw scissors? Or will my brain just explode trying to figure this out!!! 1-2-3: I throw scissor, he throws paper, scissor cuts paper, I win! He immediately starts protesting "I meant rock, really I did, I always pick rock!!!" I hand him the rack, "Shut up and climb."
According to Michael the pitch is easier than it looks, and he is glad to have had led it. Cleaning it on the other hand is no bargain and it's not at all clear that I've really "won."
One more pitch to go, it's not even on the real topo, but is called 5.6 by Huber. He freed the whole thing, so who am I to argue with him. I set out in search of something a 5.14d climber would call 5.6. Eventually I find it, and then, I'm on top. I walk over and do something thats both simple and incredible. I tie off to a tree.
I do the final haul and then wait for Michael to join me. I should have just belayed him, because jugging over the final lip is a tremendous pain and an ignoble end to an otherwise majestic route.
On the summit I'm stunned. For days, I've been afraid to think about what it would feel like to be on top, not wanting to jinx things until I was really there. Now I am there and I'm too overcome to think. I untie from the rope and take everything off my harness, it's such a novel pleasure to walk around unfettered. I take a deep breath and savor the moment. I've climbed El Capitan, and no matter what else happens to me, that can never be taken away.
Michael joins me. We take pictures, laugh, and joke, but we don't shake hands. Lots of parties have gotten the chop on the descent and we know we still have a long way to go today. Before I left Deb gave me a good luck charm, but claimed it would only work if I kept it with me at all times. I faithfully tucked it into my chalkbag, and the charm chooses this moment to go into overdrive. Just as we are packing up I discover two quarts of water stashed behind a cairn. I'm so buoyed by the discovery I even drink my summit beer that I'd decided to forgo.
Michael on the summit.
Michael and I both feel that a climb isn't done till you've humped your stuff back to the car, so we cautiously set off down the East Ledges Descent. Hours of hiking and rappelling later we make it to the Manure Pile parking lot. Michael empties the shit bucket while I stand in the parking lot looking like a zombie. A stranger drives up and offers me a water bottle. I must look really bad... I say that I need to share with my friend and they dig through their car to come up with another bottle for Michael. Triumphantly I walk over to the dumpster to share the water water with my partner. As we stand there, car after car drives by us. They all wave at us. I feel like somebody should mount a plaque to my forehead.
Back at the car we finally shake hands and declare the deed done. I'm elated, but there isn't the sense of success I'd expected. I don't feel like I've conquered anything except my fears, certainly not the mountain. The huge expanse of rock is still there, just as imposing as ever. I don't feel like I've "done" El Cap, nearly as much as I feel like El Cap has "happened" to me.
For days I've been craving a margarita so we scream out of the valley towards the Smoke Cafe in Jamestown. Of course it's closed, so we try the posh Italian place across the street. When they try to seat us next to another couple Michael informs them, "We *really* stink, I think you want to put us far away from anyone else." The waitress takes our order, but doesn't ask why we haven't showered in days. We are back in the real world. Personally, I prefer El Cap.
It has been called the finest rock climb in the world-- Thirty six rope lengths of superb, varied, and unrelenting climbing on a near-vertical wall in one of nature's most masterful canyons. Is it any wonder climbers from all over the world have come to try the Salathe Wall. --Royal Robbins