Previously, on The Climbing Obscurist: 'Murica Part 1: The Rocky Road to Mount Watkins (Yosemite Valley)...
...At the end of this epic both of us were -if I'm honest- feeling rather broken, and quite disillusioned about the idea of doing any more big walls while in the Valley.And now, The Climbing Obscurist continues with: 'Murica Part 2: The Crowded Superhighway to The Nose on El Capitan
We'd both suffered in the heat with severe dehydration; [...] with the hauling [...] and with the more committing free-climbing (anyone who has climbed in Yosemite will doubtless attest that the grades there are both sandbagged, and in a style which tends to humble even hardened granite climbers)...
[...]But regardless, I wanted to push myself here.
[...]Despite all these dire thoughts, the fact was that we'd only been in Yosemite for just under 2-weeks by this point in time, with at least 3 more weeks to go, and plenty of time to try and perfect Valley trad-climbing [...] and decide whether or not we had the inner strength and tenacity to try and tackle another Big Wall within the next 2 weeks...
|Seconding Pitch 4 of The Central Pillar of Frenzy.|
P1 - Slippery chimneying and stemming
P2 - Sustained and intense finger-crack climbing
P3 - Intimidating roof and off-width climbing;
P4 - Face and seam-crack climbing;
P5 - Sustained Laybacking.
Despite still being trashed from Mount Watkins, Stephen and I were both drawn from our catatonic lethargy by the stunning trad climbing encountered on this mega-classic route.
Following this we did a day of cragging at the Pat and Jack Pinnacle, which was a great way to enjoy Yosemite climbing without the risk (or the fear) that many of the more hardcore crags require.
By this point, we were already discussing whether or not we wanted to tackle another Big Wall, and -in particular- whether or not we should tackle The Nose on El Capitan. Chris McNamara's Yosemite Valley Big Walls guide features a list of interim "test pieces" which can be used to assess a team's readiness to start up The Nose, and even though we knew that at least half of the people we'd observed on The Nose wouldn't have passed these interim assessments (because they were clearly a cluster-fuck of disorganisation and non-existent free-climbing skills), we decided to tackle one of them as a gauge of our own readiness (and subsequently, our enthusiasm) for the most famous Big Wall route in the world. We settled on the South Face of Washington Column (11-Pitches, 5.8 C1 or 5.10d C1 based on what we onsighted), which had only 3 pitches that Stephen and I would need to aid, and that Mr McNamara said should be done "in a day" to assess one's readiness for The Nose.
|A view of the South Face of Washington Column. Majestic, no?|
|Stephen aiding through the infamous Kor|
Roof on Pitch 4
We were surprised to encounter 2 teams of climbers sleeping on the ledge, one of whom was bailing from the route, and the other who were descending (having topped out the day before, but not managed to make it back to the ground before dark). Consequently, for all intents and purposes we had the South Face route entirely to ourselves. Stephen made his way up the iconic Kor Roof on Pitch 4 and (with some rope jiggery-pokery) linked it into Pitch 5. On being prompted by the teams on Dinner Ledge to "say something Australian", I left them with the appropriately cliche "I see you've played knifey-spooney before" (that's a Simpson's quote, for the unenlightened among my readers), and joined Stephen, continuing up Pitch 6 mostly free at 5.10d C1 (aiding a 3m section of 5.12).
|Me onsighting the 5.10d section of Pitch 6. |
Clearly I'm ready to climb The Great Roof
Despite having punched out a route which is usually climbed over 2 or 3 days in a blisteringly quick time (on our first attempt), the infamous North Dome Gully descent still awaited us, and by the time we'd finished negotiating the loose scree, slippery slabs, worrying 4th class downclimbing and long hike back to the car, our entire car-to-car time for the day was 13hrs 45min. Having completed this well before the "in-a-day" requirement suggested by Mr McNamara, there could be no doubt that we were both ready and capable of smashing out The Nose, but the one remaining question was: did we really want to?
With the question of our commitment still in doubt, we took a rest day, then set about the next in our list of Valley Classics: Snake Dike (8-Pitches 5.7+R), a climb which is definitely the ultimate "sum of all its parts", as the route takes almost an entire day car-to-car to climb, yet the actual climbing can be done in under 3 hours. The approach to the southwest face of Half Dome past Liberty Cap and the majestic Nevada Falls would be an undeniably picturesque walk in its own right, but as we are climbers, the epic 2.5 hour uphill slog to get to the start of the climb merely served to justify the nickname for the climbing route in question: Snake Hike.
|Me seconding Pitch 4... 1 bolt in 50m of climbing is |
intimidating even on slabby 5.4 terrain.
There was another group on the route when we arrived at the base sometime before 8am, and another group arrived just after us (both groups had camped at a site within 30min walk of the route). As the day went on, the crowds continued to gather, and when we eventually lost sight of the base of the route, there was approximately 20 individuals waiting their turn at the first pitch.
The climbing in question isn't exactly hard (the normal route features two pitches of 5.7, and most are substantially easier), but the climb is infamous for its unfathomable runouts, with one 50m 5.4 pitch featuring a single bolt 25m off the belay. I took the first pitch and climbed it via the harder 5.9 variant, and straight off the bat I was into ludicrous runouts on generally featureless friction-slabbing. As you climb higher, you traverse past the "crux" friction slab and onto the namesake dikes that form the majority of the route. As you can see in the picture above, these dikes form an improbably consistent line of features that continues all the way up to the last 2 pitches and lends an element of security to the normally insecure notion of runout granite slabbing. Almost before we knew it, we'd reached the top of the route in 2.5 hours of climbing, and continued up the unending 3rd class slabs to the summit of Half Dome and our eagerly awaiting fans (read: hordes of tourists).
|Hmm... This rock in the background seems familiar... |
wait... is that El Cap?
The descent from the summit of Half Dome took about 3 hours, for a car-to-car time of 8 hours for the day Both of us were battling some seriously torched calf muscles, but for an "active rest day", it was worth the effort.
Another trip to Pat and Jack Pinnacle for some therapeutic Valley climbing followed, but as this one last day of cragging drew to a close, there was no denying the inevitable: the pysche was back and we were capable and ready. It was time to stop procrastinating, dig deep, and step up to the plate for one more Valley big wall.
Or should I say: The Valley Big Wall...
The Nose on El Capitan (1028m - 31 Pitches - 5.10c C1+)
Theoretically climbable at as moderate a grade as 5.8 C1+ (the sheer volume of fixed-gear on this route means it no longer warrants its original C2 grading), and going all free with only 2 pitches of proper hard climbing (The Great Roof and Changing Corners), The Nose on El Capitan is as moderate in its difficulty as it is majestic to behold. Inevitably, this means that it is seriously crowded.
|Our gear stash in the rectory... I can think of|
many humorous things to say about this photo,
but I don't want to piss off the people who let
a heathen like me stay in this place for free.
Despite our own misgivings at utilising such an impure strategy, Stephen and I made the judgement call to fix our own ropes to Sickle Ledge, with the goal of attempting our push at some unfathomable time at night, and get past all the parties in front of us before first light.
Fixing Day - 5th October 2015
Starting out early in the hopes of beating other groups and the forecast bad weather, we arrived at the top of the (somewhat sketchy) access scramble at precisely the same time as another group (The Catalonians). With appropriate rudeness, we made sure to drop our gear directly below the 1st pitch, and Stephen started aiding up before the Catalonians could finish flaking their rope (and almost before I could put him on belay). For a pitch of aid he made great time, and I joined him at the belay right as another team (The Chinese) arrived.
Hans Florine's Nose In A Day guide to The Nose describes Pitch 2 as "one of the scariest free climbing sections on [The Nose] with flared gear placements" due to insecure climbing up a vague seam-crack corner-feature, with fiddly and marginal protection in pin-scars (offset cams essential), and going free at 5.10c. That sounded like a challenge to a bold free-climber like me, and so I tackled it head-on, sketching my way up runout smearing in the shallow corner and doing my utmost to crush my fingers into tips-only pin-scars. After onsighting my way through this, I performed the first of what would be many pendulums on The Nose, and finished the pitch with a brief section of aid.
I linked this into Pitch 3 for a giant pitch, and was at the end of the crux 5.10c free-section of this pitch when I had a foot slip while standing high trying to clip a bolt, and had a long, cart-wheeling fall most of the way back to the belay. Sure, it was disappointing not to free Pitch 3, but as Stephen said of my fall later that day: "it was awesome, I was like: he's really going for it!".
The photo shown here (taken by Tom Evans of El Cap Reports) later the same afternoon shows just a small portion of the Sickle Ledge disaster. Arriving on the ledge, every anchor was taken by a plethora of fixed ropes (stretching 160m to the ground), and each of the 4 belay stations below the ledge were loaded with as many as 2 groups struggling for hour after hour to haul their unwieldy loads up to the ledge. Clearly we weren't going to be using any of the conventional belays anytime soon, so after a moment of watching this baffling mess of cluelessness (and shaking our collective heads in disbelief), I decided to make our own anchor out of a nest of trad gear (you can see our white rope emerging from behind the beige haulbag in the middle of the picture) and utilise a combination of 3 joined ropes, and the vague recollection that there was another free route somewhere to the right of the usual belay stations used on the nose (and thus there should be other belay stations on the wall) to bypass all these other teams.
Fortunately my idea paid off. Despite having to get past a knot on each of the hauls, and having to rap the line and jumaar back up twice (to free the haulbag on my own), we overtook literally every group hauling up the wall, and were back on the ground for one last solid night of sleep by 1pm.
Wall Day 1 - 6th October 2015
Getting up at about 1.30am, we began jumaaring up our fixed ropes at 3am, running into the Catalonians once again, who were only minutes away from commencing their own push. Once again elbowing our way in front of our friends from the southern side of the Pyrenees (as politely as possible, I swear!), I powered through the next two pitches placing one piece of pro in total, and arrived at the next pendulum point atop Pitch 6 to encounter one of the dumbest things I've ever seen in rock climbing...
The Portaledge Incident™:
It seems that the Montana team we'd met the day before, had managed to make a grand total of 2 grade-nothing pitches in an entire day of climbing (both of which I'd just knocked over in about 7 minutes), and rather than fixing ropes back to Sickle Ledge, they'd had the ingenious idea of established their two portaledges -one above the other- using the pendulum bolts, and over the pendulum itself. The obvious problem here is that now no one could use the bolts to perform the pendulum, and even if they could, there were two stacked portaledges and about 1000kgs of gear in the way of performing the crucial pendulum.
|Looking up at the Portaledge Disaster at 3am|
in the morning. The crucial bolt to perform the
pendulum is what the top portaledge is anchored
Somewhat distracted, I responded with "ummm, yeah, you guys are kind of in the way of the pendulum here and I'm trying to figure out how to get past you."
Her response: "yeah, well, you know, we were held up for like 5 hours by all these other groups and this way the only place we could setup our portaledges."
To which I, ever the diplomat, retorted: "yeah, but now you're in the way of all these other groups, and no one can get past you."
"Yeah, well, you guys are just going to have to wait your turn. We had to wait all day for all these other groups, so now you can wait until we start climbing at a more reasonable time in the morning." The irony of this response, is that despite her complaining about other teams holding them up, they were now causing exactly the same problem amplified tenfold.
"There are like five groups coming up behind us... You're now holding everyone up!"
|The Montana team at about 8am in the morning... still trying|
to pack up their portaledges, and still blocking the pendulum.
By the time Stephen reached the improvised anchor, the Catalonians were starting up the pitch, and 3 Nose In Day teams were in the process of climbing over the Catalonians on Pitch 6. As we began investigating trying to perform a super-sketchy lower pendulum off my improvised anchor, the husband of the ignorant chick from Montana poked his head out of the tent and said: "I don't appreciate the way you're speaking to my wife"... I won't pretend that the response he received from me was even slightly diplomatic, as by this time I was just pissed off.
|Looking down at the imbecilic Montana team from halfway up |
The Stovelegs: still trying to pack up their portaledges. Who's
Eventually, a lower pendulum succeeded, and as each team moved past the pendulum, they took the haul line of the following team and fixed that to the anchor on the far side of the pendulum, allowing them to get past without having to perform the sketchy pendulum (and thus speeding up the process of getting teams out of the bottleneck). We took across The Catalonian's and a separate Nose in a Day Castillian Spanish team's haul lines, and as we continued up the route, The Catalonians took across the The Chinese team's line. This incident had wasted the better part of 2 hours.
As you might imagine, I was absolutely furious over how the incident had played out (and contemplating setting another "first" for The Nose: The first punch-up on El Capitan), and was almost ready to just bail and come back another day when my anger wouldn't ruin the experience of the climbing. But upon seeing all these different teams, none of whom shared a similar language, benevolently taking steps to help other teams to get past the pendulum without the drama that we'd had, I remembered just why it is that I love the international climbing community in general: Climbing is the universal language, and here all these teams were communicating through gestures and half-formed words of English, to help their fellow climbers continue up The Nose with as little hassle as possible. Realising that this team from Montana was the only deplorable group of climbers I'd encountered in America so far, and that everyone else had -in fact- been completely rad, I found my inspiration and continued upwards.
The stunningly talented team from Montana managed to make 2 more pitches of climbing that day, before bailing from the route, having successfully clogged the lower pitches for 3 consecutive days only to bail from Pitch 8. I did, however, take particular satisfaction when an Eastern European Nose In A Day team reached the group, and rather than having any pretense of being polite, simply told them: "Yes, you are stupid. This is the most fucking stupid place to set up your portaledges on The Nose, now no one can get past your idiot position."
The Rest of the Day:
|Stephen high on the iconic Stove Legs crack.|
The stove legs are two consecutive pitches of steepish wide-hand crack climbing, originally protected by custom-fitted stove legs. Stephen had been "dreaming of this pitch" (his words) for years, so naturally the honour was his. Right at first light he set about leading the first of the pitches, and put up a valiant battle before pumping out right before the end of the pitch. The second part of the stovelegs were also his, and once again it was an awesome fight with only a single rest to break up its perfection.
|5.10c offwidth... French-free: hell yes!|
By this point in time we'd caught up to yet another group, who were in the process of making their way up Texas Flake towards The Boot, for the infamous King Swing Pendulum. Knowing that it would be an epic to get past them, and knowing that there was an "obscure alternative" near at hand which would facilitate getting around them yet required harder free climbing, I launched myself across the chipped Jardine traverse, climbing it at 5.10c A0 with some pretty outrageous face moves going free several hundred metres above the ground.
|Tom Evans' photo of Stephen leading Pitch|
11 off Dolt Tower.
|My photo of Stephen on Pitch 11 off Dolt Tower, |
taken within a minute of Tom Evans' own photo.
|Looking down at Stephen from the end of the |
Jardine Traverse (5.10c A0).
|Tom Evans' photo of me starting across the Jardine|
|Stephen's photo of me freeing the last moves of the |
This put us on the "grey bands" pitch, which turns out to be a logistical nightmare as you struggle to move all of your gear across 30m of vertically irregular and poorly protected terrain to the next belay. I led across the traverse, setting up an interim belay to move the haulbag across (while Stephen followed, frequently being forced to carry and manhandle the haulbag as it got snagged on every grain of rock on the pitch), and another belay at the end to complete the pitch. We managed to finish battling our haulbag into position right as the last rays of light vanished, and night set in.
Despite knowing that this spot would be our bivvy for the night, I chose to lead one more pitch (and fix lines down to our bivvy spot) to save time on the following day. And so it was that in the dark, having been awake since 1.30am and climbing since 3am, I managed to onsight the slippery, steep and poorly protected awkward 5.10a stemming corner and push our fixed line to the start of Pitch 21. I then rapped back to our bivvy spot, and the two of us set up our portaledge (the first time I'd ever set up, and slept on a portaledge -"This really seems like something I should have practiced beforehand") fairly efficiently. And with the fine dining Big Wall meal of cold tinned Alphabetti-Spaghetti and tropical fruit cups we hit the proverbial hay at about 10pm, with the sky overhead seeming to overflow with the volume of unobscured stars, and to the sounds of another group 2 pitches below us struggling to free a stuck haul bag on one of the pendulum pitches...
|With our portaledge set up, it was time to break|
out the food. Mmm... Cold tinned spaghetti!
|At the end of the Grey Bands traverse, at the spot that would|
become our bivvy for the night. Luxurious.
Wall Day 2 - 7th October 2015
|Stephen aiding his way up The Great Roof.|
We'd made the strategic decision to leave our haul bag on the Bivvy spot last night, as the 60m haul line would just stretch from The Great Roof belay to our camp, and it would make for a nice straight haul. I setup the haul, rapped back to the bivvy as Stephen jumaared up, and upon his arrival at the belay I released the haul bag and jugged back up the rope. Inevitably, all perfectly conceived plans fail miserably, and the haul bag got so stuck it necessitated another abseil down the line to free it, and another 45m jumaar back up. By this time the Castillian Spanish were biting at our ankles, so Stephen launched himself up The Great Roof on aid with gusto.
|Tom Evans' photo of Stephen on the Great|
Roof... now that's quite the iconic photo
to have in your collection.
|Me partway up The Pancake Flake, with|
all the void stretched out below me.
What surprised me, is just how much of this pitch I did manage to climb free. I stemmed my way up most of the 5.10d thin crack at the start (I actually pulled on 2 bits of gear to get through it faster), clipped my way up the bolt ladder and pendulum'd into the right corner at the end of the free-crux (avoiding the C2 section by using the higher bolts), and only had to aid a few metres up the end of the free-crux before I was back into 5.9 tight hands. In the mounting dark, I battled my way up the awkward, vaguely steep crack, but couldn't for the life of me do the final mantle move, and eventually fell off (much to my disappointment), practically able to touch the anchors! In reality, only about 5m of this entire 45m pitch was actually aided.
At this point, it got dark again (aid climbing is slow!), but Stephen set about yet another grovelly steep offwidth with etriers in tow, to achieve Pitch 28 in the full blackness of night. We were now a mere 3 pitches from the top, and only 1 of those involved actual free-climbing, but though we had the time to make it to the summit before midnight, the idea of topping out and descending the East Ledges in the dark really didn't appeal to us. I optioned the idea of sleeping on the ledge atop The Nose, but Stephen countered skillfully with: "Imagine how amazing it would be to wake up on a fully-hanging portaledge at the top of The Nose, knowing that you've only got 3 pitches of straightforward climbing above you". There's also no denying that we were pretty pooped, and starving for a feed (mmm... more cold spaghetti!), so neither of us really needed much convincing to set up the portaledge once again. I'd never tried to set up a Portaledge on a fully-hanging belay... it turns out it's a bit of a cock around.
|Climbing free high on the famous Changing Corners pitch. It's|
all free at 5.14a, but I chose to forgo the Onsight in the
interest of efficiency. Maybe next time, right?
Wall Day 3 - 8th October 2015
|Free-climbing Pitch 30 at 5.10c, with |
1 vertical kilometre of air below me.
A late-ish start of 7am, some Bagels with Nutella for Breakfast, a bit more screwing around from a fully-hanging stance to un-ledge the portaledge, and Captain Grovelly-Offwidth was back in the etriers for some trench warfare against another steep wide one.
The perch below Pitch 30 was almost unfathomably exposed, and the beautiful clear morning gave us a clear line of sight directly down the nose, as I racked up and launched myself at the last pitch of free climbing, a 5.10c steep layback crack with an unprotected boulder-problem off the belay, and literally 1000m of clean air below you to propel you upwards. Onsighting this pitch was -for me- the perfect cap to The Nose, as it epitomised so profoundly my experience as a freeclimber on this majestic Big Wall, and as my last lead of our epic, it was something truly special.
I accidentally climbed too high and ended up doing the bottom section of the summit bolt ladder (Stephen didn't object too strenuously), but by 9.30am my climbing partner was clipping his way through the huge roof that caps the route, and continuing upwards with interesting sections of thin face/slab free-climbing to the belay at the top of the wall. From the belay, we fixed a line to the famous tree at the top of The Nose, and shuttled our gear up Class 3 slabs to the safety of level ground and zero exposure. And then, as inauspiciously as that, it was all over.
|Looking down on my belay atop the haulbags as Stephen|
leads the final summit bolt ladder to the top!
|Stephen on the summit of The Nose,|
and me waiting patiently at the hanging
So, how do you bookend a tale of success on the most famous Big Wall route in the world, and one that I personally was satisfied with because I managed to step up to the plate and meet (within reason) my own free-climbing objectives on the route? With 2 major Big Walls in Yosemite Valley knocked-over, a swath of classic free climbs completed in fine style, and just under a week remaining before we needed to head out, how do you finalise this chapter of your climbing career?
Do you postulate some great epiphany, wax philosophical and speak about how you've achieved a new spiritual breakthrough as a result of these adventures? Hell no, as climbers, you go and do more climbing. And with this nice little resume of Valley climbs to our collective names, Stephen and I needed to tackle something hard. A real Valley free-climbing test piece...
And on that note:
Tune in next time for the epic conclusion to this Trip Report on: 'Murica Part 3: The Final Valley Assessment, Bishop Bouldering and Other Epics, where it all comes crashing down!
|Stephen and I after completing The Nose in 2.5 days, posing in front of the famous tree that marks the summit.|
|Eat your heart out, Huber brothers... Now if only I'd had time to work on my six-pack... and my tan.|