El Capitan needs no introduction. Most climbers consider it the single greatest monument to our sport. The sheer cliff face stretches more than 3000 feet. If you fell from the top, you’d have about 15 seconds to remember your favorite joke, take a nap or heroically plug a cam before eating dirt. I’ve been practicing my dynamic cam placements, so I felt confident as I stepped onto the greatest monolith on Earth and Kris and I started upward.
Our goal was Freeblast, a 10 pitch 5.11 sprinkled with some jalapeño spice. The climb is the beginning third of summit route Salathe Wall, ending at the traditional first bivy. Though we both anticipated an adventure, I’m not sure either of us were prepared for the exertion that awaited.
On a warm Saturday in Yosemite it was not surprising that another party was on the route as we arrived at the base. Waiting for the first couple pitches to clear, we studied our topo, geared up and discussed the awaiting assault. The twin finger cracks and pin scar locks on the 5.10 first pitch were brilliant and could be climbed as a single pitch with two ropes. After the beautiful 5.8 hand crack second pitch we were warmed up and ready for the first 5.11 test on what is widely regarded as the crux pitch 3. I was reminded of Eldo’s classic The Wisdom. Immediately off the hanging belay, a rightward traverse under a small roof must be negotiated on technical underclings and smedges for feet. Dubious fixed gear can be clipped with precarious difficulty. I took my time, shaking my legs out when the cramps boiled through my calves. Finally, I committed to the rightward undercling crossover and smears and found a reasonable hold over the roof. Just when I thought the business was over, one of my feet blew. For an instant I thought the ancient fixed nut would have to serve as more than just psychological pro, but I was too gripped to relinquish my grip and pulled back in to a stable stance and tackled the rest of the pitch without trouble. Kris followed in a fraction of the time and we waited at the base of pitch 4 for the group ahead on pitch 5 to clear out.
That did not happen. In over their heads, they bailed off of the 5th pitch. Every topo and route description we read in anticipation of Freeblast specifically noted the micro cams required for pitch 5. Evidently they did not do their research, or more likely, decided they could hack it without the recommended rack. As the stronger of the two climbers rapped past me he mentioned that this was the first trad route in 7 years. Furthermore, his partner had never climbed a trad line. Never. Ten pitches of a heady El Cap 5.11 seems a strange choice to break into the game.
After the delay, we were back on our way and Kris punched out the 4th pitch in style. Arriving at the base of the 5th pitch, we were in good shape, through the 3rd pitch crux and staring up the biblical El Cap headwall that stood above like Hokusai’s Great Wave. I left the bigger gear with Kris, took a deep breath and began up the pin scarred seam. Plugging small cams and nuts wherever possible, I jammed up the perfect technical granite, scoring a couple bail biners on fixed nuts the previous group left. I placed a good 00 cam and a horrible 000 cam over a small roof and established in a couple higher pin scars from which I could plug a good .5 into a lower scar that had been an essential hand hold. Another 10 feet of slab climbing put me at a bolt and a sigh of relief. Three bolts of traversing slab Kung Fu later, I was still clean but at wits end. Falling off a featureless 70-degree 5.11 Yosemite slab is like getting soaked by mist. Eventually the calves tire – but it’s not like getting pumped out. Rather it’s just a loss of precision that angers the laws of friction. The final blank crux proved too difficult and we pulled through – as did the next group that had caught us while we waited out the bail. It makes me wonder what 5.12 Yosemite slab is. I think growing a huge beer belly may help me keep my center of gravity closer to the wall.
Though not as long, pitch 6 was more dicey 5.11 slab and I was thoroughly happy that Kris took the sharp end on that one. At that point we were almost out of water and though through the cruxes, still had a 5.10 chimney and a couple long moderate pitches remaining. The flaring chimney mercilessly beat the little remaining energy out of us and we aided parts of the punishment. If we were climbing the Salathe Wall, we would only have been about a third of the way through!
Six double rope raps got us back to the ground in the pitch black and we drank enough water to fill our bellies but not nearly enough to rehydrate our shriveled cells. Water was the only thing we cared about even though it was 11 pm and we had each eaten a banana and granola bar for breakfast and exactly nothing but pride the rest of the day. We brought Cliff bars on the route but did not eat them for fear of cotton mouth.
We woke the next day sunburned, tired, very sore and still in Yosemite. So we did what any reasonable climber would and tossed a few pads below Midnight Lightning (V8 – but you already know).
Both times I’ve been on Midnight Lightning, I’ve been blown up from previous climbing. Kris and I are each coming off at the lightning hold and we agreed to come back to the problem fresh and hope to put that bad boy to rest.
We then ventured to Across The Tracks, a severely overhung, project-worthy V10 to flesh out the moves. I tossed a few beers in the Merced River for chilling and we enjoyed the cool shade and pine straw. We worked through the beginning and I’m hopeful the problem is within reach with some sustained focus. It’s good to have a variety of goals in climbing, and for me Across The Tracks is a high aspiration but fun in any case. I’ve never truly projected a bouldering problem and I’ve been looking for something to push my limits.
I got back to the Bay on Sunday evening and packed another bag. Monday morning I set off for Boston. I’m at MIT until Friday meeting with collaborators, learning new things from really smart people and planning future articles. Tomorrow I will be giving a talk to present our research and hopefully stir some interest. Though my mind is now on work, the soreness still in my calves reminds me of a 3000 foot mecca 3000 miles away.