Climbing El Capitan - May 2022
You only get one first big wall climb on Yosemite’s El Capitan, one of the world's most beautiful and well-known vertical rock monoliths, and it’s safe to say mine was nothing short of incredible. When I got the invite from my two aid climbing zen masters during the spring to scale this beast I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity. Nervous thoughts dominated my headspace in the months leading up to the trip, even after numerous hometown crag days practicing techniques simulating a big wall climb, I was scared shitless. Fast forward to May, I find myself driving 17 hours across 4 states to climb in the place many refer to as the Mecca of American rock climbing. It is safe to say I am nothing short of awestruck when I finally get a view into Yosemite valley and lay my eyes on El Cap and Half Dome, pulling over immediately I recall whooping and howling at the view that captivated my vision and had me shuttering at the thought of climbing up its world of pure verticality. Ferrying up my first load of supplies to the base of El Cap I was dripping in sweat before 8 am, just what the doctor ordered. Once I caught up with my partners who had been sleeping in the boulders below we began our final day of preparation, gathering all the last-minute gear, water, and permits needed to quest off onto El Cap. Once we had our gear sorted and our wits about us we began what would be my most miserable, yet memorable, trudge of a hike in my life to get our gear up to the base. Though only a short distance away, the 170-liter pack I carried, filled with a week's worth of food, gear, and water was nothing short of soul-crushing–but volunteering to be the team haul-dog I pushed on. Partners alongside me we hauled the rest of our gear and portaledges up the boulder field to the base. We fixed our ropes and gear two pitches up the wall for the next day's launch, but as we rappelled down I couldn’t help but feel extremely uneasy at the undertaking that tomorrow had in store for us.
Descending to our cars and last warm meals for god knows how long we all shared the mutual feelings of anticipation and excitement for the week of vertical camping before us. Tossing and turning I got less than an hour of sleep that night, but that was the least of my worries. Lying in bed I combed my brain for any last-minute excuses I could make to opt-out of the climb because tell you the truth–I was scared to the bone, worried I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Thankfully no valid excuses made their way into my head.
Launching off and saying goodbye to the horizontal world as we knew it, we ascended our fixed lines and made our way up to the cached gear which hung awaiting our arrival on the wall. As the sun shined down on the incredibly comfortable ledge belay I sat down and took in the beauty that was right in front of my face. The sun shined on the golden granite wall that seemed to welcome us.
As the jug line that I would ascend jutted farther and farther from the overhanging wall I gulped and realized this was going to be the most comfortable part of the next five days. Saying goodbye to our last ledge on the entirely overhanging route we have now embarked upon, I was lowered into free hanging space, where I hung 30 feet from the wall and 250 feet from the ground, ascending what would be the second of the eighteen pitches ahead of us. It was at this point that the reality of how much work we really had in store for ourselves began to set in. Turtle-like progress slowed our team as our first big wall mission together needed a few kinks to be worked out before we were running smoothly. The first of the kinks was setting up our portaledges under a roof the size of a city block that rained down on us from the waterfall above. It was safe to say our first night was wet and miserable.
Opening our eyes at the first light of morning we were alarmed to hear a helicopter making its way up through the valley, surely just a training exercise we thought, but the chopper was on its way to short-haul rescue a team off the Middle Cathedral, the formation a stone's throw across the valley from us, frightening our team. As we packed up and readied for our journey ahead I couldn’t help but heed the ominous start to our morning, a subtle reminder of the dangerous games we play out here in the mountains. As our progress continued, efficiency issues continually plagued our efforts, brewing anger and doubts from within the team. Several small mistakes cost us precious time and we just couldn’t seem to keep everything running smoothly. Setting up ledges in the dark I finally got to lay down but as I sat awake unable to fall asleep I watched the stars twinkle high above while thoughts of retreat and failure raced through my mind. Were we really up to the crux pitches that my partners would lead come morning? Would we be fast enough or would we run out of water and food, stranded on the wall? These and other vicious thoughts tormented me as I tossed and turned throughout the night awaiting daybreak. This seemed to be the theme for the first couple of days and it was a scary thought wondering if we were really up to the challenge.
And then we flipped a switch. The sunrise on the great Cathedral Peaks and Merced river winding through the valley far below seemed different on our fourth day on the wall, and that’s when I heard it. Like a jet engine throttling past I saw him, a wingsuiter had jumped off the top of El Cap and was rocketing past us across the SE face like it was nothing. All at once we sat up on our portaledges, eyes wide as we saw the next jumper flap his wings from the top and drop, first came silence followed by the familiar jet engine sound that ripped past us as he followed the first jumper's path almost eye level with us about 1,750’ off the ground. Gliding like a bird the wingsuiter unknowingly flipped a switch in our team's unified head. We moved quickly that morning and had an incredibly efficient day moving through the crux pitches like butter, my partners were on it. We came together and the engine finally began running smoothly, on a fast track bound for the top of El Cap.
The rest of that day went swimmingly as we had our most efficient day yet. Working through the most challenging pitches on the route, the momentum shift we felt was palpable in the hot California air. Gathering our thoughts and taking in our last night on the portaledges we sat and ate as the summer sun curled itself behind the Nose of El Cap, it was truly an incredible sight to take in. The week's worth of hard work to get to this point seemed like a hiccup of a moment, but as I peered over the edge of my ledge I reassured myself we were far from where we started, nothing but 2,000’ of air between us and the ground. The journey was far from over but that night as we ate our dehydrated meals we couldn’t help but feel accomplished to not only do battle with one of the greatest walls on earth but to hold on while the roller coaster of a week took its incredible ups and downs. Through it all we counted on each other to work together and focus on the daunting goal at hand, making me realize that these incredible experiences in nature are truly best enjoyed with your best friends. This experience would be nothing without them sharing the hardships and glories of battling El Cap.
The final steepening headwall loomed like an ocean wave crashing down high above us as my partner geared up and shot off like a gun, T.N.T by AC/DC blasting from his harness speaker, attacking the wall head-on. After losing sight of him as he crested over the great headwall we couldn’t help but sit in hysterical excitement for the following glory pitches to the summit. The length of rope made its way slowly up, and finally we heard it: the whoops and ape grunts from above signaled our brother-in-arms had finished the pitch and it was time for us to spring to action. Returning the calls I run up the vertical rope, and then I see it, the summit of El Cap stands proudly above us, we hang only a few hundred feet from its great lip. This is when we began to get excited, we had endured five days of foul food, harness pinching madness, and death-defying exposure that all seemed to melt away as we sat like school children giggling at the thought that we seemed to just pull a fast one on Mother Nature, slipping through her grasp while shaking the hand of fear itself. Three pitches to go, we got this, two pitches, holy smokes we can see the summit tree, one pitch left, we can barely sit still we are so excited. Taking the rack for myself I finally get a pitch of free climbing among all the aid thus far and start up the glorified slab that brought me to the summit, and then just like that, it was over. I hugged the summit tree and fixed our ropes to the anchor and thanked it before lying down on the moon-like summit of El Cap I now found myself alone on. I’ve never breathed such a heavy sigh of relief as I took in the mind-boggling Yosemite valley view I now had a birds-eye view of, exhaling as we now had survived one of its greatest challenges. Embracing my partners as they made their way to the summit we sat together and laughed, trying to comprehend the journey the last 6 days consisted of.
While the sun set on that beautiful summer night we laid among a mountain of gear while satisfaction coursed through our blood thanks to the 2,500’ of overhanging granite we had battled, now safely below us. An orange sunset pierced the northwest face of Half Dome as we lay in our sleeping bags among the boulders slowly drifting into a calm sleep in the sand. Deep thoughts turned into dreams as the stars danced their way into the calm night, my mind wrestling with the fact we actually climbed El Cap. (But all I could think was: if this was possible, what isn’t?) To think a few months ago I’d never even jugged a fixed rope and to now find myself standing on El Cap’s summit felt surreal.
I was content with the undertaking we had endured but I couldn’t help but feel extremely hungry for what was next. These wild outdoor places have you eager to come back for more every time you are fortunate enough to walk away safely from them. Sitting on top of that big rock in the middle of California may not seem like a lot, but to us it felt like we were at the center of the universe and the gods were kind enough to let us pass through its gates to see the other side, I just hope we can visit again someday.