When we first thought of coming out on a trip to Yosemite to climb big walls, it seemed pretty simple. You get good at climbing (well, we can do the crack parts quite well…), book some plane tickets, fill a haul bag with food and water and then plod your way to the top in style. That’s what we thought anyway…
By day 2, we realised that neither of us really knew what was going on. Our rope ascending system was stolen from indoor route setting (it didn’t work) our pendulums were cribbed from Hans Florine’s videos (we misunderstood the concept) and it’s a flaming nightmare to manage three ropes at a belay station. Despite these obvious issues we decided to pitch in with our first big wall free effort on not necessarily the easiest pathway - failure is a little more respected if you sucked at doing something hard right…??!
With some slightly flawed logic we decided in the first week of our trip to Yosemite to try a link up of Pre-Muir into El Corazon (mainly as we wanted Freerider to remain unclimbed by either of us). The two routes actually go quite well together as they follow a vertical line, the difficulty is sustained throughout (5.13 pitches starting at pitch 6 and the last 5.13 being at pitch 29) and both routes we had some beta for. After preparing parts of the route from the bottom and also from the top, we climbed Pre Muir in a oner and came down fixed ropes for a rest and more preparation.
When we finally set off, we’d tried to give ourselves as much advantage as possible, with only the middle chunk of the route from pitch 18 to 27 unseen. We rationalised that these contained just 1 x 5.13 & 4 x 5.12. What could go wrong?!
Ok well day 1 wasn’t actually day one. We realised we’d left our lead rope, rack, hauling device and haul line at the top of our fixed ropes. Oh crap. What an idiotic start. How did we manage to do that? Pete had to jumar up and sort everything out.
“Real Day 1”
Our first pitches of climbing after the fixed ropes to the top of Pre Muir went relatively well. Pete climbed his 5.10 with style, I fell off my 5.11 pitch and we then preceded to get the haul bags stuck on nearly every pitch. But…. we made upward progress….. Which dumped us finally at the last bit of climbing on day 1 - The Beak Flake 5.13b. In 30 deg C temps Pete somehow clawed his way up the thin flake and still didn’t fall off the redpoint crux when a hold started to break. I shouted encouragement in a hoarse voice flinching at the thought of now having to second. Unfortunately I seemed to suffer some high gravity effects in the following hour and resigned myself to try to follow the pitch the next morning when it didn’t feel like crimping the inside edges of a warm Sunday roast tray.
The next morning when temperatures were slightly lower then the previous evening, Tom set off on his ascent of Beak Flake. He managed to overcome the powerful bouldery start and cruised through the mid crux which he’d previously slipped on the evening before, a great start to the day and we’d both managed to free the first crux of the route, we’d overcome the first hurdle (of what was to become many). After some steady lay backing the route turns into a three pitch traverse. I was confident with the climbing on these pitches as they seemed to be British sea cliff style, a bit bold, loose and scary. What I wasn’t so confident with was that fact we somehow had to get our haul bags horizontally three pitches to the left. A week previous we’d read a chapter in a big walling book about lower outs and asked some crazy locals the best techniques to go about it…Two pitches later, it was dark.
Pete in trouble. Again.
This day started a little bit like it ended: with some struggling, sweating and a lot of jibbering. The first pitch of the morning was “Bobby’s Bunny Slope” and I was truly happy that Pete had taken the hit and said he’d lead the pitch (I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it) as it had the reputation of being hard and bold. Possibly a bit disappointingly for me, most of the action on this pitch came when Pete was round the corner out of sight and within a few moves of the belay: I knew he was on hard ground.
“Watch me Tom…. oh God. Watch me”
I braced both hands on the rope, with my armpits pouring sweat.
“Ok….. nearly off. It’s nearly over…. I’m not sure…..”
With plenty of stylish grunting and cut loose moves on the slab (how do you do that again, Pete??!) he kind of fell through the crux and put the biggest and hardest pitch of the day to bed. Thank goodness. And thank goodness that my seconding was afforded a nice side rope / top rope for most of the moves as I crept over the small smears and ripples.
We had now landed at the base of a massive corner system that lead up to the big 5.13 roof pitch above. We felt so relaxed knowing it was just some 5.10-5.12 corner climbing to round off the day. Rather amusingly, the first pitch after the bold hard one was a 5.10 offwidth and one that I quickly realised we had no wide gear for (left in the tent) and was a pitch full of massive loose flakes. Fridge to car sized flakes. I huffed and puffed my way round the pitch moaning about everything under the sun until eventually I found one semi-solid piece of protection. As I moved away from it though, I nudged a huge flake with my knee and it started to peel away from the wall.
Noooooo…. not now….. It stopped. It paused for a second as smaller rocks tumbled into place behind it. I glanced down at the parties 1000ft below us on ledges unaware of the danger above and at Pete on the belay below. At this point I pretty much lost all my remaining cool and climbed back to the belay to dejectedly hand the end of the rope to Pete. I’d broken mentally and I knew it. All rested now on Pete’s shoulders. Over the next hour, that boy basically rescued our attempt on the route - it was possibly doomed at that point - and equalised dodgy gear, did super-bold moves and shook his head a lot in annoyance at having to risk so much for a stupid 5.10. What a day! And somewhat of a relief to be unhurt or to have not hurt anyone else.
we’d reached the real crux of the route now. With sore skin, inefficient hauling and tired muscles we knew this was where the route was going to really kick in. 4 consecutive 5.13 pitches are what lay ahead, all with different styles and techniques. As we were behind schedule we woke up early, totted up the water and food situation and came to the conclusion two of the four 5.13s needed to be freed today. Coffee Corner is the first. Some flared jamming followed by some bridging weirdness is what the pitch entails. Somehow I managed to squirm, bridge, jam and twist my way up the thing on my first go, making a great start to the day. an hour later Tom had followed and we were onto the crux pitch of the route…The Roof Traverse.
We had spent an hour each working this pitch a few days prior to our attempt on El Corazon, so we had a vague sequence and idea what it was all about. In reality I think it suits mine and Tom’s climbing style quite well in that you get to use a foot in the roof like a hand. Kind of in a similar way to offwidthing. However, instead of using bomber stacks or jams, you have some horrendous slopers to grapple with.
Tom’s ascent of this pitch was very inspiring, I could see how sore his skin was looking and he seemed to be looking quite tired and murmured a number of times how he thought he wouldn’t be able to do this pitch today. I had confidence in him and after the incidents we’d overcome lower on the route, told him it wasn’t an option to be climbing out empty handed.
After fighting through the crux you arrive at a resting point right at the end of the traverse. The next section is easier but also easy to mess up. It seemed like Tom had over gripped a little at the start of this section and when the foot holds got bad and the hand holds got sweaty (as he entered the 25 degree sun) I could see his body sagging backwards and his biceps uncurling. I really thought he might be off and if that was the case the next few days of supplies could have been interesting, it really seemed like this was his one chance. However with grit, determination (and power screaming) that I have seen so much of over the years from Tom, he sucked it back in and managed not to fall (from the massive juggy undercut he was holding… ) I was so pleased we’d both managed it, it made a great end to a tiring day. Now, we knew the route must be on.
Last days on big walls I always think are the best. You know the vertical desert is reaching its borders, you only have a limited time left and you get some of the very best featured rock on El Capitan.
One of these features has to be the Razorblade Flake. It’s a 250ft pancake thin flake that slices through the headwall above the heart. Every hold is a jug, but almost every foothold is a smear. You layback to glory for what seems like miles and miles on a really thin piece of rock, but the risk is put to the back of your mind as the climbing and the position are sensational. For once, even I forgot about the exposure and the heights, it was just so much fun.
By 6pm, we’d both pulled over the lip of El Cap feeling like we’d been on the wall for 2 weeks. So much had happened and we had had a month’s worth of climbing experiences all shoved into 3000ft of rock. Best of all though, I’d got to climb the route with another person who’d never freed El Cap and we shared the joint satisfaction of having realised a long held dream.
Big Wall Disaster Merchants: Does it work?
That is the question… and in a word, Yes.
Both Tom and I went up having never done any big wall free climbing. Me never having done more then 10 or so pitches in a day and having hauled once for 20ft on a gritstone edge back in Sheffield.You have to start somewhere though.
It seemed to be on this multiday big wall that it wasn’t necessarily the climbing that was the hardest part, it was a cumulation of everything stacked on top of one another that made it difficult. whether that be, hauling, sorting out rope tangles, setting up portaledges, climbing hard pitches, being run out and scared, freeing haul bags, jumaring, etc etc, it all adds up and that’s the hard part. Can anybody do it? of course they can! mine and Tom’s local crags aren’t even the size of pitch one, but with a bit of motivation, determination and the will not to give up, even us as single pitch punters can climb (free) to the top.
And never, never again will I feel disgusted when my bum touches the rim of grim public porcelain after having a hanging poo in a bag, next to Randall, and have to carry it around with my super noodles for the next few days.
I feel privileged to have my feet back on the ground