El Capitan, The Nose Trip Report

Between June 13th and June 17th, I climbed the Nose with the Norwegian (aka Oyvind) and my Ohioan buddy Mike. Below is a short video highlighting some photos and GoPro footage we captured. Plus, we got some footage of Alex Honnold climbing Changing Corners during their world record on June 17th.  Thank you to all the CCC for providing guidance and encouragment in the years leading up to this!

My now-wife, Kay, and I were getting married at the end of June and my climbing friend Oyvind was coming out for the wedding and I thought I’d make it worth his while and give the Nose idea another shot (we trained for it the previous year, but due to bad weather during our week in the valley, it was a no-go). We decided to take the week off before the wedding to be in the Valley. Kay, with her endless patience for my climbing obsession miraculously agreed to this. My other buddy Mike was also coming out for the wedding and I asked him if he wanted to join. A team of three would allow us to spread the workload and having another person at the belays would minimize my unhealthy tendency to talk to myself.  Mike is an Ohioan transplant, originally from California, and a really strong sport climber. Oyvind and I weren’t sure how well his skills would translate to trad. To train, Mike came out to Cali a couple months beforehand to plug some gear into granite. His first trad lead was a 10c which he climbed cleanly and smoothly. There would be no problem. Mike eventually committed to climbing the Nose and we trained individually for the months leading up to June.

Oyvind flew in on Sunday, a couple days in advance to shake off jet lag.  Mike was flying in really late on Tuesday night. We originally had planned on heading to the Valley on Wednesday afternoon, start fixing on Thursday, launching on Friday, two nights on the wall, one night at the top, and back down to the Valley on Monday morning. But after consulting the weather forecast which was calling for a heat wave starting on Friday (high 90s) we decided to move our schedule up by a day. Temperature decreases about 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet in elevation, and so our goal was to get as high up as possible by Friday.

On Wednesday morning, we started packing our gear more frantically than we would have liked and hit the road by 10:00am. Arriving in the valley around 2:00, we headed straight for the bridge to consult Tom Evans who runs the site http://www.elcapreport.com/ to find out the crowd situation. There were apparently two other parties heading up that same day. We told him we were planning on fixing today and launching tomorrow and he replied, “Then what the &%$# are you doing talking to me? Get going!” Not quite the jolly Santa Claus fellow I had envisioned, but he had a good sense of humor. And he was right. So we sped off to the base with our haul bags and gear. There was one team ahead of us that was going to spend the first night at Sickle ledge and another team who was fixing to Sickle and planning on doing the entire route in one go the next day.

We’d be hauling about 4 liters of water per person per day for 3 days for a total of 36 liters. This means we had about 80 pounds of water. Altogether we estimated we’d be hauling about 130 pounds in two haul bags and carrying one poop tube and one portaledge. The first four pitches ascend traversing and low angle terrain which is a nightmare to haul. Not to mention the sketchy 200 feet of “4th class” to get to the first pitch. By “fixing” I mean we climbed the first four pitches, without haul bags, to Sickle Ledge and then “fix” a series of ropes straight to the bottom. Our fixed ropes went straight from Sickle ledge down a smooth, nearly vertical part of the rock, to the very bottom. We rappelled our lines, gathered up our bags, and then started the arduous process of ascending and hauling our bags up 600 feet in one go. Hauling 130 pounds with only 160 pounds of body weight was ridiculously hard. We wound up attaching one climber to the opposite end of the rope to act as a counterweight to the haul bag at the same time that another person pulled and moved the bag through the pulley. Ahhhh...the joys of big wall climbing.

I hauled the first half and then let Oyvind and Mike haul the rest of the way while I rapped and drove to Curry Village to get pizza for us before closing time. I met Oyvind and Mike back at the car around 10:00 pm and we munched down on two large pizzas.

We locked the car and headed into the forest. We threw our second set of sleeping bags  down on the ground at around 11:30pm (they would stay at the base until we came back to retrieve them after the climb) and tried to fall asleep next to our fixed lines. It was quite warm and I barely even needed a sleeping bag. From where I lay, I could see the entire route above me under a cloudless sky.

I don’t think any of us got much sleep. At 4:30 am, the Nose in Day team scrambled by us and started ascending their fixed ropes. I felt especially bad for Mike who had a total of about 8 hours of sleep in two nights. By 5:00am, I gave up trying to sleep and started packing our stuff.  By the time we ascended our ropes and made it to Sickle Ledge it was a little after 8:00am. The team who slept there was a pitch ahead of us and we had to wait a bit. The Nose-in-a-day team was nowhere to be seen.

We planned on doing all leading in blocks. Of the nine pitches we had to climb that day, I would lead the first three into the Stovelegs, Oyvind would get us up to Dolt Tower, and Mike would lead the last three up to El Cap Tower. Leading in blocks minimizes change over time at belays and, in my opinion, it is mentally easier to only have to be on the sharp end for one period in the day.

I led up above Sickle and was only about half way up when Hans and Alex passed us on a training run. They were out of sight in no time. I continued to make my way up. At one point I thought I would try and skip the large pendulum into the Stoveleg Crack by breaking away right on some face moves. The topo showed this variation with four bolts and marked it 10d or 5.9 A0 (meaning I could just pull on the bolts to make it 5.9). I left the main crack and turned the corner onto the face. Not seeing any bolts, I fished in a very shallow C3, clipped it for psychological protection and continue up. After about 10 feet of climbing I spotted the first and only bolt between me and the next crack system...another 15 feet away. The next couple of moves were harder than 5.9 and I decide to back off, not wanting to put myself at risk of a major whipper. I started the tenuous process of downclimbing on small edges andeventually reached my last C3. I grabbed it, forgetting how crappy of a placement it had been, and it ripped out. Before I knew what was happening, I was falling. I fell past my last good piece, whipped around the corner, and smacked my bum against the rock.  Not a huge fall, but there must have been a lot of slack in the line because I wound up about 15 feet below the piece that caught me. I was fine, although I would grow a bruise on my rear end that didn’t go away for a month.

The long pendulum into the Stovelegs seemed like a lot better option now. After I got us safely into the Stovelegs, Oyvind took over and rocketed up to Dolt Tower. Once the 5.8 sections gave way to 5.10 climbing he started aiding, but he was moving about as fast as I can free climb. Mike took over at Dolt and did some flawless free climbing up the 5.9 fist sections. Just below El Cap tower he started complaining about terrible pain in his arms.

“How much have you drank today?” I asked.

“Umm...a liter or so...” he replied.

It was now approaching 8pm and we had been in 90-degree, dry wind all day. None of us were drinking as much as we should, but with drinking only one liter, I was impressed that he was still moving! I took over and led the easy 5.7 scramble to El Cap Tower. By the time we ate dinner, arranged our beds, and settled in it was about 11pm. We were 14 pitches up on the Nose.

The next morning we assessed our water situation. We had expected to drink 12 liters the first day, but it appeared that we had gone through less than half that, even after we practically forced water down Mike. Water was no longer going to be an issue.

I took the first block of the day again which included the Texas Flake chimney. The chimney is only 5.8 but is protected by only one bolt in about 50 feet of climbing….and the bolt comes about 20 feet of the way up, making a ledge-fall very possible. To be honest, this was the pitch that I feared most about El Cap. After I climbed the 5.9 sections into the chimney, I stopped and rested. I moved my chalk bag to the front of my harness to hang off my belay loop and proceeded to disarm myself. I left the entire rack sans a single quick draw at the bottom for Oyvind to pick up while cleaning. I wanted to be completely rested before starting up but nerves got the better of me and I spontaneously started up. The first part was a bit of a squeeze – the chimney was a little less than thigh width. Once I reached the bolt it opened up just enough so that my knees could no longer touch the opposing wall, but I couldn’t really get my feet in front of me either. I continued to move up, mostly held to the wall behind me with my shoulders and to the wall in front of me with my hands placed flat against the rock. This was secure, but exhausting. By the time I was three-quarters of the way up I was breathing heavily, my shoulders were aching, and I seriously considered that I might fall. However,  thinking about how pissed my soon-to-be wife would be if I broke my leg the week before our wedding gave me the extra motivation to push to the top.

Another pitch to the top of boot flake was uneventful. But now it was time for the King Swing – a 100 foot pendulum across the rock to gain the next crack system. Oyvind lowered me and I traveled an entire pitch in the wrong direction until I decided it was enough. I started swinging to and fro. After a couple swings I thought I had enough momentum so I gunned it and sprinted as hard as I could across the rock aiming for a huge arête. But the rock formed a little valley beneath Boot Flake and I was having a hard time negotiating it while keeping my momentum. Do I jump across? Do I stay close to the rock so that I can continue running? The first couple attempts were pitiful and I was nowhere close to grabbing the arête and pulling over it. I took a breather and tried again. This time I sprinted even harder and lunged across the valley, but still came up short. On my swing back, I lunged over the valley too early and didn’t clear it.  Instead, I slammed hard against the rock with near-ankle spraining speed. I didn’t want to make that mistake again. On my third attempt I sprinted with all my might, grunted, lunged, and just as I sputtered to a crawl I pushed off the rock one last time and latched onto a miniature edge on the arête. After repositioning my feet, I was able to do a hero-heel hook around the arête and then groped around for the best sloper I could get my hand on. I was barely able to pull myself around the corner to Eagle ledge. Success! But I was quickly brought back to mortal status when I kept slipping on a slick 5.8 lieback and I had to french free through the moves. A couple more free and aid moves later I was even with the pendulum and called “off belay”.  After the King Swing, Mike took over and did some amazing 5.10 free climbing, styling his way up the rock. Of course we gave the only pitch on the Nose that requires a trad anchor to the sport climber, but he didn’t complain. We were now into the Grey bands, a dark streak of rough featured rock across the face of El Cap.

Pitch 19 is almost entirely traversing. We had planned to leave the bags at 19 and then haul them from the top of 21, below the Great Roof. But it wasn’t quite clear if we had enough haul rope to do that (we missed a note in the topo that said we could have done it with a 60 meter rope). Oh-well. We were reluctant to lower out the bag because there were lots of disjointed rock formations for the bags to get caught on as we hauled them back up.  So we decided the only course of action was to move the 100 pound bags across the rock instead of up it. This was a bit of a fiasco and I won’t go into details. But it involved a lot of poor communication in the howling wind and utter confusion. An impending thunderstorm on the horizon made things especially tense. We managed to get the bags across and our tarp out to cover us just as it started raining.  

We had originally planned to make it past the Great Roof that night to Camp 5. But we were moving much too slow. We discussed our options and resigned to spending two more nights on the wall, at Camp 4 and at Camp 6, instead of only one. Knowing that we were no long in a rush was a relief and it was nice just hanging out on the ledge, relaxing, and eating lunch.

We made it up to Camp 4 by 7pm and decided that we had enough time to fix the next two pitches. Oyvind was antsy to get going, so he short fixed the next pitch and started short fixing the Great Roof before I could ascend the rope up to him and give him a proper belay. He aided the roof in great time and I started cleaning just as dusk gave way to night. Once I get to the traversing section of the pitch, I saw to my horror that he had back-cleaned the entire roof! My rope was hanging from a single draw attached to an old, crackling sling. I carefully clipped into the sling with my daisy chain and unclipped the rope. That mank was the only thing keeping me from an 80 foot swing. Worse of all was that I was now going to have to take a bight of rope, thread it through the sling and watch the rope slide across the sling as I lowered myself out. The friction was certainly not going to improve its condition. I voiced my situation over to Oyvind who replied, “Yea, but it’s a clean fall.”

He may have been right, but fear and fatigue set in and my mind went utterly blank. I could not figure out how to lower myself out. It was a procedure that I always had to think carefully through (it’s probably the most complicated aid-technique) and I hadn’t done it in over a year. Oyvind and his infinite patience walked me though it verbally. The sling held and I jugged up to the belay. By the time we rapped back down to Camp 4, Mike had the portaledge and dinner ready and looked like he felt sorry for us. It was 11pm.

The next day to Camp 6 was fairly uneventful. The weather was cooler and the aid climbing was straightforward with perfect rock. Only having to climb 6 pitches that day with ever-lightening bags made for a calm atmosphere. We arrived at camp 6 at around 5 pm. Mike and Oyvind continued to fix the next two pitches while I stayed back and set up camp. They were back down by 8pm and for the first time in four days we were able to relax and watch the sunset while we ate dinner. The view 2700 feet off the valley floor was spectacular.

The next morning it was quite obvious that Hans and Alex were going for the record because at 6am we could hear huge cheers from El Cap Meadows and could make out a small crowd of cars and people. Sure enough, about two hours later as we were jugging up our fixed lines, Alex came climbing by.

“Give Hans a little smack on the ass for me” he said, obviously not looking too worked, “Tell him giddy up!” Hans passed us a couple minutes later and they continued to simul-climb past us. They broke the record by 13 minutes.

We cruised up the final pitches of the Nose and topped out around noon. Hauling was a breeze. The only emotion I remember feeling was the relief of being able to take my harness off for the first time in 4 days. I always thought I would be overcome with elation the moment I reached the top of the Nose. But I wasn’t. Unless you’re Hans or Alex, it’s an accomplishment that you reach so slowly and gradually that when you finally attain it, it’s no longer amazing. It’s expected. It’s not until you sit down to write a quick trip report when suddenly, four hours later, you realize what it was you did. That is, for me, to persuade two awesome climbing partners to take me up the Nose.

Comments

Heike B's picture

Awesome report. I felt I was there with you all. Glad you all made it back in one piece and kudos to now-wife Kay. Aaron, you married the right woman.