El Capitan….what a great name for a wall – just mention the name to a climber and an image of sheer granite walls is sure to form in their head. Rising a dramatic 3000 feet from Yosemite Valley, it is one of the tallest cliffs in the United States (perhaps the tallest? A google search didn’t turn up anything taller!). And if that wasn’t enough, you can park your car and walk 15 minutes to reach the base of it. In terms of accessibility for such a big wall, it is unmatched anywhere in the world. Which explains why every Spring and Fall (and summer/winter for those who have a screw or two loose) climbers from all over the world migrate here to climb on the sun-soaked granite.
After a few years of climbing with trips all over the Western U.S. we began to tire of answering “No” to the question “Have you climbed in Yosemite? You know…that big ditch in California”. We figured it was about time to go see what all the fuss was about. And what better way than to jump right in and climb one of the longest and most classic routes in the Valley, The Nose. Neither of us had ever been to Yosemite, let alone climb there, but we figured we’d just throw ourselves at it. Looking over the guidebook, the climb doesn’t sound particularly difficult. Yes, it’s LONG but many of the pitches can be free climbed at 5.10 or easier. We figured we’d BLAST right up it in 2 days or so. Well, turns out that the guy who told us the route was the most sandbagged route in the world might have been right…
El Capitan, from the meadows below. The meadows make an awesome place to just lie down in the shade and watch climbers slowly inch their way up the wall. The Nose tackles discontinuous crack systems in a meandering line directly up the tallest part of the wall. The route more or less follows the line in green. The blue arrows show all the pendulums on the route (there’s lots of them). Some of the belay positions and notable features have been drawn/numbered in.
We arrived in Yosemite Saturday, September 5th. My dad had flown in from Michigan to watch us climb so we met him and took a brief tour of the valley. We had heard of people waiting in line to climb the The Nose so went in the afternoon to check out the base of the route and see how crowded it was (it was Labor Day weekend, to boot). We arrived and saw a party starting up the first pitch and another party just arriving on Sickle Ledge (pitch 4). Not a great sign but we were both excited enough that no line was going to stop us. We’d worry about parties in front of us only when it became a problem. That first afternoon, we took an hour or so to drag the 80-pound haulbag up to the start of the route. This would put us in position to get an early start in the morning.
Sunday morning. Alarm goes off around 4AM – time to get moving. Breakfast is cereal for me, ramen noodles for Joanne [her last real food as she merely put in 500 calories each day on the wall]. We’ve slept in a lousy motel outside of the park and have to drive an hour or so to get to the valley. By the time the sun is rising, we’ve reached our haulbag and have set off on the first pitch of the climb. The other parties who were climbing yesterday are no where in sight – hooray!
We’ve decided that I would lead the first 4 pitches as they consist of somewhat tricky aid/free climbing and it might be faster if I try to free them. They’re harder than I expect (or maybe I just don’t bother trying) so I just pull on gear most of the time. Near the top of the first pitch a nut pops out of a flared placement and sends me for a 15-foot fall. Wheee! I climb back up to my last piece, put in a better nut and pull through to the belay. Alright – 1 pitch down, 30 more to go!
Matt working away on pitch 2. We quickly got a feel for the rock on these pitches – many of the placements are old piton-scars. The placements were not as bad as I had heard though I consider offset brass nuts an absolute necessity here. (Thanks to Stoneworks Matt for letting us borrow his – by the way, Stoneworks is the best climbing gym ever!).
Pitch 4 : This pitch leads up to a fixed piece that you clip then tension over to another crack. Then there’s one more tension to reach Sickle Ledge. I found this a bit devious – on my first try, I pendulumed too early and couldn’t reach the next fixed piece and was looking at a dangerous fall back into the corner. I went back and climbed a little higher and things went smoother.
We passed a haul bag at the top of pitch 3 and then another one on Sickle Ledge (the top of pitch 4). I’m not exactly sure what those other parties were doing but it didn’t matter anymore – we had passed them! Neither team did much climbing that day and we never saw them again. Climbing is always much more enjoyable when you can focus on the route and not people above or below you.
The worst hauling on the route was encountered dragging the haulbag up to Sickle ledge. Even using a 3:1 pulley system I had to give it everything I got to move the bag a foot at a time. I was totally gassed by the time Joanne arrived on Sickle Ledge and I was happy to give her the next couple leads (and hauling).
Joanne linked the next two leads together – a 4th class pitch followed by a 5.9 corner. This leads you to the top of the Sickle. The Sickle is the sickle-shaped (duh!) feature in the middle here. This is an uncomfortable hanging belay. We’re in this picture but it’s really hard to see us unless you look closely.
From the top of the Sickle you have to lower out and pendulum over to reach a new crack system. Here’s Joanne reaching over to the next system. Apparently she was terrified because every time I would give her a little more slack she started screaming like she had just seen the face of the devil. My dad, down in the meadows, said he could hear her loud and clear. I think he was a little embarrassed for us!
The fantastic Stove Leg cracks. Named after the huge pitons (made from the legs of a stove) that were used on the first ascent here. Nowadays you just leap frog #3 camelots till you realize there’s nothing between you and a 100-foot fall but a single piece of gear (gulp!)
All in all, the first day turned out to be our hardest. I don’t think either of us had quite adjusted to living on the wall yet – you have to find time, while hanging/belaying/climbing, to eat and drink and perform other bodily functions. That first day, neither of us had anything to eat and only a very small amount of water. By evening, I was getting terrible cramps in my forearms/biceps which made climbing incredibly painful. All night my chest hurt and no matter how much water I drank, my throat was dry. We had packed around 5 gallons of water but it wasn’t clear if we would have enough to finish the climb. It was in the back of my head as we climbed but neither of us even mentioned the possibility of bailing – we were determined to head upward. We climbed a total of 10 pitches on day 1, ended up just 40ft short from Dolt tower. It is really too bad because we could have a more comfortable night. Instead, we slept on our poorly put together sloping portaledge.
Early the next day my nose started unexpectedly bleeding – now I was dehydrated and dripping blood all over my clothes and gear – great! But fortunately, our persistance was soon to pay off…or maybe we were just incredibly lucky…
From the top of Dolt Tower, you do (another) pendulum to the right to reach a 5.7 squeeze chimney. I back cleaned all of this lower section and climbed a long 5.9 fist crack to a belay a short ways below El Cap Tower. Joanne brought us up the rest of the way to the best ledge on the entire route.
Here’s where we got lucky as we found a stash of 2 gallons of water welcoming us to the inviting ledge of El Cap Tower (best bivuoac site on the route, by far) Instantly, I knew we would be OK in terms of water supply so I stopped and drank half a gallon on the spot. Plastic-flavored Water never tasted so good! We even stopped to eat a little food and let Hans Florine and his partner pass us. They were doing a one-day ascent – we watched them do the King Swing and before we knew it they were out of sight and gone. They were the only climbers we talked to on the entire route – there was no one else between us and the summit!
Looking down the Texas Flake (pitch 15). Supposedly it looks like the state of Texas…some people have an imagination, I guess. This pitch is the hardest on the route that you HAVE to free – it is a runout 5.8 chimney. There’s one bolt partway up the chimney but a fall from the top would be devastating. Fortunately, the chimney is reasonably secure so you probably won’t fall!
Up to this point most of the climbing was a mix of free climbing and french free-ing. We had only used the etriers on a few pitches. Also, I had done the majority of the leads – but from here, we switched gears to mostly aid climbing and Joanne took over most of the leads. We figure she weighs less than me so she’s less likely to pull out marginal pieces!
After the Texas flake, a short bolt ladder leads to a very thin crack which has some of the first difficult aid climbing on it. A few pieces later, though, you’ll reach the gravy goodness of the Boot Flake. The Boot Flake itself is a slightly disturbing feature, a gigantic boot-shaped flake, just barely attached to the wall. When this thing decides to fall, I sure hope there’s no climbers on it!
You can see the Boot Flake and Texas Flake from here. It’s not at all clear how the Boot Flake is still on the wall – it’s kind of attached on the bottom but all my intuition about physics and gravity tell me this thing should have fallen a long time ago.
Joanne starting up the bolt ladder from the top of the Texas Flake (Pitch 16)
From the top of the Boot Flake is the start of one of the most unlikely climbing maneuvers you’ll ever do – The King Swing. Joanne lowered me down past the bottom of the boot, almost all the way back to the Texas Flake. From here you start running back and forth along the wall to reach a handhold WAAAAAY to the left. I had images of my rope getting sawed in half in my mind – I tried to push those away and concentrate on running back and forth on the wall. It took me a few tries (I had to lower down farther than I thought) but finally, I was able to reach out and grab the jug and pull myself around the corner – woo-hoo! I’m hoping to get some pictures of me doing the swing later – have to get the pictures from my Dad.
We goofed up slightly with Joanne following. We didn’t realize how long the swing was so when she lowered herself out she ran out of rope and had to take a bit of an uncontrolled swing to get on the route. Last year a guy did something similar and got badly injured – fortunately our rope was a lot longer than his so Joanne’s swing was pretty mellow!
We reached Camp IV (at the end of pitch 20) just as it was getting dark on our second day – this would end up being our most comfortable bivuoac site, by far. The ledge wasn’t flat so it wasn’t perfect but at least there was plenty of room to spread out. The only nuisance was a large number of big ants living on the ledge, probably living off climber garbage. Everytime I moved at night I looked under my sleeping bag and there were dozens of ants crawling under it. Fortunately, they only seemed interested in crawling under me and not biting me! Joanne slept on the portaledge and had no problems with ants.
Our ledge is crap. Or at least we can’t figure out how to get it even. I told Joanne to just sleep on it alone – it’s way scarier with both of us on it.
Joanne jugging up the first pitch of day 3. The exposure is starting to creep up on us….
The Great Roof! One of the most famous pitches on the Nose, and for good reason. It’s such a cool feature in an exposed location – with mostly easy aid climbing.
Under the roof, the pitch sports entirely fixed gear which makes for quick aiding. I took a picture of Joanne leading and before I realized it she was at the belay! Free climbing this is crazy – super thin undercling crack with imaginary footholds.
The Pancake Flake. Just after the Great Roof is this super fun pitch. This starts with incredibly fun and easy free climbing until you reach a ledge. From here, the pitch gets thin and I aided up this section. Offset nuts proved invaluable here (and everywhere on the route, in fact).
Here’s where I hurt myself. I took a fall onto the ledge at the bottom of the picture and hit my right heel pretty hard. This picture was taken after the fall – I got right up and finished the lead but by the time I reached the belay I knew my foot was not in great shape. I think I only did two more leads out of the last seven pitches – Joanne was on a roll and climbed all the hard aid pitches! (with no falls, I might add!)
Pitch 27 – The Changing Corners Pitch. You climb up a nice crack, reach over to a bolt, swing over a sharp arete (don’t think about it cutting your rope) and into this ridiculously thin crack for about 30 feet of tenuous nut placements (C2). Joanne said she was mortified when she saw how long the pin scar pitch is and thought this was by far the hardest aid climbing on the route and I believe her, as just the motion of me jumaring knocked out more than half of her placements. I’d recommend not falling on this pitch!
Also, when we reached the top of the Changing Corners, the exposure really kicks in. You’re hanging on a vertical to slightly over-hanging wall with nothing but air for thousands of feet below you. I remember thinking…wow, how did we get so high?
We had hoped we might finish the route in three days but as the sun disappeared it became painfully obvious we would have to settle for a 3rd night on the rock. We have read before that day 3 is the toughest due to the difficulties of each pitches after the roof and we sort of verified it. We only climbed 8 pitches on day 3 leaving us with 3 pitches for day 4. The final night would prove to be the most uncomfortable. As usual, the portaledge was a total pain in the butt and we couldn’t get it even remotely usable. Finally, desperation set in as it got darker – Joanne wasn’t happy about hanging in her harness all night so we gave it one more shot. The pieces clicked together and was stable enough for us to sit on. It sucked and I was afraid it would break all night but it was way better than hanging.
This was our final bivouac – a tiny ledge that one person could stand on. Clearly not enough room to sleep on so we had to use the portaledge.
Just a few more pitches to go – this is how I look when I’m pretty tired. Bloody knuckles…blood all over my shirt. Even with that I would usually be smiling but my lips were way too chapped to do anything but give this expression.
Looking down on the route from the very top…best view on the route? It’s really weird looking down on the climbers who are just starting the climb, several days away from your location. And the way the wall sweeps up from the base gives you a feeling that you are just hanging way over them. Try not to drop anything from up here!
Just a few more pieces to clean (fittingly, on a traverse). The final bolt ladder is incredibly steep with a few missing hanger bolts – it makes it difficult to aid or follow. We had a few rivet hangers but Joanne didn’t have it with her and ended up using nut as substitute. We paused a moment here to enjoy our accomplishment, then busted out the final few moves to the summit!
Glad to be on the summit! Joanne looks way better than I did…
Awesome views of Half Dome from the summit. We opted for the East Ledges descent – supposedly this takes 2 hours but with my bum leg, some route-finding issues, and no water it ended up being a mini-epic 5 hour descent. Still better than the 8 or 9 mile trail down!
Excited to be back at the car, gorging ourselves on fresh watermelon!
Last thoughts: Each pitch individually is not particularly hard, but stacked on top of each other, The Nose is a very physically demanding route. If you’re thinking of climbing it, the best training you can do is just get in the best physical shape of your life and be ready to take some abuse. Practice following pendulums and traverses as there are a LOT of them. All in all, the climbing and position is incredible – I wouldn’t argue too strongly against someone claiming this to be the “Greatest Rock Climb in the World”!
Also, we were totally hammered by the climb. Originally I thought we would take 1 day of rest and then climb some more. But even after 4 days of rest, we were still recovering. What a calorie burner!
Gear notes: 2 sets of nuts including some micro nuts (brass offsets are absolutely essential!), 2 sets of cams from the tiniest TCUs to #3 camelots. Triples from 0.5″-2″. We got away with just a single #4 camelot though having a second one is pretty useful on the pitch leading up to Dolt Tower. A (functional) portaledge is nice, as most of the ledges are not that comfortable. Finally, if it’s reasonably warm out (it was 80-85 and sunny for us) you really need 1 gallon of water per person per day. We easily finished 7 gallons in our 3.5 days.