This page, like many blogs, has grown mostly defunct over the last couple years as Facebook has become our primary way to keep friends and family updated with our whereabouts. But every now and then we’ll put together something for general web consumption. In this case, here’s a trip report for the Salathe Wall Route on El Capitan!
We can hardly believe it but it’s been almost four years since we did our first climb in the Yosemite Park, the Nose. I remember very vividly when we reached the summit that I told Matt I will never do it again. Apparently the painful parts of my memory have faded and 4 years later, we were crazy enough to go and try another route on El Cap, the Salathe Wall.
View of the El Cap as we drive in
The Salathe Wall has a reputation for being a step up in difficulty from the Nose, with more required free climbing (lots of awkward 5.9 chimneys / wide cracks), a greater number of harder aid climbing (C2) pitches and fewer fixed anchors making it harder to bail if things go wrong. (This last point is probably exaggerated – we found solid bolt anchors at just about every belay. Not that I would want to rappel from 30 pitches up on the route…). Regardless of the route’s reputation, we thought we could handle it: both Matt and I thought we would cruise right up the wall. And once we get this idea in our head, things were set in motion.
We spent 1 day practicing how to set up our portaledge
In the months leading up to the climb we took stock of our climbing equipment and decided to make a few purchases to fill in a few gaps. We bought a used haul bag and wall hauler from IME in North Conway, NH (one of the coolest local gear shops I’ve ever set foot in). A new rope and a few other pieces of gear were needed, as well. But perhaps the most exciting piece of gear we bought was a Valley Giant cam. The motivation for ordering this behemoth was a story from our friend Matt Spohn describing the infamous Hollow Flake on the Salathe Wall. His horror story involved desperately laybacking up this giant offwidth crack, climbing higher and higher with no protection at all. Near the top, if he were to fall, he was looking at a 100+ foot fall and almost certain serious injury. Just thinking about being in that situation makes my hands sweat buckets so we were determined to make this pitch less of a test of our sanity. After giving a little thought (ok, not much) between a Big Bro or a Valley Giant (and me telling Matt there is no way I will climb this route without a big cam), we settled on plunking down the cash for the giant cam.
We finally have our own haul bag
We also bought the giant cam to protect the chimneys
Gear aside, we remembered our last climb on El Cap as being extremely physical. In the past 6 months, I’ve been training very hard (4-5 days/week), not so much by climbing but the old fashioned way of pushups/situps/etc. You don’t have to climb super hard to get up a big wall but you do have to be super fit both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, in terms of preparation, that’s about all we did. In terms of climbing, we spent all winter and early spring climbing in the gym since the weather in New England didn’t allow for us to get outside. In all, we climbed just 2 weekends outdoors before heading to Yosemite. And to make matters worse, we hadn’t done any aid climbing practice – neither one of us had aided, hauled, or jumared since 2009 (Yikes!)
The Salathe is possibly the longest route on El Cap : it follows a line of weakness that begins on the toe of El Cap (just left of The Nose) and wanders up and left, climbing a relatively continuous crack system all the to the summit. It breaks up into several distinct sections of climbing which climbers often try to tackle in blocks. The lower section of the climb
Here’s a picture found on Supertopo showing the route. Credit: Mark Kroese
A Change of Plans
The week before we were set to fly to Yosemite there was a terrible accident on El Cap, a climber pulled off a large rock and cut his lead rope. He fell 200 feet onto his static haul line and was killed instantly. For a day or two after hearing about this, I was seriously considering changing plans to do something else. But then, last minute our friend Matt Spohn decided to drive down from Oregon to join us on the climb. Matt felt a little better with our friend joining us because I had told him I was going to just follow every pitch and he would have to lead everything. He was relieved to know that someone else would be able to share leads (and hauling) with him.
Memorial Day in the Valley
I had heard how crowded the Valley gets during Memorial Day but we’re not ones to listen to advice so here we were. Matt missed his turn to the El Cap Bridge and ended up in a parking lot on a one way road. It took us TWO hours to drive the 4 miles through the Valley and back to the bridge where we were meeting Matt. (This is where it gets confusing since there are two Matt’s. And to make matters worse, both of them are named Matt S.). Matt S. was already waiting for us and by the time we arrived, the sun was setting. We quickly sorted our gear and chatted about our options. It was late at night but we had no place to stay (campgrounds were full) so we decided to first drag our gear to the base of the route and figure out what to do next.
We had about 150 pounds of gear (mostly water/food) that we dragged to the base of the climb. Without a pack it’s a pleasant 15 minute jaunt but loaded down it took us closer to an hour. We decided that rather than sleep at the base and risk being woken by rangers, we would just start hauling our gear up the fixed lines and aim to sleep on Heart Ledge. The hauling was very difficult because the bags just dragged on the lower angle rock, snagging on every little overhang of rock. Sometime during that night, on the 3rd or 4th haul, Matt Spohn (a Type 1 diabetic) started acting a little delirious – his body was probably not used to taking insulin at such a late hour. I had to make sure that my Matt kept an eye on our friend so everything was done safely. We pulled our haul bags, exhausted, onto Heart Ledge sometime around 3AM (that’s 6AM to our bodies that were still on East Coast time). We pulled out our sleeping bags and were soon sleeping, 800 feet off the ground (and a very long way from the top).
The next day we were well rested and rappelled down to start Freeblast. I forgot to mention that the weather is not very good, it was cloudy and some treatening looking clouds looming above us. The wind was howling and blasting the entire time. Our friend Matt Spohn took all the hard and scary runout pitches. I am truly amazed at how calm he is on the slab when the wind is just knocking me on the belay left and right. We completed the Freeblast without incident (except for a cam that managed to unclip itself from Matt’s harness in the Half Dollar chimney) and got back to Heart Ledge probably by 8pm. At this time, we’ve been getting messages from friends that a storm was coming. We debated if we should go down or keep going since Matt did not have a lot of time and if we choose to wait for the weather, he would have to bail. After much discussion, we decided to sleep one more night and see what happen in the next morning. The next morning, the weather forecast still looked like rain was on its way. I did not want to go past the Hollow Flake since bailing after that point would be more challenging. We decided it was best that we climb 1 more pitch fix to Lung Ledge, and then descend to wait until the weather cleared. Unfortunately this mean our friend Matt could no longer climb with us because he had another commitment back in Oregon.
3 of us hanging out on Heart Ledge
So we rapelled back to the valley and stayed in Mariposa for the night since all the campgrounds in the Valley were occupied. Our meal that night was super delicious mexican restaurant in Mariposa. I still can taste the delicious cruncy taco shell in my mouth, yum yum
We woke up the next day (Tuesday now). The storm had mostly fizzled out and the forecast was looking good. Still, the ground was quite wet so we figured we made a good decision to descend. The wall would have turned into a waterfall if any hard rain had come in. We drove back into the valley and made a stop at the gear shop to stock up in more slings and locking biners. We decided that our tennis shoes were insufficient to climb the wall so both Matt and I bought a pair of brand new 5.10 approach shoes. I also grabbed 4 additional snicker bars on the way out and got the ‘eye’ by Matt. By the time we walked out from the shop, we have sunk ~$500 @_@.
Cloudy sky on the next morning
By noon, we jugged back up to Lung Ledge and continued climbing up. Our plan for the day was to make it to the Hollow Flake ledge. The hauling above Lung Ledge was quite painful since it was traversing fourth class terrain with a lot of rocks to catch a haul bag. Then Matt headed out to experience the Hollow Flake. With the big Valley Giant Cam the Hollow Flake was tamed (though not without some slow thrutching and grunting). Next it was my turn to follow the pitch and a pendulum was required. Keep in mind I have not done any practice before so I was just going with the flow to remember all the Big wall skills from 4 years ago. The pendulum took me a long time and involved a lot of swearing. I made a mistake of not tying back into the rope on figure eight and relied fully on my ascender to keep me on the rope. By the time I realized this mistake I was totally freaking out and quickly rappel into the flake and cloved myself back to the rope. That mistake would have been costly should my ascender chose to fail at that time. By the time I made it up to Matt, he had this big smile on him and said he is super thankful to the giant cam; money well spent. The bivy on the ledge that night was quite comfortable for the two of us.
Matt jugging back to Lung Ledge
A scrambling pitch to get to Hollow Flake pitch
Matt was very happy and thankful for the giant cam – the end of Hollow flake pitch
The headwall is looming above us
Our bivy site on Hollow Flake ledge
Here’s a photo of us taken by Tom Evans from elcapreport.com
Day Three on the Route.
We had a decent rest that night and get started as soon as we are ready. It was during the Ear pitch that Matt realized how unprepared we are to climb this route. Aiding the chimney pitch is a nightmare and following it is just as bad. I had to clean the last piece, lower back down, flake the rope out of the chimney and jumar the overhanging pitch. The wind was blowing the entire time while I was spinning round and round trying to stay focus to my task. It was a not a tough decision to stop at the Alcove considered how tired we were when we got there. The Alcove is a great bivy site, sheltered on 3 sides and with enough room to really stretch out a bit. We could see El Cap tower right above us and the night was beautiful, stars shining between the sheer walls surrounding us.
The ear pitch is a bitch to follow
Matt on the ear pitch
The start of the next day is to climb to El Cap spire. It would have been a very cool (though exposed) bivy but looking at our dwindling food supply, Matt and I needed to continue climbing. There was not much option for us right now but to continue and see where we would end up stopping for the day. We knew that we would likely have to sleep in the portaledge that night since we were not moving very fast at all. The Sewer pitch is aptly named, probably the worst pitch for the route. There were a lot of mosquitos and gnats and slimy water dripping down the rock. Matt seemed to have a pretty good time climbing it, though. I am really paying the price for not training for the climb at all. Cleaning aid route is very tough for me. I ended up leaving a piece of gear during a roof traverse because Matt neglected to put additional gears for me. We made it to the “Sous Le Toit” ledge (translation is literally “Under the roof”), called by the guidebook a “poor bivy for 1”. I ended up sleeping on the portaledge while Matt laid down on the uneven ledge. Not a good night.
Matt getting ready to start the next pitch at the Alcove bivy site
We were confused where this would lead us.
Matt got to the top of El Cap tower
Here’s my selfies on top of El Cap tower
The pitch above the El Cap tower
Our bivy for the night; Matt looks so tired here but always with a smile
A couple long dihedral pitches from Sous Le Toit led us to a below under the roof proper. This is a prominent feature that you can see from the bottom of the route. As we climbed, day after day, this imposing roof feature looked down on us. And now we were sitting underneath it contemplating the series of moves that would lead us out under and then over the lip of the roof. This part was not too difficult as most of the gear was fixed. I decided I would have an easier time to follow the pitch by aiding it rather than trying to jumar. This was a pain (though I don’t know if it was any worse than jumaring) and involved much more cursing.
Matt continue climbing toward the headwall
Matt on the roof
It’s a long way down from here
Once over the roof we got a good look at the last major obstacle between us and the summit: the legendary Salathe headwall. This stretch of granite is nauseatingly exposed, being slightly overhanging, and 3000 feet above the valley floor. It is so steep that anything dropped here will fall, as we were soon to see, without touching anything before being swallowed up by the trees below. The rock here is flawless, smooth except for a single thin crack that winds its way 200 feet up to Long Ledge. A fantastic video of this pitch (not us climbing!) is here: http://vimeo.com/31878065.
Matt had smashed his knuckles on the roof pitch and was bleeding all over. In addition, he was exhausted at this point and asked if I could lead this pitch. I hadn’t lead any pitches yet on the climb and he was asking me to do one of the most challenging! The first 20 feet of this pitch went fine up to a solid bolt. Then the crack pinches down for about 10 feet of quite tricky and thin aid placements. (Small offset cams are great here). I placed a series of small placements: an offset cam, a brass offset, and the smallest cam we owned. It was on this last one that I was standing, just a few feet away from a fixed piece of gear (and safety), when the piece popped and I started to fall. As I fell, the previous two pieces of gear popped in quick succession and before I knew it the bolt had caught my fall. I had fallen 30 feet and I had fallen all the way back to the belay where Matt was. He was staring at me with an expression of total shock. Somewhere in the fall, I had caught my shoe on the rock and it had been pulled from my foot. I looked down and watched my shoe fall. And fall.
Matt on long ledge with smashed fingers
So much for the $140 pair of shoes I had just bought. Barefoot I went back up and tried the pitch again. I got back to where I was and *pop* the piece failed on me again. This time, I had replaced the offset cam and it caught my fall. I had enough at this point and fortunately Matt had recovered enough to volunteer to take a stab at the pitch. I was starting to get worried that we were going to be stuck here, 30 pitches above the ground, forced to make an agonizing retreat all the way back down the route. Matt moved slowly back to my high point, fiddled around for a few minutes and after two more placements was able to reach the fixed piece of gear. Woo-hoo! We were moving upward again. Matt broke the headwall up into 2 pitches, after which we stumbled onto the comfortable Long Ledge. From here there was actually a fixed rope all the way to the summit, tempting us to take a shortcut to the top of the wall. Food was starting to run low but we still had several days of water so we were focused on finishing the climb under our own power.
Two easier pitches brought us to the top of El Capitan, finally! I got to the top and gave a few loud “Wooot”s into the Valley below. On the summit, we finished the last of our food, left a couple gallons for thirstier climbers, re-packed the haul bag and began the long descent. Yosemite pros might be able to do this in 2-3 hours but it took us 5 hours to hike and rappel On the way down, we ran into Jim Donini, a climbing legend, and chatted with him for a half hour. Several mind numbing hours later we were back in the Valley. There, we caught a shuttle bus back to the Meadows, snapped a few more pictures, then headed over for a well-deserved hot meal in the cafeteria.
Matt starting the pitch from long ledge
Here’s a view of our bivy on long ledge
One more pitch to the top; it’s so nice to know there is a shortcut if we choose to use it 🙂
I had to show off my guns
We try to not think too hard of the long decent with all our gears
Back to the car!!
My bear encounter in Yosemite