Taking on the big guys – A Yosemite TR

Ever since I first started to learn about trad climbing and multi-pitching almost eight years ago on Squamish’s very own beautiful granite, friends would talk about ‘The Valley’ in an almost sacred tone. Or at least that’s how I heard it. As a newbie climber adventuring up my first 5.8′s on the chief I was always drawn to climbs requiring not only shear athleticism, but mental strength, tenacity, general toughness and certain amounts of knowledge and experience that come with all that. With Steph Davis and Lynn Hill as my heroines from the very beginning I could only imagine climbers worlds away from my realm of ability and experience deserving the climbing on Yosemite’s Granite.

My obsessions grew as I read their respective biographies and copious American climbing films featuring the Mecca. When I returned to the UK the allure of the Valley grew evermore. There was a huge expanse of ocean between me and my wildest dreams, not to mention, from a climbing point of view a huge hurdle to overcome. The antithesis of Yosemite big wall climbing is probably bimbling your way up 12m HVS trad lines in the UK and not in my wildest dreams could I even picture how I would start to gather the experience and the knowledge I needed to even think of climbing The Nose on El Cap, but this seemed to stoke the fire even more. I never expected it to be easy. And if it was, it would never have felt this colossal.

I wanted to try to give you a picture of just how much I’ve wanted to climb the Nose on El Cap and how long that fire has been burning so that there was an understanding of just how hard it is to write a blog about the trip. It was in October 2014 we returned and I’m only just starting to put finger to keyboard, mostly because I have no idea what to write. I still don’t really. I’ve had many many ideas of which way to take this; a factual trip report? An informative ‘how we were successful on the Nose’ type blog to help others maybe embarking on the undertaking? A reflection on how it feels to complete a dream? All of them are too scattered and too expansive to know where to start.

Friends of mine from the Glasgow days, Jen and Jackie climbed El Cap a couple of years ago and Jen made an awesome film about it that won a few awards called ‘Push it’, (check out the trailer here and then buy it from her – you won’t regret it, its brilliant on many levels!) Knowing they came from similar climbing backgrounds as me I re-read Jen’s blog to see if it might help me on where to start. It didn’t really, it just made me in awe of how she could write so succinctly and humorously about something of such magnitude. I guess that’s why she gets paid to do these things and even my close friends get too bored of my waffling to read my blog. There are so many things Jen wrote though that I found resonate entirely with my experience and so I’m just going to steal them as explanations instead of gushing for another ten paragraphs before I even get to telling you what we got up to on the trip. Jen is totally right, I genuinely felt incapable of climbing the Nose, I knew I’d try one day, but as mentioned before I always felt that it was for another kind of climber than me. To then prove you are capable is…well…life changing – as cheesy as it sounds, she is totally right. And the even more clichéd thing is that you don’t care if anyone else knows you are capable, you only care that you have proven it to yourself.

The other few things I can knick from Jen is the fear of telling people about your trip in case you fail. You want to be certain enough to proclaim ‘I’m going to climb El Cap’ because ‘I’m going to try really really hard but I’ve no idea what climbing El Cap really entails and there’s a high chance i’ll fail’ is not the definitive positive attitude you need to believe you can do it. At the same time, it was super hard to gauge if our preparation was going to be enough, since honestly I didn’t really have any real idea of what climbing El Cap would entail. I had heard lots of stories of really strong climbers going under-prepared and over confident and getting totally schooled and eventually bailing. So I know exactly how Jackie and Jen must have felt after their initial attempts at big walls in the valley, finding out they were ‘slow and rubbish’ (their words, not mine). Truth is I can’t thank them enough for sharing this experience. This was definitely one of my biggest fears, but through them and others I realised that I must go with an open mind and low expectations; to go to the Valley with the aim being to send the nose and do all that was possible to be best prepared for it, but to realise that part of the learning curve might be to go down there, get completely shut down and be more prepared for the next trip. I realised that success meant not worrying about failure, not expecting to be good right off the bat and being ok with making huge fuck ups. But success also meant taking these experiences and learning from them, not getting too down beat about it. Basically those guys taught me that you just needed a good strong attitude. And you need to be willing to try really fucking hard. If there is one thing I feel ok to say I’m good at as a climber it is that I’ve propagated a good attitude to trying hard and not letting failure get to me. This approach helped A LOT for big walling. The other thing is that I’ve noticed over the years that I’m quite good at trying hard if I really want something. I wanted the Nose. Sooo badly. And I knew I was capable of trying – really, REALLY, hard to get it.

So with that small essay as an introduction lets see if I can write a (relatively) concise trip report.

Friday Evening – Departure.

I left work frantically at 4.30pm ready to boost home and pack the last few items up, anticipating Paulie coming round in his new Astro Van at about 5pm. Paulie text as I landed at my door, he was frantically trying to pack up his life and get everything sorted before he gave up his apartment keys and moved into the van indefinitely, departure was not going to be imminent. After I had an attempted power nap Paul turned up at my door around 9.30pm looking dishevelled and stressed and frantically handed me boxes that he hadn’t had time to take to his storage locker. We hit the road in that frame of mind.

Before crossing the border we stopped for fast food and realised Vinny the Van was dripping oil. Not the best start automotively speaking. We pushed on regardless with the engine light flashing intermittently. As Paul tried to organise the items he’d thrown in the back in a last minute panic, I drove us on through the night. Around 4am I conceded and we pulled into a rest stop just shy of the Oregon border at Vancouver, Washington.

Saturday – How long can two Brits entertain themselves in Walmart?

Feeling a little more wise after a very small amount of sleep we decided to seek out a mechanic in Vancouver, WA before travelling any further. The bad news was that the radiator Paul had just had replaced back in Canada was not put in properly and needed replacing, again, the good news being that the guy was willing to fit it in for us at the end of his day. They were closed on Sundays so we would have been looking at hanging out in Vancouver, WA until Monday otherwise. We soon discovered that it only took us a few hours to exhaust the entertainment offered by the local Walmart and there was nothing else around the town really so we spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep on the sofas of the mechanics reception space. Soo glad we only had to spend a day there. We got back on the road at around 7pm and soon discovered that Vinny was still leaking oil and the check engine light was back on, not flashing this time though. We pushed on, another red eye drive, another rest stop crash out.

Sunday – A day behind schedule we make it to Yosemite.

We arrived close to the national park gates in the late afternoon and thankfully with plenty of time to see that luscious golden granite in all its glory under daylight. The surreal-ness of it all began by absorbing the ranger guarded entry way and beginning to pass the rock features that before this moment had only occurred in the guide books I’d lusted over and the and films I watched wistfully. The Rostrum, the Sentinel, middle Cathedral and finally the jaw dropping view of the Capitain himself with half Dome cowering over the valley so intimidatingly as the revered features I’d believed them to be. I was scared that finally seeing this view with my own eyes would pale in comparison to the impressive enigma I had been imagining for so long, it did not in one bit disappoint. I’m not sure if it was the undeniable staggering beauty of the scenes before me, or the raw emotion of feeling the closest I have to a big dream that overwhelmed me so much, with a lump in my throat and an uncontrollable grin on my face I pondered that it was probably the combination of the two.

After perving on the Capitain for a while, we reached camp around dusk, found our friends, wolfed down some dinner and made a plan for our first day of climbing in the valley.

Monday – Serenity now!

We decided to do the classic link up of Serenity Crack into Sons of Yesterday, but disappointingly found out we weren’t the only ones as we arrived at the base to two parties waiting and a party of three taking their sweet ass time and causing a traffic jam a couple of pitches up.

To this Paulie decided to try an unknown single pitch line to the right whilst we waited. He lost the way, found it too hard and eventually ended up bailing on a bail biner on a bolt. Hmmm.

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(scary run out peg scars on pitch 1)

Then I began by leading the first run out pitch of Serenity on crazy peg scars and was also first to ping off the crux  pitch on lead. I ripped a flapper and was growing more and more uncomfortable under the unavoidable sun. It was crazy hot out and as Paulie hung at a belay from a tree on the first pitch of Sons, waiting for the traffic jam to clear, I worked on my sun stroke. After about 40 mins of waiting shade-free I was toast (almost literally) and we decided to bail because the route was too overcrowded (and admittedly because I was frazzled!). We returned to camp, two bails and one success, with our tails between our legs a little. It was admittedly not the most promising start to how I would deal with the heat factor on those exposed walls.

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(Following  the second pitch)

Tuesday – We join John and Allen for some wide cracks

Aware that it might be severely damaging to our psyche to bail too much too early on in the trip I reluctantly agreed to indulge Paulie in his dream of climbing the Steck-Salathe. I was not unintrigued, just realistic about my wide crack climbing skills and therefore unsure about how good of a partner I would be for him on the route, but I decided to try anyway.

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(Getting a knee in on some wide crack on the first pitch of the Steck/Salathe)

Unfortunately my fears were not allayed when I struggled to lead the 5.8 first pitch and barely made it through following the crux pitch (.10a) awkward chimney using Jumars and hauling my bag through my legs. We were moving very slowly and I was very nervous about what this would mean for the tighter squeeze pitches above so we made the safe call to bail at the 7th pitch, after this it would have been very hard to retreat. Another bail. Another hit to the psyche.

Wednesday – Nasal reconnaissance

I think one or more of the millions of blogs and trip reports we both read about climbing the Nose noted that knowing the approach to the base along with the first technical (5.6-.7?) approach pitch and even the four pitches up to sickle as a very good idea before embarking on the actual mission. We concurred that this indeed seemed like it couldn’t hurt, especially since we’d probably be doing the first bit in the dark when we came for real and we’d want to be efficient if there were going to be crowds, so we decided to go get familiar with the big guy himself pretty early on in the trip.

We also had heard that the first pitches to sickle were possibly the hardest to get through (Andy K explains well….as always) so we were glad to give ourselves any head start.

We strolled up easily through the forest around 10am, the foot of the route only a 10min walk from the road. It felt cool as all hell to be at the very base, touching the actual granite belonging to the route of my dreams. It was intimidating and exciting, and I guess part of the prep of going up there on a reconnaissance was to eradicate some of that intimidation with familiarity.

Paul set off leading the first two pitches which, of what I can remember, consisted of some awkward thin cracks and 5.11 climbing. Paul did a great job at freeing as much of this as possible and using some gear to pull through on where it would make the job quicker. I must add that I think this is totally key to moving quickly on walls, the longer you can stay out of your aiders the better, but knowing when and how to use gear to pull through difficult moves to make the climbing go quicker is the essence of efficient walling, french free at its best is a real art.

I can’t really remember my pitches clearly but I was definitely in my aiders at one point and I remember the whole ordeal involving some solid ‘big wall’ tactics; tension traverses/lower outs etc that were always useful to practice.

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(Lowering out on the first couple of pitches on the way to Sickle Ledge, the Nose)

We reached the ledge to find gallons of water and loads of ropes stashed there, another nod to just how crowded the route might be. We didn’t dwell on the fact that it had taken us the best part of the day to get to sickle, instead we saw the positive side that the point of the exercise was so we could be faster when we went for real (hopefully!).

The other thing we both noticed when we reached sickle is how we were glad we weren’t planning to spend the night there….that ledge is NOT big!!

Thursday – Half rest day with some big wall prep and a hike with the pig.

We decided to go for our first big wall objective – Liberty Cap, via the South West Face. We did a bunch of research on this before we left home as it seemed like it was a decent difficulty to bite off for a first wall, but wouldn’t be too busy, unlike everybody’s favourite first big wall – Washington Column.

We used the rest day to gather supplies, pack the haul bag and in the afternoon we embarked on the long assed hike up to the start of Liberty Cap. Here is a link to one of the most useful blogs we found about the route: http://www.yosemitebigwall.com/report/liberty-cap-full-weekender.

The hike is steep with lots of tourists (as the blog describes also) but I opted for carrying the haul bag which, although cumbersome, actually didnt feel too bad. I felt like a hero too as tourists gasped at me plodding up the trail with what looked to be a huge barrel on my back 🙂

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(Paul jugging up the slabs to reach the caves!)

Our plan was to sleep in the caves above the slab and tackle the first pitch the next day. I set to work fixing the ropes on the initial slab pitches (by walking up the path to lookers left) whilst Paulie went and filled up our water at Vernal falls. I then rappelled down my fixed lines (2 pitches) attached the pig and jugged and hauled until all our kit was up at the caves.

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Beers and bivi at the caves

The caves were a cool spot to stay but Paulie and I took a cave each as they were not all that spacious. We enjoyed a beer whilst watching hundred of bats flee from a chimney just to the right of the slab and then turned in for the night.

Friday – First day on the wall

I dont really remember the specifics of this wall to be honest but what I do remember is Paulie getting to take on some wicked splitters in his block (I was kinda jealous). On my block I remember battling with an awkward tree mid pitch that seemed quite comical and I did my first rivet ladder – finding out we only had one proper rivet hanger so learning how to used nuts for the job instead. I also got my first taste of the necessary ‘top-top’ step on steep terrain. I was trying to reach through some missing bolts/rivets/gear? on the steep and blank head-wall pitches and at first it felt like there was no way I was going to get to the next hanger, I was miles off. Before learning how to properly top step an overhang I even tried to sky-hook and old crumbling rivet scar (the missing peice?), which cut my knuckles up pretty bad as I repeatedly slid off. When I finally clipped the bolt through top stepping I was astonished by just how much leverage you could achieve from your daisy if you get the length just so and really really push! Holy abs and quads!! Afterwards it dawned on me that all the biners left behind were due to the fact that someone else couldn’t reach through and had to bail, unable to retrieve them because of the traversing nature of the line. This section was an intense workout for my core and pretty heady too. I gotta admit it kinda felt like ‘the real deal’ overcoming these challenges and being on our first big wall, getting all bloody and sweaty. I was enjoying trying hard and getting somewhere – albeit slowly.

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(Dealing with well spaced rivets on the steep head wall pitches)

We reached the ledge with not a minute of daylight to spare and were eager to test out our calorific canned dinners that we had chosen. I had a very dense can of corned beef hash, which looked and smelled like cat food and was saltier than the pacific ocean, but it did have like a bizzillion calories though so I managed to get it down. We also shared a beer which for both of us was well worth hauling up the wall, no questions about it – one of the many reasons why Paulie is the best partner!!

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Enjoying life on the wall (so far)!

Knowing that rainfall was likely over night and next day we set up camp on our blue foam rolly mats and bivi bags. Paulie didn’t have a bivi bag so he was tucked under his tarp for the night which looked pretty ghetto but baddass at the same time!

Saturday – Second day on the wall

When we awoke (bright and early) It was pretty grey out and after the light rainfall in the night we were both anxious to get up and off before heavier rainfall came – especially since the upper pitches offered some run-out slabs. After downing our breakfast of tinned fruit and squashed bagels, we were off – well sort of.

After the battling on the Steck-Salathe I was determined to get better at wide stuff so I decided to have a crack at the 5.8 chimney that lead us off the ledge, I fought and fought and didn’t get very far before eventually conceding that it would be much quicker if Paul lead that pitch. Yosemite chimneys can be so fickle!

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(Night #2 bivi spot and the impending chimney of doom)

With only four pitches to do that day we topped out as the rain starting falling in the early afternoon. It was a bit sad not to have time to bask in the glory of finishing our first wall but we were happy to scurry back to camp knowing sogginess was imminent. We managed to avoid getting more than a shower until we hit the lower part of the John Muir trail thankfully. Yet again it was a real ego boost to get the congrats of the tourist hikers as we plodded out looking the part with our big blue pig in tow, this time Pauly played donkey and I got to save my knees.

We celebrated with beer and pizza back in the village and conked out looking forward to a rest day.

Sunday – Some deserved R & R

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(Indulgent camp breakfasts)

We made breakfast omelettes with the last of our Trader Joe’s supply, sorted gear, hung around camp and mostly sat on our asses chilling out. The evening involved drinking too much Whiskey and getting too excited watching climbing movies in the back of Paul’s van. It was a good time. I love rest days!

Monday – flailing and decking

We paid for that whiskey consumption. Yet we still decided it would be a good idea to go and grunt up some wide cracks. Obviously I flailed like hell in the beginning of Generator crack although I think there was some noticeable improvement in my technique. Paul crushed it but nearly vomited when he reached the pod.

We then went to check out some other cragging areas and had a shitty mishap that involved not realising the crag was more than 30m tall and resulted in me dropping Paul a few metres as I lowered him off the end of our 60m rope.

Thankfully Paul was totally fine apart from a few bruises and we learned our lesson with out having to pay the hard price, something we both are fully aware we are lucky for.

Tuesday – Back to the big guy for the East Butress of El Cap

Now we had reconn’d the first bit of the Nose, we decided to think positively and reconn’ the last bit – the descent. The East Buttress is the easiest route that gets you to the top of El Cap and goes free at 5.10b, its a classic line with some amazing climbing and on top of that it would give us an insight into how to get down the East ledges for if/when we found ourselves on top of El Cap again after the Nose.

I remember feeling pretty shitty when I woke up in the dark on this morning, but after an arduous hike up hill I felt much better. The start of the climbing was typical Yosemite, burly 5.9 pitches with awkward wide moves to get you grunting, urghh! Then came a delicate 10b move which I nearly screwed up and would have seen me falling on the heads of an overly enthusiatic Scottish team who were hot on our heels the whole way up, its a good job they were nice guys!

There were some stellar easier pitches with great exposure and wicked views, followed by a couple of pitches of rambly choss and then some more Yosemite 5.9 to return you to grunting. The pitch which features on the front cover of ‘Yosemite free climbs’ with a shirtless Timmy O’Neil was utterly stellar, but a good battle (especially if your used to how 5.9 feels in Squamish!)

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(Nice exposure on the initial pitches of the East Buttress)

On the summit we picked our way down the east ledges fairly easily, its not too bad despite the claims, but if you had to pull it off in the dark or in bad weather, tired and carrying big loads, you’d be very glad of having done it before and knowing where to find the fixed lines for abseiling. I think it took us about 2hrs to get back down at a leisurely pace.

Wednesday – Rest again and more wall prep.

Why did rest days never seem fully restful somehow? I mean there was no climbing, so physically we got a rest. But it felt like we were always running around, doing laundry, finding internet, getting groceries and hatching plans for our next mission, rushed for time. I had imaged days with so little to do but rest that I ‘d get through entire novels in a day. I guess that was a little delusional!

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(What laundry day looked like at a climbers camp – rigging skills come in handy)

We set our next mission, we were gonna try half dome again (Paulie had already bailed from the 4th or 5th pitch on a previous trip), but this time we were gonna be a little more conservative with our ambitions and take a night on Big Sandy – the strategy still being ‘fast and light’, no hauling, we filled my small 35L Arcteryx alpha pack with just sleeping bags for the bivi (no mats) and our food and water for two days.

Thursday – Leisurely morning then beastly hike.

After a chill time breakfasting (Mmm burritos!) we set off in blistering heat up the ‘death slabs’ to the dome. We carried a back pack each – one with the wall stuff and one with bivi stuff for a night below the wall that night.

Usually there is water right up near the wall but with such a hot summer it wasn’t dripping this year, with that gone we had to hike in our water supplies too.

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(The boiling hot slog into the base of Half Dome)

The going was strenuous, the packs felt heavy, the ground was dusty and loose and yet again I was getting annihilated by the sun. I could now see why the hike in was reported brutal. I had zero envy for anyone  taking a haul bag up there – jeese!!

Friday – Blast off

At a typical crazy hour of still darkness we got up and packed the bivi. A party of 3 Israelis who were already up there when we arrived let us go in front of them since with their haul bag everyone anticipated them being slower than us.

I Iead us off and was enjoying the relatively easy climbing and bomber cracks the first few pitches had to offer, throwing the occasional french free move in there for speed.

We switched after the bolt ladder (at the flake that is now missing!!) and Paulie took over to do his wide thing in the chimneys! Our friends told us about the key hole pitch where you pop through a ‘window’ in the back of one of the chimneys to emerge back on to the face – they were right – this was sooo cool!!

We were going well and on the last few pitches before big Sandy, I was on lead again and still enjoying it. Dusk was settling in but we would make it to the ledge before dark. We then had a difference in way finding opinion and Paul convinced me to head up instead of traversing right at the top of a crack. The climbing was desperate, so I aided through, the gear got stuck and generally everything slowed to just faster than a halt.

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(Just before big Sandy and just before messing up the route finding)

After dark set in I could see mice eyes by head torch from above and realized I was too high with Big Sandy directly below me (should have gone my way and traversed right!). We rapped in to join the mice, exhausted but satisfied.

Big Sandy was big, but very ledgy, so each sub-ledge was not much bigger than a single persons body width. Paul took a lower ledge and I took an upper and we settled in for the night waiting for the Israelis to join us in the early hours of the morning.

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(Views from our bivi on Big Sandy)

Saturday – we are hero’s just for one day!

The second day on Half Dome was filled with harder climbing, smaller and thinner cracks in technical faces. This mostly just meant slower going though as we busted out the aiders more often and pulled on a lot more gear. Paulie lead the first block and I took over on the home straight after the notorious ‘thank god ledge’ (which I might add we both crawled but only one of us was lucky enough to capture the other in the squirmy act on camera) .

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(Thank god ledge – not quite the way Honnold did it)

As I reached the last couple of pitches over blockier/ledgier terrain, the distant heads of tourists who’d hiked up via the cables route began daringly popping up over the top. “Wow, we’re so high up!” they’d exclaim and “Wooah, soo steep down there” after doing a warrior pose as far out on the overhanging splices of rock that they’d dare, they’d settle back into gazing through their cameras until eventually once their huge lenses had captured us in the view finder they’d yell “Hey look down there, there’s a dude climbing this thing…woooah!!”.

The ‘dude’ they were seemingly referring to was me, hair tied up outta the way in a buff to protect myself from the sun and dirt ridden from living on a wall for two days, I guess I couldn’t blame them for their mistake. But the sex didn’t really seem to matter to them, they were still awestruck that anybody would come up the face the way we did. Little did we realise that this shower of overly impressed people was just the beginning.

The whole time we were sorting the gear for the descent and packing our bags, eating food and hanging out on the top, hoards of tourists would come over asking questions about our climb and wanting to take pictures of us. You’d think it would be annoying but it was actually kinda cool. It was hard not to feel like a hero, even as we walked out sauntering past the people slogging their way up the cables as we cheekily hopped past on the outside, they still wanted to know our story and congratulated us on our achievement, pontificating how hard it must have been given how hard they were finding the cables route even! Ahh there really is, after all, nothing like a bit of North American emotion-exaggeration to inflate your ego. This little excerpt from the Mountain Project websites description of the route is my favourite; they totally nailed it by the way!

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(Paulie and I on top of Half Dome)

“At some point you’re near the top. They probably see you first, because They are always there, looking down, looking out. They exclaim in surprise and are honestly stunned. They cheer, and jeer, and all of a sudden you realize you’re the center of attention like rarely ever in your life. You’re a hero. Then you top out. Your partner jugs. You haul a bag that is, finally, light. And the questions come. Food and water are offered, and goddamn it, it tastes GOOD. The light is amazing. The view incredible…the elation is darn near making you float, and the reality of the brutal descent isn’t even enough to dampen it a bit. Congratulations!–wasn’t it worth it? ”
Yes. It definately was!

Sunday – Pancakes and a campsite refresh!

Another awesome rest day. Lie-ins and a big pancake breakfast with Em and Colin who have now joined us in camp replacing Alan and Ross. One set of crushers out, the next set of crushers in. This rest day felt vaguely restful, unlike others, with just a few chores to be done and another 40 minute endurance shower to be taken.

Monday – Prep day and nerves building

It was time to go after the big prize. With under a week left on the trip and an anticipated 3-4 day outing on the big guy if things went well, we decided to go for it and get on the Nose. With two big walls already under our belt and some good Yosemite experiences we had honed in our nutrition strategies, bivi tactics and built enough confidence in our skills to at least justify an attempt. Monday was all about the prep. We bought new super light weight sleeping pads from the village (by a small US company called Klymit) because we discovered that the blue foamies everyone tells you to take, so that you can double them as haul bag protectors, are a royal pain in the arse to slide in and out of the pig every time you bivi/repack. On top of that they are uncomfortable, not that warm and pretty cumbersome (when not rolled up) so instead, I went searching for large cardboard boxes, which I flattened, cut and patched together with duct tape to quilt a perfect, double layered cardboard pig protector. I would highly recommend this approach!

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(Travis at camp sorting gear as we prep ours on the left)

After buying our food, carefully and agonisingly selecting our rack, packing our bivi gear, filling our oh so heavy water jugs, checking the topo for the millionth time and of course prepping our ‘poop bag’ and supplies, we were getting ready to relax and cook dinner to fuel properly for the adventure ahead.

With some unfortunate timing a good friend who I hadn’t seen in ages showed up at the campsite to share a beer, which was totally awesome, but could have been more awesome if it wasn’t right in the middle of our crucial nose prep time! We headed to bed slightly later and slightly more frazzled than anticipated – did we pack everything we needed??

Tuesday – And were off.

We got to the bottom of the route around 4am to find a party already racked up at the bottom – we were really hoping they were going to do the Salathe instead. As we gained the ledge after the 5.7 pitch we found a group of 4-5 guys bivied and slowly stumbling awake. I was feeling intimidated by the ‘crowds’ already and scared that this many people could really foil our plans. I wanted to ask them what they planned on doing to avail or confirm any fears – but Paulie rightfully ushered me on to just start climbing. I relaxed almost immediately as I started to do my thing on the first pitch. It was still dark and I was climbing by head torch so it was just me and the 4ft of rock around me.

As I reached the first belay it was coming light and I set up the first haul. It wouldn’t budge – fuck!! I set up my well practised 2:1 in anticipation of exactly this and I could now get the haul bag moving in the right direction but it was pretty inefficient. Paulie beat the pig to the belay and started helping me to reel the damn thing in, we both gave each other a knowing glance that if this happened on every belay we would be moving too slowly to make it to our anticipated bivi ledge.

Thankfully the reccy we did early on in the trip paid off and the familiarity helped me to speed up the climbing to sickle a little bit. The hauling got easier when I was able to set the belay up in a way that allowed me to pull directly downwards, at belays where I wasn’t able to do this I just had to struggle through, it was exhausting and soul destroying and every bit as tough as I had imagined.

Soon we had reached sickle ledge (our previous high point), it was hotter than the gates of hell and I couldn’t pour the water from the left behind jugs down my throat fast enough!

Paulie took over the leading with nobody in sight behind us yet -great news! However cries from above came through loud and clear as we witnessed a team of three struggling to communicate in the unscrupulous wind. We think they are descending but its hard to tell as a sea of ropes blows (quite literally) horizontally from them. Their endeavours look absolutely epic and we fear the struggle that awaits us as we traverse up and into their position on the nasal-ridge.

Our ropes get stuck almost continuously despite trying to be extremely vigilant with the stacking and organisation, given the wind, it seems a mission impossible. The going is slow with pitch after pitch of descending the fixed line to dislodge the pig, swinging around gathering stray rope ends, jugging-descending-re-jugging. We were both getting worked, physically and mentally. I was positive we were going too slow and it was only a matter of time before we admitted we too needed to bail.

“Just so you know I’m not enjoying this’ said Paulie around pitch 7 or 8, “I mean the climbing is great, but all this other bullshit, the ropes and hauling and everything, its bullshit”. He was verbally expressing the heightened stress we were so obviously both  feeling, I had no answer, I just nodded, knowing that if I confirmed my concurrence we’d be very close to admitting we should bail. Instead somehow at every belay, we switched into auto and did our chores, I’d hand him the screw-gate with my end of the rope and tell him “On belay”, off he went. The train was going slow but it kept moving.

Before we knew it we were out of the wind and Paulie was enjoying classic Yosemite 5.10 crack whilst I hung out on belay in some spectacular positions amongst a glorious sunset. You could almost taste the calm filtering back in. A stranded party, also on there way down required our help dislodging a stuck rope and whilst they waited they continued to nurture our previous anxious mood back to a mellow state with some light hearted banter and some humorous singing! They informed us they were bailing because they realised they wouldn’t have enough water left for how slowly they were going and just generally felt that it would be stupid to go on. They then told us of all the water jugs they had stashed a couple pitches up on Dolt Tower – are you kidding me?! Way to lift my mood even more! Now I knew we’d make it to dolt before dark AND we’d just been handed a bail out of water – we’d definitely have enough now. I just kept thinking of Andy Kirkpatrick’s advice – make it through the first day and you’ll finish the job off – I didn’t want to get too worked up but I couldn’t help that we just made our chances of topping out a whole lot higher.

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Paulie leading with a beautiful smokey sunset behind – just before reaching Dolt tower.

We got to Dolt just as dusk settled in, it was massive and we had it to ourselves – pleased but exhausted from our first complete day on the Nose – I would surely sleep well?

(Unfortunately we have limited photos of our time on the Nose because in an attempt to be over prepared the camera battery made it into the charger but never got put back into the camera – thankfully we did not escape Tom Evan’s lens though and he reported n our progress on his blog and send us some amazing photos afterwards – big thanks Tom!!)

Wednesday – Day two on the Nose.

The alarm goes at 5am and I feel groggy – not the good nights sleep I’d predicted, too much excitement perhaps? By the time we get everything packed and breakfast eaten its just becoming light and Paulie is first out of the gates for his lead block.

Paulie takes us up to the texas flake and things are going reasonably well. Slowly as usual but the haul bag is a touch lighter and were a little more accustomed to how this works now, our transitions are quick and for the most part were having fun!

I’m super glad the chimney on texas isn’t mine to lead but Paul does a great job of pushing through and we can haul on the outside. The view perched on the top is pretty cool and now we do the switch over as its my turn to tackle some classic pitches and lead a block.

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Leaving the perch on top of Texas flake it is my turn to lead a block.

I lower in and start the King swing waaay too high. Unfortunately I don’t realise this until much too late. After a bunch of attempts sprinting as fast as I can back and fourth across the face of El Cap I manage to use friction and tension at the slowing end of the pendulum to hold on to a short and thin crack. After a good rest I can pad my way down and round the corner to where I should have latched on in the first place. I get the important #4 in the wide crack and Paulie sends me the rack. I punch my way up the next section, back cleaning as I go until I’m above Paulie and free of any gear below me.

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Pink line shows a better trajectory starting below the thickest of the grey bands.

As I charge on for the last few pitches of the day its apparent its getting dark fast and on the traversey/ledgy terrain of pitch 18, problems hauling the bag and jumaring cause us some real delays.

It’s late, its dark, we are one pitch below our intended bivi and I’m utterly exhausted, my brain won’t function and its near impossible to problem solve any more. This is the closest I felt to tears on the wall. Fortunately when Paulie eventually gets to join me at the belay we sub-consciously seem to concur that expressing our frustration at each other won’t help. Calmly I explain that I don’t know where the next pitch goes, even though I can see what will be our camp ledge for the night (Camp 4), in the dark I can’t work out the easiest way to get there and I’m scared of turning it into an extended epic by going the wrong way. He can sense my frustration and offers to go take a look. Unfortunately he has as much trouble as I was anticipating I would, he backs off looking sheepishly at the thin ledge we are standing on. I am elated to hear that Paul doesn’t think its a ridiculous idea to try to bivi here as all I want to do is sit down and rest. Surely finding our way will be much easier in the daylight?

We set up the most comical bivi ever on what the topo describes as an ‘ok bivi for 1’. Our torso’s share the ledge whilst or feet are hung out in space (at opposite ends) lassoed by aiders and slings. This is the best nights sleep I get on the wall!

Thursday – Day three on the Nose.

I woke up feeling battered, all those niggling injuries had turned into legitimate aches and pains. I sunburnt my lips so bad from constant exposure that the skin was crumbling off. My hands were bleeding and torn and the toe nail on my big toe had ripped somehow and looked infected and inflamed. The long hard days were really taking their toll. Knowing that  a big chunk of the day would be Paulies block anyway – he’d been pining for the great roof and the pancake flake -when I saw how well we were going with him on lead I told him if he was up for it that he should just keep leading for the day. I knew that this was by no means the easy way out, since lowering out the great roof was one of the most involved and scary things I’d ever done and jumaring and cleaning was utterly exhausting, but I was too tired to convince my brain into that mind set and since we were moving relatively fast in these roles why rock the boat. On top of that I wasn’t sure I could actually get my inflamed toe into a climbing shoe.

The great roof and the pancake flake were some of the coolest pitches ever and the positions and stances were just utterly mind-blowing. So far the whole experience on the Nose was not disappointing.

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Lowering out from the fixed brassie in the back of the great roof is a great way to save time jugging this pitch (read how to do this in Andy K’s article linked above!)

We rolled in to Camp 6 at around dusk again and feeling the pressure turn down a notch since we’d reached our station for the night I asked Paulie what he thought about me getting the rope up the Changing Corners so all we had to do in the morning was jug. He agreed it would be a great idea if I was up for it. Since I’d been jugging all day I felt like I needed to slay the dragon that evening to make sure my mind stayed in the game for leading the next day. It was going to be a battle to transition at that time of the day, but  patiently placing sketchy looking brassies to hang my aiders on had become something of a forte of mine, plus I was super eager to see the ground where my famed heroine had once touched, palming over the stems where Lynn Hill had once been!

As always the pitch took much longer than expected, especially since it was totally dark before I even ‘changed’ into the corner proper so I did all the thin stuff by head torch. There is something sadistically peaceful about finicky aid climbing at night, I guess I just felt so locked into my own bubble, so focused on such a small area. I if I wasn’t in total awe of Lynn Hill before, after reaching the top of that crazy pitch I sure was!

I rapped the rope and rejoined Paul on the big ledge that is Camp 6, unfortunately the smell really is as bad as everyone says! Still the extent of hunger definitely made us disproportionately excited about the one can of Stagg chilli we had left to share and single foiled packet of tuna.

Before tucking in for the night I decided to check out my toe, despite giving it room in my approach shoe all day it did not look good and the liquid seeping out from it was a very unsavoury colour. Yikes!

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Settling in for dinner on the ledge at Camp 6.

Friday – TFIF.

Despite the ledge on Camp 6 being pretty big and looking pretty comfy (speaking relatively of course) I think I had the shitty  deal sleeping on the most tapering and cambered end of the triangle. I spent all night sliding off my matt until eventually the daisy chain pulled tight to my harness and cut the blood flow to my legs, I’d then wake up, shimmy back up the ledge and repeat, ALL NIGHT!! It was one of those nights where no matter how tired you are you just can’t wait until you can get up in the morning so the hell will be over. Awake and uncomfortable I checked my watch – it read 4.50am. I was done. I nudged Paul and told him it was time to get up. He awoke grogilly, bemoaning how short the time felt we’d been asleep.

We packed the pig for the last time  (it was finally feeling emptier now!) and jugged the line in a silence that was explained by our half-awake state. By the time we’d finished jugging it was still pitch black and I think the first mumblings of communication we made to each other were something to do with questioning this. As I looked down at the watch I’d had strapped to my harnesses waist-belt for the extent of the trip I remembered guiltily that I had accidentally set the time 2hours fast when squeezing into a wide crack or something. Since I didn’t know how to set it back, we had just been adjusting for this error since. In my angry sleep deprived state I must have totally forgotten this and so I’d actually woken us up at just before 3am and it was now only 5am (instead of 7am) so it wasn’t going to be light for a while!

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Hauling on the last morning nearing the top

My face must have had guilt written all over it when I looked back up from my watch because Paulie looked at me horrified, ‘on belay’ he said and I took off climbing before I had time to hear the repercussions.

Since Paulie lead all of the pitches the day before, this was my day of leading us to the top! The first bunch of pitches after the changing corners were beautiful Yosemite  hand and finger cracks all at around 5.10/5.10+. I was gutted that I couldn’t squeeze my infected toe into my TC pros as the constriction caused way too much pain, instead I had to resort to butchering the pitches in my approach shoes and aiders – full aid style, not even able to french-free unless the cracks were big enough for the dull end of my Scarpa Crux approach shoes.

The last few pitches were a real contrast with some epically steep bolt ladders just to make sure your biceps finished off with a good work out in between hauling. We were so close!

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The steepening last few pitches with the top in sight!

As I headed up the last slab I could see El Cap tree marking the top. I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the movement-halting rope drag I was experiencing and wasn’t sure if I was out of rope – I just wanted to go touch that infamous tree!! A sea of bolted anchors started to appear and I wasn’t sure if I had to make an extra belay. With the fear of being out of rope this seemed the only option but would leave for an annoying and anti-climatic short pitch to follow – one that you could run up unroped had you not got a silly haul line to trail behind you. I grew angrier that this sloppy anti climatic finish was not aligned with my many dreams of topping out El-Cap in a blaze of glory and that the un-budging rope was exhausting me as I tried to move forward.

So although sloppy it was, and angry was an emotion that was present, reaching the tree felt, well, honestly – underwhelming!! I don’t know what I expected to feel, elation perhaps? Relief at least? An overwhelming sense of achievement so colossal I had never felt anything like it before? Not quite. Instead, Paulie and I lay there, alone on the top of El Cap, no Steph Davis waiting for us with a congratulatory beer ( I once dreamt this and we kept joking about it) exhausted and smelly taking it all in for a few seconds.

After a few minutes of it all settling in I let out an involuntary giggle, “Hey Paulie” I said, “we just climbed the Nose”. He giggled back. “Yeah we did, thats pretty awesome” It felt pretty epic then.

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Jelly Baby made it to El Cap tree

With nothing more than water and a few jelly babies to celebrate with we packed up and started the slog out down the east ledges with our pal Piggy in search of beer and congratulatory friends.

Its not over until the engine light blinks.

So with two of Yosemite’s classic big walls under our belts and countless other wicked climbing experiences, with this being our penultimate day, surely the story is over right? Unfortunately not quite. But since the rest of the trips antics are fairly humorous but long winded and don’t involve any critical climbing beta I’ll let you off  with a few more rambly paragraphs and sum it up in with a short poem instead (ha!).

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One thought on “Taking on the big guys – A Yosemite TR

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