* for people not familiar with climbing, see climbing slang and terminology at the bottom of this post.
Following my most recent post I've had the fortune to be able to enjoy a fun trip to Yosemite. Yosemite was great as always! And per the usual Yosemite experience, I didn't climb anything that I had wanted to climb, but managed to climb awesome stuff that I hadn't planned on climbing. So naturally I am quite pleased with the overall outcome of the trip.
Upon arrival I met up with some friends from Bozeman Montana. Together we enjoyed time in the meadow, and short cragging* days around the valley floor. This was great, because on account of my typically overambitious trips, I generally spend most of my time hiking loads of gear, food, and water to the base of routes and then bailing off them. (haha not really, or at least not always...) So it was really fun to just hang out and climb some of the classic, shorter free climbs* that I've always missed out on. After these few days cragging around the valley floor, I began a climb up El Capitan. Starting with Free Blast with a friend, I continued from Heart Ledges to the summit via the top two thirds of the Muir Wall route.
Muir Wall Solo
A friend helped me stash 8 days of food and water for a single person on heart ledges of El Capitan after climbing Free Blast, a popular 8ish pitch* (depending on how you link pitches etc.) After a couple of days of rain, waiting back on the valley floor, I was ready to tackle the upper two thirds of the Muir Wall solo.
The second day went smoothly. I jugged* the fixed lines to Heart Ledges where my gear was stashed. I used my portaledge* fly to protect it during the couple days of rain leading up to the climb. My ropes got wet from the run off from the wall, but otherwise I was pleasantly surprised to find most of my gear dry and untampered with. As I was making my way to Heart Ledges, I ran into an old friend, Drew Smith, who I met in Cochamo Chile in 2012. We had a brief, but joyous reunion including a fist bump and some very quick catching up. Our routes split in different directions from Heart Ledges, and I was pleasantly amused by the playful banter between him and his partner while they worked their way up Freerider*.
From Heart Ledges the Muir Wall route goes one more pitch up and right to reach Mammoth Terrace, another good bivy* ledge for multiple people. Here I practiced, and figured out how to set up my portaledge by myself. This was a major concern of mine leading up to the climb because I wasn't sure if I could do it alone. I knew it was a thing people do because I've watched another soloist set one up on North America wall a couple of years ago. But when I had googled around the internet, I really hadn't found a good source on a method for how to do this. And as is typical to my procrastinating nature, I had not practiced at all while on the ground. So if anybody else finds themselves in this predicament, I made a quick youtube video, that you should be able to find now, and hopefully gives you something useful to go off of.
Note on video : What I don't mention in the video are a couple things that I learned later on in the trip. First off, it makes a world of a difference to lubricate the ends of the bars that insert into the corner connections of the ledge. I used some Burt's Bees hand salve because that is what I had on me. It is comprised mostly of bees wax and worked really well. Second tip when setting up solo, is that when you get to the part where you are trying to connect the difficult black bar, ( I always felt like I needed a third arm to achieve this), you can improvise a third hand by attaching a sling around the "airside" long bar, attaching this to the master point of the portaledge, and then insert the spreader bar to give you leverage to warp the ledge into the square position required to insert the difficult black bar.
Day 3 consisted of climbing the pitches from Mammoth Terrace, up to the point where Muir Wall splits off from the Shield*. I moved slowly this day because there were a few other parties also climbing these pitches, and I had to stop and wait to let them pass me. I wasn't bothered by this. It was fun to meet new people in such a spectacular place. The position of these pitches gives the climber an amazing vantage point to orient themselves to where the are on El Cap. To the Climber's left is the Salathe Wall, and at this point in the climb you can see most of the pitches from Heart Ledges up to El Cap spire along with all the climbers working on those pitches. Directly above is the Shield Headwall, which is an incredible feature to be staring at all day. Splitting off to the right and below this headwall is the traversing pitch for Muir Wall that moves into the corner system to the right of the Nose*.
I had the traverse fixed from yesterday. This means that I climbed the pitch, attached my ropes to the next anchor*, and came back down to the previous anchor. I did not want to sleep at my high point the night before because it was super windy as soon as I got out of the corner system below the Shield. So the morning of Day 4 I started out by cleaning this traverse pitch, and then dealing with getting the bags lowered out and hauling around the corner. This is always a fiasco for me, while climbing alone, because as a soloist, you sort of have to do everything right the first time if you don't want to jug up and down the pitch over an over again. Also, as soon as the haul bags are being lowered out* into space, you can't easily change your mind and get them back. A minor difficulty occurred on this pitch when I did this... AsI lowered out the bag using a friends lower out rope they got all crazy tangled up in the lower out line. The bags and the rope were a be-jumbled mess in no-man's space and I could not think of a very good solution for how to fix the situation. I could not release the rope the way I had it set up, because it was running from me, back to the bags, tangled around the bags, and back to me. Out of frustration I got out a knife and cut the rope right in the middle where I was. (sorry Todd...) So now I had two, shorter ropes to use as lower outs for the rest of the trip. This actually proved to be quite useful.
The afternoon of Day 4 I started up the first C3 or A2 pitch. (see aid grades explained**) The reason I chose to do the Muir Wall route was that I wanted more experience placing pitons*. So this was the first pitch that I got to have that pleasant experience. Due to the educational nature of my goal, and feeling lonely and scared up high off the ground and away from the comforts of my lovely Vanellope, my resolve towards the admirable cause of Clean Aid Climbing was very thin, and I whipped out the hammer as soon as it became apparent that it would benefit my upward progress. The first nailing* pitch went down pretty smoothly aside from it being very vegetated and requiring a fair bit of "gardening". It turned out to be a good confidence boost because it was probably the most difficult climbing I had done solo yet. Even though I have climbed significantly more difficult pitches with a partner, the mental aspects of being alone can be crippling.
After another chossy "easy" pitch, I finished up the day with a lovely squeeze chimney* ( heavy sarcasm, see definition )
Breakfast for day 5 was served in the form of the ultra clean, and gorgeous C1 splitter*. This was the longest pitch on the route, just about 190 feet long. My daily self induced fiasco occurred about two thirds of the way up this pitch when the rope attached to my haul bags got hopelessly tangled and made upward progress exceedingly difficult. My best in the moment solution was to just clip it to my last piece of gear so that I could at least finish the pitch. Unfortunately this resulted in requiring me to go up and down the route an extra time for a total of 3 times, climbing that same 190 foot section. But hey, It gave me lots of time to enjoy the view of one of the most spectacular splitter cracks on the route! And jugging is just oh so much fun anyway.
After the C1 splitter fiasco, I got to another C3/A2 pitch. It was intimidating from below (as all of the pitches are) but once I got moving on it, It turned out to actually be one of my favorite pitches. It started with some climbing up into a high point, which I then lowered off of, and used to swing into a thin seam of a crack. Catching the thin seam was difficult, I grabbed a small pin scar in the rock with two fingers and then managed to finagle a small off-set cam* below me that just barely held my weight as I lightly nailed the first of many bird beaks* into the crack. The rest of the seam ate up small wires* and bird beaks like Pac-Man eats up pixilated white dots.
Day 6 was comprised of more C3/A2 pitches. The corner continued for a bit until eventually the route broke out onto an open face with probably my second favorite pitch. Another epic splitter crack wandered through the middle of a featureless face. I finished up these pitches and got the last good sized ledge before the summit. Ledges are always a special treat to get to. They make setting up the portaledge way easier, along with giving the climber a chance to really organize equipment, food, water, etc. Knowing that I had a good place to sleep gave me enough piece of mind to put a longer push in for the day, and I was able to fix the pitch above the ledge. I climbed until just around 8:30 PM, and got done right as the sun was going down. At this point in the climb I knew I would only have one more night on the wall, so I kicked back and stayed up late ish (probably only 10 PM) reading, and enjoying the view of the stars and car lights as they meandered around the road on the Valley floor.
Waking up on the last ledge, I enjoyed a casual breakfast and watched some super strong climbers work on freeing some of the upper sections of this wall. They rappelled in from the top, and were practicing the moves of a variation pitch that they had bolted and been working on for about the last two years. It is really fun to watch such proficient climbers in such an amazing location.
For me, the day of climbing would be more of the same aid climbing. I took my first and only fall this day when I neglected to check the route description and didn't bring the right gear with me. The crack called for some really big gear that I had left in the haulbags at the ledge, and when I tried to climb around the section using less then adequate equipment in a wet muddy crack, I quickly paid the price in the form of about a 15-20 foot fall. Dangling between my high point and the haulbags, I decided it might be prudent to go back down for the right equipment, since I was half way down anyway.
The next pitch could probably be considered the crux of the route. Rated C4/A2+. I had been curious to see what this grade would actually entail. It became obvious what this difficulty meant when I arrived at the base. Looking up at it, it looked as if everything that I would try and place would bottom out in the impossibly thin and shallow crack. But perhaps the greatest life lesson to be learned in Aid Climbing showed strongly in this moment. It is this; if you look at the entire pitch, it can seem overwhelmingly impossible, but if you look at just the single next move you have to do, with some thought and patience, a way to continue moving upwards will appear. If you can get in the habit of only concentrating on the single move in front of your face, executing it, and then continuing onward, without letting the moves several steps ahead of you get to your mental psyche, pretty soon you will find yourself making progress towards the top. Applying this, I managed to get through the crux pitch without incident. I did not climb it clean, so it got the A2+ rating for me. Hats off to whomever has climbed this clean, I had a very difficult time imagining how that was possible. I can only imagine that you would have to be top stepping* in your aid ladders off of very delicately hand placed beaks, back to back for the entire pitch.
I ended my day early here at around 5:30 PM to enjoy one last phenomenal night on El Capitan. The following day I only had 3 easy pitches to do, or so I thought...
This day was a day of traversing. The second to last pitch is about a 130' traverse to the left with mandatory free climbing and some balancing off tension from the rope. A fall during this pitch could mean a MEGA huge swing around the corner. I'm not sure the exact distance traveled, I'm sure some math savvy person could figure it out with some simple geometry, but imagine a pendulum with 80' of rope, and the poor climber that would be falling starting directly horizontal of the pivot point. It scared the last bit of pride out of me and I managed a desperate humbling grovel to the end. Oh wait... I forgot that I was soloing. Ya I had to reverse the traverse (boom sick rhyme) TWO more times, because I had to release the bags, and then climb back to the high point. Fortunately I knew what to expect, and already had the Beta dialed, so It wasn't quite as terrifying the next two times across.
The last pitch was a treat after the traverse. A short 60 ish feet of mostly easy free climbing lead me to the final top out. Trying to write about how it feels for me to get to the top of El Capitan is very difficult. I want to say some flowery thing about how overwhelmed with happiness at achieving this goal I was, and that I broke down in tears and stuff. But that would be a lie. For the most part, the top out is a little anti-climactic. I do feel a great sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to enjoy such a magnificent place for such a long period of time. But getting to the top is just another part of the journey. 8 days is a long time to spend by yourself, and it forces you into a mental space that is so different from where you are when leave the ground. When you have other people around, helping you, giving you opinions and advice, whether they are good or bad, you can still turn to somebody else for input. That option is unavailable on a solo climb. The only way for me to climb alone without becoming overwhelmed with the overall magnitude of what I am trying to accomplish, is to put myself into that different head space that I alluded to during the Day 7 account. The trick is to block out everything except the move immediately in front of you. In doing this, I am "living in the moment" more then I ever am during other parts of my life. I think that is why climbing is such a valuable way to learn life lessons. It forces you into a head space where nothing else matters, except the next move.
When I get to the top, I am still in that head space. I am appreciative of where I am, still loving everything so much, but nothing has changed just because I got to the top. Now I am still simply thinking, "what is the next move?", and the next move was pretty simple. I needed to get all this stuff that I just spent 8 days getting to the top, back to the bottom. And so, I spent the next day doing two trips shuttling my gear up and down the East Ledges descent. I complained a little about the second trip to some friends and myself, but once I got going, I really enjoyed the low key hiking to contrast the slow, tedious, and sometimes terrifying aid climbing that I had become accustomed to as a part of my daily life for the past week.
The Next Move:
For now, I am back in Bend Oregon. Enjoying some time with friends I haven't seen in a while. I am also practicing concentrating on what is immediately in front of me, trying not to worry too much about life plans and all that stuff that people get so caught up in. Not that it is a bad thing to plan, but for me, being present is such a wonderful feeling while climbing, I'd like to translate that to other aspects of my life, and be able to enjoy today as much as it deserves to be enjoyed. So now that I'm finally done writing all of this, I think I will head outside, down to the Depot by the lovely Deschutes River for some well deserved bouldering after all of that aid climbing. Peace!
*Climbing slang and terminology explained:
Bigwall: (noun) A climb that is large enough that it typically requires multiple days for most people to climb. In the case of El Capitan, approximately 3000' of elevation are gained. Many of the climbs on El Capitan have seen single day ascents
Cragging: (verb) A non-climbing friend once asked me, "do climbers ever just like, climb for fun? Or do they always try and continue to push their own personal limits." I guess to me cragging fills this area of "just climbing for fun." Typically though, a climber is still usually looking to push their limits, when they crag. That can be in the form of finding something at their difficulty grade limit, or maybe a mentally challenging route etc. Cragging is usually shorter climbs at a cliff where many of these shorter climbs can be completed in a single day. It is a fun thing to do with groups of friends.
Free Climb: (noun) Free climbing is simply (or often not so simply) climbing with only your hands and feet to make upward progress on a climb. This differentiates from Aid Climbing in which climbing equipment is used to support a climber's body weight and aid in upward progress. Not to be confused with Free Soloing, in which no ropes are used for protection. Free Climbing implies that a rope is used to protect the climber from falling.
Aid Climbing: (verb) A style of climbing in which climbing equipment is used to support a climber's body weight and aid in upward progress. This was my primary method on this climb.
Pitch: (noun) I would define this as a distance of technical climbing approximately the length of the rope being used. This distance connects one belay station to another. Typically however it will be shorter than the actual length of the rope for various reasons, most of which are probably more complicated to explain than is requisite for this definition. On the Muir wall pitches varied between lengths of 50' to 200'.
Beta: (noun) Information about a route.
Jug: (verb) When in used in a Bigwall application, this typically means ascending a fixed rope. Fixed means the rope is attached to an anchor above the climber. How the rope reached that point can be attained by various means. In the case of this article, it will usually mean that I climbed the pitch, and then came back down to remove my gear from the climb and detach my haul bag, and then Jugged back up the rope to my new high point.
Bivy: (noun) Climbing slang for a make shift camp. On Bigwall applications this is hopefully a decent sized ledge, which makes organizing gear and general camp activities more comfortable. However, often times soloing is so slow that I am unable to make it to all the good ledges, and have to make do with free hanging belay stations. This makes setting up the portaledge more difficult, but overall is fairly comfortable once the portaledge is set up and the haulbags are adjusted to good heights for quick access.
Anchor: (noun) A safe stopping point at the top of a pitch. It is usually a place with a few well placed bolts, or a crack that it is easy to get climbing equipment in that able to support a lot of weight, so that it is safe to stop here and prepare for the next pitch. Also known as a "Belay Station."
Lower Out: (verb) A slightly advanced climbing technique necessary for Bigwall climbing. When doing a traversing or overhanging pitch, the Haul bags will not be directly below the hauling point above. To avoid damaging the bags by simply releasing them and letting them take a wild pendulum swing, a person must slowly "lower" the bags out on a separate rope. It is good to use a smaller rope for this application. I borrowed a friend's for this, and it met a slightly sad end in which I had to cut it in half during Day 4. (sorry Todd....)
Portaledge: (noun) A piece of equipment used by climbers to sleep on a wall. It is similar to a cot, that can hang from a single point by use of webbing that all joins together. They come in two different sizes, a single for one person, or a double for two people. On this wall I was using the Black Diamond Cliff Cabana Double. I have also used a Metolius Portaledge, but not enough to give an honest comparison. The Black Diamond Ledge is really good. Really easy to set up ... ONCE YOU FIGURE IT OUT AND PRACTICE A LOT!!.... hahAha. See the Day 2 video tutorial for tips.
Piton: (noun) A piece of climbing equipment. They come in various shapes and sizes, but they all pretty much follow the same principle; Smash a piece of metal into the crack with a hammer and pray that it holds your weight.
Nailing: (verb) Slang for when pitons and a hammer are used while climbing a pitch.
Cam: (noun) Climbing equipment. Short for Spring Loaded Camming Device. A more recently developed piece of equipment, they take advantage of some fancy math and stuff to hold a climber's weight. One of the most commonly used pieces of climbing protection.
Bird Beak: (noun) Climbing equipment. A type of piton that is very useful in small cracks. I assume It's name is derived from the birdlike features that it resembles. Also known as a "beak" for short. These can be placed without the use of a hammer, by hand, to help get the "clean" rating on many climbs. This technique can feel surprisingly secure sometimes, but then again, not nearly as secure as smashing the little guy into the crack with your hammer.
Wires: (noun) Climbing equipment. Also known as "brassies" or "micro nuts." These are small tapered pieces of metal, sometimes brass, or aluminum, that a climber will fit into a crack by getting it stuck in a constriction. Very useful when the crack gets too small for Cams.
Splitter: (adjective) Slang for a very nice crack to climb. The niceness is derived from it being mostly parallel for a significant length, and more or less the same size. The degree of this dictates how splitter the crack is. Example: " aw chyeah that crack is like totally splitter Brah!! "
Squeeze Chimney: (noun) The worst... The only time I have ever really wanted to cry, quit climbing, and go home to pick up a different hobby like knitting, was at the top of "The Harding Slot" which might be one of Yosemite's most infamous squeeze chimney's. But they all sort of make me feel like that so ya.... Anyway the basic concept is that the rock comes together in some way as to form a large parallel or mostly parallel crack approximately the size of a human body in width. To get to the top the climber must "squeeze" their body into this crack, and figure out some way to worm up it. Usually using a combination of grunting, shouting, and equally useless flexing of different body parts, the climber eventually makes it to the top without any concept of how they actually did it.
Top Step: (verb) An aid climbing technique in which you stand as high as you can in your aid ladders and reach as far as possible to place a piece of gear. It is very difficult, especially as the angle of the climb becomes steeper, and can require a surprising amount of balance and core strength.
The Nose: (proper noun) Probably the most famous route up El Capitan. It follows the most prominent features right up the middle of the wall. It was the first climbed route on El Capitan in 1957 by Warren Harding and team. It is located to climber's right of the Muir Wall.
The Salathe Wall: (proper noun) Probably the second most famous route on El Capitan. It was first climbed by Royal Robbins and his team. It is located climber's left of the Muir Wall.
Muir Wall: (proper noun) The route that I climbed on El Capitan in this article.
Freerider: (proper noun) Another route on El Capitan. It is a free variation of the famous Salathe Wall.
The Shield: (proper noun) A route on El Capitan that tackles the prominent "Shield" feature on El Capitan. It is just left of Muir Wall and shares some pitches. I did these pitches during day 3 of my ascent. The Shield is a good route that I climbed several years ago. It is a slightly more advanced aid route then Salathe Wall or the Nose. The aid climbing is of the same difficulty as Zodiac, but because it is longer it is considered to be a more demanding route. It is probably easier then Mescalito.
**Aid Grades Explained: (but this is just like, my opinion man... )
The first thing to point out is the difference between the "A" ratings, and the "C" ratings. Essentially the difficulty associated with the numbers is the same. Difficulty in a simple description almost directly translates just to how scary it is. The difference in "A" or Aid ratings, and "C" or Clean ratings is the use of a hammer. Aid climbing is sort of a scrappy battle with the rock, the climber uses any technique known to him/her to get to the top. If there is a crack, chances are it is climbable with some shenaniganery of smashing different types of metal into said crack. Clean aid climbing is when a climber is still aid climbing and uses most of the same techniques, but does not use a hammer and therefore is less likely to damage the rock. It has become popular to try and climb as clean as possible because advancements in climbing technology promote it, and the evolving nature of climbing ethics. When a climber manages to climb the entire pitch without the use of a hammer it gets the "C" grade which is typically more difficult then the "A" grade.
A0: Most likely just a bolt ladder. This can probably be done without aid ladders. Consult local Beta if you need ladders.
A1: This is as easy as it gets outside bolt ladders. I am still always surprised how often I find myself half way up an A1 pitch and am saying to myself "I am so scared I want to cry and go home right now please..." But the hypothetical definition of this grade is that every single gear placement is strong enough to hold a fall. In reality though... maybe I need to practice placing gear or something because that doesn't always seem to be the case.
A2: This grade along with probably all of them, seems to have a very loose definition. But techinically you should expect mostly good gear, with occasional "body weight only" movements. This means that you might be forced to place a piece of climbing equipment that can only hold your weight in order to get up higher to make your next movement, and if you fall, which would be induced by a "less than body weight" placement, it will come out and you will continue falling until you reach a piece of gear that is solid. Typically A2 will not have a series of more then a couple "body weight only" placements.
A3: Starting to get even more scary. Many more sections of "body weight only" placements. Several in a row will be a common occurrence. But there is usually enough good gear on the pitch to keep the climber from being seriously injured in the event of a fall. Upon falling however, the climber can expect the infamous "zipper" phenomena, and perhaps even a chance to wave at the belayer as he/she goes screaming past the belay station on the way down. Examples of gear are bird beaks placed in very thin seams, or extended sections of hooks on small edges. The Clean grade "C3" will use a lot of offset cams in wonky and poor positions, or a lot of hand placed bird beaks and very small brassies and wires.
A4: I can not speak from personal experience on this grade, and I am not really sure if my aid climbing career will lead me here. Maybe some day if I run out of A3 walls... but for the moment I am content with "safe" aid climbing. Allegedly A4 will consist of even more "body weight only" placements to the extent that the majority of the pitch is comprised of them. A climber might get 1 or 2 pieces of gear in throughout the entire pitch that would stop a fall.
A5: Very Dangerous. And maybe hypothetical? You can scour youtube on your free time for the angry climber ranting about this grade. But my opinion is that A5 simply means that even the anchor is "Body weight only", so if the climber falls, it would mean everything pulls out including the anchor and the climber or climbers continue to fall to whatever point physics deems it necessary that they stop.
C1 - C5: See the above descriptions.