The Quintessential Scotty Vacation (NIAD)

I have this friend, pathopsychology Scotty. He likes to push the limits. In fact he’s famous for it among our group of friends. We’ve all been on a “Scotty Vacation™.” They typically involve at least one (or more) of the following: unplanned bivy, dehydration, hallucination, cramps, stumbling from exhaustion, feeling like you might throw up, altitude sickness, and more. They ALL have four things in common:

1. You will suffer. 2. You will push your limits, hard. 3. You will succeed beyond what you initially thought was possible. 4. You will have a hell of a story and a memory that will last a lifetime.

In short, everyone needs a Scotty.

So we were on this road trip, brainstorming our next objective. We’d been rained out of Squamish, and sport-wanked in Smith Rocks, but we needed something BIG. We were discussing the High Sierra, Yosemite, Lover’s Leap, etc, and Scotty finally asked his inevitable question... You don’t know what it will be, but you know it will be intimidating, difficult, but most important, in the farthest reaches of your imagination, it will be possible!

“Want to do The Nose in a push?”

Without hesitation, I said, “Yeah!” with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The foundation was laid for another Scotty Vacation!

As we cruised south out of Oregon, we planned and debated everything from how many calories to take with us, what form, how many ropes, how many spare batteries, what time do we leave the ground, and more. The logistics were daunting!  Somewhere in there we realized we needed copies of the latest and greatest Supertopo, and figured we could get one off the internet. We stopped in Redding, CA, where I grew up, found the new and much improved library, and promptly discovered that they actually have a hard copy of the latest Yosemite Bigwall Supertopo book! While we can tie clove hitches, build anchors, and assess fall factors, we apparently have trouble with copy machines. A few dollars later, and after having deforested part of the earth, we successfully photocopied what we needed and hit the road again.

We rolled into Camp 4 early in the morning, waited in line, and procured a campsite relatively painlessly. We figured “Why wait?” so we started racking up and drove to El Cap Meadow to scope out the competition. There were 3 teams on the route, one of them going painfully slow on the pitches off of Sickle. We humped a bunch of gear to the base, went back to the meadow to stare in wonder at what we were about to attempt, and then wandered back to Camp 4 for a little nap. In the meantime, it took the party of 3 above Sickle about 2 hours to lead and start hauling a pitch. Due to the parties on the route, we stocked up on batteries and planned to leave the ground late in the afternoon. That way we would avoid the midday heat (it was really hot), we’d pass most of the parties while they were bivying, and hopefully hit the aid at night when we couldn’t move fast anyways.

Post-nap, we headed back to the meadows and carried the remaining load of food, plus 3 gallons of water and Gatorade, up to the base. Amazingly, the team of 3 wasn’t much higher having just finished the pitch into Dolt Hole. I really hoped that passing them wouldn’t be a problem as we approached the first pitch. When we reached the base, we dumped our load, and stared at the pile in amazement… Double set of cams, nuts, offset nuts, 3 gallons of liquid, 3000 calories of gu, cliff bars, jerky, lead rope, tagline, backpack for the follower, clothes, approach shoes, headlamps, extra batteries, all that bulky crap for jugging and aiding; it was daunting.

As usual, we made the perfect team. Under Scotty’s tutelage, I’d learned to go light, fast, and have the right attitude. Over the years, I’d improved significantly and my free climbing was better than it had ever been. Earlier in the year I’d red pointed a 5.13a sport route, a 5.12c trad line, managed to free an “easy” big wall, and I was rearing to go back to my roots and cover easier territory quickly. Scotty, on the other hand, was a master of aid relative to me, having spent a lot of time in the valley refining his technique. His big wall resume, among other things, included six El Cap routes, one a winter ascent, most of the Zion trade routes (some solo), and even an international first ascent of the Dragon’s Horn in Malaysia. We found out later that both of us thought of the other one as the secret weapon. I was the free climbing rope gun that would bring success in his eyes, and he was the aid rope gun that would bring success in my eyes.

Here was the plan: Climb the route in 24-36 hours. We brought an extra tagline for bailing, if necessary. The follower would jumar with a pack, and the leader would climb with a small camel back. I would start leading and attempt to get us through pitch 21, if possible. At that point, it would be night and the aid climbing would begin with The Great Roof. Scotty, being much more experienced at aid, would take over and get us at least through the Changing Corners pitch where I would hopefully take back over for at least 3 back to back 5.10 pitches before the final overhanging headwall bolt ladder. Since neither of us had ever tried short-fixing before, this would be a pitch by pitch affair.

I racked up slightly nervous, prepared mentally to cast off into the mostly unknown 2900’ tall 31 pitch vertical world above me, and started climbing at roughly 4pm. The first 4 pitches were notoriously awkward to lead, and time consuming, due to discontinuous cracks, small traverses, and some face climbing. Luckily, I made the right choices of where to place gear, when to pull on it, and when to free, and it seemed like we were on top of Sickle Ledge in almost no time! Each pitch, I was hoping to get a little rest after fixing the rope for Scotty to jug, but Scotty was a machine. As soon as I yelled, “Ready to jug!” he was chugging away up the line headed my way. It was wild how quickly he could move up the rock with a pair of ascenders!

From Sickle, there are a series of pendulums, which slow down following, and in addition the 3 who were taking over 2 hours a pitch had only managed to reach Dolt Hole and were still hauling. We were hoping that passing would be easy, and that we wouldn’t waste too much time in this section of the route. With a little simuling, I made it to the pendulum anchors above Sickle and while Scotty finished jugging I flaked the tagline and decided to appease our girlfriends. They knew what we were attempting and were worried about us. I texted them and it read, simply, “6 pitches done ” While I was texting, the three guys in Dolt Hole incredulously whispered to each other, “Is that guy texting!” It was pretty funny.

Once Scotty was up, I swung over and ran it out to the next anchor to make Scotty’s lower out easier. Luckily there are at least 3 places to gain the Stoveleg Cracks from the crack system we were in. The three guys were in the middle option, still in Dolt Hole, and we took the lower pendulum. Before I left the belay, they asked how to get over to the Stovelegs. I didn’t know what to say besides, “you just clip in, lower, and swing!”

After playing Tarzan, I was cruising up 5.9 fingers and looking up at a hell of a line: hundreds of feet of splitter crack as far as I could see. What a beauty! I clipped in to the first anchor in the Stovelegs and inspected my meager rack for the next few pitches – two #2 C4’s, two #3 C4’s and a #4 C4. It was intimidating… No matter how good it looks, I hate being runout on wide hands/fists which I knew was lurking up there somewhere!

Once Scotty joined me I told him something along the lines of, “Watch me, I’ll be trying to move fast with little gear and if I whip, I’ll whip big!” I headed off on the spectacular Stoveleg Crack and soon found myself nearing the top. The higher you go, the wider it gets. The last pitch on the Stovelegs widens to offwidth, for which I had one piece and with a little French free/aid at one section and some sketchy runouts I was at the top standing on Dolt Tower.

As Scotty came up beneath me, I checked the time. We were about 4 hours into our endeavor, averaging a little over 15 minutes/pitch. Things were going smoother than planned, but it was getting dark soon and the steeper aid pitches were looming up above us.

From Dolt Tower there’s another lower out, and again I ran it out severely to keep Scotty’s pendulum easy. Eventually, after getting a distance above him I plugged some gear, but the crack eventually widened and I very quickly ranout of fist sized gear. Instead of doing runout fist jams, which I hate, I just started liebacking and blasted all the way to the anchors on about a 40+’ runout. Clip clip clip, “Ready to jug!” Boy was I happy to be done with that pitch. “13 pitches!” was the next text to the ladies, 19 to go!

At this point, the sun had set and night was falling. After Scotty joined me, I pulled out the headlamp and some aid gear and headed off into the Jardine Traverse. There were two people still leading and hauling up the Texas Flake who didn’t seem to have any plans to bivy anytime soon, and we didn’t want to have to wait to pass. Plus, we had already decided to do the Jardine Traverse since it was supposed to be faster. I dangled my way across the line of bolts, and soon I was on some crappy 5.9 face climbing that took me up to the base of the 11c fingers dihedral.

By the time Scotty arrived, I was truly in a world of darkness. The moon wasn’t out, night was in full force, and I could see nothing my Tikka Plus headlamp wouldn’t allow. Above loomed the hardest climbing I’d encountered so far, I was climbing by headlamp, and we had already climbed 15 pitches according to Supertopo. I racked up, and headed off into the thick blackness above. My world consisted of about an 8’ radius, and a point of light emanating from Scotty below. I managed to climb relatively quickly lie backing sections, hanging to rest as needed, stemming on edges and pulling on couple of pieces of gear here and there. Soon the climbing eased, but above the crack widened beyond the size of gear I had on me and the topo read 10a lieback. As seemed to be the theme for many of the pitches I led, I headed off into sustained liebacking looking at a monster fall with gear far below my feet. The lieback was shorter than my headlamp had led me to believe, and soon I was relieved to be mantling onto Eagle Ledge, 16 pitches into the route.

As I settled into this luxurious small flat spot in the dark strange vertical world I was inhabiting, I looked down to see something horrifying! I was sitting in a dried pool of someone’s blood! Suddenly the content of a Supertopo forum post I’d read came back to me. This is where the poor guy had blown the climbing after the King Swing with inadequate protection and swung massively into the corner below. He’d shattered his femur and spent at least an hour bleeding in this very spot waiting for a helicopter rescue! I’d read there was a lot of blood, and it was confirmed when Scotty realized the same thing jugging up the wall beneath me. The blood had flowed over the lip of the ledge, down the face below and now Scotty was staring at its dried brown streaks by headlamp. Resigned, Scotty took a seat on the dark brown stain.

At this point, I was starting to tire, that kind of deep down tired where the only thing that keeps you moving strong is willpower. The next pitch was 5.10c according to Supertopo. The crux was short and I was able to dig deep and quickly onsight it up to the next belay. Scotty’s sphere of light started ascending up the wall under me and I pulled out the topo again. Above me loomed two 5.10 pitches I planned to link, the 2nd one being 5.10d. They ended in a pendulum to a ledge that looked (according to the topo) like it would be a rope stretcher. I tried to keep my excitement up and blasted off again. The higher I went, the harder the climbing was, and the exhaustion was catching up to me. I was trying to conserve gear, and I still ended up plugging a scrappy looking #2 C3 we’d bootied lower on the route as my only piece for the last 40-50’ of the pitch. On the last half of the pitch, I was really going downhill. I remember scraping my way up past a roof, a thin crack, thinking I’d been climbing forever, and wondering when the pitch would end. I started doubting myself and wondering if I’d somehow passed the only bolt on the pitch and gone past it; I was so tired my confidence was waning. I remember Scotty’s tiny dot of light over 150’ below, and lowering to the next belay and making it without much rope left.

By the time Scotty joined me on my ledge, it was obviously time to switch leads. My speech was slowed, and I felt like I’d run a few marathons back to back. I dejectedly told Scotty, “I just can’t do it any more.” It was about 11pm at night, and I’d just led 18.5 pitches of The Nose of El Capitan in roughly 7 hours. I was hosed. I was disappointed in myself too, since my goal was to complete 21 pitches and get Scotty to the Great Roof. I had fallen 2.5 pitches short of my goal. It’s weird the things you focus on when you’re exhausted. We had gone so fast that we were almost guaranteed to come in under 24 hours, surpassing our conservative estimates, but all I could think about was that I didn’t get Scotty to the Great Roof.

Scotty, completely understanding, took over the lead and headed out on sketchy traversing terrain. It was strange piecing together features on a 3000’ cliff in the middle of the night by headlamp. It was especially surreal considering how exhausted I was. I followed the traverse free with a large pack on, which made it significantly more difficult and dangerous.  Somehow, I managed not to fall despite a few slips. It might not have been as runout as I think it was, but I was so tired it is all a blur. My memory was definitely fuzzy at that point.

Pitch 20 fell quickly to Scotty’s aid prowess, and after I jugged up he quickly freed pitch 21. We had blown past another party; this one bivying somewhere below Camp IV, the only hint of their existence was lonely haulbags resting on the ledge. Due to the runout and traversing nature of pitch 21, I just followed the pitch with the pack and my approach shoes on. Thankfully, it was definitely a featherbag at 5.9. This brought us up to a nice seat under the Great Roof. As Scotty sorted gear and prepared for this beautiful soaring pitch at around one or two in the morning, I took a seat on the ledge and pulled out my jacket, ready for the long belay on this extensive aid pitch.

As soon as Scotty left the belay, I turned off my headlamp to conserve batteries and experienced one of the best, and strangest, belays of my life. The Milky Way was streaming across the heavens, Scotty’s headlamp was slowly working its way up the wall, and the Valley was silent and beautiful. Maybe it was the fatigue, but it just seemed like the most amazing place to be in the world at that moment in time. I’d finished my first block of leading, and I could let go a little mentally and just enjoy where we were, about 2000’ up El Capitan on the most famous bigwall route in the world. It was perfection.

During that pitch, I came to fully appreciate Petzl’s creation of the auto locking grigri. Try as I might, with so much climbing behind us and it being the middle of the night, there was nothing I could do to fight the sleep. At times I would nod off in my cross-legged seated position, both hands clamped down on the tail end of the rope. Scotty’s progress would pull rope through, waking me, I’d feed him a little slack, look up at the stars, glance at Scotty’s progress under the monster wave of a roof above us, and drift back into sleep.

I don’t remember much of the next few pitches. I was too mentally fried. I remember Scotty offering to let me lead the Pancake Flake, supposedly the best free pitch on the climb, but I was too tired and didn’t want to waste time changing shoes, etc, so I passed. He freed and aided his way up the pitch, and the next, and the next... I have trouble even remembering what they were without looking at a topo as a reminder. It’s all hazy, so I don’t know exactly when, but somewhere in there, probably around pitch 24 after the Pancake Flake the sun decided to give our headlamps a break.

I lost my composure once, mostly from exhaustion, when the loop of rope I was trailing while jugging became stuck in the crack. I was angry, swearing, and started to get into the wrong mindset. You just can’t do that when you push yourself and you’re part of a team. If you’re not positive, you will fail. I’m still disappointed in myself for letting negative emotion seep in at all to taint the climb. It’s just not like me, and since I dislike climbing with people who are negative, I later apologized to Scotty for having lost it a little.

Scotty, however, was a machine. He led all night, from 11pm, until the sun rose, and then some. It was inspiring to say the least. I’d have to say that his best performance was on the Changing Corners pitch. Armed with a thinned free rack and a tagline, Scotty attacked the first half of the pitch, which consists of a steep 10d hand crack. He climbed it flawlessly, as if he wasn’t twenty-five hundred feet up the most imposing wall in Yosemite without a lick of sleep. When he finished the first half of the pitch, he tagged the thin aid gear up and set off up the gently overhung dihedral above. Even having seen footage of Tommy Caldwell climb this pitch, it was still almost unimaginable that this pitch could ever go free.

I jugged up to meet Scotty for the last time, pulling out a few of his micronuts from rope tension while I was jugging. It was my turn to take the sharp end of the rope again. I’d realized that my negative attitude earlier would affect my ability to lead on the next 3 5.10 pitches, two of them  5.10d, so I’d been working on becoming more positive and resolved while Scotty was on the Changing Corners pitch. We were close to Nose In A Day (NIAD), but it wasn’t in the bag yet. If I dropped into aiding, it just wasn’t going to happen. I’d built up my psyche, if not my energy, for the next pitch, and looked at it with an analytical eye. It looked hard. Liebacking and underclinging in a corner and under a roof on an unchanging #1 camalot sized crack. Luckily, there was a tiny seam heading up next to the crack where I could get in another sized piece of gear, if necessary. As I headed out, I quickly realized how tired I was still. Resting at the belays hadn’t done much, and liebacking is about as strenuous as it gets when it comes to climbing. The 5.10d felt like 5.11d, and I was literally screaming with effort at a few sections as I ran it out over my limited gear consisting of 2 #1 camalots and a single smaller piece in the seam. After pulling the lip of the steep 10d section, the climbing luckily eased. I was extremely relieved to reach the bolts at the next belay, but also vexed when I realized that the next pitch involved even more 5.10d liebacking! 28 pitches down, 3 to go…

Resigned, I steeled myself and I cast off again. This pitch had quite a few hard sections, but they were spaced by good restful positions, so it was a little more manageable. I eventually found myself in a bizarre gulley heading up and left, with a crack branching off heading back up and right, above. The pro looked strange, and the climbing stranger. I started working my way up the features, and clipped a fixed nut. Seeing a large flake ahead, I just ran it out a little and made a big move to the flake. As I brought my feet up into a smear, and started cranking for the easy holds above the flake started to move! I dropped as low as I could, immediately remembering, “pull down, not out,” and in my exhausted state I started to panic. I looked left and the holds I had just abandoned were now too far away. I looked down and realized that if the flake detached and I fell I would probably deck out in the gulley below. I looked right and saw another flake way off to the side. I quickly tossed a heel on it, somehow cranked into a horizontal position, and managed to mantle my way to better holds without applying too much outward force on the loose flake I had been dangling off of. As I scrambled the remaining few feet to the belay, my breathing was fast, my mind was scattered, and my emotions were ruined. The climb was taking its toll on me on every level. I’d gotten out of tough places before, and I’d never freaked out like this. I was disappointed in myself on one level, and understanding on another. The human body just isn’t meant for that kind of punishment for so long. It was now after noon, we’d been climbing for 20 hours nonstop, and I almost had an emotional breakdown as a result of that loose flake. I was questioning whether or not I should, or could, lead the last two pitches.

While Scotty came up, I tried to calm myself. As he neared the belay I told him what happened and how I was mentally devastated. There were two pitches left, one 10c and the next an overhanging bolt ladder about 30 bolts long and the topo made it look like they could link. Scotty asked if he should take over the lead again. I thought about it for a second, and then steeled myself for my final push. Scotty was in approach shoes, I had all the gear already, and I refused to let myself be defeated by the climb. I took off quickly, while still a little shaky, because I didn’t want to think about my decision much. As a result I forgot the tagline. I lowered off the 2nd or third piece on the pitch to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, of our entire time on The Nose, this was the only picture Tom Evans managed to take of us. It’s an uninspiring picture of me hanging off a piece, retrieving the tagline, before I pulled my way back up to the high point and set off on lead again. We found this out later when we were down in the valley and a friend wandered over to Tom to see what shots he got of us. Apparently , since we started late, he didn’t even know we were on the wall until we popped out of the upper dihedrals, into view from the El Cap Meadows bridge. Scotty had unfortunately forgotten his camera sitting at a rest stop north of Mt. Shasta along I5 on the way to the valley, so we didn’t have one along with us for one of the most memorable climbs of our lives.


After retrieving the tagline, I quickly finished the 10c crack and attacked the overhung bolt ladder. I’d seen a technique used by Dean Potter in Masters of Stone V on this section of rock where he just had two etriers, each on a locker, and he just clip-stepped-clip-stepped up the ladder. I gave a variation of that a try and it went much faster than I’d hoped. Soon, even having skipped clipping many bolts for protection, the rope drag still stopped me short. I was hanging at the lip of the overhang, 2900’ off the valley floor, in one of the best positions in all of rock climbing. The view was the most rewarding I’ve ever seen in my life. Inspired, I pulled out my stupid little cell phone camera and took our only picture of us on the route.

Cell_Phone_NIAD.JPG The haul bag is a little speck hanging free from the wall, and there is another speck, Scotty jugging over the huge toe of El Capitan.

Scotty passed me, using the gear he’d cleaned from the pitch below to protect the slab above and soon we were sitting together on top of El Capitan with big stupid grins plastered on our faces. I looked at my phone and it read 2pm. We’d just completed The Nose in 22 hours accomplishing the coveted (NIAD)!

We took stock of our supplies, and found that we still had two full bottles of Gatorade and plenty of food for the hike out! We sat on top, called the ladies, relaxed for about 15 minutes, drank, ate, and then started packing.

I was wasted, but excited to have accomplished such an amazing feat! The 2.5 hour descent found me hallucinating things from toads to massive rock monsters hiding in the rock walls. On the rappels, I couldn’t even focus enough to yell “off rappel” when I was done. I stumbled and had to move slowly so I wouldn’t roll my weak ankle, but the thought of Curry Pizza kept me going. We reached the car at 5pm, 26 hours car to car, and easily made it to Curry Pizza for dinner. While on the deck standing in line, I’m sure I looked drunk. while standing, talking to Scotty, I would start to fall over and stumble 3-4’ before I caught myself. We ate, barged the showers, and headed back to Camp 4 for much needed rest.

It took me days to recover from that climb physically, but especially emotionally and mentally. I felt like an emotional ghost for days afterwards, having poured so much heart, soul, and effort into one endeavor and riding such an extreme emotional roller coaster. The day after, I couldn’t even talk to my wonderful girlfriend on the phone because I just didn’t have anything to say.

Now, I have memories of one of the most amazing climbs I’ve ever done with an awesome partner, and it will always bring a smile to my face. The secret to the Scotty Vacation is if you want it, you can do it, you just have to make it happen. You learn to push yourself, and believe in yourself. In the end you succeed at the limits of what is imaginable, and realize your dreams.

Thank you Scotty!

Josh Higgins