Wow. It has been more than seven years since my last climbing post on Pullharder. A lot has changed during that time; we lost Ben & Gil in the mountains, sold our company to DigitalGlobe, I moved out of San Diego, ran a few marathons, got married, had two awesome kids, lost my dad to a battle with cancer and had a lot of professional and personal growth. Unfortunately, during this time, I didn’t make much time to send any major climbs and only managed to get on real rock a handful of times.
It was thus only fitting that after leaving my 6 year tenure at DigitalGlobe where I built a great career and learned a ton, I would go for something big... complete with a bit of suffering.
I called Shaun asking if he wanted to get on El Capitan and apparently he had been thinking for a while about getting on the Zodiac. Thus a plan was hatched! I immediately started going to the climbing gym multiple times a week and would do 20 5.10+ pitches each time for ‘training’. Turns out that isn’t too helpful.
We showed up at Upper Pines campground several weeks later without a reservation but with some 6-pack diplomacy scored a shared campsite with some French folks.
The next day we were anxious to get up to the start of the route. I took the first load of water and rope up to the base while Shaun sorted gear and made breakfast in the meadow. Apparently the Korean Team XTreme was preparing to get on the route and had carried a load of gear to the base the previous day…we would need to get on the route ASAP. Fortunately, we met a nice arborist, Joe, in the parking lot and he was psyched to just hang out with us and offered to help carry gear to the base.
We hiked back up to the base with the remainder of the gear and fixed the first pitch. We also let our new friend Joe jumar up the rope and rap down…such a positive guy, he was incredibly psyched and it made us happy to contribute to his trip. It turns out arborists are really good at ascending and descending ropes, even with unusual climbing gear.
The next morning we got a late start since we waited for the gear store at Half Dome village to open at 8am (I was short one easy daisy). It turns out they were out of stock anyway and we started climbing around 10am and bivied on pitch 5. Aid climbing came back quickly and although both Shaun and I were out of practice, we had climbed several walls between us over the years including 5 trips up the big stone (Shield, Nose, Lurking Fear, Free Blast w/hauling). We were moving at a reasonable pace, swapping leads, and tuning our systems. It will only get easier from here, right…..WRONGGG… as it turns out, as the days went on, the pitches got steeper and more challenging, the cumulative effect of the incessant exposure and exhaustion all conspired to dramatically impact our rate of ascent.
While I was in good physical climbing shape, my head was out of practice to deal with the exposure, which resulted in the pitches I was leading taking longer. I remember on our second bivy on top of pitch 8, every time someone moved the entire portaledge would shift. I woke up with exhausted abs confirming that I had been on edge for the last 8+ hours.
One highlight was the nipple pitch, which had some interesting cam hook moves under the roof. Near the end of the roof, I placed a yellow C3 in a pin scar. Bounce testing it pulled it and I landed on a gray TCU, which also pulled. Thus I took our only fall of the climb, which was a 15 ft whip on a fairly vertical section of rock. Not too bad.
I kept aiding out to the nipple and got stuck. As you reach the actual nipple the crack widens substantially and it turns out our #5 C4 wasn’t big enough for me to reach the bolt. The topo calls it 4.5” awkward and it was definitely awkward but I still couldn’t figure out a way to aid around the corner with the pieces we had. Shaun called Scotty and Asa for beta, neither of which remembered the sequence (though Scotty’s gave us his usual beta -- ‘you should just go for it’). So I left my aiders on the #5 and in my approach shoes just lay backed that section Charlie Porter style ending on an upside down-ish knee bar to clip the bolt. It turns out it wasn’t too bad to free that section, really fun, and really exposed with good gear below you.
While we initially planned for 3 nights on the wall, our slow progress up the wall made us start rationing water so we would have the option for a 4th night if necessary.
It turns out with this style of climbing, if you take your time, every pitch is doable. The challenge is moving quickly and efficiently. While we did neither, we grinded out our respectable 3 pitches a day and set up our 4th bivy two pitches below the summit. The next morning, Shaun put on his free shoes and rope gunned us to the top and shifted into proper hero mode to dispatch the last 5.10 pitch rather than getting out the aiders…we were ready to be off of this thing!
While we could have started climbing earlier in the day (our start times were between 8 and 930AM) or set up our portaledge in the dark, we didn’t want to! Having two cups of coffee and staying in our cozy sleeping bag until the alpen glow hit the wall of early morning light was something we chose to prioritize in our suffer fest.
Three #5 C4s make pitch 14 feel way safe. You always have 2 pieces engaged in the rock that you are.
We brought a little pink umbrella to shield ourselves from the sun at the belays. Well worth the weight.
Flagging the portaledge on steeper pitches is awesome! Provides a comfy belay and reduces any anxiety associated with camp setup at the end of the day.
Camhooks rule and provide much more secure placements than tiny nuts and cams. Convince yourself that they are bomber because they are!
Beaks are rad, even when hand placed. Its like dry tooling up the captain.
Dehydrated food is nice and easy but not a good idea for every night on the wall. Its nice to eat food without prep and it conserves water.
Having a second gear/haul bag with day supplies worked really well.
Bring a proper funkiness device to get iron out of the rock.
Yates daisies are way way better than metolius easy daisies which can’t open under load. I would bring a third one for haulbag docking and shenanigans.
Jetboil with hot coffee is worth the weight.
1:1 hauling on a steep wall is very doable for 135lb climber with 4 days worth of supplies for 2. We were equipped for 2:1 and 3:1 but ended up keeping it basic.
Layback the few moves to pull the nipple. Spectacular.
Overall, it is a privilege to be healthy enough, strong enough, and be able to free up enough time to plan an expedition up El Capitan. It is such a big piece of granite that makes nearly all other cliffs and crags pale in comparison. Thank you to our families and friends online and in person for supporting us and encouraging us throughout. I am psyched to see what the next 7 years will bring, though I hope they involve more than 0 trip reports.
My hands are still swollen as I type this :).
(Also, Asa is a badass for soloing Zodiac N years ago).
We are better than Michael Phelps.