Adventures — 14 June 2014 at 1:10 pm

An El Cap Education

Graham Dawson /  FY1 Scottish Rural Track Programme

While Yosemite National Park gets underway for another season following its recent closure and some of its worst forest fires for years, Adventure Medic Editor Graham Dawson recalls his trip there last summer where the realities of big wall climbing hit home.

(Photos: Graham Dawson and Simon Smith)

Rescue

I screamed at Simon to get down. I screamed down the wall for other parties to take cover. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening but I could see, feel and hear the cacophony of rock fall around us. I feared mostly for those below but fear for our own safety was evident in my voice. In reality, the rock fall didn’t threaten us as it poured out from a neighbouring route to the West and sprayed the lower reaches of the wall where teams on The Nose, Salathé and the base routes were just starting their day. After my initial worry for our own safety and those below, my attentions turned to the source of the rock fall. I quickly became aware of shouts from where it had emanated. Initially I thought it was shouts of dread and anguish like my own but soon became aware of what I thought were repetitive calls for help.

I yelled to Simon to get the phone out of the pig to see if we had signal. After passing on what little information we had, Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) were soon mustering in the valley below. Helicopters buzzed around us on the wall assessing the situation and planning for a rescue. They took photos from the side door of the helicopter to aid them in their plans for a rescue and were soon working to position their teams to help.

As best we could, separated by a 50m pitch, we discussed how and if we could assist. After a short conversation from belay to belay, we agreed that there was realistically nothing we could do to help and with only enough water for the rest of the day we decided it best to get ourselves off the wall, save another rescue and hope for the best for our fellow climbers. We had just less than a day’s climbing remaining to the top and had to get moving so as not to become another team stuck on the wall in need of rescue.

Tactics are key

We were on pitch 25 of The Nose, a classic route on El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park, California and probably the most famous rock climb in the world. We had been lured here by the huge expanses of granite which soar above beautiful sub-alpine meadows and coniferous forest interspersed by some of North America’s biggest waterfalls. The Nose is by no means the hardest climb on the 3000ft granite wall but it is by far the most popular. There are dozens of teams that attempt it each year but around half are destined to fail. These failures are caused mostly by poor climbing and hauling systems which mean slow progress causing teams to run out of water. The more time a team plans to take, the more water is required (around four litres per day each) and the heavier the loads are that the teams have to haul. This in turn slows them further, necessitating even more water for the extra time. Moving upwards at pace is the challenge and finding the balance between speed and style forms the toughest decision on the ground.

Aid climbing a large amount of the route demands larger racks, heavier hauling and a slower pace. This in turn demands more food, water and so even larger loads! A vicious cycle if ever there was one. Tactics are a hugely important part of success on big walls and even getting stuck behind slower teams who plan on a longer ascent can scupper the fastest climbers’ chance of success. Flexibility with bivvy ledges can also make or break an attempt since arriving at a ledge to find it full (some of the ledges can barely fit one person seated) can mean a rough night sitting in a harness and slings, not to mention the knock-on fatigue for the coming days. A portaledge can ease this pressure as it can be rigged anywhere there is a solid anchor providing enough space for two to comfortably kick back. As it was, we were a medical student and forest ranger, and not financially fluid enough for such luxuries.

Style

The Nose has been climbed in every imaginable style. From the siege tactics of Warren Harding and the first ascentionists in the 50’s to the “Nose in a Day” teams who strip their racks down to the minimum, haul no loads and push their free climbing as much as possible to maximise speed up the wall. The record for The Nose currently sits at 2 hours 23 minutes and is held by Alex Honnold and Hans “Hollywood” Florine, using a range of light and fast techniques alien to the regular Nose team. This combination should protect against all but absolute disaster (i.e. a massive fall from the wall) and relies on both climbers’ ability to solo almost the entire route! However, a mistake by either climber using this style could still result in huge fall potential with only a few points of attachment between them.

A new standard for Yosemite big wall climbing was set this year when Alex Honnold ticked off the three biggest faces – totalling nearly 7000ft – in an 18 hour solo linkup of El Capitan, Mount Watkins and Half Dome.

We were tackling The Nose with a mixture of aid and free climbing and hauling a minimum of gear but this still totalled around 50kg including water for our expected 3 days on the wall.

Reality

With all this in mind we had chosen to start late on our first day and only climb a few pitches to Sickle ledge where we would spend the night. This would allow us to have the jump on any teams starting the following day. Storms in the valley meant the wall above was relatively empty and as we reached sickle ledge things looked good for our big push the following day. Closer inspection of the ledge however brought disappointment. It was not exactly a luxurious bivvy and would probably involve sitting up all night. Not keen on this idea and spurred on by our pace to this point we made the decision to head on. Climbing well into the night, we arrived at Dolt ledge at around midnight. After our measly rations of half a tin of chilli each and a few slugs of water we bedded down for a few hours of well earned sleep, with the prospect of doing it all over again for the next two days.

“Long, sustained and flawless, the Nose may be the best rock climb in the world; it is certainly the best known. On paper, at 5.9 C1, The Nose sounds easy. It’s not. With over 31 pitches of steep, exposed and strenuous climbing, The Nose is an immense physical and psychological drain. Extensive climbing experience on long routes is mandatory. The failure rate is high.”
Chris MacNamarra, Supertopo.com

It was with a great sense of relief and achievement but heavy hearts that we finally pulled over the steep lip of “The Captain” two and a half days after we had begun. We had taken in legendary pitches such as The King Swing, Boot Flake and the Great Roof which had been etched in our minds through the two years of planning. Our fingers were literally bleeding from the vertical labouring of the past few days but we were ecstatic to be at the top and off the wall. Our celebrations were muted by the knowledge that just yards from us the YOSAR team were working tirelessly to haul a fellow climber up the last few pitches of probably the worst climb of his life. We spoke briefly with the team to find out if the climbers were ok. Tragically, one had died whilst his partner had survived and had subsequently endured the entire day on the wall while a rescue took place. Mason Robison a 38 year old experienced climber from Montana had been caught out when a flake of rock had snapped off causing him to fall, cutting his lead line and sending him a further 200ft to the end of his static haul line and to his death. Many others had pulled on the same flake on there way past in recent weeks and in past seasons.

Is it all worth it?

At our final bivvy near the summit, we ate our scant dinner of tinned chilli and jolly ranchers by the campfire as we pondered the risks and the rewards. Were we willing to pay the ultimate price for our experience? It was great fun, we had met some fantastic people and achieved our climbing goals – the Nose in a respectable few days and Half Dome in a day. But given what we’d been close to, is it worth the risks involved?

It’s a tough question and an incredibly personal decision. But for me, I think it is.

Jargon

Aid Climbing / ascending a rock wall using self placed pieces of gear and fixing, to these, of small fabric ladders. This style is used where the free climbing is too difficult to proceed.
Belay / the points between pitches where teams swap over the leading. Typically 30-50m apart.
Belayer / the team member who secures the lead climbers rope through a friction device.
Beta / information about a route often just a few key facts which can unlock a route.
Bivvy / short for bivouac and not necessarily involving any cover! In the case of El Capitan, any ledge you can sit on!
Dynamic / describes the stretch in a climbing rope.
Free Climbing / ascending a rock wall in the manner you would expect – using hands and feet and protecting from a fall with a rope and equipment placed into the rock on lead.
Lead line / the rope a climber uses to protect himself against a fall. In Yosemite, often just a single dynamic 10mm rope.
Off-width / refers to that horrible crack size between 3 and 5 inches which is too big for hand jamming and too small to fit your whole body inside. Akin to “cage fighting with rocks”.
Pig / “affectionate” (or not) term for the haul bag which teams pull up the route behind them full of food, water and gear. This tends to get stuck on everything and requires careful ropework and haul systems to navigate up the wall.
Pitch / generally a rope length of climbing (40-50m).
Poop tube / hanging below a teams haul bag this container does exactly what it says on the tin.
Rack / the equipment a climber carries to secure them to the rock whilst leading a pitch of climbing. On the Nose a set of gear 2-3 times the size of what a climber would usually carry is required.
Static / describes a rope with little stretch and so used for hauling and belays (NOT for lead climbing on).
YOSAR / YOsemite Search And Rescue.