Tuesday, May 06, 2008

El Capitan, the Nose

So this is it - the moment of truth for any big-wall climber wanna-be. You have to shit. You can go around it in circles, in squares or in pyramids, but after an hour, a day, or maximum two, there is no getting around the painful truth. Princesses do not exist - we are all mortal creatures and we have basic biological needs, as smelly and putrid as they are. It's like death, the biggest of them all needs, and there is no getting away or hiding or finding a different logical issue from the dillema of the wall.

Waking up at the Boot Flake ledge and sitting up in our single portaledge (Renaud slept underneath me on the ledge itself, with around 40 cm of living space - what else would you wish for on the wall...), I knew this was the day i would have to confront the monsters of the wall - or rather my inner inhibitions from the darker side of the consciousness. It's not even the process of shitting itself, it's the image of it in our head that is the problem. It is so innately personal and supposedly repulsive to others, that doing it while strapped to a rope on a 30cm ledge couple of hundred meters up a big stone, is one of those moments of truth we do not exactly expect or plan for.

But as with all things that come to pass in this life, i grabbed the long-prepared brown paper bag (long live free bags at the Yosemite Village Store - the Moma store of them all in the Valley), squatted down as i could with harness and tie-in in the way, and made the moment of truth become a second of happiness when the ancestral pride in the accomplished feat made me sigh with uncontrolled pleasure. Here it is, nicely packed in the empty water bottle and duct taped for prolonged conservation.

As you may see, one of the most memorable moments on our first big wall, the four-day ascent of the Nose route on El Cap, has been the toilet experience. There were certainly other moments, like jugging pendulums over and over and over again - until that last one where the rope got stuck at the bolt when i was pulling it through, like setting up the portaledge in the dark on our first day, like dropping the duct tape after jugging up the first pitch, like chimneying under the portaledge at camp V when it was my turn to sleep under it in the 40 cm living space, or praying the rain gods - really praying - at the Changing Corners pitch while it thundered and rained over the Higher Cathedral on the opposite side of the valley.

The Nose route was the first daring undertaking up El Capitan, biggest wall in Yosemite, and one of the biggest world cliffs situated in such pleasant and warm surroundings. Warren Harding and team managed the feat, after many years of dreaming, trying, and climbing bits and pieces of it, in a total of 45 days, on November 12, 1958. The route goes right in the middle of the big face, more or less where the shadow meets light in the picture below. It was a daring undertaking and a courageous feet in the 50ies that created a new precedent for the generations to come. It remains an exciting challenge today - to do it in one day for some, in many for others, in dreams for some more.

We prepared thoroughly, by first getting a haul bag, many more cams, and finally even investing into a portaledge to have all the chances on our side. And so the day has come - after stashing water at the base for five days (two liters per person per day, or 20 liters, or 10 duct taped apple juice and water bottles, 4 or which we did not use...), here is Renaud on the way to the cliff, the first day of the climb.

There was a party of three Austrian girls in front of us that rapped of the Dolt Tower (50% success rate, or what do the statisticians say today?), leaving more water there and a warm Budweiser (thanks!), and two American guys, rapping off the first pitch after their main water bottle exploded. We had the climb to ourselves - a rare occurrence, even on this May 1st beginning of the season.

Renaud led off the first pitch, with plans to free most 5.10s. The aiding struck us on some unexpected places, like the 5.8 fist crack on the awesome Stoveleg cracks, or more expected, but benighted Boot Flake approach, Great Roof, and several pitches following that. Below is Ren full of fresh enthusiasm, first day, first pitch - and a seemingly endless wall for the days to come. The bizarre thing, at least for my inexperienced big-wall self, was that you could see the top from day one, and it looked so close that the mind refused to acknowledge that it would take several days to get there. It appears so impossibly close by, the heart gallops to the goal, and the emotions, unarrested, make you feel as if you were already on top. However, there is lots and lots of work to do to actually get there. Yeah, life is like that...

I jugged most of the pitches and figured out the haul bag logistics, managing the three ropes, pulling on this, freeing that, and tempering with various mechanical devices. Not that much fun in the long run, but a good way to learn the basic mechanics of the big wall climbing on the go. This is me, the Great Roof pitch - where the jugging starts to be strenuous at once and the panorama eventually manages to send the message to your brain, despite the epinephrine and fatigue raging there, - about how stupendous it is:

We slept our last night on the wall at a comfortable camp V. Our bivies kept getting more and more lush with each day: a benighted portaledge setup in the middle of nowhere, just after the ultimate pendulum into the Stoveleg cracks below the Dolt tower, a ledge - but only a 30cm one at the top of Boot Flake, a big nice ledge at camp V, and the last night on top in full sleeping conditions, with a big pine tree overhead and a moon to sing us a lullaby.

Here is another picture, in the same genre, of me following the Changing Corners pitch on the last day. My favorite pitch was the one after this one. The belay on top of Changing Corners is a hanging one, with all this incredible exposure beneath you, and a majestic layback 10d in front. That was a pleasant culmination after the rain and thunder scare i got while sitting and praying at Camp VI for those gray and humid, unsmiling rain gods to hold off and let us be.

We did get to the top and had the unique pleasure to experience the East Ledges descent with all those bags, and our shit tacked in the middle of it all. Our short memory soon made us look up El Cap again, with that stupid, fleeting feeling of big wall envy, scooping crazy people hanging there with their stuff, trying to reach some goals none understands or really cares about. But doesn't that King Swing look wonderful from below? Like David Breashears would say, it's time for the Big Wall Anonymous Club.


On a practical note, i heard this question at Camp 4, 'what do you need to train to make it up there?' and here are my two cents concerning the technical essentials:

- jugging and following pendulums on jugs (especially the first day);
- hauling systems;
- basic aid (bolt ladder, aider use, thin nut placement);
- and the most important one - moral strength and the good feeling with your partner that all the climbing is about...oh, and don't forget the off-set nuts, small sizes - it's all about the off-sets!

To finish this off, here is a picture of my climbing hands in the morning after the third bivy, inspirational, ain't it...


alexei said...

It looks like this time you've been much better prepared than for your Eiger adventure - this is very nice to see. And good writing too.

Khrystia said...

Thinking of what have you not tried while climbing ... any sex on ropes? :)

uasunflower said...

not yet :)

Anonymous said...


I loved the report...thanks for the toilet lesson.
Congratulations for your climbings!
Nerea (kattagorri)