The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizen in a Republic", April 23, 1910
Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.
Sir Winston Churchill
Like anyone who has been a student of rock climbing or mountaineering, Ive dreamed of doing some of the classic climbs in Yosemite. Its hard not to succumb to the Yosemites allure with the volume of history on the subject in movies, books, and magazines. After all it is home to the Best Rock Climb in the World. The Nose on El Capitan.
Now that Im in my early 40s and determined to use my vacations in the most adventurous way possible, I decided that a trip to Yosemite was next. After consulting with my brother, Donald Perry, I got in touch with someone he climbed with in the Valley - Ammon McNeely. (He and DJP climbed the Zodiac with Donalds 15 year old son last year; see separate trip report). In my opinion he is one of the best of the current generation of rock climbers in Yosemite given his speed records and climbing style. My buddy Remi and I wanted to get a taste of Big Wall climbing in as good a style as possible, without leaving a trace, dropping anything or interfering with anyone else having a shot at the summit. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about Big Wall climbing and have a maximum amount of adventure and fun. Therefore, we decided upon the Nose - Grade VI, 5.9 C2*****. I had a limited amount of experience of aid climbing (Cranken and I practiced leading and following the Trashcan Overhand on a rainy day this August) and Remi none. Thus, Ammon suggested that we bring his brother Gabriel along to keep the epics to a minimum.
We arrived late Saturday afternoon August 22, checked into Curry Village and headed over to the Nose to see how the preparations were going. There we ran into Ammon and Gabe coming down the trail. Ammon looks like a typical thin friendly rock climber. Gabe however looks like Paul Bunyan with long hair. Since we were already gripped coming up the trail we were gratified that Gabe was going to be there, if for nothing else to kick our asses if we started to get gripped! Having climbed at the Gunks for almost 25 years, I have had my moments of fear. The Big Stone, however, is another thing altogether. It is almost incomprehensible that one can climb the entire length of this 3000 foot monolith.
Gabe and Ammon had fixed lines up to Sickle ledge to give us a head start when we were ready to launch. Sunday would be spent advancing our camp up to the high point while we would start Monday morning. Supplies for 4 people are massive. We had 3 liters of water per person, for 4 days plus food, ropes, bivy gear, portaledges, two haul bags, poop tubes, and more. In addition, Hans Florine, a friend of Ammons, had left some water behind for us at various drop points (El Cap Towers, Camp VI).
We started to encounter instantly what the topo refers to as the crux of the route - traffic. Two friendly Brits whom we would run into later in the week were on the lower part of the route on the way to Sickle Ledge. They were about to epic in the closing hours of sun light so Ammon helped them get over to Sickle Ledge. We also ran into two other guys, whom I will refer to as Jethro and Billy Bob to protect the innocent, who wanted to jug our lines to get a head start on us. Given our own large size we declined otherwise we would have been delayed an extra day waiting for them. This was the beginning of our traffic problems.
We had a restless night at Curry Village in anticipation of the climb ahead. Monday morning we all met at El Cap Meadow and headed up the surprisingly short approach to the base. Here we met part of the support crew from Camp 4 random friends of Ammon that he met or knew from Camp 4. Particularly key were Dennis and Patty whom we got to know much better throughout the week. Anyway, we rehearsed what little we knew about jugging, passing a knot on rappel, following pendulums, etc. and headed up. Sickle Ledge is the first real ledge on the Nose; only 4 pitches up. It maybe low compared to El Cap but at 550 feet off the Valley floor it is already higher than the Gunks from the carriage path by a couple hundred feet. If you consider that one 60 m rap gets you to the base from the top of High Exposure, that should give you some perspective. Warren Harding took 3 days to get to this point in his historic first ascent. Jugging fixed lines in 90 degree baking sun is a great way to lose weight and get a tan, however, for a traditional Gunks climber, the exposure was almost instantly gripping and the jugging was hard work.
Our method for the first day was for Ammon to lead and fix the haul line, the lead line for Gabe to follow and clean, and fix two lines for Remi and I to jug. While we were getting starting the pigs almost always won. Towards the end we started catching up. Since we were aiding it was always easier for us to follow on the fixed lines than attempt free climbing, even if it were 4th class. Our routine followed the same pattern for the day until nightfall. The route during this section is quite indirect since it traverses past a few crack systems until you get to the Stoveleg cracks around the 8th pitch; 3 pitches short of the next ledge; Dolt Tower. The Stovelegs are called that because Warren Harding used stovelegs to protect himself in the cracks when he was climbing them. As a result of the traversing nature of the route through this section, Ammon either pendulumed or free climbed the traverses, while Remi and I lowered out across the expanse and jugged straight up. At about midnight we finally settled down in our portaledges for the night.
Since we were climbing quite hard that day to get as much altitude as possible Remi and I had gotten thoroughly dehydrated even though we had drank more than our allotted 3 liters of water that day. Even though we drank about 1 gallon on Monday, our urine the next morning was a dark brown sludge (which we were constantly reminded of since we kept it with us). Also, we had neglected to eat anything substantial since we were trying to move quickly. Unfortunately I ate a few Chocolate Cliff Bars. Normally I like Cliff Bars, but since I never have caffeine, I was wired all night. I also got the outside of the portaledge, so all night I was awake I had the chance to peer over the edge down some of the most vertical terrain on the planet. Later in the night I watched thunderstorms continually raking the summits across and down the valley with lightning. At the same time we were constantly being bombarded by swallows and/or bats. I think one of them hit Remis foot while he was sleeping giving him a start. All I could think of was Nerdoms recent trip to the Tetons where the party behind him got struck by lightning with the biggest rescue in Grand Teton history. Ammon also had a bad night sleeping since he was stuck in his hammock instead of a natural ledge. When we woke up we shouted down to Gabe and Ammon that we were gripped. A hearty chuckle made its wafted its way back to us.
Just as we were about to get motivated to continue, one of the storms I saw further down the valley started to hit us. It wasnt too bad at first. I had my Bivy Sack with me so I wasnt too bothered - good chance to test out the gear huh? Remi had his rain stuff on so he was fine. It petered out quickly, but we had to give the rock some chance to dry. Just as it started to dry, it started pouring again. I was quickly sitting in a puddle thinking to myself that this is exactly what the book says can go wrong! Fortunately Remi figured out how to work the drain hole on the portaledge. Gabe and Ammon were perched about 50 feet below us. Gabe shouted up that in order to put the rain fly on (we hadnt anticipated rain the night before) we would have to get off the ledge entirely. So we de-clustered the ledge and got off. Gabe jumarred up and in the middle of a windstorm we learned how to wrestle a portaledge into submission. When I woke up I was probably the most gripped out of my mind that I have ever been -granted it was all caffeine induced I would never be like that otherwise
. Once I helped Gabe wrastle the ledge while dangling 1600 feet off the deck I started to get my nerve back. We were actually laughing at the obsurdity of being bashed in the head by the ledge at 1600 feet. The second wave of the storm caused a waterfall which passed us on the left, went right into Ammons sleeping bag. He was almost as tired as us since he had done all the hard work leading the day before and was cramped sleeping in the hammock.
Given our sorry gripped, dehydrated state, Ammon and Gabe decided the best thing for us was to hang out in our portaledge while they fixed and hauled the next three pitches to Dolt Tower and then we would come up. We were averaging about 2 hours or so a pitch and given the late start induced by the rain showers, our plan was to get to Dolt Tower in the remaining light by night fall and reassess our options at that point.
It was almost dark when we started off. However, at this point we ran into Jethro and Billy Bob again whom we later referred to quite harshly. It took them a while to earn this odium since first they dropped a reverso on us during their third pitch or so while we were jugging up to Sickle Ledge. Now, when we were getting ready to get up to Dolt Tower they had clipped over our lines so that when we were going through we had six lines clustered through. They weren't bad climbers or bad people, just slightly inexperienced as this was there first Big Wall (who am I to talk?). As I said to Ammon, there is no one really at fault in these situations since everyone deserves their own chance but the numbers of people arriving mean that we will all start cueing sooner or later. Like the people caught on Mt Everest in 1996, the sheer number of people meant that the probability of what aid climbers call a clusterf*&% is an eventuality. Anyway, we made it up to Dolt Tower in record time for us after we had a few fun lower outs, passing through the belays while Gabe and Ammon took turns checking on us and waist hauling the portaledge.
Once we got to Dolt now 11 pitches up and in the dark, it was a regular paradise. Gabe had set up our double portaledge and arranged the rope so that we could walk around and stay clipped in. We hadnt eaten much in the two days we had been on the wall for various reasons, but now that we had a comfortable bivy site, Ammon got out the food bag and we pigged out on Wall Burritos.
The plan at this point had been for our southern friends to jug our lines up to our point and pass us up through El Cap Tower and then we would follow. We obliged since we didnt want to get in their way or keep them from their shot. At 6:30 am I heard a few voices and saw some headlamps which I assumed to be them. I looked out of the portaledge to see none other than Peter Croft looking fresh. I asked where he was going today and he said, To the top! This guy had started the night before probably about the time we went to sleep. He had a friend with him, so they werent going to set a record, but the Nose in a Day - 31 pitches - speaks for itself. These guys flew past us. As I lay in my portaledge I could look up and see Peter Croft doing the King Swing - the biggest pendulum of its time when it was lead by Warren Harding from the top of the Boot Flake in order to get to a parallel crack system.
Peter and his friend Bob were using some speed climbing techniques. For example, when Peter got to the second crack system I dont think he put any pro in at all until he got to the top of the pitch so that Bob could lower out and follow as quickly as possible. As Peter was leading this pitch I could hear him say, do not give me any tension here. So I assume he was leading with a minimum of gear. As Bob was following he said, Did anyone ever tell you youre a good climber?
Just to see Peter Croft move so elegantly and rapidly through this section was worth the trip. Even better though was when Peter was walking across the ledge, Gabe mistook him for one of the southern men and asked him if he had the lines to fix for us! Peter corrected Gabe and explained that he must be mistaking him for someone else! Once Peter was off the ledge Gabe figured out his faux pas. Sorry Gabe but what a classic! Then Bob used our fixed line to lower himself not knowing that Ammon was tied into the other end, pulling the pillow right out from under Ammon.
All kidding aside, however, this meant that our partners, which the southern guys effectively became through this section, hadnt arrived yet to fix our lines on a timely basis. We were also stuck where we were since we left our lines for them. Topping out soon became more and more of an impossibility as a result of drinking too much water on the first day, the rain storm on the next, and starting to lose a day to Jethro and Billy Bob. Ammon's wife unfortunately was witnessing the whole thing unfold across the valley and let out an expletive over the walkie talkie describing her view of our new friends within earshot of them. (You go girl!) Ammon being the consummate politician apologized and soon after our friends finally made it past us (and proceeded to get off route).
Another couple, Dan and Ashley, climbing in impeccable style caught up to us. Given our own state we let them pass us also. If we had wanted to be selfish we could have pulled our lines and made them wait but given our limited water supply it would have be futile anyway. After they climbed through we caught back up to them at El Cap Tower and had a good chat with them. Ammon decided to have some fun and flash the 5.7 pitch without putting any pro in while I belayed. It was great watching him move gracefully up and across unencumbered by any gear. While we were trading climbing stories with Dan and Ashley, unbeknownst to me at the time Ammon was keeping Remi down a pitch and preventing me from moving up on the proper ledge. Soon I was to find out why: our southern friends kicked loose a boulder the size of a bowling ball which landed right next to Ashley. She shrugged it off, but we were livid given all the other mistakes that we were victim to as a result of Jethro and Billy Bob. If Ashley had been sitting 3 feet over, on what appeared to be a very comfortable ledge, there would have been a major tragedy.
The sun was soon setting so we returned back to our portaledge on Dolt Tower three pitches down and across. I had fun penduluming down and across back to the rap stations. We ate and drank like kings preparing to rap down the next day. While we were there enjoying our last night on the wall our friends Dennis and Patty and others were down in El Cap meadow shouting up to us. Dennis was flashing various colored lights at us. We were cracking up at his laconic descriptions of the days events over the walkie talkie including a debate as to what equipment our friends dropped.
During the night I could hear our southern friends discussing their various options, in between dropping their headlamp (doh!). I could tell that they were going to bail and I knew it would be difficult for them since they were at a place where you cant bail from directly. Luckily Gabe heard them too; you never saw us work so hard or efficiently! We packed, broke down the gear and started rapping. From Dolt Towers it is 8 pitches straight down; mostly hanging belays. As usual Ammon had thought through all the rigging and systems which worked very efficiently. This was also great experience if unnerving given the exposure and the fact that we were basically rapping straight down about 200 stories. Finally we got to the ground which felt great after 4 days on the wall. Our new found friend Dennis got some beers and hard cider and water. Ammon and I decided to drink all our water before we got to the ground so that we could say that we planned it perfectly. Remi landed on the ground completely exhausted and proceeded to fall right over. We went back to Camp 4 and had pizza and beers and dissected our trip. Our southern friends figured prominently in it in a humorous way. Jim Bridwall stopped by for a few beers; man that guy is a real man!
Ammon and Gabe felt that we hadnt quite had the full experience since we hadnt topped out (they are not like the current breed of Gunks climbers that dont feel the need to get to the top but thats another debate
). So Gabe came up with the idea of doing the Lost Arrow Spire. We instantly agreed to meet up again on Saturday to complete our week.
Friday was a relatively easy day for us. Remi and I went off and did an easy 4 pitch climb on the Sunnyside Bench Regular Route right under the Lost Arrow. This is a 3 star climb in the Yosemite Ultra Classics Super Topo. The exposure was a piece of cake even though it was probably 4-500 feet off the ground. The last pitch was the best up a short dihedral to a traverse across a slab with a flake for your hands finishing up a wide 5.0 crack. The walk off was terrible though. It was like walking on the beach on top of a cliff with quicksand and loose rocks embedded in this quicksand.
Saturday the bunch of us went up the Yosemite Falls Trail (if you think the Stairmaster is bad try 3.8 miles of it!) and went to Yosemite Point to the Lost Arrow Spire. Since someone was finishing up on it, we did not do the full climb. We saw our old friends the Brits on it and they helped us fix a line so that we all got to do a tyrolean traverse out to the Spire. This means basically a rap into a void 3000 feet up and a horizontal traverse on ascenders. The crux move here is the required look down! Luckily we were doing this at the end of the week and it was not an paralyzing moment!
We didnt get to the top of the Captain, but we had the experience of a lifetime climbing some of the most classic and historic climbs in Yosemite. Not only that we got a taste of real excitement living on the wall for a few days with storms, bats, rockfall, traffic jams, hanging out with the Bird - Jim Bridwell, watching Peter Croft lead perhaps the most famous pitch in the world and gripping exposure. And we were able to top that off with a tyrolean traverse to the Lost Arrow Spire. We learned a lot about Big Wall climbing, aiding and hauling systems, and suffering. At the same time, we didnt drop a thing or interfere with anyone else having a good time and we brought all our waste back with us in good style. If anyone is interested in climbing with Ammon he can be contacted through his website at RocknRun.Net. We are ready to go back! Haul away!
Pics to follow shortly!