Our first view of El Capitan.
As the Dolphin trundles along the Californian mountain roads we reach the object of the climbers pilgrimage. Yosemite Valley. As I steer around the meadows and rivers we are both craning our necks, faces pressed against the windscreen, looking straight up at the massive towering face of El Capitan. It’s bloody huge! Our gaze is broken as I swear and turn sharply to avoid crashing off a bridge.
The queue of climbers every night looking for a spot in Camp 4.
Yosemite is the arguably the most famous climbing destination in the world. Camp 4, the climbers campsite, is full and every night people sleep in a queue to get themselves a spot. We don’t own a tent so we’re disappointed to discover that sleeping in the van is against the park rules. We save money by paying for a single pitch in which I lay down a tarp and sleep ceiling free. Smokey opts to take his chances with ranger detection and sleeps in the van. For the first few days the threat of bear attack looms in our minds but this system will go on to operate smoothly for the next 4 weeks.
Excited to try our first big wall (a climb that generally requires more than 1 day to scale) we pick the South Face on Washington column. We get up early-ish and start sorting out all our gear and water on a tarp. We pack it all into our haul bag and at that moment we realise we have no idea how to climb a big wall. We unpack and decide a training day is probably a better idea. Sunset slabs is just around the corner so we head there and try our hand at aid climbing. Climbing big walls usually requires a some amount of aid climbing which is where you place protection in the rock, clip a small fabric ladder to it and then walk up the ladder. Basically climbing with as much cheating as you like. We find a route to practice, a nice gentle slab with a crack going up it. This is my first attempt at aid climbing and it is going great. I’m making good time and am near the top where I place a nut into the crack, it looks good so I clip the ladder in and stand up. I hear a metallic ping and find myself sliding 8 meters down the rock. I didn’t die so I count it as a success. Smokey tries some jugging and I try a bit of hauling, that works out too so the next day we pack the haul bag and head off.
Walking to the base of The South Face
An hour later and we are scrabbling though a steep boulderfield a little lost. The haul bag is heavy and the blazing sun has made us sweat through a significant percentage of our water supply before we reach the base of the route. We are disappointed to see that a queue has formed. There are already a couple of parties climbing the first few pitches and about 7 or so climbers waiting to go. This doesn’t look good so we decide to stash our bags in some boulders and plan to return that evening and sleep at the base so that we are first in line tomorrow. When we return we hear that most of the parties have given up, one of which is in the process of coming down as we arrive. One particular climber looks a little pale, he takes off his harness and curls up on the floor. We hear that the ledge at the top of the first pitch is free of people so we head for there to sleep instead. I unravel more of the pale climber’s story as I climb though a part of rock covered in vomit. Poor dude. I chuckle at his misfortune as I climb on. As we set up camp it starts to get dark. Its a super clear night and stars are everywhere. The ledge is a little small so we lie there with our feet hanging off the edge. We share wine out of Smokey’s goat skin flask and stargaze listening to ambient trance. #bestnightever.
Smokey aids pitch 2 of The South Face
The next pitch requires aiding and Smokey takes the lead. It’s a difficult lead and all the protection requires offset nuts, which we don’t own. The pitch takes longer than we were planning and when we reach the top of pitch 4 we have to decide whether to give up or stay the night and continue tomorrow. We have only packed supplies for 1 night but we happen to be sharing the ledge with 2 girls from search and rescue who offer us some extra food. We decide to stay. I abseil back to the ground to grab some more water and jug back up (jugging is when you climb up a rope using an ascender which can go up not down, we will be doing a lot of this in the days to come!).
The next day comes around and the first pitch is a famous one called Kor’s Roof. It involves climbing a crack to an huge overhang then aid climbing up bolts that have been put through the roof then up another crack above. I tie into the sharp end and set off on my second ever aid climb. The exposure is immense as I hang off the bolts in the roof but all my years of experience red pointing routes in Swanage have given me plenty of practice at this sort of climbing and I am soon working through the crack above the overhang. I’m not far from finishing the pitch when the crack gets steep, luckily due to the 1000’s of climbers who have climbed the route over the years the crack is full of climbing gear that got too stuck to remove. I clip into one of the fixed cams and stand up on it. There is a familiar metallic PING! I see rock shooting up in front of me and then it disappears as I fall past the roof. Luckily Smokey is paying attention and the rope catches me. I am now hanging in open space looking at the half of the cam that is still attached to me, the rest still lodged in the crack 15m above. That was a big one!I jug back up the rope and I drink all my water once I finish the rest of the climb. Its so hot! We should have hauled more water. I see Smokey is also feeling the heat as he jugs up next to me. I can see in his face that he isn’t feeling it and we end up bailing. Yosemite 1 – Pete and Smokey 0
The look on Smokey’s face after jugging Kor’s roof.
The view from after the fall off Kor’s roof. (Taken while abseiling down)
The remains of the fixed cam and a whole one for comparison
Some wuss I found on the internet climbing Snake Dyke in the daytime.
After that we do a bit of cragging and bouldering with Kiff and Griff, unknown to us Kiff is hatching a plan. There is a route called Snake Dyke on Half Dome that he has climbed every time he has been to Yosemite, but this time he wants to mix it up. The full moon is almost upon us so he suggests we give it a go by moonlight. Sounds awesome! A few days later we trudge the 4 hour walk in and arrive at the base just as the sun sets. We set off up this bizarre ridge of granite sticking out of a huge slab. This strikes me as coolest climb I have ever done. It has bolts every 45ft or so and the climbing is fairly easy. Kiff sends me the wrong way up a harder route at one point which got a bit hairy but all in all it goes to plan. The moon is bright enough that you could get by without a torch at times and the view from the top was incredible. The one downside was the 14 mile walk back with waning headtorches. We arrive back at camp at 6am and are asleep as soon as we are horizontal.
Smokey crack climbing at the Cookie Cliff
We have really been sucked into the Camp 4 life. Right next to our camp there is a playground of slacklines that Smokey has been frequenting. We have made some new good friends, Spencer, Brady and Lauren, who we have been hanging out with. We do a bit of casual bouldering that always seems to end up with either a silly highball problem or some stupid rule like ‘flip flops only with no chalk’. One day we are sat by the river watching the boys try a waterline with El Capitan as the backdrop. Spencer lends us his binoculars so we can gawp up at route we’ve come to climb. The Nose. Its the most famous climb in the world and we have a lot of fun searching out the sections we’ve spent our climbing lives reading about and watching in movies. Looking up at it gets Kiff excited too and we set a date to go for it.
Brady on the waterline
Not long after and we are waking up at 4am to have a quick coffee and then pack the haul bags. The walk in is short. The sun hasn’t risen yet but it is still light enough for us to see the vast intimidating sea of granite towering above us. Kiff has started climbing the first pitch as the sun rises. He gets to the top and fixes his rope to wall. A shout of “LINES FIXED” and Smokey starts to jug up the rope and retrieves the protection that Kiff has placed. Once Smokey reaches the top I begin to jug. While we do that Kiff attaches the other rope he has dragged up and starts to haul the bags up. The bags are heavy, they contain enough food and water for 4 days (about 30L and many portions of boil-in-the-bag Indian curries) as well as all our roll mats and sleeping bags. Hauling them is exhausting work. Me and Kiff lead in batches and Smokey does all the belaying and cleaning. The first day we move at a reasonable pace but with very little experience in this type of climbing, our systems are slow but not as slow as the people in front of us. The problem with the most popular routes is how popular they are. After we make good time through the first 4 pitches we end up in a queue and spend a couple of hours sitting on a ledge. We discover that most of the climbing parties above us will sleep on the ledge where we were planning to so we are forced to set up camp on a much smaller ledge a couple of pitches down.
Pete climbing some of the early pitches
Sleeping on ledges is super fun. The views are spectacular. We cant afford to buy a fancy portaledge so we have to find natural ledges flat enough to sleep on. We lay our roll mats down and slide into our sleeping bags with our harnesses still on. Tipsy on wine, muscles aching and having just seen the biggest shooting star of my life I drift off to sleep, feet hanging off the side of the ledge.
The next day we quickly make it to the ledge where we planned to sleep. Unfortunately we are back in the queue and worse, we discover that the weather will be making a turn for the worse tonight. With no portaledge and limited waterproof clothing we make the difficult decision to abandon our attempt. We leave some of our water on the ledge and abseil down with our bags. It takes 6 long abseils down vertical granite, most with highly uncomfortable hanging belays, but we make the ground. I’m feeling glum. I failed and failures don’t deserve cider or wine. Fortunately I manage to forgive myself and that night have plenty of both.
Pete having his first wash in about 2 weeks.
We spend the next few days drinking and bouldering with Spencer, Brady and Lauren, keeping a close eye on the weather reports. The reports give us the all clear and we make another 4am start. This time we decide to use some fixed lines that are already set up and jug the first 4 pitches. Unfortunately Smokey discovers that the haul line is not long enough to reach the anchors and abseils back down. Kiff jugs up with our second lead line which is long enough and after a few hours of hard work I’m setting off on the first batch of leads. Me and Kiff split the pitches in half. My parents taught me to share genrously so I make sure his half is bit bigger than mine. Things have gone fairly smoothly and the sun is slowly setting as I’m jugging up the last pitch of the day. Suddenly there is a load roar like a rocket as a base jumper shoots past us deploying his shoot very low. Awesome. There is plenty of room up on this ledge despite the other 2 climbers who are already set up for the night. Through the darkness the stars seem to flow onto the cliffs around us as the headtorches from other climbing parties shine out on routes miles away . The traditional “OOK OOK” calls from climbers, imitating the monkeys we are, echo from all around. Things go quiet for a while and the we can faintly hear a climber from a portaledge a long way away call out
“People on the Nose … you’re doing great! People on the Tempest … you’re gonna die!”
We have a good laugh.
The team on El Cap Tower
Struggling behind the Texas Flake
We wiggle out our sleeping bags as the sun rises and have coffee and porridge. I’m very excited. The first 3 pitches are mine and 2 of them I have been looking forward to for a long time. The first one is the Texas flake. For this pitch you have to climb behind a huge flake of rock (that is the shape of Texas of course) and climb the chimney behind it. I find this pitch a huge struggle. My hips get stuck the second I get behind the flake and I spend about 10 mins trying to get free as my legs pedal stupidly underneath me. Finally I’m in the flake and its time to chimney. I manage to climb the first half with out much difficulty but then the chimney starts to widen until, with my back against the wall, it is just narrower the lengths of my arms. I really start to struggle now and my feet start slipping all over the place and I have no idea what to do with my arms. This trip is really teaching me the hard way that I still have a lot to learn about climbing. At this point a climber who is trying to climb the whole route in a day shoots past me. I copy his technique and emerge from the flake panting hard. Time to start hauling again.
Smokey jugs up the Texas Flake
The time has finally arrived. The pitch I have been itching to do since I had first heard about The Nose. The King Swing. At this point in the route you run out of cracks to climb. There is however a crack way out left so what you do is get lowered down on a rope and then start running back and forth along the cliff until you build enough speed to swing over reach it (the whole time trying not to think about the rope rubbing on the edge way above you). This is my sort of climbing. The sort where there is no climbing at all just swinging around like Tarzan after too much caffeine. I’ve ruined plenty of new ropes doing this sort of thing on Portland with Marcus so I get the job done fairly quickly. That pitch was by far the most fun I’ve had on this trip! I’m exhausted though and glad its time to let Kiff take over the lead.
Pete pegging it on the King Swing.
To get an idea of scale! The picture of me on the King Swing was taken by Tom Evans. Check out his website here.
Me soaking up the rays at Camp 4. We managed to sleep all 3 of us on that single block.
The next few pitches start to traverse left. Smokey’s screams of terror can be heard on the valley floor as he takes wild unexpected swings whilst cleaning Kiff’s leads. With a worrying feeling of deja vu we have to camp on a ledge lower than we had planed due to crowds above us. We have to sleep at a ledge known as Camp IV. The topo describes this ledge as ‘poor bivy for 2’ and its not wrong. The ledge is smaller than a standard door and half of it slopes dangerously downwards. Me and Kiff fit most of our bodies on the sloping part while Smokey wedges himself in a crack by the side that we have stuffed one of the haul bags in and sleeps in a sitting position. I say sleeps but we each probably only get about 3 hours of it. The slope doesn’t bother me too much but I am kept awake by a mixture of dull and shooting pains in various limbs. If I do manage to fall sleep I’m soon woken up by Smokey kicking my head as he readjusts his position in an attempt to regain blood flow to his legs.
We wake up pretty stiff and look above us. There is still loads of climbing ahead and we hope to be done by today. Having to stop at camp IV has added 4 more pitches to our day so we get moving. I’m up again and this time its arguably the most famous pitch on the climb. The Great Roof. This pitch involves a massive overhang that you traverse underneath and, compared to the rest of the route, is a fairly serious aid climb. With a 100% record of falling on aid routes under my belt I set off. I make slow work but manage to the roof. At this point I need to stop leaving protection behind so Smokey can do a big scary lower out without hindrance. I begin leapfrogging cams as I crab crawl my way along under the roof. At one point a cam I place explodes out the crack when I stand on it but I’ve learnt from my mistakes and this time I just slump onto my daisy clipped to the previous piece. I finish the pitch and look up at the pitch above me. The Pancake Flake. This one belongs to Kiff and it looks amazing.
Smokey lowering out under the Great Roof
Kiff climbs the Pancake Flake
Kiff blasts through the next bunch of pitches with ease, slowing a little on the aid pitches as he makes up his own systems. Its getting late and Smokey and I are exhausted (even Kiff is starting to look a smidge fatigued). The lead passes over to me. I only have 3 more pitches to the top and Kiff tells me I can skip the first belay to link the first 2 pitches into 1. I set off and am aiding everything. I start at a good pace having now had plenty of aiding practice but we have been climbing for about 10 hours straight and my body begins to slow. I pass the first belay as Kiff suggested and keep on trucking. About an hour later and I’m still climbing. Surely I should have reached the belay by now but I cant see any bolts up ahead. I start feel anxious. “HOW MUCH ROPE LEFT?” I shout down. “ONLY ABOUT 10 METERS … NO WAIT … LOADS.” I climb on, my anxiety levels no better. It starts getting dark and the levels get worse.
Pitch black now I start climbing into a loose trough of rock. I reach into my pocket and pull out what looks like a tatty piece of toilet paper. The topo has all but disintegrated, luckily for me the last few pitches are still readable under my headtorch. I figure out where I am. Unfortunately I don’t think I have enough rope to get to the belay I wanted so I set up a heinous belay station and haul in the trough. Soon I am on the last pitch. This is mostly just pulling through bolts, my speciality, but my body is too tired to obey my wishes and I can tell my climbing is getting slower and slower. There are bolts because this section is very overhanging. Suspended in my harness I look past my feet with my head torch. There is nothing but blackness but I know that if it was daylight I would be looking at a 2800ft sheer drop. I forcefully decide it is less scary this way and push on. The climbing becomes vertical, then I’m climbing a slab. Sooner than I expected I reach a belay. This is it! I shout down a victorious whoop. Soon the others have jugged up and we are shuttling bags up the slab. I can see the tree that signals the top of the route! I slap it and give it a small hug. We’ve done it! The main goal of our trip to climb a big wall has been achieved after 2 failed attempts. The feeling of accomplishment for some reason doesn’t hit me straight away but instead seeps in over the next couple of days and I catch myself at various points grinning like a maniac to no-one but myself.
The team and the tree!
Kiff’s iPhone tells us its gone midnight. We have no intention of walking down in the dark so we start climbing into our sleeping bags and cooking curry and mash. I can’t believe how good it tastes. We gorge on water and discuss which parts of our bodies are in the most pain. For me its my hands and feet but my hips and back are a close second. That night as I lie under the stars my brain is busy processing away, If we just completed our trips goal .. what shall we do next?