Yosemite is perhaps the most famous area in the world for climbing. The picture perfect Half Dome stands majestically at the head of the valley whilst the huge and imposing walls of El Capitan rise above the meadows in the centre of the valley like a giant viewing its domain. I’m sure that most people who’ve been can remember the first time they entered the valley; for me memories of little lights like stars scattered across the face of El Capitan remain strongly imprinted upon my mind as the bus I was in rolled along the ring road to its final stop near Camp 4.
My first trip to the valley was a bit of a washout with seven out of my twelve days in the valley being totally un-climbable due to torrential rain. Fortunately I was on an international climbers meet and the locals had the knowledge on where to go when the weather was bad. I got some great Yosemite classics in when the weather cleared up though such as The Rostrum and The West Face of El Cap which gave me a good first taste of what Yosemite had to offer.
Since then I’ve been dreaming of returning to attempt a free ascent of El Cap having been inspired by Lynn Hill’s and Alex Huber’s free ascents and the stunning photo’s that have been published in magazines and books of them. Free climbing El Cap is one of those things that I felt like I had to attempt, to follow in the footsteps of some of my climbing hero’s and climb some of the best and most famous routes in the world.
Having finished school last year and decided to take a gap year before considering further education I’d made a plan: to devote my energies into climbing some world famous routes that up to that point I hadn’t had enough time to attempt whilst earning just enough money to fund my trips and gain some instructional qualifications. I’d written up a long tick list of routes to try on my gap year and El Cap was one of the must do’s.
James ‘Caff’ Mchaffie had just returned from a trip to Yosemite marred by misfortune last October. Every attempt he’d made to climb seemed to result in some kind of hospital appointment for his climbing partners and he was fairly depressed about the whole affair. Last winter I proposed a return trip to Yosemite to Caff but the scars of his previous trip were a bit too fresh in his memory at that point and it took a few months before he came round to the idea that he couldn’t have a much worse trip than the last one! In the meantime Sheffield’s dark horse Dan Mcmanus decided that he’d also be keen to try and free El Cap and so the plan was hatched.
Several months later we were on our way to Yosemite, all fully psyched and ready to do some climbing. The highlight of the journey had undoubtedly been stopping off at a Mexican fast food restaurant where I attempted to eat the biggest burrito I had ever laid my eyes upon, suitably known as a ‘Monster’. Perhaps that was why I didn’t fit through the tight squeeze chimney on the amazing Yosemite classic Astroman the following day!
After climbing Astroman with Dan and Caff, albeit in poor style, Dan and I were keen to get on our objective, Golden Gate leaving Caff to arrange his attempt of Pre Muir Wall with Neil Dyer and Hazel Findlay. We’d chosen to try Golden Gate because it looked like an amazing route with some fantastic face climbing as well as some tricky crack pitches. It’s one of the easier free routes on El Cap and with more face climbing than some of the other routes we knew it would play to our strengths being used to climbing in that style in Wales.
The first obstacle for us to overcome however was not the climbing but hauling our bags up the fixed lines several hundred metres above the base of El Cap. Now we planned to climb the route over 5 or 6 days leaving an extra day as a buffer in case of bad weather which meant packing a lot of water. As the temperature when we first arrived in the valley was over 90°F we decided on taking 4 litres of water per day each which added up to an appallingly heavy 56 litres combined with loads of dehydrated food, a jetboil, sleeping bags and portaledge making the haul bags feel really heavy.
Now Dan and I aren’t the most experienced big wallers and having woken up at 2:00am to avoid the hauling when the sun was out attempted to haul the bags on a mini traction. After an hour of hard work we’d managed to haul the bags a grand total of 4 metres. Now, optimists that we are, we knew that this wasn’t good progress, in fact, simple maths showed us that at this rate it would take 250 hours of hauling just to get the bags to the top, so we stashed the bags at the base for another attempt the following morning with new equipment and fresh psyche.
The following morning having borrowed Caff’s hauling device we made much better progress and got the bags nice and high ready for us to depart the following morning. As the temperatures were still high we departed early in the morning up the fantastic slabs of Freeblast, which form the first part of Salathe Wall and Golden Gate as well as being a great ten pitch outing in its own right. After a strange little down climb pitch we were heading back upwards to the hollow flake with haul bags in tow. The Hollow flake pitch is a ridiculous pitch for a free-climber. After a short traverse left you make some tricky moves down to a corner which you then down-climb for about 30m before traversing left 10m with no protection and then continue upwards on the easy but terrifying and unprotected Hollow Flake for about 60m. Fortunately I displayed my inability to lead off-widths and chimney’s the previous day on this pitch which meant Dan took over the lead and I had the pleasure of a top rope!
A few pitches later and we set up our first portaledge using some innovative techniques that definitely aren’t included in the instruction manual. Having struggled to put the portaledge up we were looking forward to tucking into our dehydrated meals and making our haul-bags a little lighter. Dan got the jetboil out and asked: “Calum, have you got the lighter?” To which I replied, “oh dear!” Of all the things to forget a lighter was the most ridiculous when we were carrying almost exclusively dehydrated meals, that night we had some minging cold burrito mix which we thought would be the most appetizing of our dehydrated meals to have with cold water. To make things even worse we had to add cold water to our porridge for breakfast
Now forgetting the lighter was bad, especially considering it was the second time I’d forgotten one this year, but I woke up unable to find my belay plate. Things didn’t get better either; having been worrying about the notorious ‘Monster’ off-width for over a month and hoping to climb it in the early morning shade we got our timing wrong and ended up climbing it at the hottest part of the day. Dan made a really awesome lead of this pitch pulling out all the stops in really hot weather. I seconded, barely, fighting for every inch of height gain. We both came out of this pitch battered and bleeding, Dan in particular had some impressive scars from his arm barring and chicken winging. Fortunately we’d both climbed this pitch on-sight as a red-point just wouldn’t be sensible considering the effort required to climb it. On the following pitch I had a nose bleed that lasted for about an hour and when we finally got to El Cap Spire we looked like we’d just been in the ring with Mike Tyson!
Things had been going abysmally and we hadn’t even made it to the crux pitches yet. Fortunately we were in for a change of luck. This started with finding a belay plate under a rock on the bivi ledge and then a couple of local climbers had a spare lighter that they gave us which provided us with a good opportunity to continue. After a warm meal we were starting to find our drive again and had a quick go at the tricky down-climb pitch ready for the cool conditions of the following morning.
We made good progress the following morning doing the down-climb quickly and made it to the ‘one move’ pitch which is probably the crux of the route. It felt desperate in the sun, I spent a while getting up to the crux and finally slumped onto the bolt feeling drained of energy. I couldn’t touch the crux move that day and had a restless night’s sleep thinking through the different ways I could try it. Dan led the pitch smoothly on his first attempt the following morning and I gave it my all on second scraping my way through the reachy sequence until I finally reached the finishing holds. The pitch is amazing; there are points on it where little flakes protrude from an otherwise blank granite wall making the pitch possible but at some points if they weren’t there the pitch would become un-climbable- just because of a single hold.
After a few pitches we reached the Tower to the People where we were to spend two nights. The ledge is quite long but thin and sloping and for some bizarre reason we decided to sleep on it rather than the much more comfortable portaledge. Dan set up a bag as a stopper to prevent him sliding off the ledge as he was on the wider but more sloping end, I on the other hand had the thin but reasonably flat side. I tightened some slings around myself to prevent me rolling off the ledge and got very little sleep due to the mice that I could hear deep down in the crack on my right and the 800m drop I was continuously sliding towards on my left!
The following pitch is known as the Golden Desert and felt very reasonable for its grade but I managed to stuff it up three times before finally clipping the belay and was then too tired for the A5 traverse which Dan managed in fine style that day. The A5 traverse pitch is truly awesome; a sloping hand traverse along a break-line with few footholds in a position of extreme exposure. When I finally got through it the following morning we both knew we had the route in the bag and enjoyed the exposed and sustained finale. As we were just finishing the final pitch a head popped over the top and a guy calls down: “There’s a path round the side you know!” It was none other than Neil Dyer who made the long walk purely to see how we were doing and help us carry some gear down. Neil’s a real North Wales legend, he’s an immensely talented climber having made the first ascent of an 8c+ with very little training and is also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
Having completed our primary objective we were fully contented and our motivation for more climbing slumped. We hung out around Camp 4 making pancakes and eating large amounts of food keeping regular check on how the team were getting on up on the Pre Muir. In a few days time ‘team Muir’ were back in the valley having had a successful time on the wall with Caff and Hazel freeing the whole route and Neil managing to flash the crux pitch.
We’d all had a great trip and spent the final day around the sea front at San Francisco watching the lazy Sea Lions and eating until we felt sick. Rather than satisfying my itch to climb on El Cap I may have just got even more enthusiastic about returning to try some of the other awesome lines but time and money will dictate when.
Thanks to Caff, Dan and Neil for a brilliant trip and to Rab, DMM and Podsacs for providing the great kit!