Blåmman is the highest mountain on Kvaløya, a rugged isle north of the small Norwegian city of Tromso inside the Arctic Circle. During the summer months Kvaløya seems beyond the reach of time in its normal sense; the amber midnight sky uncertain as to whether the sun is setting or rising. Camped up in the mountains with no battery left on my mobile and no way to ascertain the time meant that life had a simplicity to it outside of the ordinary. You woke up when you were no longer tired, ate when you were hungry and climbed whenever the weather would allow it.
I was in Norway with Jacob Cook and Dave Macleod who had already been in the mountains for a week by the time I arrived. When I turned up at the camp spot after an easy hitchhike from the airport and a load carry up the hillside, I came across their tents in the clearing mist with Jacob stumbling out of his tent for the first time that day despite it being the afternoon. Dave and Jacob had been aid climbing the wall and setting up fixed ropes in order to work the crux pitches over the previous week. The weather sounded like it had been terrible though and their body clocks were inverted after climbing through late nights and early mornings to make the best use of their time.
We were here to attempt the first free ascent of ‘Disco 2000’, a 400m A2+ climbing the steepest section of the north face of Blåmman. This was Dave’s second visit to the area after making the first free ascent of the neighbouring climb ‘Bongo Bar’ at 8a four years previously and Dave had the impression that this route would make an amazing free climb.
The climbing on the north face of Blåmman and the surrounding area are beginning to become better known to climbers outside of Scandinavia now, and I’m sure in future, the area will become a world class destination for climbers in search of either adventurous winter mountaineering in the Lyngen Alps and Senja or for the fantastic multi pitch granite rock climbing on the weathered granite of Kvaløya. The north face of Blåmman itself is one of the finest granite walls of its size that I’ve climbed on in Europe and without many of the logistical hurdles that the alpine granite throws at you in the central Alps. It’s about a one and a half hour walk from the road and the free climbing starts at around 7b+ in difficulty with lots of potential for new routes and first free ascents of aid lines in the future.
‘Disco 2000’ starts up what was the hardest existing big wall in northern Europe ‘Arctandria’, which was first free climbed in 2005 by Didier Berthod and Giovanni Quircci. After the first couple of pitches of ‘Arctandria’, including its second crux corner pitch, our line made a roof traverse to the left to arrive at the crux pitch which Dave managed to free dubbing it “the changing roof’s pitch” at 8a+. The following pitch tackles an incredible and often wet roof crack – fortunately you can chimney and bridge up most of it, but the final few moves on wet finger locks are tough before a long reach to a gloriously positioned jug on the lip brings you within reach of the belay.
From here we had hopes that the climbing would be significantly easier but the wall had different ideas. After the next pitch spat me off on multiple occasions Jacob took over and after several attempts managed to figure out a sequence through the undercut crack to reach the next belay. Jacob had a sheepish grin on his face for the next pitch which he knew had a big dyno on it. I got into position above to take some video footage and on his third attempt, after taking considerable air time on his first couple, he stuck the hold and continued up to the belay. Unfortunately Dave found an easier way around this dyno and Jacob looked like he was pretty keen to take his peg hammer to the small crimps Dave had found!
It was around midnight by the time we got to the top of pitch 7 and the climbing did look significantly easier above. Unfortunately we could see the weather moving in and free climbing the rest of the route seemed to be hanging in the balance. I decided to head down at this point to increase Dave and Jacob’s chances of beating the rain as they’d freed a lot more of the route than I had. Several hours after my descent the heavy beat of rain began drumming against the tent fabric and with no sign of Dave or Jacob I feared they’d been caught out just beneath the top. When they re-appeared at 4 or 5 in the morning they were soaked through but looked happy – they’d manage to free the rest of the pitches and ‘Disco 2000’ went free! The pitch grades are as follows: 7b, 8a+, 6c+, 8a+, 7c, 7c, 7b+, 7a, 6b, 6b+, 6c, 5+ Unfortunately, the weather and the amount of time we had out here weren’t conducive to a one day free ascent, so that challenge remains for future ascentionists. If you like your granite climbing and are in search of a different climbing destination for next summer then I would strongly recommend Kvaløya and its endless daylight. Flights to Tromso are reasonably priced and the locals are very helpful and friendly, all of which provide the perfect ingredients for a great holiday destination.
On my first visit to Yosemite when I was sixteen years old I remember being in awe of the huge walls of the valley. It’s difficult to comprehend climbing such massive chunks of rock until you actually get started and even then, half the battle is a mental one of not being disheartened at how far you still have left to go. This was my third visit to the valley and having climbed some great routes here in the past I was really happy to have a more relaxed trip with Gabby combining climbing with more tourist related activities such as visiting the giant Sequoia’s at the Mariposa Grove.
On one of our first days we climbed the fantastic Snake Dyke up Half Dome on a scorching hot day. This has got to be one of the best routes I have ever climbed and one that we both enjoyed immensely. It’s a long walk to and from the route and well worth setting off early to get back in good time for a pizza in Curry Village.
Andy Kirkpatrick was out in the valley as well for a talk he was giving at the Yosemite Facelift event. I suggested to him that we should go and climb El Cap together in a day. He laughed at me first thinking I was joking but soon realised I was being deadly serious and started coming up with excuses. After a few hours of persuading I think he realised it would be easier to climb Lurking Fear with me than think of fresh excuses and off we set!
I think Andy was slightly thrown by my unique approach to aid climbing with only a single etrier and a standard double set of cams and wires. I also don’t think he’s going to be changing his far more efficient system of aid climbing either. We made reasonably swift progress up the route – which looked like it would be an incredible free climb and I swapped leads half way up with Andy who led a three pitch block to give me a breather.
Andy is very quick witted and has a great sense of humour but I could tell as we got higher his appreciation of my cheese jokes was beginning to wear thin after fifteen pitches and plenty of sweat. We reached the summit of El Cap in 15 hours and thirty minutes, the fastest time for both of us and Andy, who is slightly out of shape at the moment, commented that El Cap had never been climbed so quickly by such an overweight person! What a legend!
Gabby and I did plenty of nice cragging, swam in a few of the rather stagnant pools of the river Merced and on our final day in Yosemite climbed the Rostrum. Having climbed this route on my first trip to Yosemite I was happy to find it significantly easier this time round now that I’ve learnt how to jam – unfortunately, it probably wasn’t the best choice of route for Gabby who was still learning how to climb on granite never mind jam. By the time we reached the top I think Gabby was quite happy to not have to climb another granite crack for quite some time…
Returning to the valley has reminded me of just how good the area is. There are so many great places to climb around the world but Yosemite has some of the best and most convenient free climbing that can be found anywhere and that’s the reason I’ll be returning for as long as I possibly can to climb some of the best routes in the world.
One thousand miles of driving in a Citroen C1 is enough to leave anybody’s ears ringing. With an engine that sounds like it has several bee hives powering it and absolutely no air conditioning, the car is made more for fuel efficiency than comfort. Despite its compact size, and various other inconveniences, this car was to be our base for the forthcoming five weeks whilst we travelled to some of the best alpine climbing areas Europe has to offer.
For the first part of the road trip I’d be travelling with Welsh ex-pat Wiz Fineron. Wiz and I went to the same school together when we were both in our early teens before Wiz moved out to New Zealand aged thirteen. In the intervening six years Wiz has gone from strength to strength climbing 8c+ routes and 8B boulder problems with seemingly little effort. He’s currently travelling the world, living, in his own words, the ‘dirtbag’ climbing lifestyle, and whilst he was in Europe it seemed like a good opportunity to hook up for a road trip.
Having travelled and climbed in many of the more popular alpine areas over the previous five summers I felt that this year it would be nice to expand my repertoire and visit some new places. The Ratikön held our primary objective for the trip and after a short stop in France we headed across Switzerland and up into the mountains. It was night time when we made our final approach to the Ratikön and neither of our guidebooks made the slightest mention of the road that would lead us to our base camp. For most people, 7km of driving on a dirt track may sound like fun, a welcome respite after hours on the motorway, but in my Citroen C1 – the Corgi of the car world, I began to shudder at every bump or rock that I saw. After 6.5km of driving and only grounding out on several occasions I thought the lion’s share of the driving was behind us; unfortunately that was when we reached the crux.
A short and uneven steepening of the road marked the beginning of our plight and several attempts at upward progress saw the C1 rapidly retreating to the flat area at the farm building. We knocked on the door of the farm and discovered it would cost us 10CHF if we parked here each night. That was the extra spur of motivation we needed. Wiz got out along with a few heavy bags and the throttle went down. The C1 raced its way up the steep gravel track sliding left and right with wheel spin before finally overcoming the steep section and thereafter the parking area. It felt like a miracle that we’d made it up here with an intact car and we knew we wouldn’t be descending for a while!
We had one route on our agenda for the Ratikön, the classic multi-pitch test piece ‘Silbergeier’ which is renowned for its bold and difficult wall climbing. I’d read about Silbergeier in a magazine soon after starting climbing and had of course seen the classic poster of Pietro del Prà standing, one-footed, on a small edge in the middle of an otherwise blank rock face. It seemed like the perfect goal for this trip not only for me but it would also play to Wiz’s strengths as a first big multi pitch route.
After a heavy rainfall during the night we awoke to blistering heat and our first views of the Ratikön massif. We had the range to ourselves and after a slow start and a heavy breakfast packed our bags and headed up into the mountains. The climbing in the Ratikön lies on the Swiss side of a knife edge ridge which marks the border between Austria and Switzerland. The final approach up the scree is steep and frustrating until you find a good route and this is followed by a further 200m of scrambling up low angled limestone and grass slopes, all of which provide a good cardio vascular warm up for the first 8b pitch.
Your first attempt at Silbergeier is certainly the most memorable. When none of the holds are chalked up and the bolts look particularly distant it takes some will power to commit to hard climbing – well that, or a younger, stronger and fitter climber to send up first! After Wiz led the first 8b pitch we were all set for one of the ‘easiest’ pitches of the route, a 7c+ which I graciously offered to take the lead of. Unfortunately my plan backfired. Not only was this pitch desperate for the grade, but the bolts were spaced for maximum excitement and on the final moves of the pitch, miles to the side of the last bolt and having climbed myself into a knot, I made a leap for the belay seat hanging just above me!
After another tough pitch, followed by a short, run out 7a+ you finally reach the first comfortable belay where you have room to sit down and stretch out in a weather proof cave. We would be spending a lot of time here over the next week and a half as we waited for the weather to improve. Above us lay the final two pitches: the crux 8b+ which tic tacs its way up on small crimps and underclings followed by a tricky 7c+ which boils down to two powerful moves an inconvenient distance away from the last bolt. The route finishes on the jaggedy summit ridge of the Kirchlispitzen and it’s a great feeling ending at the top of something unlike many modern multi pitch routes. From the summit a series of abseils lead you back down to your bags and thereafter the path.
What can be more stereotypically Swiss than the gonging of Cow bells? It’s a sound I have grown accustomed to over previous visits to Switzerland and I even find there effect quite calming. We’d been camping in the Ratikön for about four days when the herd moved in. The smell of pastures new must indeed be strong to be able to draw an excess of 50 cattle alongside our tents at two in the morning. It was like being camped in the central reservation of a motorway!
With diminished sleep we returned to the route several times over the following week to try pitches and get used to the climbing style. Strong Finnish boulderer Nalle Hukkataival was also trying Silbergeier and was making the climbing look relatively easy after a few attempts. He was also staying in the hut which meant he was up and out considerably earlier than a teenager and myself.
One morning we reached the base of the route to find Nalle trying the crux pitch we’d planned to climb that day. Rather than wasting the day we climbed Hannibals Alptraum, an old school classic which was the pre-cursor to Silbergeier. Despite feeling considerably easier than Silbergeier it had some very chunky climbing thrown in on smooth walls that are desperate to on-sight. The bolts are placed at sporting intervals and the moves to reach them are generally very sketchy! On the final pitch we once again endured a hail and a hasty retreat was made back down having not quite repeated this amazing route.
As we tried Silbergeier more I began to realise it would not happen for me on this trip. Although fit enough that I could have red-pointed the individual pitches I was lacking the fitness to free the entire route in a day. It was a real disappointment but I was heartened to know that with a bit of extra fitness I know that Silbergeier is a possibility for the future. For Wiz it was a different story though and we headed back up for him to give the red point a shot.
Conditions were cold and crisp when we arrived at the foot of the climb and Wiz shot up the first 8b pitch without a warm up. Following with cold hands I could barely believe that he could feel his fingers on the small crimps. On the third pitch clouds began to roll upwards and embroil us in thick clag and Wiz had to climb the final few moves in a rain shower. We hid in the cave whilst it bucketed down for over an hour – Wiz sitting Monk like in the haul bag to keep warm, myself shivering but reading a book that I’d thrown in anticipating the change in weather. After a couple of hours the rock was once again dry enough to climb and we continued upwards. The 8b+ pitch was barely dry and Wiz cruised upwards until hit by another fleeting rain shower on the bold final traverse. Unfazed, Wiz gripped harder reaching the next belay and shortly after climbed a very wet final pitch in impressive style. I’ve never seen such a smooth ascent of so difficult a climb in such poor weather!
Having spent so long climbing and sleeping in miserably cold and wet weather we wanted a change of scene and felt like Chamonix was the next logical place to visit to end Wiz’s trip on a high. He’d never worn crampons before or walked on a glacier so found the whole experience quite different. It was also a good opportunity for the wily older climber to get his own back and take Wiz on a roof crack when he’d never climbed a jamming crack in his life. Ma Dalton on the South face of the Midi is a classic and rarely repeated route that has a Yosemite style roof crack on one of its pitches. Unfortunately it’s rather difficult and having underestimated its difficulty my poorly made jamming gloves soon slid off my hands and thereafter my hands from the crack. Hyperventilating somewhat I returned to the belay for another go and we continued upwards with slightly less difficulty after the awkward roof crack.
Wiz headed bouldering to South Africa the following day to go bouldering, perhaps a wise change of scene considering the continuing terrible forecast. The same day I picked Dan Mcmanus up from the airport – a man who is always up for an adventure and an adventure we soon enough had.
Above Sixt in the Aiguille Rouge is a little known and rarely attempted limestone face called the Paroi d’Anterne on the Fiz. I’d heard rumours of the quality of climbing up here but had yet to meet a climber that had experienced it first hand. On our way to the Ratikön Wiz and I decided we would first hone our skills at multi pitch climbing on the amazing sounding Djinn Fiz, a 15 pitch 7c. Unfortunately we underestimated not only the approach bur also the afternoon thunderstorms and after a few amazing and exceedingly technical pitches we descended before possible electrocution.
I was very impressed by this wall though, which is reminiscent of the South face of the Marmolada in the Dolomites. About a mile in length, it only has six routes ascending its flanks and they are all difficult propositions. Feeling confident after my time sliding off crimps in the Ratikön I sold Dan the idea that we should try the hardest route on the face, ‘Les Yeux dans le Bleu’, a 16 pitch 7c+. This time I didn’t make the same mistakes of underestimating the approach or the weather forecast but unfortunately I made the major blooper of expecting the climbing to be reasonable in difficulty. We hadn’t noticed how sustained the climbing was and despite somehow clinging to the crimps and on-sighting the crux 7c and 7c+ pitches we burnt out big time above as 7b pitch followed 7b. A bold 7a+ pitch was the final straw for me and with elbows above my ears and looking as if I was trying to mantel each hold I finally fell off utterly wasted.
Dan was in a similar state of turmoil and despite putting in so much effort we couldn’t face any more climbing on such tired arms – a rapid descent was made. We both agreed that this was one of the best and most difficult walls we had ever tried and the climbing style really doesn’t lend itself to on-sight climbing. To add insult to injury, when we got back to our bags at the foot of the route, we chased off a couple of Marmots and found that they had been eating our bags! There were gaping holes all over them and much of the padding had been thoroughly chewed.
We returned to Chamonix that evening to do a little comfort eating with friends at a pizzeria near the centre. After an enjoyable meal I thought I’d treat myself to desert and thought I’d ordered myself a cake – when an espresso turned up I nearly cried. That was the low point of the trip.
Back to the high mountains we headed, this time to what I considered to be the safe bet of the Grand Capucin which I’ve climbed five times before. After wading through the recent snowfall to its base Dan realised he’d left his rock boots at the tent and hence another day was lost.
After more dismal weather we decided to give the mountains one last go and approached the south face of Aiguille du Fou. It’s a classic alpine wall that I’d been dreaming of climbing for years. I knew that the approach gully required an early start to ensure all the detritus was frozen in place so Dan and I set off suitably early to facilitate success. After climbing a couple of hundred metres up the gully the sun hit the ridge line above and chunks of ice began showering down upon us. As the chunks got bigger we started to feel like targets at a firing range. Clearly we weren’t early enough and once again retreat was made. We were done with the Alps and its crappy weather and conditions!
When bad weather hits the Alps you are inevitably forced southwards to drier and sunnier climates. The Verdon was our final destination and finally it seemed we had struck lucky. Despite the time of year, conditions were perfect for climbing in the gorge – it was overcast and windy. We also met up with some friends for sociable camp scenes and got thrashed by the locals at table football every evening at the local bar.
Dan and I decided to go for El Topo, an amazing looking 8a big wall in the gorge to the left of the classic chimney line La Demande. After checking out the final few crux pitches we felt well prepared and even quite optimistic about going for a one day free ascent. After a rest day, we awoke to glorious weather and made an early start from the bottom of the gorge. The entire route was in the sun and the forgiving breeze of the previous days had disappeared. To cut a long story short, two gingers, climbing in the sun, in the Verdon, in the middle of summer was a bad idea. After six pitches 6a felt like the living end of difficulty and our feet and hands had were throbbing and swelling with the heat. We abseiled to the ground and made the walk of shame out of the bottom of the gorge, treating ourselves to ice cream to help cheer us up.
Sometimes, weather and conditions just get in the way of climbing, as do high ambitions. After five weeks spent in the Alps and Verdon I could count my list of successful climbs on a single hand. We were on such a losing streak that we expected something to go wrong every time we went climbing and that mentality isn’t useful for making upward progress. On the bright side the C1 had made it through the trip and what’s more I’d only had a single flat tyre. Maybe the weather will be better next summer? Maybe I should just take up bouldering?
Back in June this year, Jerry Gore got in touch asking me whether I’d be interested in an expedition to Patagonia to attempt the first ascent of the unclimbed south face of the South Tower of Paine. Patagonia is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and there was no way I could turn down such a great opportunity. I booked flights soon after and eagerly anticipated the date of departure.
The team for the expedition comprised of myself, Mike ‘Twid’ Turner, Jerry Gore and French camera man Raphael Jochaud. After a long journey we finally arrived in Torres del Paine national park only we were one French man short! We made the pleasant trek into the impressive Bader Valley accompanied by Mules carrying a month’s worth of cereal bars and noodles and set up base camp. The following day Raphael joined us and the team was ready to move up the valley.
Setting up advanced base camp was fairly involved in 60mph winds. After digging up some walls of snow against an overhung boulder we thought we’d created a fairly sheltered spot to put up a tent. I started putting the tent up from the inside and was soon waiting for Twid and Jerry to tie it down, when an almighty gust came, lifting the tent up, with me inside, and blowing it over into the boulder field. Now lying on my back, I hung on to a boulder with one hand and the tent for dear life with the other, until the wind abated enough to flip the tent back into its alcove. We hastily weighed the tent down with bags and rocks and were soon brewing up inside the meek fabric shelter.
After a few days of ferrying gear up to advanced base camp in exceptionally strong winds, we were ready to start climbing. I set off with Twid up the slabby apron which skirts the base of the wall. The temperatures were sub-zero and snow covered all the holds but we both knew it would be much easier and faster to free climb the lower slabs. I teetered onto a small ledge and donned tight fitting rock shoes before climbing the relatively easy but bold first pitch. As I arrived at the belay I realised that I had very little sensation left in any of my toes and when I took the rock boots off the blood rushed back in giving me some horrendous pins and needles. After another pitch we reached the ridgeline and over the other side was the impressive Central Tower of Paine towering over the glacier below.
Unfortunately the poor weather returned and progress over the following week was very slow in the cold winds and occasional wintery showers. Twid pulled out a couple of impressive leads on harder aid pitches and I ardently donned my rock boots as often as possible, although much of the time my fingertips were just too cold to grip the granite edges for long.
After days of slow progress in bad weather, through the area of the poorest quality granite, Raphael and I were finally greeted with a nice, if a little chilly day. We made good progress managing several pitches with a mixture of free and aid climbing and finally reached the intriguing black line of rock that is evident in the pictures of the face. The black rock is actually a band of diorite, or something similar, and is really loose.
At this point we had about seven days left of our expedition and we were pretty close to the summit with only a few pitches left and then a scramble to the summit. Unfortunately in Patagonia though, nothing is a foregone conclusion! We encountered a week of awful weather, with winds constantly ranging between 60 and 100mph. We tried to climb every day and quite literally inched our way up the wall. On our final day of climbing we had only two short vertical pitches left as well as perhaps 150m of scrambling and after battling poor conditions we were finally stopped by strong winds and blustery snow showers as we reached the top of the wall proper. In those conditions it felt a little unjustifiable to continue upwards and descending was difficult enough. After a very long abseil descent we finally reached the small patch of glacier below and in the short distance between the wall and the boulder field we actually walked into a white out as the weather worsened.
We’d failed to reach the summit but had a great adventure climbing the wall. During our 18 days up at ABC we had only two days of good weather and temperatures were consistently sub-zero. The route would certainly go free in better weather and as it stands our ascent had aid climbing up to around A3+ in difficulty and 6c+ in free climbing although one pitch was managed with several rests at about 7b+. Torres del Paine and in particular the Bader valley are places I’d love to go back to as the climbing potential out there is unbelievable and throughout our whole time in the area we were the only climbers in the national park! Thanks to the guys for a great trip and I’m already getting excited about heading back out to Patagonia in January with sights set on Cerro Torre…
On Monday the 14th of October I’m heading out to the Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia to attempt to make the first ascent of the south face of the south tower of Paine with Mike ‘Twid’ Turner, Jerry Gore and Raphael Jochaud. Twid has attempted the face once before with Stu McAleese back in 2006 when they climbed more than halfway up the face to finally be thwarted by Patagonia style storms with little over 300m to reach the summit. They named their uncompleted line ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and graded it A3 and 5.10.
This time round we’re hoping for some better weather to attempt the un-climbed wall and if we’re lucky, maybe even the opportunity for a free ascent of the face. Twid and Jerry are both very experienced expedition and big wall climbers and I’m hoping that my lack of expedition and aid climbing experience won’t hold them up too much. Raphael is also an experienced climber and is coming along to record the expedition on video – check out his website here.
I’m really looking forward to this trip. Patagonia is a place I’ve read and heard so much about. I’ve been re-reading sections of Paul Pritchard’s autobiography ‘Deep Play’ as well as Chris Bonnington’s ‘Mountaineer’ to draw some extra inspiration for the expedition and can’t wait to get involved with things on the face.
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!