Will it stay in? Oh crap. Well only one way to find out. I clipped my other etrier to the tiny nut and delicately stepped into it. If it comes out I’m going flying. Eeeeek.
Shew, seems to have held. I tenuously stepped up the etrier only to have to repeat the process. How did I get myself into this? It’s the first real aiding I’ve done and it’s on The Nose, a 1000m big wall. Shouldn’t I have practised this before?
Two evenings before I had dropped the boys off for their speed ascent and rushed back to camp to find my small but extremely excitable partner, who had just returned from a conference. Gosia and I had been planning this climb for a while and were keen to spend a few days on the wall. Ant played master dinner chef while we filled water bottles, sorted the rack, made sandwiches and debated how many bars and poo bags to take.
We wanted the haul bag to be as light as possible. This meant no stove, bowls, cups, tea (Clinton wouldn’t have survived). Hell, somehow we even managed to leave one toothbrush behind.
Some parties spend months training; they analyse the route and break the lead into blocks; fix ropes to Sickle ledge, etc. Gosia and I just strolled to the base early the next morning and went climbing.
Oh yes, and hauling. As we started we blew our Vuvuzela for the boys who were just above the Great Roof. At the time we had no idea how encouraging this sound was, but we’d certainly learn over the following days. We climbed behind David and Jack (Seattle and Quebec) up to Sickle Ledge.
There was what we delicately describe as a cluster-fuck on the Stovelegs: a maelstrom of people, haul bags and ropes. Gosia and I wanted to get above that to Dolt Tower, but had a portaledge that allowed us the flexibility to stop anywhere, if we didn’t make it. David and Jack didn’t have a ledge so opted to stay on Sickle and let us pass. One lead later we came up to Gilbert. He’s a French guide from Chamonix and was climbing with his partner Lionel and their long-term client and friend, Keith (charmingly sounds like “Kiss” with a French accent). Despite being a party of three they were efficient. Just above, a party of three girls were being less efficient and Gosia politely blasted up through the middle of them on the Stovelegs.
The sun set as we worked our way closer to Dolt Tower. We were climbing as fast as we could, leading pitches as long as the rope would allow. There was one more pitch to go when I heard a French voice from above, “Hello! Would you like a fixed line?” “Huh? No, of course not, we’re here to climb this thing”, I thought and that was Gosia’s response too. Five minutes later: “Hey Gosia, you sure we don’t want that fixed line?” “Yeah, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.” So we jugged* the last pitch to Dolt and were greeted by sexy French accents, tea and wine. Whoa, where are we again? After 15 hours of climbing, we downed a can of ravioli each and collapsed, delicately, onto our portaledge.
Up at 5am, chilly and dark. I could hardly believe how meagre breakfast was.
Note to self: my fuel requirements are greater than Gosia’s. I was nervous about how far we had to get that day, oh and about the 5.7 squeeze on my first pitch. Squeezes and offwidths are all the same grade to me (like slabs for Gosia) – desperate. Gosia took us passed El Cap tower and up the epic (5.8) chimney onto Texas flake. Guess that leaves me with the King Swing then. Trying to ignore what was coming later I merrily aided my way up the bolt ladder singing “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”. Some tenuous aiding meant I was pretty gripped by the time I got to Boot flake and I made a hash of the gorgeous big hands crack.
Oh no, time for the King swing. I threaded the rope through the chains and Gosia lowered me to the 3rd bolt from the top of the bolt ladder (crucial beta). “Ok, hold me there!” I looked up at the rope running over the edge of Boot flake and made a prayer to the rope-gods, “Please don’t break!”
And then I ran. I realised on my first go that I’d have to try and whole lot harder, so sprinted back. My nerves melted, adrenalin soared and I raced left and right across the sea of granite with whoops of excitement and encouragement coming from all over the wall. On about my forth go I caught the edge and delicately, terrifyingly, moved around the corner into the crack. Holy cow that was fun! Can I do it again?
A few pitches later I lead the Lynn Hill traverse around a corner and suddenly Gosia was out of earshot. A logistical nightmare ensued. Gosia thought she’d lowered out the haul bag entirely, but suddenly it shifted around an edge and yanked her sideways. The tag line earned itself new names in the heat of the moment, but she managed to unhook it and the haul bag came careering around the corner. That was a little too exciting! While caught up in the frustration of not being able to hear Gosia, and working as hard as I could at hauling and belaying, the sound of a Vuvuzela came drifting up. It was so comforting that I nearly cried. I waved, knowing the boys were watching us from the meadow, then swallowed the tears and hauled, elated by the spirit of our amazing team.
After more logistical rope work and name-calling of the tag line we got to Camp IV. Home from home! Tinned pasta had never tasted so good. My painful fingers kept me awake for a while but thankfully sleep took over, only interrupted by Gosia’s urgent need to pee in the middle of the night – a somewhat logistical process. The Frenchies, a pitch below us, managed to flip their portaledge half an hour after they went to bed, resulting in some very confused shouts but then plenty of laughter.
The 5am starts are starting to get a little tedious, but I did have a spare energy bar to supplement breakfast. We threw the Frenchies a line and I lead the easy pitch up to the Great Roof. “Oh wow, I can’t believe I’m here. One of the most famous pitches in the world, and we’re about to do it.” Gosia had fine time learning to place cam hooks in what really was a great roof! Vuvuzelas hooted up and life was dandy with only nine pitches to go and a much lighter haul bag. I loved the Pancake flake, a 5.10a (18) layback 700m or so off the deck. What more could one want? Gosia found the next pitch, marked “awk” just that – awkward! I gladly opted to jumar it. We each ended up jumaring only three pitches on the whole route, preferring to free* and French-free* as much as we could as it’s faster and quite simply more fun.
I then spent a whole long time aiding in the baking sun up to the Glowering Spot. “I’m sure I could be doing this faster.” Gosia elegantly on-sighted the 5.11b overhanging hand crack above, and then went right. Beta for next time – DON’T GO RIGHT, go straight! She did battle with tremendous rope drag in an offwidth, but got us to Camp VI. By the time I panted up to join her it was about 4pm and we were still gunning it for the top. When she suggested that we stay there that night I was initially confused, then caught my breath and came around to the wonderful idea of chilling out on a ledge with some Frenchies and fine views. We leisurely fixed a rope up the Changing Corners. I was positively ecstatic climbing the initial perfect hand crack without the extra weight of a haul line, shoes, jumars, mini-traxion and all the rest. Then it was awe-inspiring imagining Lynn Hill free-climbing around the blank corner that I aided at the top.
We threw the Frenchies a line and relaxed for the evening. They had drastically over-catered and pulled bottles and bottles of water out of their hefty haul bags, much to our hilarity. After the laughter subsided we snuggled into our portaledges and watched shooting stars streak across the pie-slice of sky allowed to us by the upper dihedrals. Such a majestic place, life couldn’t get much better.
The last 5am start. I rolled over and said good morning to Gilbert and Lionel in their ledge, with 900m of space below them. I could just make out a headtorch on the first pitches of the route. “Or is that Sickle? I can’t tell from up here. Have we really come that far?” We jugged up the fixed line and each lead some super fun pitches – a hand crack, an interesting pull around a roof, a delicate finger crack. When I got up to Gosia she was hot and thirsty. Hang on, there’s only one more pitch and a scramble to go! Yeeehaaaa! Together we sang “The final countdown” as I clipped my way up the last bolt ladder. Warren Harding had spent 14 hours hand-drilling this section by headlamp at night. Again I was in awe of the history of the route and felt privileged to be climbing it.
Gosia hauled from the top of the scramble as I helped the bag over the last edges. And then, just like that, we’d done it! There were no more pitches left and we were at the tree. It was such a special moment. I got up to her and gave her a hug, both of us laughing and crying. The release of three and a half days of focus was overwhelming and the tears flowed freely. We were soon running around excitedly taking photos, joined by Gilbert, Lionel and Kiss…I mean Keith. What followed was a blur of packing, walking and rapping down, a bus back to Camp 4, reuniting with the boys, beers, stories and laughter. The high we were on was equally as big as the monstrous wall we’d just climbed. Thank you Gosia – it was the climb of my life! Boys – your support was tremendous!
* jugging / jumaring: ascending the rope with mechanical devices called jumars.
* free: climbing with a rope and gear to protect your fall, but you climb the rock, rather than pulling on or standing in gear.
* French-free: pulling on the occasional piece of gear to get through hard sections.
Pics by: Julia, Gosia, Hector and Tom Evans (elcapreport.com) (the King Swing)
- The Clusterfuk – an ascent of The Nose, El Capitan
- The Vuvuzela Has Landed
- The Nose in a Day
- Half Dome in a Day
- Interview with Andrew Porter
Julia and Gosia are sponsored by: