Sometimes climbing gets you into some strange situations and you’re not quite sure how you landed there.
Case in point: Its 11pm. I’m halfway up a 20m chimney and haven’t yet placed a single piece of my triple rack. I’m staring at a bolt that I know I can’t clip – I’ll need to flick the rope out of the chimney later on. My belayer Andrew is way below, trying not to wake two guys sleeping on the belay ledge. My third team mate, Clinton, is jugging and cleaning the previous pitch. I shift cams out from behind my back, get a foot up onto an edge, look up at the moon sneaking in behind Texas Flake, and push on up past the unclipped bolt.
There is nowhere else I’d rather be.
Its always difficult to make ticklists for places you’ve never been to. I’d arrived in Yosemite three weeks earlier with low expectations of how I’d perform, and a very vague idea of what I wanted to climb. El Cap was not high on the list. I wasn’t there long enough to do a serious wall, or to have a proper go at Free Rider. The stories I’d heard of crowds on The Nose made it pretty unappealing, so I’d decided that Half Dome and some other, smaller, classic free routes would be enough. But that first spine-tingling and unforgettable view of the Captain changed everything. As a climber its impossible to see El Cap and not need to attempt it. I had a time problem, though, so it would have to be a one-day mission.
Camp 4 is probably the most squalid, dirty and logistically tricky place I would consider calling home. If you’re not dodging rangers because you’ve over-stayed your 7 days, you’re defending your food from the squirrel plague. You forget when last you had a shower, and you gain a deep appreciation for the stainless-steel “mirrors” in the toilets that only reflect back a vague approximation of what you really look like. Camp 4 is also the crucible for some of the most audacious, creative, and downright insane ascents in the world. You feel immersed in the fabric of climbing history and there is a pervasive air of possibility. No matter what hair-brained scheme you come up with, there is someone to encourage you, give you beta, lend you gear, and tell you about the last time they took an 80-footer.
And so it was that three boytjies from SA found themselves hunched over a filthy table in Camp 4, poring over a topo and getting beta from one of the soon-to-be holders of the all-female Nose speed record. Our biggest worry was the crowds. A very hot spell had been followed by a mammoth storm which had all but washed the wall clean of climbers. Now the weather was good, and the temperatures much lower, so we had to figure out how to get around the massive climber-cluster busy snowballing 200m off the deck. I had another concern – when its hot I seep like Fern Kloof after a thunderstorm. And the more I seep the more I need to drink. How was I going to climb 1000m of granite in less than 24 hours without having kidney failure? I’m not sure who though of it first, but by the end of our planning session we’d agreed that climbing at night would solve both problems. Passing sleeping parties on ledges would be a cinch, and the cool night temperatures meant we could go as light as possible on the water.
Andrew had done The Nose once before, over 5 days, so he was master-in-chief of strategy. The plan he/we came up with boiled down to this:
We would start up the following evening at about 6pm. We split the route into 6 “blocks”, each climber responsible for leading two of the blocks. The seconds would jug almost everything – one jugging slowly on the lead line to clean the gear, and the other jugging like a bat out of hell on the tag line, so he could get the leader back on belay as soon as possible. In the meantime the leader would short-fix the next pitch. This is when the leader heads up without a belay, relying entirely on the tied-off rope to catch him if he makes a mistake.
Falling is not really an option.
Clinton had been about 10 pitches up the route a few times and this, combined with his barnacle-strength made him ideal for the four tricky lower pitches, up to the aptly named, curving Sickle Ledge. These are mostly free, with some awkward small pendulums. Andrew would then take over for the next 7 pitches to get us to the top of Dolt Tower. This part of the route follows the stellar Stovlegs cracks – absolutely perfect hand splitters in an otherwise blank wall (The Stovelegs, pitches 8 and 9, is an off-width crack which was originally protected by using pitons made from wood-stove legs).
It would then be my turn to head up some wide cracks to El Cap Tower, up the Texas Flake chimney, a bolt ladder, Boot Flake and then the big King Swing into Eagle Ledge. We would then be about halfway up the wall by distance, but the meat of the climb would still lie ahead. We divvied up the remaining blocks, imagining what it was going to be like climbing the legendary pitches we’d all heard and dreamed about, in the dark.
The next day the different personal reactions to the upcoming climb were interesting. Clinton was nervous, ironically worried about letting the team down. Of the three of us he is the best climber, and is virtually indestructible. Once we had a plan he relaxed a bit, but he didn’t quite lose the nerves until halfway into the second pitch. Andrew, as usual, was an enigma. The man doesn’t say much at the best of times, but he had a quiet smile on him the whole day and I could tell he was psyched. I was fit to burst with excitement. We had a good plan, and my two teammates were solid. I couldn’t wait to start and had to force myself to listen to some tunes, chill out, try and sleep a bit. The whole day I was thinking of Todd Skinner‘s quote: “when you stand beneath a route you have only dreamed of climbing, begin it with all of your heart and soul.”
The Nose is an astonishing climb. With a walk-in, it is shorter than your average Boven approach, the line follows a sweeping prow between the featured south-west and the towering, blank south-east faces of El-Cap.
The climb did not begin well. We got lost on the 4th class scramble to the base of the first pitch and ended up soloing a 5.9 instead. It did help focus the mind. We finally stacked the ropes and tied in, and then Clinton blasted off at 18:11.
Halfway up the first pitch Andrew and I heard some cursing. A headlamp battery came whizzing past us, followed closely by the headlamp itself. Clinton had just destroyed his lamp. Not good. Fortunately I knew my climbing partner well enough to have packed a spare, so after a quick regroup and some duct tape to make sure there were no more headlamp disasters, Clinton headed off up his next three leads. He really climbed fast, and despite having to negotiate passing some Swiss climbers we made it to Sickle Ledge in under 2 hours.
Our strategy paid off in a big way on the next block. Earlier in the day we had looked on in disgust as no less than 6 people thrashed around in the stovelegs. But now, at 8pm the famous pitch was empty. Andrew raced up and it was only at the very end of this section that he caught up with the last straggler. “Andrew, stop chatting up the girls and climb!” we shouted as he took a minute or two to negotiate a pass. We fought our way through a melee of portaledges, haulbags, stoves and banjos on Dolt Tower, and then it was my turn.
I was nervous. Up to this point I had been jugging almost exclusively, so I had no idea how I would handle the climbing. But Andrew knew me well. When he put the plan together he knew wide hand cracks were my bread and butter, and I thanked him silently as I chugged my way up some great examples of the genre. As I pulled on to El Cap Tower I woke a sleepy American who asked me very politely please not to drop any rocks on his head.
And so I found myself climbing past the lonely bolt behind Texas Flake. Above this is a short bolt ladder, then some thin aid and then the incredible boot flake. As you jam your way up this overhanging hand crack you try not to think too hard about what actually keeps the flake in place. I reached the anchors at the top of the flake. Relief – my block is almost over. Nerves though – I have to do the King Swing first. “Thread the rope. Pull in the slack.” Fatigue is setting in and I keep a running monologue with myself to avoid mistakes.
“THAT’S ME” Andrew yells from far below. I clip in my Grigri and lower out against his body-weight. ”Clean the gear. Stop at the first bolt.” I look to my left. I can’t see what I’m going for, but this must be the right spot. “Now RUN!” I push to my right as hard as I can, and run until the rubber starts to slip. “Turn. Look where you’re going. And RUN!” Physics takes over and I swing down and left, pounding at the slab as I go. “You’re slowing down. RUN!”
I push and push but eventually gravity wins. Somehow I manage to stick to the slab at my highpoint. “Chalk up – Left hand. Now the right”. I palm and smear across the slab to a small scoop. “Now lower out”. As I gingerly feed rope with one hand I push hard to the left until I can get my other hand around the arête. As I pull my feet around after me the tension eases, and finally I sink my hands into a good crack. “Tie the rope off. ROPE FIXED” I yell.
Andrew and Clinton start to jug, and I can finally relax until my next block.
We continue on in the moonlight. Far below us now the crowds we passed are sleeping at Sickle, Dolt and El Cap Tower. The intense action of the last 6 hours gives way to a realization of where we are. The Merced River is a black, meandering shadow in the silvery pines. On the other side of the valley the 400m Middle Cathedral Rock looks small. As Andrew cam hooks and pendulums his way across the Lynn Hill Traverse I get a chance to soak in the history and significance of this route. We have no camera with us and I’m glad. It would be impossible to capture this experience.
Clinton is long over his nerves. He’s now a bear who’s just found an RV full of bully beef. “Say my name” he whoops again and again. In the silvery light we watch him cruise up into The Great Roof. Indiscriminately hanging off fixed gear and yarding through on marginal 25 year old placements. He’s in his element. The sun rises as Andrew and I jug the Pancake Flake. Perfection.
At the start of the Glowering Spot we’re feeling tired. Clinton has finished his water and the climbing is steep. Right on queue we hear the blast of a vuvuzela from far below in the meadow. The wall erupts into monkey calls, whoops and screams of invincibility. Gosia and Julia have come to check on us and man do we feel like a team now. “Say my name!” and Clinton’s off like a 2 month old cheese.
My arms are now cramping badly from the jugging. I’m worried about my next block – the one that will top us out. I think of pulling soft and handing it over to Andrew, but we’ve all done our share on this thing and now its my turn. I’m slow but steady on the Changing Corners pitch. I imagine Lynn Hill contorting around the holdless arête and body-smearing into the blank corner. How relieved she must have been to hit this finger slot here.
I sink a cam and stand on it. I’m very tired now. On pitch 28 I make a serious blunder and clip the wrong rope for 20m. As Andrew cleans he points out my error. I would have fallen 50m if I’d screwed it up. “C’mon, Focus”. My cramps are better but I’m so tired. I’m dreading the final bolt ladder. I sympathise with Harding drilling through the night. But Andrew’s foresight saves me again. My huge reach is put to good use and I don’t even notice the places other people struggle. A kilometer below me in a different world some climbers are just heading up to Sickle. Or is that Dolt? Hard to say from this distance.
At 12h30 exactly Andrew is the last man to top out. In the world of climbing statistics 18h19min is no great shakes (Yuji Hirayama and Hans Florine hold the record time of 2:43:33). What value is there in even measuring the time? But during those 18 hours and 19 minutes we redefined for ourselves what we are capable of. We challenged ourselves on the route of our dreams. We suffered and had fun. We got scared and were brave. We made mistakes and we didn’t cock it up. We trusted ourselves and we trusted our mates. We have no summit shot, no videos, no tangible record of our climb.
But the total experience is burned into my brain and I will never forget it.
Andrew, Clinton, Thanks dudes. I had the time of my life.
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