(See also Aaron's trip report.)
In September of 2005, Aaron and I climbed The Nose on El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley. For those of you not familiar with it, this is considered by many to be the greatest rock climb in the world, not to mention one of the biggest. It took us four solid days of climbing to reach the summit, during which time we spent two nights on the cliff. El Capitan is the world's largest granite monolith, and The Nose takes the most direct and obvious line up the main buttress of it, going from the lowest part of the base directly up to the highest part of the summit. It is also the original route on El Cap, first climbed in 1958 by Warren Harding. His first ascent marks one of the crowning moments of early climbing history in America. Since then, thousands of climbers from all over the world have come to Yosemite to attempt this classic testpiece. Many are successful, but probably at least as many are not, and have to give up before reaching the summit. There are probably ten times as many who plan and prepare, only to give up before they even get off the ground.
Aaron and I have been preparing for this climb, both physically and mentally, for over a year. Physically, we have prepared ourselves by working out at the UCLA Rock Wall a few days a week, climbing dozens of laps a day up and down the wall to build up our endurance. I have also been building my way up to leading harder and harder routes outdoors, culminating in leading a lot of 5.10 trad routes in the past year. Aaron has also been lifting weights a lot, hoping to improve his ability to manhandle the massive haul bags that we would be pulling up behind us as we climbed. Occasionally I join him, but I've never been very fond of weight training.
Aaron and I
Standing at the base of El Cap in full aid gear Mentally, we have had to prepare ourselves in a number of ways. The climbing techniques involved in a climb like this are quite different from the type of climbing that Aaron and I usually do. More than a year ago, I began reading intensely to learn all about the complex tools and techniques involved in climbing a big wall, and I slowly but surely started to stockpile the massive amounts of specialized gear that would be required. And although he has nearly a decade more climbing experience than I do, Aaron also began to practice this stuff with me, because his level of experience with this type of climbing was hardly greater than mine. The two of us practiced what we could at the UCLA Rock Wall, but we knew that some real experience was necessary before we could tackle The Nose.
We also decided, more than a year ago, that we would work on preparing ourselves mentally and psychologically by doing at least one big, committing climb each quarter. This was particularly important for me, as Aaron had already done many many big climbs. We started with Epinephrine, a beautiful and huge, though technically very moderate, climb in Red Rocks, outside of Las Vegas. In the summer of 2004, we climbed several big routes in Yosemite, the most significant being the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. In the fall, we climbed our first “big wall”, Prodigal Sun in Zion National Park, Utah. We followed this up quickly with our second big wall, not to mention our first multi-day route, Moonlight Buttress, also in Zion. In the spring, we climbed our third big wall, Spaceshot, again in Zion. Having done all three of these grade V climbs successfully, and two of them in a single day each, with no failed attempts to speak of, we thought that we might finally be ready for The Nose, a grade VI climb, and a much more serious undertaking. In retrospect, in terms of both size and effort, all three of these walls in Zion seem tiny by comparison.
This climb was so significant for Aaron (it's been a goal of his since he
started climbing, over ten years ago) that his parents even decided to fly out
from Colorado to watch us climb. They sat in the meadows below El Cap for four
The Great Roof
One of the photos that Aaron's parents took of me leading the Great Roof, one of the most famous features on The Nose full days, watching us through a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars, taking pictures, and keeping in touch with us via radio. Having a “ground support team” like this worked out tremendously well for us. Sometimes it was just really nice to hear a friendly voice up there. It gave us quite a boost at a few points when our morale was waning. I feel forever indebted to them for the time, energy, and money that they invested in the trip. They also talked to my mother each night, to give her an update on our progress and reassure her that I was safe, and I know that she feels tremendous gratitude for that. And of course, I will be eternally grateful for the amazing one-of-a-kind photos that they took of us through the spotting scope! How many climbers have photos of themselves climbing a few thousand feet up, that weren't taken from directly below by their belayer?
As I mentioned above, there are many tools and techniques that make climbing a “big wall“ like El Cap quite different from an ordinary climb. One aspect of this is the climbing itself. With most ordinary climbs, the climber uses only his bare hands and rubber-clad feet (and occasionally arms, knees, thighs, or whatever else will work) to get himself up the climb. All the other gear that he carries, including rope and harness, are solely for the sake of his safety in case he falls. This type of climbing is known as free climbing. With a big wall, however, there are usually many sections of the climb that are simply too difficult for all but the strongest climbers in the world to free climb, so aid climbing techniques must be employed instead. Aid climbing refers to a climber using specialized gear, rather than just his hands and feet, to aid him in making progress up the rock. While the distinction may sound trivial to a non-climber, ask any novice climber who is unfamiliar with aid climbing, and they'll probably tell you it sounds like cheating. But one important distinction to remember is this: aid climbing is generally a very slow, methodical process, whereas free climbing is usually much faster.
10 feet down, 2990 to go... Another major facet of climbing a big wall is a consequence of the statement above. Since a significant amount of aid climbing is usually required to climb a big wall, and since aid climbing is so slow, and because a big wall is just what its name implies, big, climbing a big wall naturally takes a very long time. Most people who climb El Capitan take at least two or three days to get up the wall, requiring that they spend the night somewhere in the middle of the climb. Obviously, this greatly increases the amount of gear that must be carried. Suddenly, instead of just the basic climbing gear, the party has to carry sleeping bags, food, tons of water, possibly some sort of shelter, and extra clothing for cold weather and possible storms. All of this usually adds up to well over a hundred pounds (just the water alone, allowing for one gallon per person per day, can easily weigh over fifty pounds.) Naturally, you can't simply carry this on your back as you climb. The unfortunate solution is to haul the stuff up. All of these supplies, food, water, etc., are stuffed into a haul bag, a giant, vinyl-coated, cylindrical stuff sack, which is then tied to the end of a rope, the haul line. The climber climbs up a ways, builds an anchor, runs the haul line through a special pulley attached to the anchor, and uses it to pull the haul bag up. The process of a climber dragging a massive bag, which might literally weigh as much as he does or more, hundreds of feet up a cliff face, is unpleasant at best. For this reason, and because it is big, fat, round, and heavy, the haul bag is usually “affectionately” referred to as the pig. The pig, and the process of hauling it, are always the subject of a lot of cursing, thrashing, and bad tempers on a big wall. The pig is also the butt of many jokes. Everyone has heard of George Mallory's famous reply to the question, “Why climb Mount Everest?”: “Because it is there.” A joke among big wall climbers, when asked why we climb El Capitan or any other wall, is to answer, “To get the pig to the top.”
Basically, here's how the whole system works. Since the climb is huge, and the
ropes are only so long, the climb is divided up into pitches,
each of which is less than the length of the rope (at most 200 feet.) At the
beginning of a pitch, both climbers are tied in to a secure anchor, and the
pig is hanging from the anchor as well. One climber (the leader for that pitch)
begins climbing up, while the other climber (the follower for that pitch)
remains below and belays. The leader has two ropes tied to
him: the lead line, and the haul line. As he climbs, he attaches anchors to the
rock (called protection, or “pro” for short), and
clips the lead line to them, but he allows the haul line to just dangle. He
will probably do some free climbing, but since this is a big wall, he'll
probably also do at least some aid climbing as well. If he falls, the follower
should stop the rope, and the protection should catch him. When the leader
reaches the end of the pitch, he sets up a very secure anchor, pulls up most of
the remaining slack in the lead line, and attaches the lead line to the anchor.
Aaron Jumaring He also attaches the hauling pulley to the anchor, and runs the haul line through it. (A hauling pulley has a special rope clamp built into it, so that the rope can move through it in one direction, but not the other.) When he is ready to haul, his partner down below makes sure that the pig is securely attached to the haul line, then releases the pig from the lower anchor. At this point, the leader can begin the grueling task of hauling the pig. While he is doing that, the follower cleans up the lower anchor, and ascends the lead rope (tied to the anchor above), removing the protection that the leader placed as he goes. (To ascend a rope in this way, mechanical ascenders called jumars are used, which can slide up the rope, but won't slide down it. Ascending a rope like this is called jumaring, or “jugging”.) When both the pig and the follower have reached the upper anchor and are securely attached to it, the whole process is repeated for the next pitch. Simple, right? Actually, I'm only describing a rough overview here, and the details are in fact much more complicated. Of course, there can be a lot of little variations on this whole process, and occasionally some significant variations, such as for pitches that move more right or left than up. These can make things really complicated. Also, note that in most cases, two partners will alternate between leading and following on consecutive pitches.
Spending three continuous days on a rock face, with fourteen hours or more of
climbing and hauling each day, was an experience that I can hardly describe in
words. The extreme level of continuous physical exertion, the spectacular
quality of the climbing, the bodily abuse of hauling a hundred-pound pig up
3000 feet of rock, the mental puzzles that a big wall repeatedly presents, the
constant activity almost every moment of the day, the emotional and
psychological roller-coaster of slowly but surely approaching the summit, and
the elation of the ever-increasing exposure, up to a height more than double
that of the world's tallest skyscraper, in one of the most beautiful places on
earth, all added up to make this without a doubt the single greatest activity
El Cap Towers
This is where we spent our first night on the wall. that I have ever undertaken. But probably the single most impressive aspect of this, the thing that seems to amaze people the most when I describe the experience, is the sheer fact that we spent three continuous days climbing this wall. This means that for three days, we did virtually nothing but climb, eat, and sleep (and of course haul the pig.) People often seem most amazed by the idea of spending the night on the wall, but really this is a pretty simple thing. After climbing for fourteen hours straight, sleeping is the easy part!
We spent two nights sleeping on the wall. The first night, we had a giant
natural rock ledge to sleep on, and we were fortunate enough to have the whole
ledge to ourselves. The ledge was roughly five feet wide and about twenty feet
long, and was perfectly flat and surprisingly smooth. Because it is comfortable
and spacious enough to be the “penthouse suite” of El Capitan, this
ledge is known as El Cap Towers. Here, we simply laid out our Thermarests and
sleeping bags, and went to sleep. Of course, we kept our harnesses on, and we
remained attached to anchors on the wall throughout the night, just as we did
throughout the entire climb. On the second night, our accomodations were not so
luxurious. Just after dark on the second day, we reached a system of ledges
known as Camp V. There were several ledges, but none was particularly big, nor
totally horizontal. Here, we picked a pretty big but sloping ledge, and we set
up my portaledge off to the left side of it. (If you don't know what a
portaledge is, just picture a big cot with a rigid frame that hangs from the
side of the wall, creating a nice horizontal bed, even in the middle of a sheer
vertical cliff.) We ate dinner and organized our gear on the natural rock
ledge, then retired for the night into the portaledge. I slept quite well both
nights, largely because I was so exhausted from all the day's work. The
portaledge was actually more comfortable than sleeping on the rock, although I
didn't sleep quite as well the second night because I was a little bit cold (I
wasn't able to zip my sleeping bag up all the way because my daisy chains, the
Me in my portaledge at Camp V, where we spent the second night. tethers that kept me attached to the anchor, were a little too short, and I was too lazy to extend them with slings.) Sleeping on the wall wasn't really scary at all, contrary to what most non-climbers seem to think. I think that once you've climbed that far up a wall, you've naturally gotten quite accustomed to the height, and to relying on your gear and the anchors that you set up, so the idea of sleeping there while attached securely to an anchor isn't scary at all. Actually, fear of heights isn't even an issue, because at night, you can't even tell how high up you are. It's dark, and the ground is simply too far away to see. When you look down, you simply see a dark black abyss... of course, I guess that can be a little scary in its own way.
I mentioned above that throughout the climb, we remained attached to the wall. This means that, for three days straight, we didn't remove our harnesses, and at every moment we were either clipped in to an anchor, or leading or following a pitch (in which case we were tied to the lead line, which was tied to an anchor.) Thus, for most of those three days, we had very little freedom of movement. We could go up and down along our route, but we had to work hard to do that. Other than that, our movement was usually limited to about a foot or two left and right of wherever we were. This is a weird phenomenon: being somewhat stuck in one place, with little freedom of movement, even though you are completely surrounded by open space... thousands of feet of it on almost all sides of you. I imagine that the early astronauts could relate to this, stuck in a tiny capsule in space, and unable to move around. Or sailors stranded at sea in a small lifeboat or raft: all that open space, but they can't go anywhere. I don't know if there is a term for the panic that can be caused by this sort of situation, but it seems like there should be. Perhaps it's a bit like claustrophobia, only you're not enclosed in a small space (in fact quite the opposite.) Fortunately, neither Aaron nor I had any problems with this, but it is an interesting facet of climbing a wall for several consecutive days. Another interesting side-effect of this was the feeling when we reached the summit and finally removed our harnesses and all our climbing gear. For the first time in three full days, we weren't tied in to anything, and it just felt weird. I was so used to just sitting back in my harness while resting at a belay, that I kept leaning back and almost falling over. For the first hour or so on the summit, I stumbled around a bit drunkenly.
Our meals on the wall consisted of the most high-energy foods that we could think of that would require little or no preparation. We also tried to choose foods that were durable, so that they could stand up to the abuse of being packed in a haul bag without being crushed. But our menu also had to consist of foods that wouldn't dehydrate us. Keep in mind that on a big wall, not only do you have to carry all of your food with you, but you must carry all your water as well, making water a precious commodity, especially in the warm summer months. For breakfasts, we ate canned peaches and pears (which perfectly fit all the criteria above), along with some energy bars.
A very detailed view of the route we climbed For lunches, we mostly packed lots of snack foods, so that we could eat little by little, as time allowed. This was a very good plan in theory, because we discovered on the wall that we were constantly too busy to eat. But unfortunately, even with this plan, we still ate very little for lunch. Most of our snack food (apples and pears, Pop Tarts, Fig Newtons, jerky, pepperoni bites, and candy) remained in our secondary haul bag all the way up to the summit, where we had a big feast. A lot of it ended up coming right back down with us, only to be thrown away or consumed later. If I had it to do over again, I would have made sure that we got all this food out of the haul bag each morning and carried it in one of our day packs, so that it would have been more convenient to access. Then we could have snacked on it whenever we felt like it. I also would have scrapped the Pop Tarts in favor of more “finger food” like the Newtons (not to mention that the Pop Tarts got completely crushed within the first few pitches of hauling.)
Fortunately, though we weren't eating much during the day, we were drinking a ton of Gatorade. We had originally planned to bring seven or eight gallons of water up the wall with us, but when we were packing and filling our water bottles, we decided to make most of it Gatorade. After all, what can water do for us that Gatorade can't? Gatorade is basically water, plus a lot of electrolytes and some other nutritional goodness thrown in to boot. We ended up taking about 5.5 gallons of Gatorade and 2.5 gallons of water, for a total of 8 gallons of drink (weighing about 64 pounds... ugh.) In retrospect, considering how little we were eating during the days, I suspect that it was the Gatorade that really kept us energized between breakfast and dinner.
For dinners, we had military MREs. These were quite good, and I would consider them to be a perfect big wall food. They require no real preparation, no extra water, and a single MRE has some 3000 calories. They are designed to be the primary life support of our military troops when they are in action, so they are quite well-balanced and nutritious. And on top of all this, a lot of them are really quite tasty, and with just a few minutes' preparation and an ounce of water, they can even be heated up using a prepackaged chemical heater. Our first night on the wall, I had Chili Macaroni and Aaron had Beef Steak with a side of rice. On our second night, I had Chicken with Salsa, with a side of Mexican rice, and Aaron had Chicken with Thai Sauce, with a side of white rice. For our feast on the summit, at the end of the third day, we split up another MRE, and I had “Country Captain Chicken”, which turned out to be a chicken breast in a yellow curry sauce (pretty good really), and Aaron had noodles with an alfredo sauce. Of all of these, the Chicken with Thai Sauce was probably the only one that was a bit disappointing, especially since the plain white rice that accompanied it was pretty bland.
Now, having mentioned eating and sleeping, I feel obligated to discuss one
other bodily function, since almost everyone who hears about climbing a wall
for three days always asks the question, “How do you go to the bathroom
up there?” Fortunately, for us guys, peeing is easy. You just aim away
from the wall and go, and try not to point directly into the wind. Pooping,
however, is a little more complicated. Back in the early days of climbing,
people used to just let it fly, so to speak. But today, with so many more
people climbing these walls, it's not environmentally sound to just drop your
poo, not to mention the possibility of soiling the climbing route itself, or
hitting a hiker or another climber down below you. So the only good option is
to pack it out. There are a number of ways to go about doing this, but most of
them have the following in common: you poop into a bag, then pack it away in a
(hopefully waterproof and smell-proof) container, which you can then haul the
rest of the way to the top, and dispose of properly when you reach the ground
The King Swing
A composition of several telescope photos of Aaron performing the King Swing, a massive pendulum again. The traditional container used by most climbers is the poop tube: a short section of large-diameter plastic pipe, with end-caps on the ends, one of which is removable. (This has naturally earned the nickname of “pipe bomb”.) Unfortunately, a poop tube is heavy, and a pain to deal with. So to improve on this basic system a little bit, we would use a large paper grocery bag with the top half already cut off, and with a little cat litter sprinkled in it. After doing our business in this, we would close up the paper bag and put it in a plastic bag. (The paper bag is ergonomically much easier to use, but the plastic bag is somewhat leak-proof and helps keep the smells to a minumum, which is why we used both.) We would then take an empty water bottle from the previous day, slice it open lengthwise with a pocket knife, and stuff the whole package into the bottle (this was the only gross part.) Finally, we would close up the bottle by duct-taping over the big slit. When we got back to the ground, we simply threw these bottles in the trash. In deference to the traditional pipe bomb, we have since named these “bottle rockets”. To make the process convenient, we packed the grocery bags, cat litter, and toilet paper together in the haul bag, along with a pocket knife for cutting open the water bottle and some hand sanitizer for afterwards. When you've got to go, the last thing you want is to have to dig around in the haul bag for all these separate items. The great thing about this system is that you don't have to carry a specialized container, like a heavy poop tube. You just reuse your empty water bottles, which you need to haul to the top anyway. What could be more efficient? The system worked so well that after we got home, Aaron submitted the idea to Rock and Ice magazine, and they published it. (See his paragraph in “Tips and Tricks”, R&I #147.)
For a very detailed account of the whole trip, with over 120 photos and a pitch-by-pitch account of the climbing, check out this photo-essay that I have compiled. If you don't have time for all that, you can read the condensed version instead (80 photos). If you're a climber thinking of doing The Nose, and you want just the pitch-by-pitch details of the climb, here's the “short short version” (47 photos).