El Capitan, The Nose

By: Larry Hamilton | Climbers: Larry Hamilton |Trip Dates: February, 1969

Photo: Gary Clark

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Encounter with El Cap

Writing in four voices, Royal Robbins composed an unforgettable account of his 1969 first ascent of Tis-sa-ack on Half Dome [1]. Robbins' partner and antagonist on the final push was Don Peterson, "a young Coloradan, hot as a firecracker, hot as a bloody branding iron." [2] Peterson burns with dark energy in Robbins' Tis-sa-ack stories. I read both articles avidly, as I did all Royal's work in those days. From a much humbler ascent, I had a Don Peterson story of my own.

On a February weekend in 1969, eight months before Tis-sa-ack was climbed, some college friends and I made the long drive from Santa Barbara to Yosemite with no particular plans. We arrived to find the Valley digging out from a winter storm. Climbing looked out of the question, as we set our tents atop deep snow in Camp 4. At first the campground seemed deserted, but one inhabitant soon came to light. Don Peterson had been living comfortably in the dry and heated camp bathroom. He introduced himself as a graduate student, with a research grant to study "the ecology of large granite walls." He told stories about his attempts on El Cap, gripping adventures featuring climbers and pitches that were legendary to us. Our own climbing experiences had been rarely above 5.6, often in epic bad style, and never on big walls. We listened in awe. Then Don asked if we wanted to go climbing.

My friends stood back, but I jumped at his offer. In short order, Don and I were racking for the first few leads of The Nose ("My favorite stone," he said) on the theory that this was most snow-free route in the Valley. It might well have been. Don led off, nailing quickly up the initial long pitch. I tried to feign competence as I followed on belay (we had no Jumars), and was most of the way up when all hell broke loose. Although the wall itself was dry, we had failed to notice that the summit slopes 3,000 feet above us held many tons of ice. Warmed by the sun, a huge section of ice split off loudly and began crashing down the face in an inescapable curtain, hundreds of yards wide. I later calculated that it must have taken at least 15 seconds for the falling ice to reach us. All that time we stared up at our thundering doom, while staked to the shelterless granite slab. At the last second I looked down and covered my head. But the slab just above us was a few degrees less steep than where we were. Ice-refrigerators, ice-boxcars hit that slab and catapulted into space, to pass with a thrashing roar behind our backs as we cringed against the rock. This terror continued for what seemed a long time. Then it stopped. The sun was still shining, and we were unhurt.

"Do you want to go down?" Don asked me. "Damn", I thought. "If he doesn't then I won't either". I said no. Maybe Don thought likewise. Rationalizing that all the ice had now fallen, we quickly decided to continue with our climb. Don raced up the second pitch, and I began cleaning. I was halfway to his belay when it all happened again. With more cannonfire cracks from the summit, a new avalanche of ice blocks began its slow-motion descent. This time, we were on the slab that had taken impacts and protected us before. But there was a more important difference for me: I was near a small roof. I slammed a carabiner into a piton below the overhang, and swung across to cower under the only cover around. With ice thundering towards us, Don thought I had fallen and was now held only by his waist belay. "Get your weight off the rope!" he screamed. Hanging from the pin I yelled back "I'm off, let it go!" But he could not hear me. I was safe from direct hits under the roof, though we both knew the rope might get cut to pieces. Don was in a worse position with no shelter at all, an avalanche above and an apparently fallen partner below. In an heroic effort he kept the belay rope clenched in one hand, while using the other to hold a day pack over his head. Great chunks of ice smashed around him as smaller ones hit, batting him off his ledge to spin about on the anchors, still gripping the belay rope to me. Minutes later, the icefall had passed. It left Don bruised, and me shaken. For the second time in an hour, we'd been luckier than we deserved. There was no longer any question about wanting to go down. As fast as possible we rapped off, and ran out through the wreckage of ice blocks that now littered the wall's base.

I always thought myself careful. But in the ace/rookie roles that Don and I played that day, we both acted stupider than either would have done alone. The episode became a wild story as I told it to my friends. Privately, I found its lesson disturbing. I had learned first-hand about the thoughtless ease with which we can sometimes bet our lives, and then too late see the irreversible mistake. That knowledge grew more haunting years later, as my son neared a similar age. He began seeking out his own adventures with the same untested confidence that he could anticipate the dangers, and dodge them. Whether harrowing experiences resulted, he has not yet told me. Perhaps he was wiser. But if not, then I hope that thirty years later, when the dangers are safely remote, he'll write some of them down for his children.


[1] Ascent, 1970

[2] Robbins in American Alpine Journal 1970:7

Editorial Notes:

Larry Hamilton has his own climbing-related web site

The phenomenon related in this report is not unusual; the editor has also experienced it, but fortunately from the relative safety of the nearby forest - we were just roping up for a shorter climb at the base of El Cap when it's ice cap let loose in a spectacular, long-lasting display. This story is included in hopes others will be alert to this serious objective hazard - the rock on El Cap might be solid, but the ice sure isn't.