El Capitan, Salathé Wall
By: Larry Sverdrup | Climbers: Larry Sverdrup, Andrea Koenig |Trip Dates: May 24-June 2, 2000
Photo: Gary Clark
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On Tuesday, May 23 I drove from Poway, California to Yosemite, stopping along the way to pick up Andrea Koenig at the airport in Fresno. Andrea flew in from Fort Collins, Colorado where she is a post-doc in chemistry. Andrea had no previous big wall experience, but was a fairly strong trad climber and seemed highly motivated to do this climb. I spent one afternoon belaying her as she practiced aiding "The Pirate" at Suicide near Idyllwild CA. In a succession of e-mails I told her about the various aspects of big wall climbing and she purchased and read John Long's book on big walls.
My interest in the Salathé Wall is traceable to my quest to complete as many of the "50-classic climbs in North America" (after the book by the same title) as possible. This would be my 23rd route. Complications included the fact that my wife was pregnant and due June 24th. I hoped to squeeze the climb in before the birth. The timing was also set by the weather. The end of May usually brings less risk of rain, but by mid June the Valley tends to get quite hot.
Tuesday May 23:
The drive up hwy 99 was hot. I could see some large thunderheads over some of the Sierras. I picked up Andrea in Fresno only after a minor snafu. There are two airports in Fresno and I managed to go to the wrong one initially. The problem is that there is no sign for the airport on highway 41. One has to have a map to find it.
In Oakhurst, I remembered that I had forgot the mustard for our bagel dinners, so we made a quick jaunt to the grocery store. In the Valley we headed for Curry Village where I had reservations for a tent cabin for three nights. That evening we sorted and packed, and put all of our food in the bear boxes.
Wednesday May 24:
We awoke to the alarm fairly early and drove to El Cap meadows. To be conservative, we were prepared to spend the night if necessary in order to climb free blast and fix lines down from Heart Ledges. Thus we brought a small haul bag, one ensolite pad, two sleeping bags, full rain gear, and 1.5 gallons of water - standard rations for two people for one day. In addition to the lead line and haul line, we hauled in addition two static lines for fixing and a 50m/9mm line since the topo indicated 4.5 ropes needed to make the ground from heart ledges. I intended to bring the 9mm line with us on the upper climb as a lower-out line, and as a second lead line to protect the Hollow Flake pitch.
After a brief search to make sure where Free Blast started, we roped up. We both wore Sportiva Boulder shoes and had real climbing shoes in the haul sack. Andrea aided up the first pitch and then I French freed the second pitch, a 5.8 crack. While I was hanging at the second belay, a pair of fast moving Italian climbers passed us. This was the only other traffic we encountered. The weather was hot, but not bad with an occasional breeze. I had duct taped a piece of white cloth to the back of my helmet to keep the sun off of my neck and it worked nicely.
The next two pitches were uneventful, but on the fifth pitch Andrea suddenly came to a halt. After scratching her head for some time and squeaking out a few more moves, she decided that she could go no further and would I like to take over the lead? Well, sadly she was more than 100 foot out, over half the rope length, and she could not simply be lowered back to the belay. Neither could she easily unclip from her high pro placement, a bolt, and down climb. I lowered her as much as possible and gave her real climbing shoes and the specialty aid pieces including hooks which she pulled up to herself on the haul line. Dejectedly she headed back up once again to do battle. By combining some free moves and at some point her first hook move ever, she was eventually able to make the belay. She thought that this pitch was one of her more memorable ones of the climb.
I had to hurry to complete my pitch before darkness fell. I hadn't aid climbed in 2 years when I last did the Nose route. The crux here was a bolt ladder. If I stood in the top step of my aider, I could almost reach the next bolt. I am 6 foot tall with zero ape index. By stepping in the hand loop at the top of the aider, I found that I could barely reach the next bolt. It later occurred to me that if I fell with my foot stuck tightly in that small loop, it might not be pretty. I was soon at the belay and it was clear that we would have to bivy.
The topo said we were at triangle ledge. It made a perfectly horizontal bivy adequate for two people. Andrea realized that she couldn't drop her leg loops in order to take a leak. I had warned her about this very issue. Although she had purchased a new harness, she had neglected to check this point. Consequently she had to take her harness off and tie a sling around herself to take a leak. When we got back down she would have to correct this. As we prepared to sleep, a water bottle fell from high above, narrowly missing us. I slept on the outside edge of the ledge as she clung to the rock walls on the inside.
Thursday May 25:
In the morning we packed up and Andrea led the seventh pitch. Next it was my lead on the "half-dollar". The traverse over to the chimney was easy, but getting into the chimney was not. Unfortunately the one alien that would have been really useful was taken up in the belay. It might actually have been easier to try to free the move, but I was in aid mode. I couldn't quite reach a bomber tricam placement so I did a hook move. The hook blew as I tried to clip the tricam, and I took the shortest aid fall I have ever taken - Andrea was watching me good. I say this because later I would take the longest fall of my life. The lower part of the flaring chimney was hardly what one would call 5.8 climbing. As I was puffing up the thing French freeing, some guy above me yelled down "Hey, Salathé, there might be some grass falling your way." He was leading some dirty pitch on the Muir Wall or something like that. I was able to flip the haul line around to the front face when the chimney eased up.
As I pulled up to the belay, a stout fellow was belaying his companion with a boom box set on the ledge blaring away. The leader thought that with the breeze it was actually cold. These two guys had more stuff than I have ever seen hauled by a single party. Their belay chair was an actual garden chair. They had an enormous plastic barrel, a duffel bag, and perhaps a half dozen other containers. When the stout fellow followed the pitch, he at one point found himself at a long lower out. His partner asked if he had enough rope, and after a second of thought he remarked "Oh yeah, I better untie" (so as to double the amount of rope he had to lower out with). Even then he wasn't going to make it. He lowered as far as he could and then said something like "bombs away" as he let go of the end of the rope, nowhere near long enough to properly lower himself out. I was sure that he was going to smack into the dihedral he was lowering to. Miraculously the friction of his feet on the rock combined with the friction of the rope in the lower out sling allowed him to smoothly glide to a stop. As we started up the final two pitches, the two guys were hauling their load in tandem. One guy alone couldn't budge the mass. I wondered how many pitches a day they got in, and how they would ever get their stuff down from the top.
Soon we were at the rappels. Our water was running low as we had brought only a single day's rations. Sometime during the climb, Andrea had managed to drop her belay device and wanted to know if I remembered how to rappel with a carabiner break system. We figured it out and even tested it, but she didn't feel good about it. She wanted to know if I would lend her my ATC and use the carabiner system myself. I told her that it wasn't I who had lost an ATC. Eventually I simply lowered her on all of the rappels. As I was preparing to follow her down the rap from Mammoth Terraces to Heart Ledge, a barefoot climber suddenly appeared. I graciously let the two fast Germans pass. I noticed that at least one of them rapped with a Grigri. There was plenty of gripping power; he would pull the lever back in order to descend. As we descended and fixed ropes, I had to fight to control my descent speed with the haul bag attached to my harness. My ATC on a single line did not really provide adequate friction. Eventually we reached the ground. There appeared to be semi-permanent fixed lines in addition to those placed by the Germans and us.
It takes 5 full ropes to make the ground from Heart ledges. Theoretically, one can boulder a ledge system near the ground to make the requirement on the final rap one-half a rope length which must be the reason they say 4.5 ropes. If you expect to haul your bags, you have to have a full-length rope at the bottom, however. For some reason I had erroneously thought that the half rope business occurred near Heart ledges. The impact of this error was that I did not have a static line with which to haul on the first pitch. All of the static lines were fixed higher up. We hurried off to Curry Village where we still had a reservation for one more night, and ate a good dinner.
Friday May 26:
Friday was a rest day. We went to the Mountain Shop where Andrea purchased a harness with leg loops that could be dropped, and replaced her belay device. I repaired a bad trigger on a #2 camalot. I purchased a new Petzl helmet, as my old helmet was no longer capable of properly holding a headlamp. On the advice of a knowledgeable sales person I also purchased an additional 0.5 Camalot to bolster the rack. We did not regret this addition. That same sales person told us that as a rule of thumb, one should face the Valley on most chimneys on the Salathé.
We did not have accommodations that evening, as it was Memorial Day weekend. We decided to pack in our gear for an early start the next morning. We would camp under the fixed lines. We both packed in initial piles of gear and then Andrea showed her strength by ferrying heavy loads of water while I organized and watched over our stuff. Somebody else was packing in stuff, as there was another haul bag nearby. We brought no less than 19 2-liter bottles of water. That was standard rations for two people for 6.3 days. That was almost 84 pounds of water. In addition we had a portaledge with expedition storm fly. If the weather got bad we would be ready. This time I brought a standard and a small haul sack so as to have more room. In the past it was always a bear to pack everything into a standard haul sack at the beginning of the climb. This time I would hook two hauls sacks in series and have plenty of room to spare, even with the portaledge inside of the big haul sack. The system ended up working very well, and organization was easier.
A guy at Mountain tools had talked me into purchasing a 200-foot lead rope. If I had not done this, I'm sure that we would have been bumming on some of the pitches. In addition, he sold me two super-trad webolets. Initially I thought that they were too long as I was used to the shorter ones. However, they turned out to be perfect. Webolets have got to be the best way to quickly set up an equalized belay on a big wall.
Eventually we met two guys from South Africa who were going to go up the fixed lines to intercept the Triple Direct route higher up. They would come back later to do Free Blast which they said was much too crowded at the moment. In talking about the problems in South Africa one of the guys said that there always had been a lot of crime in the poor areas. With the abandoning of apartheid, this crime has spread as the poor people have spread, and so the crime is just more noticeable.
After toying with the idea of hanging our food 25 feet up the fixed lines, the South Africans convinced me that 3 feet was adequate. Andrea thought that she had found a nice flat place to sleep higher up the trail against El Cap, but her night was rife with trouble. She awoke at one point to find a skunk prowling around. Later she woke us all up with her headlamp and rustling as she discovered that she was sleeping in a puddle of water. Water, which ran down the rock only at night, seemed to like her nice flat spot. Her bag was soaking wet but there was nothing we could do for her.
Saturday May 27:
We awoke bright and early and prepared to ascend the fixed lines. Suddenly a French couple appeared and cut in front of us and began ascending. The South Africans mumbled that the French had done the same thing at the start of Free Blast. Andrea thought that we should say something, but I told her that it doesn't pay to make enemies on the big wall. The French ended up being faster than we were anyway, and it was certainly a convenient place for them to pass us. After a short delay for the French to clear, I was able to start up. The South Africans offered us the use of their static line for our first haul, provided that we fix it for them so that they didn't have to depend upon the older semi-permanent fixed line. It was a deal. The hauling was not easy with the heavy load of water. At one point high on the blank wall I passed a hole about 5 inches in diameter with animal droppings near the mouth. How did a sizeable animal make a living in a place like that? Later I got to watch as a party higher up led the hollow Flake. The guy appeared to move very smoothly on it. On the last pitch below Heart ledge water was running down the semi-permanent fixed line.
Eventually we made it to Heart ledge and parted ways with the South Africans. By evening we were at the Lung Ledge bivy. I led up the start of the Hollow Flake pitch and pendulumed over far enough to see the Flake. The French were camped on Hollow Flake ledge, waiting for another party above them to clear. The French guy looked down at me and apologized that he spoke very little English. I pointed at the Flake and said, "demain", hoping that I correctly remembered the French word for tomorrow.
We hauled our bags up to the start of the pendulum, and then retreated with our bivy gear back down to Lung Ledge for the night.
Sunday May 28:
In the morning I looked over and saw that the South Africans were moving around on Mammoth Terraces getting ready to climb. I waved goodbye form my sleeping bag and they returned the gesture.
We repacked the haul bags and I tied into the 9mm line in addition to the regular lead line. I reclimbed to the first pendulum point and tensioned over to a second pendulum point before lowering. There was a fixed line going directly to hollow Flake Ledge, put there perhaps to facilitate retreat. Andrea made it clear that she would not at all mind jugging it in order to promote speed. I would have none of that, however. We were here to climb the route, especially the classic pitches. The Hollow Flake did not look very intimidating to me.
I had to lower out a considerable distance in order to make it over to the crack that is the lower extension of Hollow Flake. I kept yelling to Andrea to give me 5 more feet, over and over. Initially the climbing was quite easy. At a broken edge I was able to find a TCU placement and clipped the 9mm line. I would find no other small pro placements above. Near even with the pendulum, I got out of the crack into a layback, but this was pretty straightforward as a horizontal flake appeared and soon offered bomber handholds. I mantled onto the flake and took a rest. I placed the #4 bigbro finding a location that offered outward as well as downward pull protection and clipped the 9mm line.
I had with me the largest friend manufactured, and I began walking it up with me as I climbed. Sometimes it was bomber, at other times the cams would barely touch on either side. At some point when I feared the crack would get too wide above, I left the friend and clipped it to the 9mm line. I felt fairly secure in the crack, and it was the moving up which was difficult. There is a final section to Hollow Flake Ledge in which it looks like the easiest thing to do might be to get out of the crack and layback it. It is far from vertical. But even with the 9mm line and some pro, the pro was quite a ways below me, and I stuck to puffing up the off width. Without the 9mm line, the consequences of a fall from the top of Hollow Flake would have been terrifying. I must confess that near the top I turned around and made a twist in the fixed line (right behind me at this point) and clipped in a quick draw to the 9mm line, thus using the fixed line as pro. I did after all have a pregnant wife waiting for me. The presence of the fixed line, in my opinion, detracts in a major way from the pitch and lessens the exhilaration of climbing it. The fact that retreat off of the Salathé Wall is now easy because of fixed lines on all of the traversing pitches means that the level of commitment necessary is now less than it once was.
Eventually I flopped onto hollow Flake ledge and let out a yell. Some fellows jugging the fixed lines yelled in return. I had suffered some pretty good scrapes to my right elbow and right knee as I fought to move up the off width. In retrospect, I should have worn thicker clothing for this pitch. I had worn thin nylon pants and short sleeves, not a good recipe for climbing off widths. I dropped the 9mm line to Andrea. With the 9mm line she lowered the haul bags out to me and as I talked her through it, she lowered herself out. This took awhile as she had only done a lower out once before. As she jugged and cleaned the pro which was no longer connected to any rope, a tiny mouse-like creature trotted up to me and sauntered down the outside of Hollow Flake.
Many parties were now jugging up the fixed lines and almost all of them seemed to be heading for Mammoth Terraces. At times, Mammoth Terraces seemed to be teeming with climbers. The South Africans were lucky to have started when they did. It seemed unlikely that many of the parties jugging the fixed lines had actually fixed any lines themselves.
Since I had led the hollow Flake, it was Andrea's turn to lead the 5.7 chimney pitch ahead. She started to, but then backed off, giving me the lead. One could grovel up the interior walking big pieces, but that was not the way to go. It did initially appear to have little if any pro, but part ways up I started getting TCU placements along the outer edge and eventually I left the chimney entirely for the face to the left where the climbing was easy and there was a lot of pro.
Meanwhile the French couple was in "The Ear" chimney above us. I had read that there is a section of the ear where a helmet does not fit. Well, there was a yell of "rock" from above and soon thereafter a dark helmet fell past us. I figured that I knew what had happened.
To make up for backing off the chimney pitch, Andrea led the next two pitches in a row. Two guys appeared above us on the pitch above "The Ear". They seemed to be scurrying around the Salathé Wall at will, trying to free pitches here and there. They would let out whoops of joy whenever they managed to free a section. We referred to them as the Germans because one of them seemed to have an accent, but we really didn't know. On her second lead she inadvertently started climbing the Ear pitch by mistake and had to lower back down. It was getting to be dusk, and we were no where near a rock ledge, so we set up the portaledge for the first time on the climb. This would be Andrea's first night on a portaledge ever, and she thought that it was kind of cool.
Monday May 29:
Andrea was not anxious to lead "The Ear", so for the first time I put on my real climbing shoes. I was a little nervous only because I had heard a lot of stories about this pitch. I stuffed my helmet in the haul sack and yarded up the rope to Andrea's high point of the day before. "The Ear" can be divided into two sections, an initial vertical chimney followed by a horizontal bomb bay section. The initial vertical section was easy and I placed a #1 camalot, then a #2, a #3 and finally at the high point a #4 camalot. The traverse over the horizontal section was also easy, more like 5.6 than 5.8 I thought. However the last pro was the #4 camalot which was getting farther and farther away. No matter, the largest friend manufactured I had, and there were secure placements for it everywhere above me. I walked the friend with me as I traversed, leaving it behind near the exit at the end of the horizontal section. The end of the chimney is pretty narrow and reminded me of the "Narrows" pitch on the Steck Salathé route on the Sentinel. This is where a helmet doesn't fit. There was a series of ledge-like features inside of the chimney and finally a big ledge just outside the chimney. Once I got my hands on the ledge I yarded up only to find that I was still some distance from the anchors. Had I looked, I would have seen a bolt 3 feet behind me on the wall, but I was transfixed on the anchors instead. I felt a hidden handhold and got a 0.75 camalot placement in it for pro. This gave me the confidence to friction up the narrow ledge and reach for the anchors. Unfortunately, as Andrea jugged the lower portions of the pitch, the large friend got jammed further up into the chimney by the rope. By the time she reached it, the cams were inverted and she could not budge it. Had I clipped the bolt on the wall, or had she followed the pitch free, this may not have happened. I should have continued to walk it with me. In any event, with a mind set toward moving faster, I elected to leave it behind.
Andrea led the next two pitches in a row. She was getting pretty good at straightforward aiding. At this point we were at the alcove bivy below El Cap Spire. We hauled the bags together as her belay was back from the edge creating extra friction.
The topo suggests the chimney up to the spire is a boulder problem. Well, it would be a very long boulder problem and the exposure is great even at the start. I had imagined that I might actually boulder the pitch, but the length of it changed my mind. Crack systems in the wall opposite the spire offered lots of pro placement and I aided up these. Near the top one could indeed get pro in were one treating the pitch as a boulder problem. We decided to bivy on the Spire since the accommodations were so plush. However, I did fix the slightly overhanging crack above the spire, up to the 5.9 squeeze chimney.
It had been getting noticeably cooler every day we climbed higher. The weather had simply been getting better and better - not a cloud in the sky. By now I was wearing my Patagonia puffball, an insulated wind jacket, all day long.
Tuesday May 30:
In the morning I jugged up the fixed line. I had thought about yarding up it on belay, but due to the overhang, jugging was a better idea. Someone had once told me that the squeeze chimney ahead had no pro. Instead, I found a small but bomber nut placement and backed it up with the #4 bigbro. The largest friend would have made protecting this pitch trivial and I was a little apprehensive that I didn't have it. I made sure not to have junk on the back of my harness. Higher up I had to turn around and was smart enough to switch the haul line to my other side first. The 5.9 squeeze wasn't that big of a deal after all, and I was hearing music in my head as I set up the belay.
Andrea led the next pitch and we were at a large corner with some wetness and grass in the crack near the bottom. A fixed line ran up this pitch for some reason, but I wasn't about to jug it. Andrea thought that jugging the line would be the expedient thing to do. I led up the wet corner to a large flat ledge, big enough to bivy on, and continued up a drier crack above. I was more than 30 feet above the ledge when I began to get bolder and placed my fifi hook directly into the biner clipped to a nut. I set a nut high above me and was about to clip it when I must have partially unweighted the nut I was standing on and my fifi hook pulled it out.
I fell and should have stopped a few feet below, where I had more pro. Instead the rock accelerated past me in a blur. Why did I not stop? Was the rope cut? My thought processes came to an abrupt halt as like a rag doll I smashed into the big ledge. I expected to feel the numbness of broken bones and to see my visual field shrink to a dot and disappear. That didn't happen. (Maybe I did die, say from internal injuries, but because the soul is conserved, I rotated into a parallel universe where I didn't quite die - just one of my weird ideas.) I felt the rope and there was some degree of tension in it. My right arm seemed to work. I looked over at Andrea and saw that she was sitting flat on the ledge. That didn't give her much room to pull down the brake hand below the belay device. Somehow I had fallen more than 30 feet to land on a ledge and survived. When I looked up at how far I had fallen, it was just unbelievable. If I had not been wearing a good helmet, my brain would have been scrambled (more than it already is).
After the trip I would discover that my right buttock was massively bruised yellow and purple, and there was a puncture wound in my right elbow probably due to landing on some of the gear attached to my harness. After lying on the ledge for a few minutes, I got up and Andrea lowered me back down. The clip holding up my right leg loop was destroyed, and it had to be tied in, bypassing the clip. Andrea suffered minor rope burns to her hand. I vowed that after this trip I would never again lead an aid climbing pitch unless my belayer had a Grigri belay device. Belaying aid climbing is sometimes a boring and tedious thing. The break hand must never leave the rope, however. Andrea had never dropped anyone before in her many years of climbing.
One theory is that Andrea miraculously stopped me just short of the ledge, and that I had just bounced on it. Yet another theory is that the friction of the rope running through the system was simply sufficient to slow me enough that I didn't break any bones. I really don't know which theory is correct. One interesting fact, however, is that the webolet used for Andrea's belay was a bear to untie as if it had been severely weighted. Andrea gave it to me after she couldn't untie it, and it took me 10 minutes with the cleaning tool to untie the thing. We did not have this problem on any other pitch. This would tend to support the former theory, that she broke my fall just short of the ledge
Needless to say, the music in my head had been turned off. We traded ends of the rope and Andrea finished the pitch while I shook the cobwebs out. As I jugged the pitch and cleaned it, I still couldn't believe how far I had fallen. Vertical Hold gym in San Diego is only 22 feet high. The fall I took was from a much larger height. I was hoping that she would lead a few pitches in a row while I tried to determine whether I had suffered any more serious injury. Was I getting light headed due to a minor concussion?
Unfortunately the next pitch was the "wet" pitch and Andrea backed off of it in no time flat. People refer to the "Ear" pitch as horrifying, but in my mind the wet pitch is much creepier. There was a constant drip of water coming down on you. I kept my sunglasses on despite the fact that the pitch went into the shade, to protect my eyes from the drip. As I looked up to scope things early on, a drop fell squarely in my mouth. How long before I suffered gut wrenching gastro-intestinal distress, I wondered? A good portion of the initial lead involves chimneying up, and placing pro in the wet recesses. I got a good #4 bigbro placement which sprung me much higher. My left arm became soaking wet. On the ground a Ranger would later tell us that the silverfish hatch out in a couple of weeks, and you pull your hand out of these cracks covered in bugs. I guess that we were lucky to be there early.
As punishment for dropping me, for the rest of the trip Andrea was constantly bombarded by comments from me questioning her alertness and readiness to catch a fall, whenever I was on lead. Andrea always wore gloves from then on while belaying. I finally made the hanging belay, backing up the two bolts with cam placements.
Andrea led the next pitch to the "sloping bivy", and we stayed there for the night. There are some large boulders right on the precipice of the sloping ledge, and we tied in snugly and put our legs over these boulders as we slept. There was a general trend of sliding down toward the edge all night.
Wednesday May 31:
My right elbow was painful and stiff every morning, but I thought that it was just the scrape I had received climbing the hollow Flake. In retrospect, the puncture wound from the fall was giving me trouble.
A friend had warned me about the pitch below "Sous Le Toit", but I somehow managed to gloss over his warning. Andrea was sure that the pitch started up on the left, so that is where I started up. It rapidly became apparent that the rock there was on the choosy side for my tastes. On the right hand side were clean solid cracks, although wide. Finally I switched over to them and they led to the same place. Easy aiding then led upwards till I had to leave my aiders for a thrilling exit to what I thought was the belay. Due to the fall the day before, my climbing speed may have been reduced.
There were numerous flakes with slings on them up to the right, so Andrea led up that way. Eventually she ran into trouble and set up a belay. I arrived to find her at a hanging belay based upon two manky old pitons backed up by a #2 camalot and two bomber looking nuts. Unfortunately, the trend was toward choosier rock in this area. A belay station with slings was evident 15 feet above us and to the left. If I got there, perhaps we could figure out where we were. I pulled on her #2 camalot and it dislodged in my hand. I suddenly had a feeling that our stock price in life was taking a sharp drop. I replaced the #2 for psychological pro and headed for the presumably bolted belay station above.
There was quickly a tricky section, and it appeared that I would have to do a hook move. There was a substantial flake up and to the left and if I could get my hook on it the pitch would be over. There was not much in the way of alternatives. I got high in my aiders and reached for the flake. When I touched it, it moved a lot. I felt that I could have ripped the whole thing off easily. OK, I backed off and returned to Andrea. My thinking was that we could not possibly be on route. Andrea just wanted to get the hell out of there. I had Andrea lower me back to the previous belay and I pendulumed around to scope things out. I guessed (correctly) that we wanted to be further left and that the position of the previous belay was just below a pendulum point allowing progress to the left.
I yarded back up to Andrea, and lowered the haul bags as she rapped attached to them by slings. By clipping some fixed slings on the way down, she was able to return to the previous belay without swinging into air, as there was a bit of an overhang. I rapped down on the two pitons leaving a stopper to back them up. We both felt relieved to be off of the choosy rock and the manky piton belay.
I climbed up to the mass of slings near the belay and lowered out to the left entering a clean crack. I aided this to a very nice but small ledge. It was now clear that this was "Sous le Toit" ledge. The belay station just above the loose flake and the manky piton belay was indeed on route, and was the upper alternative way to lower out and reach Sous le Toit. The crack I had just aided was the 10b crack on the topo. There is no way one could climb to the upper lower out station from sloping bivy and then make it to Sous le Toit with a 200 foot rope. The distance was far too large. Thus the topo was wrong to suggest that this was one pitch. In addition, no one would want to take the upper alternative, as the quality of rock was so very poor. I am not sure if a 200 foot rope could make it to Sous le Toit from sloping bivy taking the lower pendulum alternative! Basically it is really two pitches and take the lower pendulum variant.
Andrea lowered out the bags, and then herself. Unfortunately, the haul line slipped behind a big flake. To my astonishment, Andrea was able to clear the haul line from this flake by brute force as she jugged up. We consolidated on Sous le Toit at dusk. We set up the portaledge, as the rock ledge itself was too small to sleep two people. This was a world record of some sort. According to the topo we had this day managed to climb exactly one pitch!
Thursday June 1:
In the morning we packed up and Andrea led first, complaining near the end of the pitch that she needed to do a hook move and that her pitch was only supposed to be A1. We could see somebody lowering a haul bag down over overhangs far above us near the summit. My pitch was rated A2+ suggesting some problems to be surmounted. There was so much fixed pro on the A2+ section, however, that I had to stand very high in my aiders only once.
The roof pitch was next and Andrea was very apprehensive about it, and wanted me to lead it. I tried to talk her into it since it looked pretty easy. It was rife with fixed pitons and was A1 for sure. I ended up with the lead, and it was a little more interesting than I had anticipated. Being completely airborne felt less stable, since your feet are not always touching the rock. When you make a move upwards in your aiders, you want to have the fifi hook ready, for it is the only way to rest. The most difficult part was getting over the lip of the roof. Rather than making a free move, I aided up on an RP to reach the anchors just beyond the lip. The headwall crack above did not look very inviting at all, but apparently the worst of it is at the very bottom of the headwall. Andrea led the short section above the lip of the roof to the official end of the roof pitch perhaps 30 feet above. The fact that they placed a bolt near the crack suggests that the pro was not stellar.
Next I led the long overhanging headwall pitch. The crux here was managing your pro so you don't run out of something you might need higher up. Andrea's two small yellow aliens were crucial, and the two purple 0.5 camalots came in handy as well. Halfway up the pitch two Brits on Long Ledge began conversing with Andrea and offered us a fixed line. Brothers, Andrea was not about to pass up the chance to jug her final pitch to Long ledge. Not only did they offer to drop a fixed line to us, they offered us the use of their fixed lines to the summit. Andrea liked the sound of that. I intended to finish leading my pitch regardless. As I climbed, the Brits dangled a line behind me and began whipping it to get it to pass near me. The overhang was so severe that they could not simply drop the line to her or me. When they got close I stopped leading and leaned backward to grab the line should it come close enough. Not a time to get vertigo, I suddenly grabbed the line out of thin air and tied it to my harness. On second thought I retied it at the end of the line to my harness. Heck if I was going to accidentally fall on a static line. I finished leading the long pitch and was happy to reach the anchors with sufficient pro and no need to yo-yo for a necessary piece.
It was beginning to get dark. Andrea still could have simply led to Long Ledge, which at this point was very close, but she was dead set on jugging. I think that she had second thoughts, however, when I lowered her out more than a body length to dangle in space on the jug line, with no control whatsoever over the spinning of her body. Due to the overhanging nature of the last few pitches you could drop something now and it would hit the ground near the base before anything else. It was 3000 feet straight down to the ground and billions and billions of stars overhead as she solemnly jugged in free space for the first time in her life. The cord on which she was suspended measured at best slightly over three eighths of an inch diameter under tension, and that includes the protective sheath. In a way it was kind of cool and majestic I thought.
After a considerable time Andrea was ready to haul and I lowered out the bags quite a distance to the right, under the anchors on Long ledge. I had to lower myself out into space a very considerable distance as our rope now went to the anchors without the directional the Brits had provided for Andrea. Soon enough I was on Long Ledge. Andrea started working on me to jug the Brits lines tomorrow. She also wanted to set up the portaledge to sleep on, but I thought we could just make a go of it on the rock ledge which was plenty long, albeit narrow, and that is what we did. The Brits, Robyn and Laurel, were trying to get to sleep right under the main anchors. We ate a good dinner, but it was the last of our food, apparently.
Unknown to me, back on the home front, my wife Mirian was having a lot of powerful contractions. She was sure that she was going to have the baby without me and my name was mud. She solemnly packed the bag for the trip to the hospital. When she lay down to time the contractions, however, they went away.
Friday June 2:
In the morning we packed up and Andrea once again started the drumbeat for jugging the Brit's fixed lines to the top. I made it clear that I would gladly lead the pitches. I wondered if she could jug her pitches and I lead mine, but the jug lines and the route were not synonymous. We had plenty of water, and the Brits gave us some M&M peanuts for breakfast. But Andrea was ready to get off of the route. I gave in to her wishes and agreed to her plan provided that she jugged first. To jug wasn't my idea or desire, but I rationalized that paraplegics jug the entire El Cap and say they did it. Followers on any route that do little if any leading obviously jug most of the route and subsequently claim they climbed it. Still, I had this feeling that someday I would have to come back and drop down to Long Ledge just as the Brits did, and climb the last three pitches. It might actually be a fun outing.
Talking with the Brits was interesting. They were basically rock climbers hired to do film work in aerial settings. In this case they were filming some climbers trying to free a bunch of pitches on the Salathé Wall. If they wanted a cup of coffee they would jug to the top where they had a stove set up. They were planning film clips taken by cameramen engaged in large pendulums and stuff like that. I gave them a half-gallon of water since we were overstocked. The climbers they were filming were far below us near the Hollow Flake. Apparently they were good British climbers, but the longest climbs in England are a few pitches long. According to the film crew, they were having some issues adjusting to the enormity and exposure of Yosemite walls.
Jugging the fixed lines was not without its problems. On the first rope the haul line crossed the Brits lines as well as our climbing rope. I yelled for Andrea to strop hauling until I cleared the lines and than babysat them. It was interesting to see the methods employed by the Brits to protect their lines from abrasion from the rock. On the summit, Andrea indulged in raw Top Raman noodles that the Brits had kindly offered her. One advantage of two haul bags was that both Andrea and myself would have a haul bag to carry. I carried the cooler we used as the toilet in my hand, but all the rest of the gear found a place inside one of the two haul bags.
The hike down went pretty smoothly and quick. Having plenty of water to drink no doubt helped. Somewhere near the top of the Nose somebody was playing bagpipes. Kind of a majestic setting for a recital. I had Andrea belay the haul bags and me as I dragged them down the final slabs to the rappels. In the forest the skeeters were vicious, but we had a small stick of repellent since I knew this would happen. Even with the donation of water to the Brits, we arrived at the car with the better part of a gallon of water.
We made phone calls, ate and took showers. Mirian told me about the contractions she was having and that she wanted me back home ASAP. I decided to abandon the one good static line I had left on the fixed lines. One rope that every party for more than a week had jugged on was not worth possibly missing the birth of our first child. I dropped Andrea off at the Fresno airport and drove straight through the night to Poway, arriving at 5 in the morning. One benefit of driving in the night was that the Valley was cool, and the LA traffic mellow.
Saturday June 3:
When I awoke Saturday, my right elbow was swelling up badly and getting quite stiff. While taking a shower I noticed for the first time that my right buttock was a striking blend of yellow and purple from the fall. Alarmed at the trend my elbow was taking, we made a trip to the ER room, since seeing my regular doctor before Monday would be impossible. X-rays were negative, but a nasty infection was brewing. I received an antibiotic shot in the butt which hurt like a mother and was send home with a course of antibiotics. Later we realized that there was physically a hole in my elbow separate from the scrape I received climbing the Hollow flake. Evidently the elbow sustained a puncture wound when I took the fall, probably by landing on some gear attached to my harness. It was the puncture wound not the scrape that was infected.
When all was said and done, Andrea got to experience her first big wall. She efficiently led many aid pitches, and now can be considered an expert jugger as well. I had the fortune to lead virtually all of the classic pitches on the Salathé Wall. I completed all of the 50-classics in California bringing my total to 23. In the future, my belayer on a big route will use a Grigri, and I will appreciate more the value of a helmet. I have always scoffed at people who lug huge first aid kits up walls. My elbow healed fine, but the infection could have been thwarted. I should have dressed the wound early on with the rudimentary first aid kit that I had brought on the climb. As of a week and a half later, my wife Mirian had still not gone into labor. I joked to her that my story would sound better if she ended up being late and had to have labor induced! Someday I hope to hike up to the top of El Cap, drop down to Long ledge just as the Brits did and climb those last three pitches.
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.