Thursday, May 23, 2002

An attempt at the Nose, El Capitan

Chris McNamara describes El Cap’s Nose as “huge, exposed, and terrifying.” Dealing with its exposure and terror we could handle. It's size was another matter.
Josh Melick and I decided to climb the Nose late one night in September 2001, while planning our annual end-of-the-school-year-Yosemite trip. We had climbed several multi-pitch routes over the years but never a big wall.
Now we were graduating and thought a next step in climbing was in order too. I was looking at some climbs on the east end of El Cap on the Internet when I began reading trip reports from the Nose. Realizing that it was within our means for the first time, I walked into the second floor of the science building, where Josh was studying with a friend. I grabbed a piece of chalk and scratched the hallowed profile of the arete on the chalkboard. “The Nose,” I said. He replied, “Do you think?”
As it turned out, we both suffered from critically developed forms of senioritus that year, which allowed us plenty of time to read descriptions of the Nose and plan what was to be our first big wall ascent. We spent hours, and once a whole day staring at images of El Cap on the computer screen. Each feature of stone engraved itself on our brains. Sickle Ledge at the top of pitch 4, weaving its way into Stovelegs. Dolt Tower below El Cap spire, below Texas Flake, below Boot Flake. We could have climbed blindfolded and done just as well.
We were finally driving into the valley on Tuesday evening, May 22. A storm had passed through the valley the day before and occasional showers that day were still clearing. As we rounded the corner by Bridalveil Falls, the shadowed west face of El Cap came into view. Water was glistening on the rock. The nose was shining wet. Nevermind, we thought.
We slept in the woods below El Cap. Josh was the first to notice other teams running by us in the morning. The earliest were probably Nose-in-a-day teams. We saw them later that day. One team was just leaving our view when we saw the follower take a 60-foot back breaking fall off a failed pendulum point.
We got up shortly after light and packed the haul bag. By the time we scrambled to the base of the climb, 12 people had already jumped onto the route, a climber told us. But it didn't sound like their climbs would interfere with outs. Many went all the way to Dolt Tower that first day. One team slept on Sickle Ledge. Another team fixed lines from Sickle, but planned to take a day off before restarting.
I led first. Needless to say, the first few moves on the rock are awesome, as in awe-inspiring. With the wall suddenly before me, the months of thinking and obsessing over the climb now became a simple matter of moving upward. I felt like an ant in an Olympic pool. The first pitch involves a few 5.7 moves up a jumble of piton-scars and then some fourth class scrambling to a platform, so it went smoothly. The haul line went around a tree, however, and Josh and I had to work together to move the bag, which weighed around 80 pounds. We dumped a gallon of water shortly thereafter to lighten the load.
Josh led the first real pitch of the climb, a 5.10d crack up to a slightly easier finger crack to bolts. It was still cold and we were in no hurry since there were a couple teams above us, so Josh opted to aid. The second pitch involved our first pendulum. I aided up to a bolt, lowered back down 10’, then swung right to an 11b crack. I aided up this crack with great pains, as I had to back clean everything I placed to avoid a Z in the rope. I didn’t trust any of my placements, however, so I had to always have two in before I cleaned the one below. We ended up doing a lot of pendulums on the climb. They’re all on the topo but you don’t realize how they add up until you are actually doing them. I became the pendulum lead man, and Josh worked on the fine art of jumaring behind.
We didn’t get off the rock until 7:30 that night, our first indication that we were moving at the pace of a dead wholly mammoth in ice. But after hearing a passing comment from another climber about the difficult nature of these first four pitches (untrue), we convinced ourselves that they were the exception, and that tomorrow, we would be flashing up easier rock.
By mid-afternoon the next day, I was jammed in a large off-width on the side of the wall, somewhere around pitch 9, in the middle of stovelegs and I felt like oatmeal. My arms were past burning point. I had hands down in the crack, but they were slipping, and I kept having to slop them in deeper. It was mostly my helmet jam that was holding me there. I had banged by head into the large crack and the rim was edging nicely on the sides of the rock.
I had no contact with Josh, 100’ below, because of the wind. The wind roared through the middle of every day. At times it was strong enough to push me back and forth as I struggled on the rock. It reduced our conversations to simple belay-on's and belay-off's. It sucked the will right out of us. I had freed up a nice 5.8 hand crack, but now pondered a curious 5.10 flake that looked like it required a monstrous lie back. The crack was too wide to aid easily. I was waiting for some kind of divine inspiration for what to do when I realized we were never going to make the summit.
My parents arrived in the valley right about that time, and Josh was talking to them on the radio. “Your parents are watching you!” Josh yelled, in between gusts. “Bust a move!”
I got out of my hole and pushed on.
We were delirious and weak as we prepared for the final pitch to Dolt Tower for the night. I bobbled a #3 Camalot during the transfer and watched it jump down to the ground. Josh had dropped a nut tool earlier and afterward lost hold of the radio in his gloved hands. His fiancee Kristi found the radio the next day, or at least, some of it.
Without the audible support of our very faithful viewers in the meadow, Josh and I struggled up the last pitch with one thought in mind - “Flat ground!” We had been in hanging belays almost all day. The thought of taking off the harness and caressing our tender hip flesh was sensual. The hanging wasn't the worst part. Moving the haulbag took getting perpendicular with the rock and sometimes inverted, then doing massive leg presses. Each press sent new sensations of pain.
After jumping #4 Camalots for 40’, I got to Dolt Tower. Unlike Warren Harding, it was totally clear to me who “was conqueror and who was conquered,” and we were only a third of the way.
All I wanted to do was sit on our perch and eat. We gutted our haulbag like hungry lions and ate two-days worth of food. We had fun with our one night on the rock, joining in the hoots and hollers started by other bivvying teams. We laid back and watched others climbing by headlamp around the Great Roof. The moon was full and our Tikka’s added nothing to the light on the smooth granite beside us. We popped open some glow sticks and attached them to the wall.
We rapped the next day, with the gear and ego we had left. We’ll return.

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