Despite being tired from travelling I felt giddy with excitement when I arrived in Yosemite Valley. Even the arduous task of queuing to get a campsite in camp 4 did not dampen my spirits. I hadn’t climbed for about 7 weeks due to a shoulder injury so I was eager to get climbing. Feeling heavy limbed from 30 hours of travelling we decided to go and climb an easy route. After struggling our way up 3 awkward pitches of 5.9 we rapped down. We decided not to try any more 5.9’s.
One morning, as I walked past the typical camp 4 queue I spotted the Scandinavian duo that we had met on our travels in the States last year. The pair were going to climb a route called Romulan Warbird (5.12c) on Fifi Buttress the following day and prompted us to join them. Fifi Buttress is a welcome island of featured, grippy, shaded rock in the sea of slippy, sunny cracks that is Yosemite. We declined their offer, deciding that it would probably we wise to have a rest day before trying what would be the hardest granite multi-pitch we had climbed.
Two days later we woke at 5.30 am to give ourselves the best chance of climbing Romulan Warbird (12b, 11d, 11c, 12b, 11c, 12c, 11a, 10d, 10d) in the light, taking into account the fact that red-pointing pitches was inevitable. I don't particularly enjoy waking up early to go climbing: its dark, cold and the morning toilet routine is broken, leaving me squirming in my harness later in the day when faced with my crux pitch. However, the sight of the first pitch made the early morning slog all worthwhile.
|Looking down the first pitch of Romulan|
The initial steep pulls felt a bit harsh on my half-asleep muscles and the pumpy groove required a little grunting but before I knew it I had reached the point where the (slightly OTT) route description said ‘ninja moves’ were required. I started stemming, taking my feet wider, until I felt I had enough height to commit to the long reach leftwards to a side-pull. At the last moment my left foot slipped. Unfortunately, my gear had shifted out of position as I climbed leftwards and I took an exciting fall down the shallow groove. I lowered down, slightly disappointed that I had slipped off the last move, and took a few minutes break before setting off again. I was amazed (and relieved) at how much easier the pitch felt second go. The next couple of pitches flowed really nicely: the granite was steep and the positions wild, but ultimately, all the holds were jugs. The fourth pitch was a stunning 5.12b. This time it was Howard’s lead.
The route description stated that “granite voodoo and Houdini” was required to negotiate the boulder problem start. Next the description told of a pumpy crack and thrutchy exit to reach the belay. The boulder problem was tricky but both Howard and I got through without much trouble (and probably without “granite voodoo and Houdini”). I was pleasantly surprised that when the top of the crack was less than 2 metres away I didn’t really feel that pumped. Then came the thrutch. The top of the crack was in an awkward pod that was hard to exit without simply falling out of it. With Howard half encouraging me half laughing at me (it is always amusing watching someone struggling on awkward granite!), I tried to untangle an arm to reach for the jug. Just as my feet slipped my hand latched onto the jug. Whilst scrabbling my way up to the belay, I thought: “Thank god I don’t have to do that pitch again”.
Having felt the chill of the wind as we set off that morning we decided to take a jacket to belay in. For the first four pitches we enjoyed the leisure of belaying in warmth so I was pretty annoyed when I watched the stuff sack containing the jacket fall a couple of hundred metres to the ground. To make matters worse it was my fault! The remaining belays were less leisurely. The topo we were using went down with the jacket. We worried whether we would be able to make it to the top without the in-depth pitch descriptions: maybe we would forget to use our granite voodoo and Houdini! Luckily, we managed.
|Me seconding the crux pitch|
After a bit of easier ground came the crux pitch (12c). From looking at the pitch we could tell the difficulties were going to be short and sharp. Howard managed to lead the pitch second go and I managed to second the pitch first go. The three remaining pitches were easier, but being tired from the previous 7 pitches they still required us to dig deep. As we rapped down the light dwindled, as did the chances of finding the dropped jacket. After a few minutes searching in the dark we decided the jacket could wait until the next day... it was pizza time!
Given the grade, we both thought the route would be too hard for us to free first try so climbing Romulan Warbird felt like a big step up for us in granite climbing. Not only was this a great day climbing, it also gave us the confidence to get on harder routes in Yosemite. El cap started to look inviting.
Bouldering in Yosemite poses a wonderful distraction from climbing big routes. The trees surrounding the boulders even politely block the big granite monoliths from view so the sense of guilt is minimal. When faced with a 4:30 am alarm the prospect of being guided around Yosemite’s bouldering playground by James Lucas is extremely appealing and we gave in to this temptation more than once! However, after a while I started to feel a bit like I was drifting: maybe a greater satisfaction lay lurking behind some hardship.
|Bouldering in Yosemite|
Ever since climbing Romulan Warbird we had been toying with the idea of trying Freerider and we steadily began preparing for the hard labour of big-walling. With the flu virus rampant throughout camp, I started to think we should get on El Cap before we got too ill to climb it. I could hear the sniffs and coughing fits emanating from Hazel and Peter’s tent as we lay there anxiously hoping that the ‘Walmart Special’ was better at keeping out viruses than the rain! We decided to hold out for the cooler weather and after sitting out a few rainy days in Yosemite Lodge canteen, drinking the gratuity coffee, our gamble paid off and the forecast showed five days of cool, dry weather.
Whilst we were holding out for cooler conditions in the valley my mind swayed between being really excited for climbing on El Cap and being anxious about how I was going to manage the big-wall faffs, such as hauling, rope tangles and going to the toilet in a bag! I found the best way for me to keep the worries at bay was to simply start packing and enjoy this first step for what it was (mainly I enjoyed deciding what treats to take for the evenings). Before I really had time to think about being anxious we were climbing. This mental attitude is summed up well in a quote from one of Hazel Findlay's articles, in which a friend of hers says that you just have to “take the gear for a walk”.
|Starting the 11d downclimb on Freerider|
One of the pitches I was most concerned about was ‘The Monster’, which is an 11a offwidth. Knowing that our offwidth skills were pretty much non-existent, Howard and I decided it would be a good idea to practice the techniques before getting on Freerider. After gaining 3 inches of height on Ahab in 30 minutes, losing about 3 litres of water in sweat and ripping my trousers I had to admit to myself that I needed 3 more years of offwidth practice, not 3 more hours. I was not surprised to find myself aiding past ‘The Monster’ a couple of days later. We spent our first night on the wall at ‘The Alcove’, drinking hot chocolate and joking about our pathetic attempt on The Monster. I think we had known all along that this ascent would be about getting to know the route for a future attempt.
The next day we gave the ‘Boulder Problem’ a go. This pitch is cool and it was fun to be swinging around on a top-rope with lots of air beneath my feet but the labour of the hauling and climbing had taken its toll on my arms and skin I didn’t manage to do all the moves. After a couple of goes each we pushed on to ‘The Block’: our next bivy. We got as comfortable as possible on this small sloping ledge and fell asleep. We woke up in the dark hoping that it was nearly time to start climbing again but we were disappointed, it was only midnight!
The disadvantage of climbing El Cap in November was the short days. The next day Howard linked to two ‘Endurance Corners’ to save time, which meant I had good chance to check out the climbing on top-rope. Out of the difficult pitches on Freerider these were the two that I enjoyed most. The climbing is more technical than the name suggests and there is a nice variety of jamming, laybacking and stemming. Then it was my turn to lead a pumpy 12a traverse that takes you away from the Salathe headwall. Up until this point I had felt the exposure most on the chimneys which, since they are never harder than 5.9, was not too overwhelming. When I traversed around the corner suddenly about 800 m of air lay between my feet, which were scraping around for footholds in the steep terrain, and the ground. My arms faded rapidly and, guessing that it wasn’t going to be long before I would be dangling in mid-air of the edge of El Cap, I mustered my remaining energy and shouted “TAKE” to Howard, who was belaying out of sight. Not exactly a heroic turn of events but having to jumar back up the rope would have wasted valuable time.
Now only four pitches remained: surely we would be at the top soon. However, as I started up the Scotty Burke I realised that this pitch could take me a while to lead. The 11d start required a bit of grunting but was short lived. Unfortunately, the 10d offwidth section was more demanding. For every inch of progress I made I slide back down half. Eventually I was back where I started! I just had to laugh. Once I had adopted the cams as hand holds progress was much quicker (although still not as easy as I wanted it to be). It went dark just as I set out to second the last pitch. After a bit of battling to get the haulbag onto the summit it was nice to lie down without a harness on and go to sleep.
|After much tugging we got the haul bag onto the summit, although hauling was hard work we couldn't have done it without one!|
|The beautiful dawn light over Yosemite Valley|
|Enjoying the morning sun after bivying on the top of El Cap|
|My hands felt a bit battered after Freerider, but not too bad considering we didn't wear tape gloves!|
Although I felt about a million miles away from freeing Freerider I had actually only aided 3 pitches (The Monster, The Boulder Problem and The Scotty Burke) and rested on 3 pitches. Just getting to the top of El Cap was a big step in climbing for me and a learnt a lot. It took some time for me to realise that getting to the top of El Cap was an achievement but when the realisation hit I felt a giddy urge to return to the valley for round two with Freerider.
|After Yosemite it was time to relax in the beautiful hot springs near Bishop|
|Chasing the sun we spent a few days in Joshua Tree (Scar Face, highball V3)|
Before we knew it we were lightening our load ready to go surfing in Costa Rica. We packed our cams into a cardboard box in a little post office in Joshua Tree, rushing to fill out all the paper work for customs and checking at least 4 times with the lady at the desk to make sure they were correct. This cardboard box contained the most valuable things that I own and I really wanted it to get home. The fact that the lady did not seem to share my interest in the safe return of the box of dirty looking metal to England made me slightly anxious, but with only 10 hours until our flight and an 8 hour drive to San Francisco ahead of us we had no choice but to hand over the box and cross our fingers.