The fall season in Yosemite Valley hadn't quite begun, but the temperatures were becoming more manageable and the summer crowds were dwindling both on the ground and up on the walls. This was part of our "grand plan". A plan that we spent months preparing for and dreaming about in an attempt to convince ourselves that everything would go perfectly as planned. There would be no need to abandon, chop apart, and resurrect the "grand plan". All that we could be certain of was that we both wanted to climb El Capitan and we knew that we could find a way to do it, again...
Linda at the belay while I lead Pitch 12 - Lurking Fear.
Linda and I had never teamed up for this large of a climbing objective before, but we had completed other long routes together including one super casual two-day big wall route. This would be both of our second times up the "big stone" best known as just El Cap. Linda had climbed The Nose (long route) in 3 days with a different partner, and I had previously climbed Zodiac (more technical) in the same time frame. It seemed like a good overall team experience. One person with an understanding of long days and another with an understanding of tricky ones. I'd like to think we came up with some creative team name to best illustrate the unique arrangement, but I think that got lost in starring at route maps and trip reports. But, eventually the time came to put the plan into action and we packed our haul bags and vehicles up for the adventure into Yosemite!
Linda making sure her new fly fits the portaledge.
An evening view of the west side of El Capitan - Yosemite Valley
(Lurking Fear Ascends the left hand side of El Cap in this photo)
Pitch 1 on Mescalito, getting warmed up!
We drove separate vehicles to the Valley, but only separated by and hour or two of time so we both arrived in Yosemite on the same day. We met in the morning for some breakfast and to get started with the fine tuning of our plan. It is worth mentioning that at this point we had planned to climb Mescalito (harder longer route) and started racking up and packing bags for this objective first. But to help make this write up more focused, I will omit most of that part of the story. Our "grand plan" was perfect as you see. Lurking Fear was an objective that seemed to call out to us more, and turned out to be a worthy switch up.
So we found an upcoming good-weather window, selected the rack of climbing gear, and packed it into as few haul bags as we could manage. Big Wall climbing is a constant battle of bringing enough stuff, but not TOO much stuff... and how much stuff really depends on who you ask and the speed at which you're able to climb. Generally climbing something "wall style" means you're hauling your equipment as you go, generally aid climbing, and planning for multiple days off the ground. A few items that you can't avoid when doings this would be water and food, all the climbing equipment, at least two ropes, personal climbing gear, sleeping accommodations, portaledge, poop storage, that sorta fun stuff. It adds up fast. We didn't allow ourselves to bring more than two haul bags, knowing that there would only ever be two of us to transport the bags on the approach and descent. The approach takes a solid hour or so with a heavy pack, and luckily we only had to do this part twice. The first time we took most all of the gear, then returned for a day of rest. The next time we went back, we would be bringing just the remaining gear (mostly food) and heading off the ground and starting up the mountain!
Feeling colorful and vibrant on the first loads we carried in.
Linda is psyched!
So soon enough the early morning start time had arrived. We woke up around 4:45am and had planned to eat some breakfast and have a coffee, with hopes of starting to hike in around 5:30am. We were pretty close on this but a little behind schedule, but without much stress we watched the near-full moon set in the morning while first light from the sun was appearing behind us. We did the hike pretty quick, and only had light packs to carry this time. Once at the base we organized everything again and this time prepared it to be hauled. This is kind of like when you're flying and they do all the pre-flight checks that seem to take forever. The only difference was this time WE were in charge of figuring out how to get the landing gear up after take-off. We made beautiful piles of heavy things and tied them all together to the happily vibrant colored haul rope. Linda lead up "Pitch Zero" which was roughly 60' of easy 5th class climbing to gain the first anchor. I quickly followed up and reached her to put her on belay for the next portion, the actual start of the route. She started up Pitch 1, but soon had her first encounter with the joy of climbing with hooks. A little caught off guard by how "fun" it was, she passed the torch to me for this pitch knowing that I should really get to experience the splendor and joy. So we changed roles and I started up the route, and before you knew it, we were making progress!
Our topo for Lurking Fear in the morning light on our last day.
We're off the ground!
I continued climbing into Pitch 2, and then into Pitch 3, which featured a pendulum swing for the leader nearing its top. This part of the pitch is right after the Window Pane Flake and the pendulum essentially went from the flake to about 20' or so feet to the left. In wall climbing, a pendulum is done when the leader reaches an impassable portion of rock, meanwhile a nearby feature is available to be climbed instead. Since the climber can't just walk over to the better feature, they have to lower a ways down with the rope, then swing in either direction to gain the feature. They are pretty fun but always surprisingly more difficult than it looks. It is also kind of wild because you're just dangling and swinging around like a mad-man (or woman) with the rope as your only active connection to the wall. It took me more tries to pull it off than I would like to admit, but after about 6-8 failed attempts I managed to find success with one final big swing aiming towards a bolt with a quickdraw hanging from it. In the end I was able to catch the quickdraw with little more than my pinky finger (now bleeding). An uncomfortable maneuver but effective none-the-less. I continued up the pitch and placed only gear for progress, not leaving anything behind for protection. Although this would have made for a terribly fall if anything blew, I knew it would make my partner's time more efficient when it came to repeating this portion of the pitch. I just relaxed and climbed and took it the good times.
Linda does the big lower-out on the Window Pane Flake (Pitch 3).
Somewhere on route, organizing gear and sweating in the sun.
Matt on Pitch 4. Some fun easy hooking on this pitch.
I had one more pitch to lead before my portion of the leading would be done for the day. But every pitch so far was really fun and ascending really beautiful portions of rock. Pitch 4 was no exception, and it followed up two cracks, with some hooking fun in between to keep you honest. Thus far many of the pitches looked to have some great free-climbing, and I could see the allure to ditching all the aid gear for climbing shoes and a chalk bag. On day two we did eventually get passed by a party who was climbing the route in a day. It was fun to watch them crank through moves and climb spritely. We shared a belay briefly and had a laugh when the second climber couldn't remember how to do a lower out and was forced to try and improvise. We gave him a few key pointers and soon enough he had it figured out and he was on his way. It was an entertaining moment and it was cool to work together in some way, the slow and fast in harmony.
The classic view of the bags slowly being dragged along. Everything in order at least.
View in the morning from our bivy atop Pitch 6.
The moon was our nightlight and this shadow was our reminder we're on El Cap!
On day two we knew we wanted to cover more ground than we had on our first day. We had made it six pitches thus far, but were hoping to be higher. Our next good bivy spot was at the top of Pitch 14, so we had 8 pitches to climb that day. If we came up short of our goal, it just meant for a less comfortable nights sleep, and more climbing the day after, just gradually delaying our return back to the ground. Either way, we were psyched to keep climbing and a little fire had been lit in us to reach our goal for the day. Most of the next few pitches were easy C1 climbing and followed striking cracks up a beautiful chunk of El Cap. I had an extra appreciation of the wide crack on Pitch 8. The day had been going smoothly, with a few unexpected snags hauling that you get accustomed to. The highlight of the day, and my favorite pitch on the route was Pitch 12 which went at C2+. The positioning on the wall overlooking the meadow, the cool traversing nature of the line and the fun spiciness of climbing on hooks all came together to make it a really memorable time. The first photo of this blog post was taken on this pitch and helps illustrate the great positioning.
Looking down on Pitch 8. Offwidth fun!
Linda's perspective from the belay on Pitch 12.
Hard work but good times!
You know you're bigwall'n when you don't care if partner's huge dirty sweaty hand is so close to your face.
Linda chillin' at the plush bivy atop Pitch 14. A nice place for dinner and some relaxation!
As the sun was starting to get lower in the sky, we had just one last pitch to climb to get to the bivy spot. I was feeling pretty tired so I tried to hand off the pitch to Linda, but she declined. So I crawled and thrashed my way up the 5.3 ramp and awkward C2 climbing through bushes and chimneys. At some point Linda called up to me and mentioned that I forgot to bring the #5 Camalot and that it looked like I might need it. I couldn't help but agree but knew it would be too much of a pain to haul the cam up to me through all the bushes. So I shouted back that I wouldn't need it and now "Its just an old fashioned game of climb the mountain!" It was a laughable moment, and the humor helped make it easier to press on despite being really tired and thirsty. Eventually I pulled over a ledge and found the bivy spot in which we would be sleeping that night. It was brief sense of relief, but I knew hauling our gear up to this point, through all the bushes and ledges, would be a nightmare, and it was. But when it was all said and done, we had one sweet bivy spot that felt like our own little deck space on the side of the world. We enjoyed being able to stand up and walk around a little, and made good use of the little extra space we had to make a little kitchen area for the stove and food supplies. We also shared the kitchen with ants. We sipped whiskey and starred into the increasing darkness feeling satisfied.
Happy to be relaxin' before dark!
On day one I broke half my finger nail. On day two my spoon broke. Both looked the same!
Day 3 - Getting higher!
Soon enough it was our third day, one that we imagined could very well be the last day of our adventure up El Cap. It seemed like a manageable goal given that we had to climb six pitches, and then shuttle some equipment at the top. We both knew the hauling would be bad, but assumed in wouldn't be that bad. Somewhat enthusiastically delusional, a little bit of positive thinking can go a long way. The climbing was mostly fun, but not really as classic as some of the lower pitches. I remember one pitch was especially dirty and I felt like there was a possibility of some unknown sickness if I breathed in too much of the dirt and debris. Luckily it wasn't that difficult so it went relatively fast. We soon gained the "Thanksgiving Ledge" which was something I was looking forward to. Unfortunately I overlooked an intermediate haul anchor, and hauled from the belay anchor instead, which added a lot of extra rope drag and contributed to more generally difficulties at the time. The ledge itself was also not really what I had imagined and it didn't seem like a place I'd want to sleep so I was glad we didn't end up having to use it as a bivy. We shuttled the haul bags across the ledge and back into the blazing sun. Only two more pitches to go!
Kinda thinking we're getting near the top. Oh the false joy.
The next two pitches went pretty quick, but I did get off route a little bit on Pitch 18 that caused me a little frustration and time. This lead to the last technical pitch on the route, and it was a fun 5,3 slab up a nice portion of rock. The hauling of these pitches was now clearly the worst part of the climbing and we both were probably cursing all the stuff we had brought but felt it was best not to verbally express this. Every rope length at this point seemed like it would be the last "pitch" needed to gain the summit, but the route seemed to go on forever. We were stuck in El Cap purgatory. Somewhere between glory and failure. The sun was starting to fade and it was clear how much unexpected time it was taking for us to shuttle all the gear. We just kept at it and developed a semi-successful system for shuttling that still required a lot of grunting. It was now clear that we would not be done today, and that our new goal was just to make it to the summit to gain a safe stopping point. So we crept upwards in the dark and through bushes, just hoping to find anything flat to call the top. The first large tree we stumbled on in a flattening portion of rock happened to have a little bivy spot. So we dropped all our gear and called it home. It was a relief, at least temporarily, to feel like we were off the mountain and on flat ground.
Let the shuttling of the gear begin.
Linda's psyched to be shuttling gear as it gets dark.
Our unexpected bivy spot. A lovely tree we stumbled upon in the dark.
This photo was taken morning of day 4.
We cooked our dinner and sipped on the remaining rations of water. I took my shoes off and walked around barefoot to stretch my legs. It was pretty hard to see much but I did manage to spot the moon cresting over the horizon, which lead to a beautiful moonrise from the top of El Cap. We eventually laid out on the ground and fell asleep another night under the stars. In the morning I woke at first light, finding it difficult to sleep much more, and took the time to walk around and explore. I found a good spot to sit and watched the sky transform as the sun was rising over Half Dome in the distance. Perhaps this was the moment when it felt like we were on the summit of something. After enjoying the view, we casually started packing up all our gear back into the haulbags. This time we were packing for the descent down and knew we'd have to do a bit of walking today but that we should be back down before too much longer.
Sunrise over Half Dome while on top of El Capitan.
My mind just exploded.
Happy for some reason. Maybe to head down?
Such a smiley time, we just loved re-packing the bags!
All packed up, ready to hike down. Still smiling.
Unaware of our upcoming bushwacking nightmare. Or maybe I had a hunch.
We were both pretty excited to be heading back down to the comforts of the valley with its big dinners and endless water on tap. Our spirits were high despite still being generally beat down. We snapped a few photos, laughed for some reason, and eventually got moving. Neither of us had done this part of the descent from the West side of El Cap before, so we were struggling a little with navigating. Eventually my poor guidance had lead us into the largest field of Manzanita bushes I have even seen, and now we were stuck desperately inside it. Our intended trail was forever on the other side of the bushes. It was one of the most uncomfortable scenarios I've presented myself, and it was a truly claustrophobic feeling that we were never going to get out. Stress was high and scratches were plentiful. Linda started crying and I climbed a tree. It is clear to say we did not nail the first half of the descent route. But in this brief moment of hell, on the wild ride of adventure, I looked down and found ten dollars on the ground by my feet. An old bill that had drifted there in some impossible and unrepeatable journey now bound to a meaningless ending of being recirculated back into society. Suddenly the ridiculousness of my self inflicted sorrow started to set in, and in some wonderful chaotic sense everything was perfect, if only I allowed it to be. Like an abstract painting that brings clarity to the drunk. A revelation was made. And it was at that very moment that I knew, I was ten dollars, and I had found myself... and I was starting to become delirious.
There is no such thing as nothing.