Yosemite Valley is a location that all climbers are drawn to. It is a narrow valley with immense granite walls but also littered with smaller crags and of course some boulders. I’ve always considered it a source of embarrassment that I had not been to Yosemite. Sure I had plans in the past to go there but something always came up; work, coaching, life… The truth is I was scared. Scared of just about everything to do with the valley. I was scared of the height of the walls, the commitment required once you leave the ground and of course I was scared of failing. I know _how_ to climb cracks I’m just not very good. I know _how_ to climb granite I’m just not very good. So, um, yeah… something always came up.
However in March one of my all time favorite climbing partners and granite master Will Stanhope obviously got pretty desperate and went pretty low down on his list of partners to ask if I wanted to help him out on an ‘El Cap spirit quest’ in early May (I’ll let him elaborate on what the actual quest was). As I said, something always comes up but this time I told Will I’d be there, unfortunately only for a week since I had to fly to Europe for work in the middle of May.
Now I knew going into this trip that I was getting a week of guiding from one of the top granite free climbers around. I would just be able to show up and have Will drag me around the Valley. I’m not sure Will was expecting the same thing. A few years ago we went to Indian Creek for a three week trip and there Will got a glimpse of how pathetic I am as a crack climber. He would soon find out just how pathetic I am as a wall climber.
I was hoping that spending the last few weeks climbing some of the longer routes around Las Vegas would at least help me with some of the systems and rope management but I was excited to learn some new tricks as well both in terms of systems but also granite climbing techniques. Mostly I was just looking forward to hanging out with an old friend and belaying him on his project. Any additional climbing would be a bonus.
I drove into the valley early on the Saturday morning but still not early enough for Will. He had already done a bit of a mission that morning. I was stiff and tired from driving from Las Vegas but excited to be there. We decided to take it easy and headed for the Cookie Cliffs. We did a few single pitch routes before launching up ‘Butterballs’ on the Nabisco Wall (in the blazing sun). I took the 11c pitch and managed to onsight it but was definitely sliding around a bit. Then Will waltzed up just smearing outside the crack and almost lie-backing using the finger locks. It looked so casual! First day and I was learning already!
The second day we decided to try and do Astroman as an ‘intro’ to the valley. Astroman is definitely one of the classic free climbs in Yosemite and was on my list of routes I’d like to attempt. We managed to cruise up it with Will taking the ‘Enduro Corner’ and the ‘Harding Slot’. I fell getting into the constriction of the slot but pulled back on and with Will telling me he didn’t think I’d fit through the slot I went to the edge and lie-backed the outside. Definitely cheating and I need to go back and suffer properly.
The next few days were spent trying to figure out the best way to work Will’s project. The weather in the early spring was finicky and we got chased off El Cap a few times by rain. We would spend the mornings trying some classic single pitch routes which allowed me to practice, and learn, how to crack climb better and then we’d head for El Cap and set up shop for the afternoon. In the seven days I was there we were only able to spend one good afternoon trying Will’s project although we tried 3-4 days. Mostly the weather was an issue but also logistics of getting set up (aid climbing is terrifying and takes awhile). After a few sessions on the crux section Will figured out some beta but realized he would need a longer trip to really put in an effort to free the entire route.
That left us with one day to climb. Will asked if there was anything that I’d like to do and I told him that I’d like to get to the top of El Capitan. Whether we hiked up the back and rapped in on a few lines or went up the face it didn’t matter to me. He said “Well, we could try to do The Nose in a day.”. Honestly, that would be ticking a box on the lifetime bucket list. Will had done ‘The Nose’ in a day before and I didn’t want him to waste a day on me but he seemed pretty psyched by it and I was definitely excited to try. We spent the evening talking to people and trying to get information on the best way to approach it. The consensus was to lead it in blocks, with the leader short-fixing and trying to climb fast and the second jugging a line and cleaning. This was all stuff that I had never done and required being pretty comfortable running it out something that Will was exceptional at and me, not so much.
The next morning we woke up pretty early, had our coffee and drove to the meadow to rack up. We probably should have done that the night before but whatever. We hiked in to the base of ‘The Nose’ just as the sun was rising and there were already four parties ahead of us. They all looked to be hauling bags and were going to spend some time up on the rock. We didn’t really have that option; 1) we had no provisions and 2) I had to fly to Germany from Las Vegas at 10am the next day. Will took the first block and was climbing in control, not rushing since the rock was still a little damp from the morning dew and last few days of rain. Once he fixed the rope I tried to jug behind as quick as I could. It had been years since I had used two ascenders. All the jugging I do is to put up single pitch sport routes or take photos. A jumar and a gri-gri are good enough for that. Once I got into a rhythm it was easy. On the slabs it felt like cross-country skiing and on the steeper stuff it was definitely taxing. Will passed a couple of the parties at the first ledge and then decided to keep going since there was still one party ahead of us and he would climb faster than I would. By the time he was done we were already on the top of Dolt Tower and then it was my turn. I tried to climb fast and run it out but the key to leading in blocks with the short fixing is that as the leader you have to leave the belay before the second gets there. That means that you better have enough gear for a few pitches. I wasn’t that comfortable and ended up waiting for Will a lot to give me more gear. I took us up the Texas Flake, the Boot Flake to a few pitches below the Great Roof. Then a storm started moving in and we decided we should pick up the pace (let Will go first). He sprinted off, up the and around the Great Roof, through the Changing Corners and Glowering Spot to a few pitches below the top. The climbing seemed endless. Pitch after pitch of 5.9-5.11 with some aid moves thrown in to get past the cruxes. Of course I was just jugging it all with Will having to wait for me. I then took the last two (?) pitches up to a bolt ladder and around to the summit just as the sun was setting. I actually forgot to look down from the top I was so tired. All in all we did the climbing in just over 13 hours. I was by far and away the weak link and slowed Will down considerably but I definitely appreciated being dragged up ‘The Nose’. I definitely want to go back and try to climb a lot more of the pitches.
By the time we hiked down, sorted gear and I packed up it was 11pm. With a seven hour drive to Las Vegas I was going to be cutting it pretty close. That was one of the most tired drives I have ever done. I had to pull over twice for quick 15 minute naps and then keep going. I got home with enough time to shower, pack quickly and grab a ride to the airport. Fortunately I made it on time and a few hours later I was landing in Munich having completed to coveted top of El Cap to Germany link-up.