Tuesday, July 24, 2012

El Capitan


(El Capitan. It's so tall, it's even taller than this tree right here ^)

Most climbers dream of climbing it some day. In fact, I think more climbers dream it than actually climb it. However, that's no reason to stop dreaming!


Jim: Hey John, how many days did it take you to dream El Cap?

John: Dude, not days! Minutes! I dreamed El Cap in like 4 minutes!

Jim: Woah... that's all it takes huh?

John: Yeah, man, pretty much! I mean, it also takes a little imagination, some visualization, a little inspiration, and BOOM! You've dreamed your way to the top! And let me tell you, there's nothing better than dreaming about drinking a well earned beer, sitting on your port-a-ledge, body tired and sore, looking down into the valley, knowing you just dreamed your way up the last 1200 feet of one of the most famous and inspiring rocks in the world!

(King Cobras and chicken burritos!)
(Caldera and climbing)

Jim: Ahhh that sounds incredible!

John: Yeah it is! And when you've finally dreamed to the top, you'll know that it wasn't the last 3 minutes of dreaming that got you there. It was the years of effort and mistakes and learning that got you there. And the friends you were with.

Jim: Sweet! Well, do you think I could dream El Cap sometime?

John: Of course, man! Anyone can dream it... you just gotta start.

And it begins!
Meet Team Oregon: (from top to bottom) Aaron Fox, Matt Lambert, and Myself.

So, dream it and begin, is that what it really takes?

Well... yeah, kinda. You just have to think of doing it a lot and then make it happen. But, the dream isn't all beer, friends, and a good view (or was it?). Allow me to give you all the nitty gritty details of how this all went down.


First: Climb a lot! Climb outside. Climb inside. Climb up and climb down. Do a LOT of bouldering and sport climbing for years and years. Get on all different types of rock and angles to increase your experience. Don't bother leading on trad.

Second: Try to lead NO MORE than 4 trad routes (5.8 or under! You don't want to freak yourself out). Become only slightly familiar with only two sets of cams (Metolius and Black Diamond). Also, make sure you do not have any prior experience with off-set Aliens or their sizing (You will be using them a LOT, but you don't want to confuse yourself). Furthermore, don't bother learning about hooks, beaks, cam-hooks, brassies, rivets, or screamers until you're actually on route. You don't want to familiarize yourself too well with the tools you will be using to save your life.

Third: Don't use aiders or jumars until the week before your actual climb. And when you do finally try a little aid climbing, make sure it is in a gym, on fixed bolts and quick-draws, and NOT outside under realistic conditions. Also, make sure to only practice aiding and cleaning twice. Any more than that and you might become too efficient and smooth.

Fourth: make sure that a majority of your climbing party gets extremely sick the day before the climb. Aaron managed to get a sinus infection from hell, while I decided to acquire a nice little upper respiratory infection of some kind, causing a fever, body aches, and a non-stop cough (still coughing).

And that's all it took! After my minimal aid training and my less than ideal health, we were ready to climb this thing!

Day 1 

We spent the first day fixing our lines to the top of pitch 2. Matt lead the first two pitches, I cleaned, and Aaron took pictures and gave us encouragement.

(Just relaxing during the two hour belay. Go Matt!)

Aaron ventured around the corner to find a place to sleep and stumbled upon our first monster! It was "the biggest ******* rattlesnake [Aaron] has ever seen!" He only caught the tail end, but you get the idea.
(fourteen rattles!)

Meanwhile, Matt pushed on and styled the first pitch like an El Cap vet! No falls, even though the first pitch is fairly difficult and pretty technical. Not to mention, a fall here could end on the ground rather than the end of the rope.
 (Matt leading Pitch 1)

 (Pitch 1: Reach!!! Photos by: Peter)

(Gaining the first anchors. So far to go! So far...)

We left our water (54 liters), ropes, and climbing gear at the base while we hiked back down to get pizza in Curry Village, pack up the rest of our stuff, then make our third and final approach to the base of Zodiac, where we planned to bivy for the night. 

(The hike through Mirkwood Forest along the base of El Cap)

 (The approach, through the jungle)

 (Almost there!)

We finally made it, set up camp, and prepared for the beginning of our climb. I was so stoked! I felt confident and ready for a pretty epic adventure. Maybe I am just naive to this aid climbing stuff, but I didn't feel much anxiety before this climb. I have definitely felt more anxious before some sport routes! But I've been out of my comfort zone countless times and have always come out of it stronger and more wise. Why would this be any different? So, with that in mind, I was ready to climb, ready to fall, and ready to learn. We went to bed.

I hardly slept. Cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough (Literally, for hours). I thought to myself, "What's more dangerous, big wall climbing or pneumonia?" What about big wall climbing with pneumonia? Turns out the answer is neither:

The sun began to show and the birds began to sing. My coughing, along with every other sound in the Valley was dramatically interrupted by a faint flapping sound from far above. The sound disrupted our slumber and rapidly gained our attention. The incessant flapping continued and increased and quickly transformed into a whirling whistling sound! Something large and heavy was rocketing straight toward us. A missile approached! Trapped in our sleeping bags, we waited. Before I even had the time to... BOOOOOM!!! BOOM! Boom....boom. The impact echoed.

"Holy shit!" one of us yelled, "What the hell was that?"

Large objects falling from the sky near and around us wasn't really that funny, but we laughed. Happy to be alive? Excited to be awake? Super close call for Aaron? 

Matt knew. "It was a haul bag. Someone threw their haul bags off the top."

OFF THE TOP?! No accident? Threw them? Huh... wow. Over a mile wide along the base of El Cap and someone's haul bags nearly killed us, landing only 50 feet from where we slept! I learned not to throw anything off of anything when I was in like third grade! And there they were, full grown adults throwing 200+ pound bags off the top of one of the most popular big wall routes in the world! They even tied a little mini parachute to the top of their bags (To slow them down? To keep them up-right?). Ridiculous...

And so, with the most intense alarm clock ever, we began day 2! Let's climb!

Day 2

(The first 20 feet. 1/1000 of the way there, Aaron. Keep it up!)

(Aaron, at the top of pitch 2)

(Matt and Aaron at the top of pitch 2)

(Aaron taking off on pitch 3, while Matt and I begin to haul the pigs!)

(Climbin' those ladders! Aaron leading pitch 3)

(Halfway up 3.. pigs are hauled)

(Post pig hauling... pretty happy)

(Aaron at the top of 3)
(This is what we look like while Aaron climbs)

(This is what we look like from the Valley floor)

(Almost there boys!)

(We meet again! 3 pitches done!)

(Pizza pitch! Nice to have on day one)

Just to give everybody a little run down on how a full pitch of big wall climbing works, let me explain. Let's say Aaron leads, using cams, nuts, trickery, and magic, to the next anchor bolts. He fixes the lead line so Matt can jug up and clean the gear as he goes. Meanwhile, Aaron pulls the haul line (for our bags) and the 3rd line (for me) up to himself. He puts the haul line through the pulley (so I can cut the bags loose), and fixes my line to the anchors as well (so I can jug up). Then we all meet at the top! The next person prepares to lead (me) while the other two haul the bags through the pulley. Repeat again and again and again....

And I began my first outdoor aid climbing pitch... ever.

(My turn to lead!)

(This was kind of a weird pitch... fun free climbing though!)

(What size do I need? What's the largest alien?)

(Got it!)

(Onward! Half way there)

(Big stretch for the anchors... and that concludes my first aid pitch ever!)

(Setting up camp for night 1)

(Disco Party! Camp 1)

 (Who's up there??)

(Oh NO... King Cobra! One of the 27 beers we brought with us)

(A little glimpse of Port-o-ledge life)

I used to think aid climbing was silly. I mean, I guess it is silly, but only because it involves doing some weird things, like sleeping on a portable ledge, drinking beer thousands of feet in the air, carrying lots of things, pooping in plastic bags, not changing clothes for 4 days straight. But, I have to admit, after my experience on El Cap, I have a whole new perspective on aid climbing. 

Aid climbing is tough! It's hot, you get dirty, and you have to keep your head in the game the whole time. It's like a marathon! And on top of all that, it takes some real balls to put your weight onto a piece of gear that will easily fall out of place the moment you un-weight it! When you "fall" while sport climbing, it's usually a conscious decision (you look down, yell "falling!" and then let go). When you're aid climbing and a climber has all their weight on a micro nut and it suddenly pops... well, I don't know what happens (cross my fingers). But you can imagine!

But, believe it or not, that wasn't the scariest thing for me while on El Cap. Pooping. That was the scariest.

Let's just visualize for a second (don't get too specific with your visualizing though... it might get weird). Also, let's just set aside the fact that we are sitting 5 feet from another human (Raise your hand if you have trouble just speaking in public... try pooping in public!). Here's the hard part: aiming into a grocery bag while squatting on a wobbly ledge and trying not to pee! That's intimidating! If you'd like to know what it feels like, try this: grab a grocery bag, put on a harness, pull your bed into your front yard, ask two of your friends to sit at either end of the bed, then stand right above where you will be sleeping (Important note: make a commitment to yourself that no matter what happens you HAVE to sleep with those sheets), and do your business! Remember, practice makes perfect.

(And here is a perfect example! Me, on the right side, pooping for my very first time on El Cap!)

Despite my fears, I overcame adversity and have gained a little more confidence and ticked one more thing off my bucket list! That also marked the beginning of another day on El Cap.

Day 3

(Good morning! Fresh, instant coffee!)

 (Aaron finishing pitch 6. He had to stop early due to cramps)

 (Cleaning and jugging)

 (Cleaning pitches 5 and 6)

(Matt, Gettin us started on the Black Tower pitch)

(This is the "don't fall" pitch)

(Made it! No problem)

 (The Black Tower: Mordor!)

(Huge lower-out to jug the Black Tower pitch)

(Just hangin around...)

(We all made it through and caught up to Peter)

(Then Peter took a picture! Thanks man!)

(Our friend, Peter. More about him later)

(The nicest looking hook placement ever!)

(Leading again! Run-out, easy free climbing on Pitch 8)

(Back in the aiders for some cam-hooks and small nuts)

 (Favorite part of pitch 8!)

 (Still goin!)

 (Hey Everybody)

 (Am I aid climbing or free climbing?)

(WHAT is this thing?)

(Comin back down for the night)

(That's a rap)

(Feelin good!)

Meanwhile, on another ledge far, far away, sat Peter. He sat above us, by himself, listening, and wishing he could be a part of the "Crazy America Disco Party" happening only 100' below him. Leaning over the side of his ledge, Peter saw and heard us three. With all of us laughing, beer in hands, music playing, and Matt messing with his headlamp, flashing it all over the place, it's no wonder that Peter leaned out and yelled to us, "Helloooo! You guys having a disco?!"

We turned our heads upward and saw Peter waiving to us. We decided that in spite of his slow climbing (which was holding us up), he needed to be a part of the disco! So we tagged him one of Ashland's very own (Yellow Cans" (Ashland Amber).

That beer put him right to sleep.

But before Peter passed out, we made plans to pass him the following day, which meant we got to sleep in. Party on!

Day 4

Most of our morning consisted of listening to stand-up comedy and the entire Tenacious D album, drinking coffee, eating, and looking at birds while we waited for Peter to climb two pitches so we could pass him.

This was one of the most amazing mornings on The Captain. There were hundreds of swallows zipping around us, in and out of cracks, dive-bombing each other, playing tag. They reminded me of a fleet of tie fighters and X-wings from Star Wars, battling for the Death Star. I don't know what they were doing... probably just playing. And why not? They have the best playground in the world!

Mean while, far above, we saw a speck in the sky and we heard a long screech. Peregrines! Two of them chasing each other, diving around and doing barrel rolls. My mind switched from Star Wars to Avatar. The little Mountain Banshees were suddenly trumped in size and speed by the Great Leonopteryxes. It was quite a sight! The swallows and the peregrines swam through the air all morning.

Although we weren't swooping around in the air on the back of a dragon, I still felt like I was on another planet. We were human explorers, creeping our way up a vertical desert, little by little. While our bodies and our minds teetered on the edge of extreme and comfort.

However, that is nothing strange to me. Humans crave extremes. That's how we feel alive. I'm not only talking about sky diving and bungee jumping. The extremes I'm talking about don't have to be a physical extreme, they could be mental, spiritual, or intellectual as well. We jump into extreme situations to feel exhilaration, fear, happiness, or any other intense feeling and then we return to our comfort zone. That's why I climb.

I climb to make it back down. And everything that happens between leaving the ground and coming back down is growth. If you're not growing and learning from the extremes you put yourself into, then you might want to reconsider why you do what you do.

And so, the most extreme day began on Day 4. There were highs and lows, a little weird and a lot of fear.


(Who's that good lookin' guy?)

 (Cleaning pitch 8)

 (Cleaning El Portal)

 (Aaron starting out on "the Money Pitch")

 (Halfway there!)

 (Aaron climbing... Peter sleeping??)

 (Ohhh there he is! We got to his ledge just in time to see him climb)

As we sat on Peter's port-a-ledge waiting for him to climb this pitch and fix a rope for us the most unbelievable thing happened. Out of nowhere, Aaron spotted a few bees swarming around us. Gradually, more and more bees swirled around us! I looked down and for hundreds of feet a dark cloud snaked it's way up the wall. Thousands and thousands of bees were on the move, swarming our direction, straight up Zodiac! My jaw dropped and I remained motionless. All of us, wearing bright colored shirts, felt like the only flowers in a very large and empty garden. Luckily, the bees were busy trying to find a home and wanted nothing to do with us stinky climbers. I still don't know if that really happened or not... strange. 

 (Running out of time, we decided to jug Peters rope, rather than wait for him to clean)

 (One rope... that's all you need)


(Trying to untangle six full length ropes!)

(Jugging the free line)

(So crazy)

Our Port-a-ledge, much like a kite, caught the wind and began to spin. The ropes then caught my rope and we began a tether-ball-like spin 1000' in the air. How many times can two ropes twist before they snap? That's what was goin through my mind...

(Finally untangled, I finished jugging up)

(Beginning the final pitch of the day)

(The Mark of Zorro pitch)

And this is the last image of the day right before things got a little crazy. My route followed the giant roof, up and right. I began close to dusk with a head lamp and no gear (my rack was "tagged" up to me later, as needed). This was slightly nerve wracking. The only climbing I've previously done in the dark had been bouldering with friends while drinking beer. This time, I would be over a thousand feet up, by myself, building anchors on old jankey bolts for my two friends below me, exhausted, dehydrated, and quite honestly a little lost (Thank you, Jim Ablao, for the Single Pitch Instructor course last Spring! Saved my ass).

The pitch began just fine. I cruised up the roof and pulled onto vertical terrain as the sun went down. Although I am hanging from my harness while aid climbing, steep roof climbing while trying to race the sun ain't no joke. I was pretty tired by this point, but only half way done. A little free climbing, one stuck biner, and a few bolts later I was 10 feet above and 15 feet right of the anchor! How the hell did that happen? 

I stopped and looked around. I became aware of how focused I had been on the simple task of finding the next placement and completely oblivious to the time. How long had I been climbing for? 30 minutes? An Hour? Aid climbing is never fast. By this time the sun was gone and I was, for the first time on this route, all by myself. Alone in my little bubble of light. I told myself to focus and stay calm as I pulled out my topo to figure out where the hell I was. 

The topo proved to be about as helpful up there as my bouldering strength! It was wet and shredded into little bits from being in my pocket for the last 3 days. Little scraps of paper floated away and out of my little bubble of light. 

"MAAATTTT!" I gave in.


"WHERE ARE MY ANCHORS?!" I yelled down.

"Don't go left! Those are false anchors! Keep going up!" he yelled back.

It took a while to find the anchors as my bubble and I continued upward, but we did. However, reaching the anchors didn't mean my work was done. I had to haul ropes, build three anchors, set up the pulley to haul the pigs, and then begin hauling. The responsibility I had was daunting. I wanted to drink water and sleep. My tongue was stuck ot the roof of my mouth. I didn't want to think about setting up anchors so my friends wouldn't die! So, needless to say, I took quite a while making sure my anchors were solid and my friends would make it up to me.

Finally up, pigs hauled, and port-a-ledge set up we had the opportunity to relax.

Oh.... except the seams on both sides of the double-ledge that Aaron and I were sleeping on had ripped halfway through on both sides. Nothing like a little rest and relaxation on a ledge that might make it through the night.

No beer. No brushed teeth. No sleep. It was awesome!

Day 5

The crowd roared! It was impossible to sleep anymore. Alex Honnold and Hans Florine were half way up The Nose by the time we woke up. We watched the excitement from our broke ass ledge, drank coffee, and went poop as the crowds cheered (I think they were cheering for us). After a while the two set up for the King Swing and disappear around the corner. Only the internet from our smart phone could tell us whether or not they broke the record.

It's amazing to me that these two can climb 30 pitches in the same time it takes me to climb 1 pitch. Let's say I put 30 pieces of gear in on a pitch that takes me roughly two hours. That mean, Alex and Hans can climb a full rope length in the same time it takes me to grab a piece of gear, put it in a crack, clip my aiders into the piece and stand up. Insane.

The speed ascent on The Nose got us pumped and ready to go for day 5. We had a lot of work to do so we got right to it! The lead order for the day went: Matt, Aaron, Joey, Joey, Joey. Yikes!

 (Morning on the broken ledge)

(Matt goin for it on the first pitch of the day)

(Husslin' up to catch up with Matt after his lead)

 (Just hangin around)

(Off Aaron goes toward Peanut Ledge)

 (One rope... so scary)

 (Peter Pan? Just his shadow)

(Matt cleaning the pitch Aaron led)

 (Haulin' dem pigs!!! The power squat method)

 (A bouquet of cams! never used any that big before... another first!)

My mission, which I chose to accept was to climb 80 feet of off-width crack, using only a handful of cams. The method: Leap frog #4-5 cams for 40 feet until I could finally leave one for protection and then do the same thing again for another 40 feet until I could pull the roof. Basically, I was looking at a potential 80+ foot fall if I screwed up (assuming I didn't hit the ledge on the way down). 

(Chillin on Peanut Ledge)

 (Chillin on this off width crack)

(There's that ledge way down there)

 (Past the roof! almost done!)

The final two pitches I linked together in, probably, one of the most in-glorious ascents in Zodiac history. First, without looking at the topo to know where I was going, I tried to free climb a section of 5.12 while 15 feet run-out, straight left, directly off the belay. Here's a few pictures:

I finally decided to not be an idiot and put a piece of gear in like any normal person would do and finished the first half of my pitches no problem. Then I managed to get myself into a mess which I'm not sure if I can even explain. But I'll try.

Actually, I just tried and I can't. Long story short, I spent a good hour trying to back clean a bunch of gear in a big 100' loop of rope. Very sketchy. Probably really dangerous. I don't even know! I'm new! Either way, I finished the first half and continued up the second half which proved to be quite tricky.

The top was near. Five moves away. I balanced very elf-like on one of the tiniest pieces of gear, barely hand placed in a very narrow and shallow crack. Three moves away. I clipped a fixed piton. Two moves, a solid cam. One more move, one more cam. Once again, night was creeping in on us. I poked my head over the top. For the first time on the route I could see Half Dome across the valley as I mantled on top of El Cap and a big smile crept onto my face.

(The hike down doesn't count cause it was harder than the climb)

Dream on!