Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Picking at The Nose.
The Nose of El Capitan is arguably the most striking visual line in Yosemite. Photographers and climbers alike are seduced by its shapely form. It was the first route climbed on the “Big Stone,” fifty years ago, back in 1958. Today it is one of the easiest, yet longest lines on El Cap, and that makes it the most popular as well. It was first climbed in a day in 1974, first free climbed in 1992, and the current speed record for the 3000’ face is less than three hours. I climbed the Zodiac, a shorter, harder, steeper line on the SE face, and a whole bunch of other big walls in the Valley, but always avoided The Nose and poopoo-ed it as being overdone, over crowded, a circus, and not a big deal. But the reality has crept into my mind that some day I’ll have to climb it.
Two years ago, Kevin Jorgeson and I roped up at the base intending to climb as far as Dolt Tower, a feature that rises to the one-third height. It was six in the morning on June 6, 2006. (That’s 6:00, 6/6/6. Perhaps a bad omen? Anyhow…) We got to Sickle Ledge, traversed right into the Stove Leg Cracks, and followed these perfect but ever widening splitters for four nearly vertical pitches to Dolt. I had greatly underestimated the Stove Legs. The ratings on these pitches are pretty tame but the climbing is burly and continuous. Starting as a thin finger crack, it widens to hands, fists, and finally 5.10c off-width. Better have some serious endurance if you plan to free these. I found myself pulling on gear, leapfrogging #3 and #4 cams up to the ledge and collapsed in a heap.
Kevin was a natural. This was his first time on a big wall and he was all psyched. We lounged on Dolt lying on our backs, looking up at the rest of the wall. Foreshortening played tricks on us and it didn’t look that big. We were happy to have done a third of the route in seven hours, and thought, this will be no problem. We rappelled down into strong afternoon winds that quickly tangled our ropes into a ball of knots and caused much difficulty. Eventually we made it down, but the Captain had slapped us into full attention. This isn’t a wall to take lightly.
Before venturing back up we decided to get some practice with the haul bag and porta ledge on smaller walls. This would give Kevin more experience with hauling procedures and help us get or entire system management and communication dialed in. We climbed Leaning Tower, a 1500’ overhanging spire to the right of Bridal Veil Fall. It went well and we figured that this year we were ready for another go on the Nose.
We drove to the Valley with a clear and determined sense of commitment, shouldered the enormous bags and headed for the base.
The weather called for a couple days of wind with a 20% chance of showers later in the week. That meant and 80% chance of sun. At 3pm we were roped up on our way to Sickle. We decided to haul everything with us to save time and energy and bivuac on our portaledge. (Most parties climb to Sickle and fix ropes down to the ground, then haul their gear up the fixed lines the next day. This is easier, but takes longer.)
The wind was blasting from the West as we climbed. The sun came and went between clouds and illuminated the headwall above. It was a peaceful night and we slept well.
Next morning we were up before sunrise and a team of strong Basque brothers (Eneko and Iker Pou) passed us. They were trying the Nose In A Day (NIAD). They were moving fast with no bags and were in high spirits. We advised them of the high winds, which they acknowledged and moved on. The traverse was done in good time. We lowered out and hauled the heavy bags and continued up. The morning wind came up with the sun. Today it was from the East and had a cold bite. Several pitches up the Stove Legs, we wore all of our clothes and the increasing gale was blowing straight through us.
Above, the Pou Brothers started to rappel as the wind was too intense. Kevin and I yelled into each other’s ears to be heard and decided to bail as well. We climbed a bit more to reach a rappel anchor and started putting gear away in preparation for descent. Meanwhile, Iker and Eneko were having trouble. Their ropes had hung up in a crack and were stuck. Eneko clipped in and went back up to free it, rappelled back down, and pulled the rope again. The wind blew that rope around the Nose like dental floss on a car antennae at eighty miles an hour. It was hopelessly stuck, lodged somewhere out of sight around the corner. There was much desperate communication between us. We were freezing and ready to rappel, but waited to see if they needed help. Their only option was to cut the rope. This left them two options; 1) continue to the top with the remaining rope (Only 40M. Desperate!), or 2) make several short rappels, leaving gear behind, and rappel down with us. They did not have enough rope to make it down on their own.
The climbing brotherhood transcends culture, language, and personal goals. In times of need, we bond together to help each other. Sometimes the proverbial crap hits the fan remarkably fast, as it did that day. In a moment, two amazing climbers were faced with a potential nightmare. But through the course of adversity, strong lifelong friendships and deep meaningful relationships are formed in the forge of shared history.
Instead of suffering, we all rappelled down, relieved, laughing at the situation, happy to have helped, and to have been helped. Later in the afternoon, we sat on the deck in Curry Village eating pizza, swapping stories, and learning about Basque country with our new friends. The Nose will always be there and we will climb it another day.