After a full fall and winter of not really rock climbing/rehabbing a shoulder post surgery, I needed a fix before starting this year's work season. Earlier in the winter, I made loose plans to head to the valley for the first two weeks of May. At that point, I'd barely started climbing again after 5 months off and was very unsure of what types of routes we'd try and how I'd do on them. As the winter progressed, I was tentatively happy with the increasing amounts of climbing my shoulder could handle. That being said, my partner was talking about freeing El Cap and I was psyched to be sending 5.11 in the gym... Despite that massive disconnect, I continued deluding myself that it wouldn't be that big a deal to just french free behind a stronger parter and carried on with PT, strengthening, and training. A few weeks beforehand, things were feeling surprisingly good. I have no idea how I should feel in order to free El Cap, but my fitness was feeling ~90% of where I was pre-surgury. This was immensely satisfying. Still, the contrast between taking a few burns per day on a tips crack at Smith vs. trying to climb and haul pitch after pitch of steep granite cracks had me a little nervous for how things would play out.
Fast forward to two weeks ago and myself and two strong, motivated partners are dropping off food in bear bins for two days of camping and top roping on the upper 1000' of Golden Gate. A friend of a friend was trying to do it in a push and had fixed the top for a photographer. He kindly offered to let us play on his ropes. There was also a team from the Northeast who were on the same plan and hauled up 300m of static ropes. It was going to be festive up there. Lastly, there were two guys we encountered sorting gear in the parking lot who shall henceforth be known as 'Team Entitlement' for the asshat way they handled themselves.
Upon hearing our plans, T.E. instantly started grilling my Spanish friend in a rude and condescending manner about why we wanted to climb that route and what made us think we were ready for such a lofty goal? They were planning on previewing it too and to say that they were upset by the rumors of crowds would be a massive understatement. To top it off, they told us that since a rockfall event over the winter, the East Ledges trail had changed and sent us off on what turned out to be a bushwhack to nowhere. In sharing this beta, they made it crystal clear that they were Yosemite mega-locals who were the keepers of the keys to the mystical treasures hidden way up high on the Captain, so we foolishly listened to them. Thankfully, what's considered bushwhacking in California is basically just walking through the woods in Washington, so we still beat them to the fixed lines.
After a sweaty walk uphill and a short detour for water, we were racking up to rap the ropes that the guys from Maine had set up the night before, when our 'friends' the locals sauntered up. The alpha-local sat down uncomfortably close to us and resumed his interrogation. He was convinced that we were bumblies intent on getting ourselves in trouble while using and abusing other people's personal property. Personal property that we surely couldn't have permission to use. After insisting that it was all going to be okay and that we did, in fact, know who's ropes we were about to rappel, what route they were on, and that we had their permission, we started loading ropes in grigris. At the first click of a carabiner, he instantly told us that the ropes were actually in the wrong place and that we should be rapping our friend's ropes 20m away on a different tree. "Because it's the better finish." Turns out Golden Gate has two possible finishes and he made it abundantly clear that the one we were about to descend was unworthy and should be avoided at all cost. Even on rappel. Why he waited until we were about to start rappelling is unfathomable. Long story short, he was completely wrong again and as we dealt with steep, overhanging rappels and passing tied off core shots, we realized we'd once again been fed a line of terrible beta. "Fool me once, shame on you..."
Rant over. What unfolded for the next two days was amazing. While it's far from the best style, top roping pitch after pitch of perfect granite crack climbing in one of the most spectacular settings on the planet is quite fun. The three of us ended up teaming with the guys from Maine and shared burns and beta on the three crux pitches. Team Entitlement went off to go stroke their egos on some other route and our only other interaction with them was later that night. My partner had just finished jugging back out in the dark when he stumbled across their bivy. Alpha-local told him that there were some good bivy sites over near the top of the Muir and pointed directly off the edge of the abyss. Whether or not he was actually telling my friend to go look for a site off the edge of El Cap remains unclear, but the fact that he didn't point him in the direction of ten other excellent sites in the opposite direction is baffling.
Working on the 'move.'
A busy day on Golden Gate
After returning to the valley floor, we waited out a storm and obsessed over what day it would stop raining/when we should start climbing. My friend Pedro had done Freeblast more times than he cared to admit, so we elected to jug and haul the fixed ropes to Heart Ledges and start climbing from there. Our goal was to reach the Alcove on day one and take each pitch as they came after that. We were prepared to spend 5 days on the wall.
Day 1: The forecast was very accurate. There wasn't any precip, but there were plenty of clouds. We were in and out of them all day and watching them interact with the features around the Valley was incredible. The climbing was fun and the hauling sucked. (not really surprising) Climbing pitch after pitch of high quality granite cracks made wrestling 5 days of food and water completely worth it. In the last light of the evening, (brought on more suddenly by the cloud layer we'd climbed into) we were at the base of the Monster. In the interest of time we chose to aid around it on the Salathe's crux pitch to reach the alcove with minimal headlamping.
Pedro boldly questing forward. (or, more accurately, taking a selfie while belaying)
Finishing the day in the clouds.
Day 2: The morning started with a TR lap on the Monster. It completely lives up to its reputation. While no section is particularly desperate, it feels endless and the sustained nature of the climbing is a little soul-crushing. After that it was a short bit of climbing through some wetness up to the downclimb pitch. This was the one hard pitch that we hadn't been on yet and it is nails! It's pretty mellow getting established on the two holds, but magicking them from footholds to handholds was beyond me. Pedro figured it out and came close to linking, but the sun was on by the time he was in go mode and he ultimately chose to move on. Our objective for the day was to reach the base of the move pitch and camp there that night.
Pedro on the downclimb.
Four traversing pitches and more wetness put us there right as the sun set. Unfortunately there was a seep above the anchor causing a light rain exactly where we were intending to set up the ledge. No problem. I figured I could just headlamp up, go bolt to bolt up the move pitch, (which we'd TR'd the week prior) A0 the crux, and we'd have nice dry camping. All was going well. Despite the dark, I was remembering sequences and by resting at each piece, (first a stopper, then a pin, then a bolt) the fatigue of the day's climbing and hauling was manageable. After casting off from a hang at the bolt, I worked my way up until I was maybe half a meter from being able to grab some tat hanging from the first of the two crux bolts. (the pitch is basically 12a to V7) I was maybe 2 meters out from the previous bolt and just had to do a powerful rockover off a good crimp and I'd be there. As I started committing to the move, my fatigue caught up with me and I felt my core loosen as I started to sag backwards off the high foot. I quickly reversed back to a stance to shake out.
Looking down, it was going to be a fall, but a totally reasonable one, so I figured 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' and recommitted to the sequence. Needless to say, I punted with my fingers inches from the tat and took the ride. As the rope started to tighten, the bolt (that had raised zero red flags up to this point) exploded out of the rock and sent me on a 20 meter ride onto the old pin. My belayer told me 'when you fell, you were 10 meters above me. When you stopped, you were 10 meters below me.' (the pitch starts with a traverse) The fall ripped my headlamp from my head and sent it into the void. (that must have been interesting to watch!) Thankfully I only got some minor scrapes and a nice new Petzl hanger decorating my rearview mirror in return. I beat a hasty retreat back up to the belay and after the awkward experience of pitching the ledge with one headlamp at a dripping, hanging stance, (comprised of two bolts of the same vintage) we suffered through a soggy night's sleep.
Day 3: Things started off with a decision. Do we try and battle up the pitch despite the missing bolt or do we try to reverse the four pitches of traversing ramps we'd done the previous afternoon and rap to the ground? The ramps were unappealing and I'm kind of stubborn, so I ended up casting off with all of our smallest gear and the tent pole for the fly on our ledge. I was able to find a few tcu placements to gain ground past the pin, but they didn't really get us any higher. The cheater stick was still 10-20cms shy of the tat. Pushing it higher, I managed to slot a purple tcu behind a thin, grainy flake and top-stepped a sling. With the tent pole bending like a fly rod under the weight of our 6mm tag line, I was barely able to coax the taped open carabiner into the faded tat 20' above. I then was faced with the unappealing prospect of gingerly jugging our 6mm spectra tag line hanging from an open carabiner in a ratty old sling. While I'm sure this is no big deal to a seasoned aid climber, I'm the opposite of that and was properly gripped. Long story short, we got up the pitch and by later that night had made it to within five pitches of the top.
Prerigging out secret weapon.
Fishing for tat on the move pitch.
Another late night.
Day 4: Early in the previous day, Pedro had begun to suffer from a mysterious shoulder injury. Both jugging and climbing were super painful for him, so I took over from the move pitch on. Watching him battle through what looked like random jolts of excruciating pain was inspiring. Which was a good thing, because leading and hauling every pitch worked me over pretty good. What was originally intended to be a mostly free romp up a beautiful free climb turned into something of a battle that left me physically and mentally exhausted. The 'better' finish that our alpha-local had recommended was in fact really, really good, but the pitches were hard to enjoy after everything it took to get us there. The route finishes up these beautiful hanging flakes and hand cracks on a steep headwall that feels like it's on top of the world. In addition to being beautiful, the flakes were also super thin, somewhat hollow and forced me to punch it between good cam placements. (they're not called the 'razor flakes' for nothing!) The last pitch has a mandatory move of 11b slab-funkery that took me forever to work through in my depleted state. It was immensely satisfying to finally wrap the rope around the tree at the top, feeling like I had spent all of my mental and physical stamina in reaching that point.
Worked! (but happy!)
A footnote to my earlier rant:
Most of us are locals somewhere. We all have crags that we spend a lot of time at and know better than many of the people climbing there on any given day. This gives us a sort of power over the other visitors to these areas. Despite everything T.E. did to piss me off, they have a point. The top of El Cap is an amazing crag with little or no regulation in an area fraught with red tape and over-regulation. People leave personal property up there and despite the contentious nature of that concept, it sucks when your stuff gets damaged or taken. It would be a shame if the NPS started regulating the scene up there. Every crag has a similar set of issues endemic to it that all users need to know when visiting it. To me, the whole interaction was a valuable reminder to not be a dick when people who I don't know show up to my favorite crag. If we need to respectfully educate visitors, being open and welcoming from the get-go gets us way further to being heard and engaged on the important issues than interrogating and belittling ever will.