Jump to content

Zodiac Trip Report (very long)


Recommended Posts

El Cap off the Couch - or – It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun


The cast of characters:

Alan – 45 yr old climber from NC, two previous El Cap routes (TD, Nose), and my partner for the route

Hank – 50 yr old climber from NC, Alan’s original partner w/same El Cap experience, owns a boy’s camp in the NC mountains

Andre – 20’s black kid who works for Hank’s boys camp, non-climber, has spent very few nights sleeping in a tent, doesn’t do well with exposure

Strickland – (too strange to make this up) – 20’s Asian kid who also works for Hank, pretty weird that his first name is my last name, newbie climber.

Rudy – 20’s climber who works for Hank, never been to Yos before

Johnny – 20’s Northern Irish climber who’s in our Camp 4 site, just bailed on South Face

Bob – 20’s newbie climber who works for Hank

Me - Willstrickland


After landing a new job in Fairbanks, I had three weeks before I had to start travel on October 5 toward Alaska. Perfect time for a trip to Yosemite! So I loaded the gear in the Suby and set off, gratefully watching Atlanta recede in my rear view mirror. I blazed across the country making OK City the first day, Flagstaff the second, and the Valley at sunset on day three. I screamed out a “hell yeah!” when El Cap came into view as I rolled in on Hwy 41. The first people I ran into in the Camp 4 parking lot were Holly and Tom, fellow CCers and someone I’d chatted with about routes over the net, but never actually met in person. Small world. Laying in a boulder cave that night, I had plenty of time to think about this turning point in my life and how badly out of climbing shape I was. I drifted into a fitful sleep dreaming of bears, huge exposure, and rangers.


After a couple of finger injuries, a partially separated rib, and a temporary move back to Atlanta, I had climbed exactly three pitches of trad in the previous year. Matt Anderson was down in the southeast for a conference and we hooked up for a day at Tallulah Gorge, Georgia’s finest trad area, back in March. I’d managed to get out bouldering a few times over the winter, but hadn’t even touched rock in well over six months. I was nervous about how bad my abilities had deteriorated.


Before heading out I’d exchanged e-mails with a couple of other CCers who would be in the valley and had tentative plans to jump on the Prow with Bill, or maybe the Trip with Mike. So after a morning laying around the caf, I talked to my site-mates Hank and Alan who had fixed two pitches on Zodiac, but were going to bail because Hank wasn’t into it. I mentioned that I was probably getting on the Prow, but if that didn’t work out I’d be psyched to get on Zodiac with Alan. Later that afternoon I located Bill and we talked over the Prow. He was gung-ho, but wanted to get on route quickly because his partner from an attempt on the South Face was recovering from a 20ft groundfall on that route and they wanted to go finish it. No sooner than we decided to do it, his partner walks up.

“Hey man, how you feelin?”

“I feel great man, foot feels good!”

“So when do you wanna get back on the wall?”

“How about tomorrow?”

So the Prow was no longer my plan. I went back to camp and told Alan I was in, we’ll rack tomorrow and blast the next day. Alan was psyched, at 45 yrs old, this was probably his last wall route and he’d always wanted to do something on the southeast face. His last three wall attempts had been bails due to weather twice (Muir and Salathe’),and a snail-eyed partned once (Dihedral Wall).


Walking around Camp 4 I ran into several old friends…Texplorer rolled in, Juko the crazy old polish climber I always see showed up fresh from Warsaw(this dude has done around 17 different El Cap routes and has repeated the Shield like 5 times with different partners, once solo…says it’s the best route up there), several other CCers were hanging around. And the Hubers were back…no doubt we would see them on route since they were working on freeing it.


We ended up pushing our blast-off day to a day later than originally planned so the next day around noon I hiked up to the base of Washington Column to see how Texplorer was making out on his one -day solo of the Prow. I sat at the base amused at the clusterf&*K on the South Face and trying to figure out if Tex was up there on the wall. Finally I picked him out between two parties up on about the 7th pitch. “He’s making good time” I thought and yelled up as he started cleaning the pitch to make sure it was him.

“HEY TEX!!!!”


“Tear it up man, you’re looking great!”

I headed back to camp, psyched for Tex, he was cruising.


We decided to head up late in the afternoon to jug and haul when it was cool. Temps were unusually hot for late September, hitting the mid 90s. Alan suggested 3 liters each per day. I said no way, a gallon for sure. So we split the loads between Alan, Hank, Andre, Strickland, and myself and headed up the approach. Along the way we passed “Pass the Pitons” Pete and his groupies sorting gear for Pete’s solo attempt on Gulf Stream. I’m not exactly a fan of Pete’s and when he asked where we were headed my smart-assed reply was “Ohh, were not climbers dude, we’re just hiking.” The rest of the crew was more cordial and soon we hiked on and dropped the pigs at the base. Two Mexican climbers had just bailed, but another set of ropes was also fixed along with ours. These belonged to Ricardo, a newbie wall climber who was soloing El Cap for his first wall route. I thought that was pretty f’in cool but my positive opinion of Ricardo didn’t last (more on that later).


At the base we found a rattlesnake hanging out under a rock directly beneath our fixed lines. Andre’ almost jumped out of his skin when he first saw it. I was laughing until I started jugging….As soon as I left the ground I swung directly over the rock and my feet were about 18 inches from this f-in snake. All I could do was try to jug fast and pray, but the rope stretch kept me there for a butt-clenching 30 seconds. I was giving my Russian aiders their first real test on this wall, having used them for a only a pitch or two previously. Getting adjusted took a bit, but soon enough we were both up the lines and hauling (it took both of us to move the bags for the first two days). I taught Alan how to anchor the pigs with a load-release knot on a tether and quickly led up the bolt ladder on pitch 3. We hauled again and busted out the ledge and settled in. The exposure was already intense for me, having not climbed in so long, but once in the ledge and fed, I drifted off to a decent sleep. Tomorrow the real deal would start.


A party of Swedes were bivied on 4 and we had to wait a bit in the morning to get going before they had cleared the belay.( This theme continued for the first 3 mornings and eventually proved to be a problem since we couldn’t get in as many pitches as we’d planned those days.) At one point Alan had led to right below the anchors and had to wait for them to get off the belay after they screwed around for two hours after sunrise before they even started leading.


One the first full day on the wall Alan freed up a left-leaning 5.6 ramp, then had easy aid to finish the second half. Cleaning was kind of a pain since I also had to free the ramp in hiking shoes (he backcleaned all the pro on the ramp). It was only early morning and already it was feeling hot. Little did we know that this would be the theme of the climb. I had pitch 5, another bolt ladder to some easy aid to some 5.7 free moves. I skipped the first free move by placing a cam hook in a rotten flake and then clipped the rack and most of the rope off to the last piece to make the moves without the rope drag and weight of the rack. By this point it had reached over 90 degrees and we were in full sun. The park service was doing controlled burns around the valley and a thick haze hung in the air. El Cap meadow had already been burned and was completely black except for the social trail network which stood out in bold relief as veins of beige in the blackened meadow. Pitch 6 was more easy aid and since the Swedes were bivying on 7, we called it a day. That night Mars loomed huge in the southern sky - a red ball glowing just over the Higher Spire. Orion appeared over the top of El Cap and made a slow journey across the sky. I didn’t sleep much and marveled at how the concave cliff top cut through the sky, revealing constellations as if they were falling off the summit.


Alan wanted the Black Tower pitch, the supposed crux of the route. We got up early on day 3 and he was leading just before sunrise. From the belay seat I was checking out other parties on the wall, wondering why Pete’s “solo” of Gulf Stream involved three other people helping him haul and clean the first few pitches. Then I noticed something strange…a shit bag flying off the middle of the southeast face. All of a sudden “poooff!!!” It wasn’t a shit bag at all…it was a base jumper coming off the top of Mescalito. Two more followed…rad!!!


About halfway up the tower and below the C3R section Alan called for the pins. He placed one sawed angle (this would be the only pin we placed on the route)and then higher , now on the crux section, tried to place a beak to no avail. He engineered a solution (cam hooked I think)but the Swedes again took their sweet ass time getting off the belay and Alan had to wait to finish the pitch, relieved he hadn’t fallen and hit the ramp of the tower. The route came into the sun as I started dismantling the belay. Cleaning the pitch, the tower was so hot I couldn’t touch it for more than a few seconds at a time. I cleaned the pin and thought… “offset alien would have worked”. It was a scorching 95 degrees at this point with no wind at all. Pitch 8 was more 5.7 free and French free, and then more bolts and fixed junk. I made decent time but the Swedes again were crawling and we had to bivy on 8. We told them they had to get moving or let us pass, and they agreed they needed to speed up.


We awoke even earlier on day 3 and Alan led off on pitch 9 with a heavy smoke haze filling the whole valley. I belayed out of the ledge…something I would regret when I had to break it down by myself from a hanging station. I couldn’t even see the Cathedrals which are only about ½ mile away. Even with an earlier start Alan still finished the pitch just as the route came into the sun….again I would have my whole day of work in the sun. I stared at the Merced, knowing the sight of that cold clear water would torture me for days to come.


I spent the belay time talking with Ricardo the soloist who was already nailing down on pitch 5, and had placed probably 10 pins by the time he got to the top of 7. Pete was bailing off Gulf Stream and there were tons of people on the Nose, a couple on Mescalito, and a soloist on South Seas (really cool to watch him start jugging his fixed lines hanging a good 80’ from the wall in the alcove and take this HUGE swing as he left the ground). There was also someone on Eagle’s Way, a party on the Trip, and a couple of parties on Wall of Early Morning Light. At the base Pete kept cranking up AC/DC on his blaster, as he had been for days. One song he had in heavy rotation had become my mantra during the route….”It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock-n-roll!!!”


Now we were into the Gray Circle and the climbing was getting better, wandering less, and becoming more intricate. But goddamn it was hot! I’ve never been so affected by the heat in my life and I’m from Georgia! I led the Nipple Pitch, freaking out at the foot holds the Hubers had ticked under the roof. These things would be bad footholds on a slab route! After humping up the tit, happily plugging in both of the 4.5 Camalots we brought, I got to the belay, which was cruely positioned right below the edge of the shade from the roof above. I spent the entire next two hours cursing the SOB who didn’t place this belay three feet higher. I decided to lobby for the next pitch too. Alan came into the belay talking about asking the Swedes to fix the next pitch for us. “Fuck that man…” I said, “…we came to climb, besides the climbing is getting really good!” He was getting worked by the heat and I kindly offered to take the next lead so he wouldn’t have to clean, lead, and haul back to back to back. The Mark of Zoro pitch was pure joy…camhooks, offsets, offset aliens, and I was having a blast by now. At the end of the pitch I reached a spot where the topo showed a three bolt traverse left to the belay. Well, the middle bolt was chopped, and after trying to pendulum I finally cheat sticked and hit the belay. We hauled and called it a day. We were already having to restrain ourselves from drinking too much water. We clearly didn’t have as much as we needed and without enough to drink, we stopped eating lunch, instead relying on a dwindling supply of GU for mid day nourishment.


The next morning, day 4, the Swedes were finally moving well, having climbed into the night the previous day. We planned to summit and bivy on the rim, which meant five pitches that day. The Hubers came rapping in that morning and I talked with them a bit about the cruxes, the stuff they had ticked, and how they were making out. I also asked about water on top and they mentioned one bottle of water that “don’t look so good…kind of green”. Just as Thomas was about to rap onward, a peregrine flew behind him and landed on a ledge maybe 20 ft to our left. I pointed it out to him and he freaked. “ Alexander! Alexander! Blah blah unintelligible german…SUUPPEERR!!! YAH!”


We had dipped into the day’s water late the previous day, rationalizing that we’d be better off staying decently hydrated and suffering at the very end. Again it was Alan’s lead first and again he finished as the route came into the sun…another day of work fully in the sun for me. By this point we were both moving pretty slowly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were thinking a little cloudy and simple things took us a long time. I started up pitch 13 thinking that the final corner would be only a few moves…I dispatched the bottom part of the pitch and turned into the diheral. My spirits sank. There was another 80 feet of C1 to the belay. I was really dehydrated by this point and hadn’t peed all day. I cam hooked and placed hybrids up the corner, backcleaning the whole thing. We still had not experienced even a slight breeze on the whole route. At one point on the corner, a cold breeze was coming out of the crack. The air must have been 50 degrees and when the wind would blow on other parts of the face (on the next pitch actually) this air conditioner would cut loose with blasts of arctic breeze. I just stuck my face against the crack and breathed in this cool air for about ten minutes. Finally I got moving again and at the belay…wind. Big wind! Alan came up also amazed at the refrigerator crack. I finally tried to pee off this ledge and the wind just blew it all over me….soaked in my own brown, stanky, dehydrated piss…well not quite soaked because there was so little of it.


Alan led up 14, the pitch you’ve all seen in the supertopo book with Takeda soloing it. It’s a really cool thin flake to a roof. Homie backcleaned a bunch of the roof at the end and I had to leave a #2 camalot when cleaning. “Booty for Ricardo” I thought. As he was leading the wind was screaming in this alcove and the haul rope was doing constant circles as I tried to hold it taut to prevent it from hanging the flake. It was getting late when I cleaned to the belay and I knew Alan would probably have to lead the summit pitch under headlamp. I took off up 15 and the climbing was probably as hard as any of the other pitches, with a little of everything…hooks, cams, offset nut, camhooks, etc. I was aggressively backcleaning and was almost to the belay as sunset arrived. With all the smoke haze in the valley, the sunset was spectacular….easily the best I’ve seen inYos. So I reach the end of a crack, look at the topo and the topo shows the belay on a right sloping 3x30ft ledge. I see two such ledge above…one directly above about six feet up and one up and left about 30 feet away. Straight up seems right, but the moves look like hard free climbing to stuff I can’t see. I look out left and a roof shoots up and left toward the other ledge. I see some fixed tat way out the roof. I start hooking out this little flake under the roof, making six hook moves in a row, placing a rotten cam under the roof, hooking some more, and some more, and then clipping this tat on a fixed z pin. Another fixed pin follows. By now it’s dark and I’m climbing by headlamp. I look at the topo again. I ask Alan to turn on his headlamp for a sec…SHIT!!! He’s way down there and right, I was supposed to finish almost straight above the belay. It was the other ledge. I scan the other ledge with my headlamp…really wishing I had a halogen bulb instead of LEDs, and then I see a faint glimmer. “Gotta be a bolt…” I think.


By now I’m really worked from hunger and dehydration, having been without water for several hours (although we still had about a pint sitting at the previous belay). I’m not happy that I’ve gotta reverse all this hooking in the dark, and I’m a little nervous. To take my mind off the fear I scream some cuss words and then tell myself to get it together. “No time to lose your shit mate!” I say to myself, “This is the stuff that separates the wheat from the chaff!”. I reverse the moves and get to the belay. I quickly fix the rope, get the bags off the anchor and tell Alan he can start cleaning. I sit down on the ledge to take a breather before hauling and immediately fall asleep. I awake with a jerk…”Huh?…Hmmm, how long have I been out?” I look down and Alan has just started cleaning, I was out maybe 5 minutes. I haul the bags in and beat Alan to the ledge with the bags. He pulls into the ledge and he’s wasted. We decide to bivy, set up the ledge and share one can of tuna between us, saving half the pin of water for the next morning.


Sunrise and we’re up. Alan leads off on the final pitch, understandably moving really slowly. “Take your time man, no hurry now” I say, realizing how wrecked we both are. He’s on top soon enough and as I reach the half-way point cleaning his crew yells up from the meadow and gets on the radio. Alan says he’s too wasted to try to get down the east ledges and asks if I’m ok with hiking out Tamarack Flats. He’s done it before, in fact each time he’s done El Cap he’s hiked out that way.

“How far?” I ask.

“About five miles, mostly flat”

“Ok man, that’s fine”

His crew offer to hike in part way and meet us with some water and food. The crew takes off and I pull over the top. We shake hands and shed our harnesses. I walk around a little and find the green water. It’s about 2 liters of water that was mixed with some kind of drink mix, and there are bugs and ants in the bottle. I drink a pint and hand it to Alan. He wants no part of it. The last haul is horrendous…a little payback for the easy hauling on the rest of the route I guess. We finally set up a 3:1 on the haul line and both of us muscle it almost over the lip. Finally I have to hop over the edge and throw the bags over. Things should be easy now, we just have to get out. Things are not easy now, in fact, shit gets real bad real fast.


I drink some more water and ask Alan to drink. “You gotta drink man, it’ll help you out. You need to eat too.” He still won’t drink but tries to eat some Newtons. I cram back two pop tarts and have some more water, it’s nasty but who gives a shit…I’m so thirsty I couldn’t care less. Then Alan starts dry-heaving. He’s layed out in the shade of a tree and his speech is getting pretty slurred. I start coiling ropes, and packing my haulbag. He doesn’t move, and says if I can pack the bags and let him rest a little he’ll be ready to go. I look at him. He looks like hell, shit crusted all over his mouth and face, kinda pale, just plain wrecked. By now two hours have passed since we talked with his bros. I finally make a key decision.

“Look man, we can do this two ways. I can take my bag and start hiking out, meet Hank and those cats and have them come in with some water…or I can start out naked and get to them a lot faster.”

“Go light.”

“Alright, here are extra radio batteries, here’s a pint of this water. I’ve never been out Tamarack, you have to tell me how to get there.”

“I’ve only been there from the Nose area. Go straight back from the Nose and pick up the falls trail. There’s a sign off the falls trail that says Tamarack flats”

“Ok, which way on the falls trail? Toward the falls or downvalley?”

“Go toward the falls.”


I grab a liter of the green funk, a headlamp, and a lighter and take off. It’s noon. The sun is killing me as I ascend the slabs to the top of the Nose. I go from tree to tree to catch my breath and some shade…it’s 94 degrees. I look around the top of Mescalito hoping to find water and find none. I start hallucinating. Everything is wavering and glimmering like the beginnings of an acid trip. Then the hallucinations get more intense…rocks turn to rattlesnakes and back again, I see trees becoming alive like the ones in Lord of the Rings, a single raven flies past and I can hear him whispering something I can’t quite make out…sounds like “he’s fucked, he’s done”. Finally on top, I head back from the Nose and get on the falls trail. It soon goes into the trees and I start moving better now that the trail is flat and shaded. I cross several drainages and they’re all bone dry. After the fifth one, I cross one and hear something dribbling. I bushwhack up the drainage and find a tiny spring under a tree root…it is above ground for 12 inches, but putting out about a liter every two minutes. I dump the green shit, fill my bottle and pound it. I almost puke it back up. I fill another and dump it over my head. I fill another and drink half. I top it off and continue half hiking, half trail jogging. I pass some hikers and look at their map…it doesn’t have the area I need. I keep going and going, passing lots of trail junctions but none to Tamarack. The hike is actually very pretty, but soon I reach the junction where the falls trail comes up from the valley floor.…SHIT!!! It had to be the other way!! I start down the knee-beater descent. About a mile from the valley floor Alan comes on the radio. I tell him what happened and he says he’ll be fine up there tonight and he feels much better after resting in the shade all day. His speech is totally slurred. I get to Camp 4, and quickly locate half of his crew. Irish Johnny gives me a bananna, I cram some Wheat Thins down and we jump in the car to drive to Tamarack.


At Tamarack, Hank and Andre’s van is still in the lot, but the campground is closed….meaning it would be 12 miles in to El Cap, not 5. Strickland and Rudy hike in a soon meet Hank and Andre on their way out. It’s now 6pm. I’m layed out by the car asleep. They decide that the fresh two Rudy and Strickland will go in and take Alan water, bivy there and carry all the gear out tomorrow. Hank, who has El Cap experience thinks that with the radio and yelling they’ll be able to get to him without trouble. They take headlamps and water, but not much else. I ride back to the valley with Hank and we go to the clinic and alert the YOSAR folks of what’s going down. We figure it’s better that they know the situation in case something goes wrong. The nurse lady tries to mother me but I’m not I the mood, although I was grateful for the powerade she gave me. The ranger is of our mindset…Alan will be fine, self rescue is the best for everyone, and he’s glad we gave them the heads up. We head to C4, and soon Mike and Jonathon the crazy South African are helping me get my head straightened out. I’m bummed that my partner is still suffering up there. We hear the guys on the radio saying to Alan that they’re almost there and will be there soon with water. “Holy shit!” we think “those guys must have run the whole trail”. Now fed and hydrated I puff some ganja smirk.gif and start to get into a good headspace. Around 10pm we hear more radio transmission. Rudy and Strickland are lost, cliffed out and are going to have to bivy out with no fire, no bivy gear, and no food. The crew decides that the next day Hank and Andre will hike the falls trail all the way to Alan. Morning comes and they take off. I finally wake up at 10:30am, and Rudy and Strickland are just returning from their night out. They ended up in some talus field a long ways from El Cap and had to descend this thing all the way to the valley floor. I looked at that talus field later….sketchy. Alan decides he feels better and will start hiking out the falls trail to meet Hank and Andre. He ends up going the wrong way on the falls trail and heads out Tamarack Flats! Andre gets sketched from the exposure on the falls trail !!(I’m not making this up!) and heads back down while Hank continues. At some point Alan passes some hikers and tells them his name, the situation and to tell anyone looking for him where they saw him. Eventually Hank passes these hikers and comes back down, drives up to Tamarack with Irish Johnny who then finds Alan late in the afternoon….36 hours after we topped out. So now, all our gear is still on top and the crew is leaving to fly home the morning after next. Hank treated us all to dinner and drinks at the swanky Mountain Room restaurant, and somehow convinced Irish Johnny to go up and help get the gear. Since Alan just got down that meant I was going up with Johnny to get the gear. I really wanted a rest day, but oh well. Meanwhile a party on Wall of Early MOrning Light had just been involved in a rescue...dehydration, YOSAR helicoptered 6 gallons of water to them...ended up costing something like $1200 per gallon. I borrowed some ascenders from Texplorer and the next day Johnny and I jugged up the east ledges, and brought the gear down. On top, Ricardo is just topping out. We give hime some food and water and he says he bootied the #2 and will get it back to me in camp. Cool enough, I think, it was rightfully his. The Hubers were coming down as well and we ended up cramming two haulbags, me, and Irishman and two germans into my Suby along with all the other crap in there (Alex was crammed on top of the pigs in a fetal position halfway hanging into the front seats). Finally back in C4, we did a quick gear exchange while the Hubers got accosted by a film crew who had also grabbed Yuji within minutes of his arrival in camp. What a juxtaposition….three of the best climbers in the world and two hacks fresh off an epic. I later had the radio on and hear Ricardo talking with a guy soloing. He tells him how he bootied my cam and was going to give it back, but now figures he'll keep it...f-in dickhead! I make a mental note to have a little talk with him when I see him next, which turned out to be the next day (that's a story for another time...) I still haven’t sorted the climb out in my mind. The climbing itself was great, we took no falls, placed a single pin, and generally cruised. I started the route weighing 143lbs, and finished weighing 133lbs. I looked at myself in a tinted car window when I first got down and I would pay good money for a picture...the dudes in camp didn't recognize me. I was gaunt, sunburned, my lips were black and cracked, I looked like pure hell. You know, wall climbing is about much more than the climbing, and we definitely learned that lesson in spades.




Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 22
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...