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[TR] El Capitan- Yosemite - Zodiac- June 2014

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Trip: El Capitan- Yosemite - Zodiac Father & Son Climb


Date: 11/4/2014


Trip Report:

El Capitan: Zodiac Climb, 5 days in June 2014


moonElcapsmall11031405.jpgElCapJoinerZodiac2014small.jpgMy Father and Son Collage


“Dad, you’re going to climb El Cap with me this summer,” stated my son Keenan on a grey, rainy, January day. I hesitated, and thought about my own pronouncement, “I am too old to climb El Cap!” to a friend a few months earlier when talking about my son's exploits climbing big walls. Thirty years earlier I visualized climbing the big faces of Yosemite after reading about the exploits of the valley pioneers. In those days, I had a photo of Lynn Hill hanging on a “big jug” from an early Patagonia catalog on my wall.


I first started climbing in 1981 on the 40-foot cliffs of Taylors Falls, Minn., gaining skills and managing to finally get up 5.9. I climbed west in the Needles, South Dakota, and in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado where, amazed, I watched Lynn Hill, in person, fly up a 5.11. I always figured I would make it to Yosemite and get on the big stone. However, my other passion, whitewater paddling, took more priority in my adventures. My climbing focus shifted to mountaineering. I moved to the Northwest to be near the Cascades peaks and rivers, and Yosemite big walls didn't seem so important.


Fast forward to spring 2014: I'm a regular at the climbing gym in Olympia, Wash., practicing climbing, jugging ropes and setting up systems for the big wall. Keenan sends me climbing technique links and urges me to get in shape and to practice. The last day of my teaching job in June I drove to Yosemite.


On the way, I reflected that this would be a different adventure for me and mark a shift in my relationship with Keenan. I introduced my children to climbing, paddle sports and wilderness travel. Keenan, my eldest, now 21, surpassed my skills and is far more accomplished in climbing than I. He was the lead on this climb and I put all my trust in his skills and judgment. This was an adjustment for me. I remember when this shift happened for me with my father on a paddle trip in northern Ontario, and it felt like a significant passage for me as the son. Now, as the dad, I wanted to handle this transition with intention and grace.




A time lapse moonrise at Mono Lake before entering Yosemite.


I met Keenan at the El Cap Meadows Bridge. We hugged, checked in with Tom Evans, photographer and author of the online elcapreport.com. and Piton Pete Zabrok, the Canadian wall rat with 50+ routes under his belt who was going to join us.


Within an hour I was jugging a 300-foot fixed line and passing a knot to Pete’s stashed gear up the Wall of Early Morning Light. My previous jugging was in a gym and once on lower angled rock for 100 ft. “How do I pass a knot again?” I asked Keenan. I thought it would be good to get it right because I was going first on the free hanging rope.

Pete had stashed 12 days of water, food and gear on a ledge when partners on an earlier climb cut their trip short. He agreed to come with us up Zodiac in order to get a climb in. He had tons of stuff to lower and sort. I know how to carry big loads from emulating the Voyageurs on many canoe expeditions across Canada. One of my goals in life was to raise a couple of my children to become my personal Sherpas to ensure my continued adventures in the wilds through my old age. Keenan, at 6’6’’, stepped into the role grandly and offered to carry the heaviest packs up to the start of our route. Fortunately the water fairies left enough H2O at the base of Zodiac for us and we left Pete’s water at the base of the giant Swing, lightening the loads.


Starting_Zodiac2014.jpgThe Start


pitch1_keenan11031408.jpgPitch 1


In the morning, Keenan and I climbed the first 2 pitches and fixed lines so we could launch the next day. Pete reorganized his load. At the base of the cliff we tiptoed through bags of feces thrown off Zodiac from a large group of seven led by an experienced guide and Valley rat who should know low impact techniques by now. We built a large fire and burned it all. Later that night a giant incoming missile startled us, landing 40 feet away. The group tossed all its trash off the top to explode on the talus. Other climbers reported them to rangers, who met the group on the descent. We heard later from Tom Evans that they agreed to clean up the mess in lieu of fines. The next night, from our bivy at the top of the 4th pitch, we heard one offender declare, ”Someone has already burned our shit.” “Yes, that would be us you *@#%&*! What were you thinking?” we yelled from our ledge.


Give_me_someStart11031409.jpg Waiting to dodge the garbage bag

Reaching_the_Anchors_Gif.gifMy 1st Aid Lead


CampZodiacPitch411031402.jpg4th Pitch Camp-Thanks Tom Evans


I was thankful to be climbing with folks who have been up the wall before. I would not have made it far on my own. Realistically, I would not have left Olympia. As we began the climb I gained a huge appreciation for Keenan’s gumption and skills. He climbed El Cap’s Tangerine Trip solo for his first wall climb one year prior. He practiced systems on walls at Index, Wash., and near Bozeman, Mont., and was mentored by seasoned climbers my age. He made a plan and carried it out. When Keenan texted me that he had taken a 50 ft. whipper on the 5th pitch of the Trip and was still climbing, I felt anxious for his safety. At the same time I admired him for continuing. I learned to climb in the era when lead falls were avoided. My son learned to fall in the gym and was comfortable relying on his protection. I would have lowered off after a 10 ft. fall.


A Korean four-man team on their first El Cap climb was ahead of us. Keenan helped the last man figure out how to clip in the haul bags for their launch. He was confused and did not want to make a mistake. The last man and I both learned how to set the bags up so one haul loop could be quickly released to gain access to the bags and still be clipped in. That night we listened while the Korean men played their ledge poles like wind chimes until they gave up trying to get a platform assembled. When we woke at first light they were bailing. Keenan and Pete taught the Koreans some system organization techniques for their next attempt, while I took notes. Generously the Korean team helped to haul our huge load up the first 2 pitches in one big pull. I realized how heavy our load was to haul up the cliff. Even with a mechanical advantage it was going to be difficult.


I led my first ever aid pitch to our stance for the first night while Keenan and Pete sipped a warm beer. I just focused on my climbing. I was not going to fall and so put all my attention on each move up the rock in front of me. I got to practice the old adage that I used to say to my students: get my butterflies to fly in formation. What a relief to clip into the bolt anchor and begin setting up camp. I learned how to anchor the bags and stay out of Keenan’s way, following directions. I was relaxed and ready to eat my first Tasty Bite when Pete pulled out a glass bottle of Petit Syrah from his cavernous haul bag. “This wine is quite tasty and I got quite a good price on it.” Pete exclaimed. The cause of our heavy load was getting clearer.


Pete was true to his reputation of being the slowest climber on El Capitan. He enjoys big wall camping and likes to go in style. Pete completed his 584th night on El Cap on our climb together. Keenan wanted to dispatch the route in three nights. Pete wanted to take his time. I was along for the ride. I realized a compromise would need to be reached and I might be able to ease the tension between my partners. Day 2 on the wall was a slow start. We took our time drinking coffee and packing up. Pete spent time on his phone chatting up a girlfriend. This became his evening and morning office routine on the wall. Keenan was frustrated when it was clear we would only make 2 pitches that day. Pete was smiling and telling tales and I was content to use my energy to stay focused and not make a mistake.


Starting_the_Daypitch511031412.jpgPete starts right in on refreshments on the first pitch of the day


CampZodiacPitch711031401.jpgCamp 2 just into the white circle Thanks TOM


I had one of the frights of my life the next morning when I heard the rushing sound of another incoming missile like the trash bag from the other night. I opened my eyes as a human body flew past my line of sight. Horrified, I lifted my head to see a yellow parachute open and a BASE jumper float gently down to the sandy river bed, land, and quickly disappear into the trees. Keenan woke up and dealt with the slower pace by making a plan to get started earlier. He and I got up, made coffee, packed and started climbing. We were able to get a full pitch in while Pete organized his stuff and checked in with his girlfriend. On this third day on the wall I watched with appreciation for my son’s skill and focus while he smoothly and calmly leapfrogged cam hook placements out the horizontal Nipple Pitch. I was relieved when he passed the nipple and clipped a bolt, ensuring he would not take a massive pendulum fall should a hook blow. We set up a fantastic camp below the giant overhang at the start of the Mark of Zorro pitch.


nippleZodiacPitch411031403.jpgNipple Pitch- Thanks Captain Tom

nipple_pitch11031406.jpgKeenan at the Nipple


Short Video Clips aid P4,Black Tower, overhangMOZ jug, white circle swing

After dark I heard loud voices in the meadow and saw a glow of bright headlamps working toward the base of the Nose. Amazed, I watched two lights begin to climb up the cliff to a rousing cheer from the meadow. The progress up was so quick it was hard to believe it was climbers. A short while later the cheers hit a crescendo when we supposed the climbers had begun their king swing and moved off the boot flake. I went back to sleep after they went around the corner and out of sight. When we got back to the meadow a few days later we ran into Cheyne Lempe and Dave Allfrey who told us about their climb. They were on the first leg of an El Cap /Half Dome/ Mt Watkins Triple Crown that they completed in 22:59.


nightpitch611031407.jpgAliens visited that night



Our fourth morning on the wall went smoothly. Keenan and I had our system dialed in; coffee, pack, climb while Pete got some extra sleep. I did not realize until Keenan launched over the roof that I would be jugging the most overhung pitch on the climb. Pete was now enjoying his coffee and my concern over how far out I was going to fly when I cut loose from the ledge to climb the rope. He reassured me that he would hang on to the end of the rope and let me out slowly to prevent me from spinning on the free hanging end like I had experienced the day before as I rode out the line like a twisted amusement park ride. Pete took footage of me hanging 1500 feet of the deck and 40 feet out from the wall. I focused on my technique and began to gently climb the rope and remembered to breathe. I tried to not think about the possibility of the rope rubbing against an edge of the cliff. When I reached the belay I assumed my usual counterweight role and helped pull the gear load up the wall. The pigs were still fat.


Scott_on_ElCapJug06261401.jpgThe MOZ Jug Lots of Air


The day progressed smoothly until it seemed Keenan grew impatient with our pace. He barked at me to release the small haul kit so he could set up a system at the anchor. I was not sure which carabineer to unclip and was careful (slow) so as not to make a mistake. I tried to intentionally channel my wife’s calm energy that she calls upon at such moments of challenge. I slowly and methodically checked the system, unclipped the proper rope and calmly said, “I am doing the best I can and I need some patience, please.” The tension passed and we worked our way up to Peanut Ledge for our final night on the wall. I thoroughly enjoyed the 18-inch ledge of rock at camp, the widest horizontal surface we encountered the whole trip. I spent a good part of the evening leaning against the wall, gazing out at the valley. Pete mixed us each a Gatorita (Gatorade, lime juice, Tequila no ice). His pig was heavy and was full of pleasant surprises.






keenCoffee06261401.jpgCoffee at Peanut Ledge


On the fifth morning the climb to the top gave me another new challenge when I cleaned the last zigzag pitch. I was nervous about the big left lower out just above the belay stance. We did not want to leave a piece so I held onto a finger jam while Pete again held the end of my rope on tension from below. When I let go, I ran, scampered and rolled across the face until I was hanging below a directional piece and could resume jugging and cleaning. On reflection, it might have been worth leaving the $60 cam.


When I finally reached the top edge of El Capitan, Keenan was there, hauling up the pigs. He paused a moment as I jugged to the lip and reached a hand out to me. In that quick, casual handshake, he tugged and I stepped over the top. I was relieved to complete the route, and felt a sense of accomplishment for my long-ago wish. And I was gratified to have graciously made the shift in my relationship with Keenan, without whom I couldn't have climbed the wall.


An El Cap Summit half dome view starry night time lapse.

ScottpeanutLedge11031401.jpg Dad pretty happy about the climb


Edited by scottwesh

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damn, beautiful story! congrats on the climb!


can't wait for my son to surpass me at, like, everything :)

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This is my new favorite TR. I'm sure all the dads out there would agree, you done good. And nice climb too.


I can only try my best to follow your lead with my young boys.

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Great trip, elegantly chronicled, stunningly photographed. As the father of two adult sons who didn't take to climbing, I read this with a touch of envy. You two are lucky to have each other. Thanks for the inspiring report.


Scott, if you wouldn't mind, I'm curious as to what you teach.

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