Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Comfortable Wall

Hey Y'all- Graham and I just got back down to the Valley after a few days up on THE BIG STONE, El Cap that is. We did the Salathe Wall route, which I had done last year with Scott E. This year it seemed like a fun thing to do, get high up, camp out on ledges, and generally enjoy some fantastic climbing.

Wednesday the 10th-

Our first full day back in the Valley after the recent trip to the Needles. We had made big plans to start bright and early on the route. For those of you not familiar with it, the Salathe Wall is 35 pitches, and the first 10 pitches are known as the Free Blast, since they are somewhat easier than the upper part, and they can be conveniently done in a day. They end with a rappel down to Heart Ledges, and from there there is often about 500' of fixed ropes to the ground.

Our plan had been to do the Free Blast without our haul bags (with all our stuff for multiple days on the wall), and then rappel back to the ground, eat one last meal, and then ascend the fixed lines with our haul bags to start the wall proper.

But... we are really lazy, and we've both already climbed the Free Blast, so we decided to skip it, spend most of the day taking care of business in the Valley, and then start up the fixed lines around 3pm.

Here's a shot of the route. The Free Blast is the first bit up to where the route dips back down again. The fixed lines ascend to the low point of the dip.

So, after spending an hour or so hanging around El Cap bridge, chatting with Tom Evans, racking up, and cooking all of the food in the cooler that was about to go bad, we hiked up to the base and began jugging (ascending) the fixed lines. This brought us to Heart Ledge rather quickly, and from there we led the short pitch to Lung Ledge, where we would bivy for the night. Also that night, we decided to lead the Hollow Flake pitch and leave our rope haning on it, so that we could get by it quickly in the morning. The Hollow Flake is one of the more intimidating pitches on the climb, and since I led it last year, it was Graham's pitch. It starts out with a big traverse to the left to gain the huge flake/corner system with a wide crack. At the bottom, the crack is about 6", just right for our biggest cam. The leader can push the cam here and feel reasonably protected. Up higher, though, the crack is too wide for the cam, so the leader must just sack up and run it out to the top. The possibility of a giant swinging fall is very real, and terrifying. Graham did great, though, and we put that pitch behind us and were able to rest easy that night.

As we were setting up camp, we chatted with a party on a ledge about 100' feet to the right. Turns out it was Alex Honnold, a young hard-climbing star, and Conrad Anker, a bad-ass veteran mountaineer. They were trying El Corazon, a 13b free climb, I guess Alex was trying to onsight. Good luck Alex!

Thursday- It's tough to wake up early on the Salathe, since the sun doesn't make it around to that side of the wall until mid-afternoon. Once we did get up, though, the Valley was gorgeous with tons of sun shining on the Cathedral rocks. At one point during the previous night, I had awoken on the small ledge to see all of El Cap, including the huge overhangs above us, bathed in white moonlight. It was bizarre, and for a second I couldn't figure out where I was. Good thing I didn't try to jump out of bed...

Graham setting up camp on Lung Ledge

Anyways, once we got moving, the climbing went quickly. It's still mostly earier climbing at this point, lots of pitches 5.10 or easier. I got to lead the Ear pitch this year, supposedly the "Most Terrifying 5.7 ever" or something (I think the quote is from Royal Robbins, one of the First Ascentionists of the route). It wasn't too bad now, though, with modern big cams. By mid-afternoon we had reached El Cap Spire, our planned bivy for the night, so we used the remaining daylight to fix our two ropes on the next three pitches (including the killer 11c crack right off the spire, which I was one fall away from freeing... oh well). By this time another party had worked their way up to the ledge just below us. We chatted a bit, they were a team of three from France, including two Alpine guides. It was their first route on El Cap, and they were doing great. It was getting late, and we agreed to let them jug our first fixed line so that they could fix their own, and then they slept in the Alcove, a nice sheltered ledge just below the Spire.

The victorious duo atop El Cap Spire

Friday- As you might have guessed, I was psyched to sleep in, but the early sounds of the French party at the ledge just below ours woke us up and spurred us into action. We wanted to make sure to stay ahead of them, or risk getting bogged down in the mess of passing. Since they had used our rope to fix their own, they could jug right past us while we lounged around and ate breakfast if we weren't careful.

So I slammed my breakfast (pop-tarts and a can of pears) and quickly began jugging our own fixed lines. Graham followed behind and rigged the haul, and I was able to begin leading the next pitch: The Sewer. It's pegged as the worst pitch on a fantastic route, and it would certainly be one of the worst pitches on any route I've ever done. The name says it all, the Sewer is running with water and coated with a layer of slippery green slime. Such is the price for an otherwise spectacular climb. I made it up, managing to get myself all wet and gross, and we continued at a fast pace. We had planned to camp at Long Ledge that night, only four pitches from the top, but we knew the French would also be on that ledge, and it'd be uncomfortable with 5 people. So we decided to just gun it for the top and avoid the crowded ledge.

Graham stylin' on the Salathe. Photo by Tom Evans, www.

We knew that this would mean climbing fast, since last year on the route we had started from the same spot and only managed to make Long Ledge by headlamps. Luckily, I had the next lead, which was a spectacular 200' corner that leads to the base of the Salathe Roof. The corner is pretty hard free lead at 5.12b, but with a mix of 5.11 free climbing and easy aid it went quickly.

The French party leading the 12b corner below the Roof

That brought us to the Roof, which is spectacular, airy, and easy. Then the Headwall, which again is easy aid in a unbelievable position. We were able to lean back down and cheer on the Frenchmen as they fought their way up the corner. We reached Long ledge by 5pm, 3 hours of daylight left for the remaining four pitches. I speed off on the aid pitch of the ledge, and then link the next two pitches into a great, long lead. Graham sprints up the final 5.4 romp to the top and we're done!

Of course its getting late now, maybe 7pm, so we figure we'll just camp out on the top. This works great, since we found a great bivy cave (even stocked with pads!), and we didn't have a campsite in the Valley anyhow. Some quick searching yielded loads of great dry firewood, and our canned ravioli tasted fantastic, nice and hot.

Anyways, it's Saturday now, and we're back in the Valley poaching internet and showers, generally more of the same. The weekend crowds are in full force, the full carnival scene, and all the roads and parking lots are packed. So we'll lay low for a while and get psyched for the next big climb... I don't know, maybe Half Dome? Stay tuned...

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