Friday, August 27, 2010

The Zodiac, May 31st to June 1st

My first solo mission was almost a success (too bad I missed the bus). So, when I found myself in Yosemite Valley, full of energy but without a similarly-psyched partner, I had some options.

The Captivating Captain, with Zodiac marked in red. Brad Gobright Photo.

Backtracking a bit, you'll see me hanging out in a very wet, very depressing camp 4. It's been raining off and on for a week. Not continuous, back-east style rain, but enough that you can't really make plans for a big wall. And big-walling on EL CAP is the best reason to be in the Valley!
So, when the weather finally clears on Friday, I make some quick plans, and head off for El Cap round 1: Lurking Fear. With an experienced and motivated partner, Eric, the route goes quickly (11 hours) and I'm glad to have made it up the Captain. Now for something harder.

The Zodiac is an undisputed "classic" of El Cap. Challenging, but not too dangerous; long, but not 30 pitches. Zodiac sits far on the right side of the cliff, where the concave face starts to curve back again. While this area of the face is mostly devoid of continuous features, Zodiac makes the most of what's there, linking up distinctive sections like the "Black Tower", "Gray Circle", and the "Mark of Zorro" roof.

So, on Monday morning, 7am, I head up the Zodiac. I'm going solo, which means I have a ton of WORK ahead of me. I, of course, have to do the work of both team member in a normal, two-man ascent. I must lead every pitch, and then rappel, clean the gear, and ascend (jug) back up the rope. Repeat process 16 times.

I do have one advantage over a normal party, though: I'm not hauling. Most parties on Zodiac will take 3-5 days, hauling huge bags of food, water, and gear behind them on each pitch. Because I'm by myself, I choose to carry just a light backpack, which I will wear while jugging. Here a shot, taken at the base, of all the junk I have to carry:

My freight for Zodiac
Of course there's the hardware, tons of cams, stoppers, carabiners, and then some esoteric aid gizmos, like hooks and pitons. I even brought a hammer! For the rope, a single 70m would be my companion, which would mean that if the shit hit the fan, there'd be no way out but up (most parties carry two ropes, which allows them to rappel down the route if need be). As for other gear, I packed a super-light sleeping bag, plenty of food, 4L of water, a few extra layers, and a camera.

Looking up from the base, the 2000' wall overhangs above. There's an ethereal waterfall that seems to be shooting out of the rock about 600' up, but luckily it's blowing away from the route. As I start up, though, I find that the wind is fickle, and occasionally the cascade hits me full-on, drenching me and my gear. It's like a very lame water park ride.

Spray off the Captain

Soon, though, I've gained enough elevation to be out of the water's capricious path, and the brilliant sunshine dries me and my cargo. The climbing improves as I gain ground, and the first crux of the day, the Black Tower, arrives quickly. The Black Tower pitch features easy climbing to gain the top of the eponymous pillar, and then a thin flaring crack above it. The difficulty here is mostly mental, a fall from the tricky thin crack could impale you on the tower's well-defined summit. Luckily for me, I had the right gear: sawed-off angle pitons. Loaned to me by Eric (erstwhile Lurking Fear partner), they can be hand-placed on this pitch like square pegs in square holes.
Unknown climber atop the Black Tower. Tom Evans Photo.
As the sun transits the sky, I caterpillar my way up the wall. The Black Tower leads to the most distinctive feature on the route, the Gray Circle. A huge, clean swath of gray granite, overhung very slightly, is split by one flawless dihedral. The circle is maybe 500' tall, and presents the most sustained, challenging climbing on the route. Low in the circle, I am frustrated by a tricky thin section, and end up testing out my soloing system with a good-sized fall. One of my pieces of aid trickery, a cam hook, pops from a shallow placement and send me airborne for 25'. No worries, though, I brought a hammer! So pull back up, find the smallest piton I have, and smash it as hard as I can into the bottoming crack. The first (and only) piton I've ever placed holds, and I'm making progress again.

The centerpiece of the Gray Circle, and probably of the whole Zodiac, is the Nipple pitch. The soaring geometry of the granite here is surreal. The climbing is engaging, thin, but never too difficult.

Me working up towards the Nipple, through gorgeously clean stone. Zoom in for more detail. Tom Evans Photo.

Moving higher, I exit the Gray Circle and encounter the "Mark of Zorro" roof. Nothing too hard here, I get a sense that cruxes are now behind me. That's not to say, though, that I'm moving any faster. The sun has retreated behind the giant prow of the Nose, and the sounds of traffic on the road below dwindle. The recurring strain of jugging every pitch, often overhanging, while wearing a pack, has blasted my arms. Though I'm staying hydrated, I can feel cramps in my right bicep every time I extend it.

The next few pitches are a blur, I must have busted out the headlamp at some point. Finally, around 10:30, I flopped myself onto a welcome ledge, the "Peanut". Though I had been planning on a one day "push" ascent, I had wisely pack a sleeping bag, and the comfort of Peanut ledge was not to be denied. I laid down my rope as a pad, hung all of my gear off the bolts above me, and quickly passed out.

Plenty worked, glad to stretch out on Peanut Ledge.

I'd like to say I awoke reinvigorated and stoked to finish up the route. But in truth, with my in-a-day ascent canned, I felt pretty relaxed. I was happy to finish at a leisurely pace and enjoy the spectacular position. The first pitch off Peanut was a 5.10 wide crack, intimidating and a bit wet. I love offwidths for breakfast!

Working up the wide crack on pitch 14, early Tuesday morning. Peanut ledge is visible in the lower left. Tom Evan Photo.

The next two pitches went well, other than a minor rope cluster on the last pitch that forced me to rappel back to the belay and re-flake everything. Soloing a wall is a great way to work on your rope-management skills. Finally, at around 10am, I pulled over the Zodiac's perfect photo-finish topout, and sprawled on the flat ground. Of course, I still had to rappel, clean the pitch, and jug back up, but that didn't stop me from letting out a massive victory war-whoop.

Jugging the last few feet of Zodiac. Tom Evans Photo.


  1. Killer stuff Scott. Let me know when you solo Mescalito in a push.

  2. Mescalito's too long, that's just too much jugging. It'd be fun to try with a partner, though.
    You back in Boulder? Let's get out sometime, maybe cragging in the evening?