I have always wanted to climb El Capitan. In fact, my subconscious voice frequently told me that you are not a real climber unless you climb El Cap. With that in mind, I made it a goal for myself to scale the 3000 foot walls of El Cap at some point in my climbing career.
Mid-way up. Photo Kate Rutherford.
In 2006, I attempted Lurking Fear with 2 other partners. I knew very little about aid climbing and had only been climbing for 3 years or so. Our team decided to climb the route ‘big wall style,’ i.e. we brought gear, food and water for 4 days and planned to haul our bags on every pitch. It was very slow and I found hauling cumbersome and difficult. I felt comfortable leading the straightforward aid pitches but was absolutely terrified on the traversing pitches. We ended up bailing after 10 pitches, when we realized that we were going to be too slow. I was disappointed but was determined to acquire the experience necessary to complete an ascent of El Cap.
Kate jugging at the start of the route.
Many years went by before I even got back to Yosemite. There were other places to go climbing, injuries to recover from and homework to complete. Finally, this past fall things started to come together for another shot at climbing El Capitan. I had asked my good friend Kate Rutherford to climb with me since she had climbed El Cap 5 times or so and would be a great partner. Kate is pretty hard to nail down so when she said she would be free for a week in September, I immediately bought a plane ticket and planned to head down there.
Photo Kate Rutherford.
We decided that we should try to do it in a day, since Kate hates hauling more than I do and I’m always up for a challenge. Plus, it is pretty pure style to just walk to the base of a formation and go up and over with just the gear you will need on your back. We gave ourselves a little bit of leeway since we decided to sleep at the base of the route and fix the first 2 pitches. It was also a good idea to practice our systems, since I was new to short-fixing and still hadn’t done too much aid climbing since my attempt on Lurking Fear 5 years ago.
After fixing the pitches, I started to have some doubt about this one-day ascent. I felt clumsy and slow while leading. Even jumaring felt tiring. I was worried I was going to let Kate down and ruin our chances of succeeding. I tried to get those thoughts out of my head and think more positively.
Photo Kate Rutherford.
We woke up at 4 am and started ascending our fixed line. Kate had the first block and I did my first lower-out without even epic-ing. I was trying to go as fast as I could so that, in Kate’s words, “the leader can have more fun,” i. e. get a proper belay. I still felt a bit clumsy and slow but my confidence was rising a little bit and I was starting to believe that we could do this.
After 3 pitches, I took over. I remembered leading these pitches 5 years ago and memories of being even more of a gumby came back to me. I thought to myself, that I have come a long way since those days. In the heat of the day, Kate took over and cruised through the A2 cruxes and passed a couple parties. I was jugging as fast as possible and I felt like we were going to do this. We were more than half way and still had several hours of daylight.
After pitch 12, I took over and tried to navigate us through the wandering crack systems with a mix of free and aid. I took a little fall onto my aider after attempting this incredible difficult ‘step out of your aider free move,’ but regained my composure and eventually found an easier path. Things were going well until I was slowed down my some tiring aid/free climbing on pitch 13. I was so slow and scared and felt like I was wasting precious daylight. When I got to the belay, I remember feeling incredible defeated. I yelled down to Kate to ask her if she wanted to lead the next pitch. To my surprise, she encouraged me to keep going. Kate reminded me that this was my trip up the Captain and that it doesn’t matter if we finish in the dark. These are the moments where the climbing partnership is of utmost value and it is this combination of support and motivation that inspired and pushed me to continue climbing. The next pitch went better and then Kate took over for the final 3 pitches to the summit.
Kate jumaring in the fading light.
When we got to the summit, I was so elated and exhausted. We were dirty, tired, sore and proud. I never thought I would be capable of doing something like that and I realized that for this type of climbing it’s all about your attitude. If you believe that you can climb this huge route with just a windshirt, 3 liters of water, 1500 calories and a rack then you are going to do it. It’s all about being committed to completing the objective. It usually is easy to bail but it’s not as easy to keep going. It is this type of attitude that motivates me to continue to tackle challenging objectives and push myself to try things that initially seem impossible. I can’t wait for the next adventure.