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  • Writer's pictureMason Gardener

El Capitan 'The Shield' C3+ A3 - A guide

Updated: Jun 4

First climbed in 1972 by Charlie Porter and Gary Bocarde, the ‘Shield’ follows an impossible series of micro seams up an otherwise shear blank wall of golden granite. For the first ascensionists, this line was made possible through intricately piecing together 30+ RURP’s in any given pitch, seriously heady climbing as most of these pieces would likely of not held a fall…

Since then, the route has changed substantially, and has become significantly more user friendly with many of these RURP placements evolving into deep #3 beak slots. Regardless, the shield is still a significant challenge and will make you work for it all the way to the top. It is clear once you’re on that immense headwall, why this route is classed as one of the top five El Capitan climbs!

Below I will outline our strategy and gear beta we used and would likely recommend for both a hammer and clean ascent. We initially had planned to go for a hammerless ascent, but when I moved up on a hand placed peak and it dropped a centimetre, I gulped grabbed the hammer and bashed the next one in.

For this article I have left out the access via the free blast slabs. There is plenty of information online for these 10 pitches, and I would highly recommend doing them as some superb free climbing can be had. Either pre haul to Mammoth and climb them the next day, or like us, climb them at the end of your trip once you have ticked some other walls.


Day 1: We started early, 4am, beginning to jug the fixed lines and haul our bags with 5 days’ worth of gear. At this time, we had no trouble being at the front of the que, something that we managed to do on subsequent walls as well. Start early is the game.

We hauled to Mammoth terraces in under 4hrs, utilising space hauling on a 1:1 pro traxion. As a team of three you can get the job done pretty quickly, 1 person at the hauler the second on the haul line jugging (backed up to the fixed line) and the third leap frogging to the next anchor prior to the bag being docked (tagging the tail of the haul line).

The first pitch out from Mammoth takes you to the ‘Pharoah ledge’. An important note here, is the leader will arrive at the first DBA which is the belay for magic mushroom, the crack system for the shield begins out of sight at the lowest and furthest rightmost belay on the pharaoh ledge. We opted to dock the bags at the first anchor and have the leader and second do an easy down climb/rap to the actual anchor to start the next pitch. The third person can wait with the bags on a plush chill out ledge watching the climbing from an excellent vantage point. Once bags have been lowered out, the belayer ascends taking out the first half of the gear so the third can do a safe lower/downclimb to the base of the pitch with the tail of the lead line, there is just enough rope in a 60m to do this. 

We spent the rest of the day making our way to the ‘Grey Ledges’, arriving just after dark. That night we then fixed the next two pitches (14-15); this can be done in one with a 70m rope. Pitch 15 is an exhilarating lead especially in the dark.

Grey Ledges is not overly flat and really needs portaledges to make them useable. Avoid staying here after any sort of rain event, this ledge takes the full force of any waterfall from above so a pretty miserable place to be unless dry.

Day 2: Again get up early and jug your line while the third person breaks camp. A strategy we used a number of times would be to pull say 20m of lead line up so the leader can rip into it, fix this at the anchor. The second then hauls the bags off the anchor, the third then lowers themselves off the anchor on the bags, jugs the haul line to the tail of the lead line then swaps over to the lead line to continue jugging. Depending on your ability to multitask the belayer can then belay while 2:1 hauling or wait till the third arrives to finish the job.

The ‘Traverse’ Pitch. This is a sublime lead on small to medium gear interspersed with multiple cam hook moves throughout. I would argue that this pitch gets C3 purely from the fact you’re only protection that you should leave are the several fixed pitons with lower out tat on them, otherwise you are stitching your seconder right up. A straightforward pitch in general.

Shield Roof. Heavily bolted all the way out the lip of the roof, therefore only leave a draw on the last bolt at the lip to again save your second a hell of a job. All bolts are new and in mint condition. The cruxy part of this pitch comes after the lip, where there are numerous tatty old copper heads with variable levels of historic significance… I used all of them with no failures but is hard to say what their structural integrity is. Use cautiously and bring several replacement heads as a failsafe, as this section would be horrendously tricky without them.

The wet + C1 splitter. We climbed the route in the second week of May following snow being on the ground in April. The first half of this pitch was more closely related to a gardening centre and clear we were the first up there this season. Gear is excellent once you find it and keep looking underneath the plants as there is a number of fixed gear hidden amongst.

I will combine all the headwall pitches as the seam is largely similar throughout. A point to note however, is the grades given in the guidebook will vary in their perceived difficulty depending on the amount of fixed gear present at the time of your ascent. I found the ‘groove’ pitch (C3+), rather straight forward but I had a lot of fixed gear and only hammered 2 beaks. Whereas Dan on pitch 21, had little to no fixed gear and made the point that he wasn’t sure if much of the stuff he had hammered would hold a fall.

The headwall. The seam opens up into a variety of excellent beak placements to downright desperate. Make sure you find the slot which is optimal when given the option. If going for a clean ascent we would recommend having 15 #3 beaks and 5 #2 beaks, we recommend the BD pecker, it seemed to work the best in the placements. If using a hammer, we found that hammering 5-6 beaks per pitch was sufficient and sometimes a blade piton was used. For the most efficiency, climb with both sizes of beaks already racked on each aider. You will be able to climb the bulk of the head wall with these two pieces alone.

We finished day 2 at ‘the Hang’ bivy after fixing a rope from the top of the triple crack’s pitch all done before 6pm. The Hang is a wild place to be but extremely exposed. We sat through a thunderstorm with lightning crashing all around, thankfully it didn’t eventuate to much, so no dramas really.

Day 3:  Pitch 21 is largely the crux of the route. It is similar in difficulty to all the other headwall pitches, but unlike triple cracks, there are no bolts to protect a catastrophic unzipping of the pitch. Put those gloves on and stitch the bugger up!

Pitch 22. This pitch finishes the head wall and gives you the option to go to Quixote ledge or Chicken head ledge. We opted for Quixote, but this requires a mandatory free move traverse which will push your approach shoes to the limit. Quixote ledge is a plush mostly flat 3-person ledge, ample room to set two portaledges up, or have people on the ground as well. Alternatively, continue up a fun bolt ladder with some more exciting easier mandatory free moves to get too chicken head. This ledge is even more plush, double the size of Quixote but littered in knobbly chicken heads so not as ideal to sleep directly on the ground. Opt for Chickenhead ledge and ignore the detour.

To finish Day 3, we continued to climb to chieftain ledge. Then fixing with both ropes back to Quixote for the evening. Have your third person stay back and make dinner and set up the ledge (this person will probably be whoever lead the end of the headwall).

Day 4:  Race up your ropes and link pitches 25-26 together to get to the free climbing part of the trip. We opted for the 10d face variation on pitch 27. It climbs really well and is highly recommended if you’re sick of the aid climbing by this point. Pitch 28 will give you the final hooray and bring you back to your senses with a 5.7 squeeze chimney. Get physical with it as you grovel your way to freedom.

We topped out around lunch leaving us an enjoyable womble back down to Camp 4, albeit with 1.5 days more food and water still in our bags.


70m Static 10mm Static Rope

60m 9.8mm dynamic Rope

2 Metolius Haul bags (125l & 157l)

1 * #5 – this could potentially be left out (I believe we only placed it on the final 5.7 chimney)

2 * #4

2 * #3

2 * #2

3 * #1

3 * #0.75

4 * #0.5- 0.2

(We would highly recommend totem cams, especially in all the small sizes. This is consistent with any wall you do in Yosemite; they are just that much better in all the placements you will find in the valley)

Single black, purple and green C3

Single set of offsets micro to large (doubles in gold and blue DMM)

2 medium cam hooks & 1 large

15 * #3 beaks (BD peckers)

5 * #2 beaks

Stubby blade pitons small selection, thin to medium

Sky hook

BD Talon

Panic Draw (Crucial)

16 draws mostly 60cm, 2 * 120cm

Fifi Hook (crucial for most of the C3 pitch’s)

Yates quick adjust lanyards

Yates ladders

Hammer (We only brought one and lowered it down for second to clean pitches. Only used on the 4 head wall pitches otherwise stayed in bag.)

Sleeping system:

We had a two-person portaledge and a G7 pod as a three-man team. You realistically will need ledges for the team if planning to climb for longer than 2 days. The ledges are also extremely nice to flag on the haul line and set up at the many hanging belays on the headwall.

We found that when climbing on El Cap, an extremely small light weight sleeping bag is more than sufficient as the rock acts like a heat sink, holding onto the suns heat well into the night. The size of the Macpac Firefly sleeping bag takes up very little room in the haul bag and was excellent on the shield, and is all you need during May up on the wall.


All in per day /per person rations-


100g cereal + 20g raisins + milk powder


4 energy bars

1 wrap (salami, cheese and peanut butter)


2 Wraps (as above)

A treat of some description (biersticks, Stroop waffles, block of chocolate etc)


Roughly 1 gallon (3.8 litres) per person per day

We would make up 1 litre of water with Tailwind electrolytes to fuel the day aswell.

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Perry Norris
Perry Norris
06 thg 6

Nice work and a great write-up. Thanks. Photos are awesome, too.


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