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The Nose of El Capitan

Updated: Jan 7

My legs hung over the edge. Daisy chains reined me in taught to the wall. I reeled myself back onto the ledge, shortening the tethers with my fifi hook. A bout of cramp surged through my dehydrated legs. I jerked stiff and straight, hamstrings tingling where the harness dug in, then slumped back over the edge and waited for dawn to arrive over Camp V. Only seven pitches remained between us and the summit plateau of El Capitan.

Despite our fears, neither bears nor rangers disturbed our stealth bivouac at the toe of the Nose. We positioned ourselves to pounce on our three fixed lines up the blank east face to Sickle Ledge, established the day before, to keep ahead of our friendly rivals. This time we had a team of four Brits to pace with, who had also stashed their mountain of gear and twenty gallons of water on the ledge above the first four tricky pitches. These blokes, tree surgeons applying their trade to big-wall climbing, were gracious in the extreme and let us crack ahead of them into the entrance to Stove Legs Cracks. This time, we had the entire route ahead of us to ourselves. A pleasant change from the traffic jams on Half Dome.

Gemma quested out on some wild free climbing and tricky pendulums across the face into the base of that famed four-pitch splitter. The traverses extended our lower-out line to its full length, sending our haul bag for a quick jog before Gemma began the laborious task of "hauling the pig". Thankfully our pig was slim and waist-hauling did the job from day one; meanwhile our British companions below seemed to have plushed out and were paying the price, spending hours dragging up their endless supplies, each pitch requiring an expedition effort itself. They were content to "take it gently" with extra safety margin on water and food for five days, but we were convinced that light and fast was the best strategy for a long route like the Nose, every amount of effort multiplied over those 31 pitches. Over the past five decades, The Nose has been the proving ground of advances in climbing efficiency, the route involving so many complicated manoeuvres to test climbing skill and strategy, with the speed record starting at a generous 18 months and eventually falling to today's absurd time of 2 hours 23 minutes.

Gemma generously handed over the rack to me for the first Stove Legs pitch, something I had long frothed over, the "5.8 glory hands" pitch. Named after the first ascensionist Warren Harding's use of iron stove legs from the junkyard to protect the long flaring crack, I plugged in today's number two camalots, tasted the sweat, smelled the reeking piss of thousands before, and jammed deeper. Free climbing sweet hand cracks on El Capitan, it felt good.

Apart from Gemma getting her foot very stuck in pitch 8, and donating a purple cam to the long line of fixed gear decorating the route, everything went smoothly to the comfy perch of Dolt Tower. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the first half of the route was going free or French-free at modest grades, as we continued cruising up more 5.9 fist cracks to the sensational El Cap Tower bivouac ledge, fifteen metres long, it could host a party but we had it to ourselves. I continued up into the Texas Flake as Gemma began dinner, he belaying services largely unnecessary for the twenty metre high chimney, an intimidating prospect at the end of the first day. I opted for easy chimneying with no pro, versus the alternative of harder chimneying with one bolt, and leavittated my way up the gaping void. Rope fixed, and rappelled back to join Gemma on the ledge for dinner.

"Wooo hoooo!"

We woke to the bizarre sight of silhouettes flying across the sky, somewhere at the top of the Dawn Wall. What first appeared as a high-liner accelerating at an alarming rate, was soon realised to be a dare-devil performing a giant king-swing, arcing a 50-metre radius across the sky, the sight startling us awake and into action. Above our fixed line we had our own King Swing to get involved with, one of the most difficult moves on The Nose. From the top of the seemingly detached "Boot Flake", I fixed the line and lowered down thirty metres to the lowest tan dyke. I eyed up the ar'te way across to my left and started to build up some swinging momentum. My first flailing efforts left me well short of the edge. Each failed attempt was exhausting and frustrating, leaving me hanging on the rope gasping for air with a mouth tasting of dirt. I adjusted my strategy, fine-tuned the rope length even further out, twisted fully side-ways in my harness, and threw myself running sideways along the arc. I finally latched the edge. I then realised I was still five metres short of Eagle Ledge. Still tied off to the top of Boot Flake, I carefully leap-frogged two #4 cams up the off-width crack to the belay stance. In my mind, this was the crux of the route, but without doubt better strategies and techniques exist.

Gemma took over the lead for some tricky corners, and suddenly the Great Roof appeared close above. Guided by the SuperTopo, we docked the bag for two arcing pitches to below the roof, abseiled 70m down, and hauled directly upwards to pitch eighteen. Extra work, but the only real solution to the wandering route. I set to work on the long thin corner up to the Great Roof: offset cams, small nuts, fixed gear; the main challenge being to stretch the rack out and hope to conserve the crucial pieces for the famous under-cling underneath that shadowed cap. Back-cleaning left me exposed to a long but clean fall as I swung from piece to piece, necessary to make Gemma's life easy as she followed the traverse on jumars. Two long lower-outs placed her below my exciting belay position, and the steep headwall opened up above late in the day.

Pushing hard to Camp V, I free-climbed the Pancake Flake, resting several times as the accumulation of physical labour left us sapped and dry. Awkward aiding by headlamp up a tight corner reeking from urine finally released us and Camp V was reached late on the second evening. Dehydrated and exhausted, we slowly unpacked the haul-bag desperate for water and food. Spicy tea and more canned stew slowly revived us. Lights in the valley far below lined the roads and glowed in the villages, we marvelled at our position high up on the wall.

We could smell the summit early the next day, but still knew it would take a full day. Gemma raced up her block to Camp VI in a flurry of etriers and fiddly small gear choking the seams, finding a rhythm. I took over up the easy terrain up to the overall free-crux of the route: the Changing Corners, rated 5.14a. By aid, the moves around the protruding ar'te and into the next corner system are as simple as clipping a bolt, but to make those moves free requires a complex sequence or body contortions, palming and smearing that Lynn Hill famously was the first to solve. Still, the thin seam required careful selection of micro-offset nuts, and only the perfectly shaped piece would fit in the piton scars. I continued upwards on 5.10+ arching splitter cracks, trying to perfect the techniques of cam-jumaring to save time and gear, jamming in smaller gear along the way to ease the run-outs.

Just below the top-out, the belay stance was truly wild, with the entire spine of the Nose sweeping out below us. Almost a thousand metres of exposure, a dropped carabiner would have landed at the base. Gemma linked the last two pitches, ignoring the hideous rope drag and slabby free moves in approach shoes, she could smell the summit and didn't stop. I soon joined Gemma at the famous tree that marks the end of the route. We collapsed in the tree's shade with our gear exploding around us, and downed our last tin of canned fruit. The tippy, tippy top of El Capitan. It tasted sweet indeed.

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