The Objective: An aid climbing/big wall style ascent of Muir Wall; VI, 5.9, A2 or C4. The route, described as “one of El Cap’s greatest natural lines”, ascends just left of the infamous Nose route. With 33 pitches from ground to summit, it is one of the longest routes on El Cap. While never totally outrageous in the grades, the climbing difficulties are fairly sustained.
The Background: As two big wall noobs, Tess and myself knew we were going to be pretty useless on our own. Sure, we had dabbled with some aid (and plenty of french freeing) in the past, and I even managed to epic my way up a two-day ascent of The Glass Menagerie in North Carolina. Still, we were moderate alpine climbers, not big wall badasses. Yet many of our future mountain objectives require aid climbing skills, so it was time to learn a new skill set. We recruited our former boss, current friend, big wall all-star, Arthur Kearns of Seneca Rocks Climbing School , to venture out to the Valley with us and show us how to get our Wall Rat on.
Our journey to the Valley began as most good adventures should, with a frantic race to the start line. Arthur had agreed to this trip with only one stipulation, he would not go for less than two week. Tess and I, fresh off an expedition in Alaska’s Arrigetch Peaks, were going to have to push the schedule if we wanted to get the full 14 days. We flew direct from Alaska to Portland, picked up her car, and drove through the night (with occasional stops to buy wall rations) to arrive at SFO in time to get Arthur the next day. Then, with two haulbags lashed to the car’s roofrack, it was straight to the Valley.
Being the only one having never been to the Valley before, I relinquished control of the vehicle upon entering the park so I could focus on gawking at all.that.granite. It was not the height that struck me, but the volume. That El Cap is a big piece of rock. Not more than 10 minutes after entering the Park we snapped back into reality when we saw the blue lights flashing behind the car. The crashpad has slipped down to covered the rear license plate and Tess hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. Kindly, ohh so kindly, the ranger let us go only with a warning.
We began our climb on the morning of the September 2nd, 2017. Step One of our plan involved spending the first two days climbing the route up to Heart Ledges. As far as introductions to aid climbing goes, this is a pretty good one. There are fixed lines permanently in place from Heart Ledges to the ground, so one only needs to go up with enough equipment for the day and simply rappel down to spend each evening on the ground.
The first day proved to be a hard learning experience for me. It was a 90+ degree day with not a cloud in the sky. We started up the wrong route (Freeblast), but didnt get too far before realizing our error. Finding the correct start (Moby Dick) farther up climber’s left I had the honor of leading that first pitch, a 5.10. While it went clean, I did wish I had brought more than two #3 and one #4 camalots with me.
This is when things began to get challenging. While at the belay ledge and with Tess leading the next pitch I manged not only to break my sunglasses but also chuck a liter of precious water off of the wall. To make matters worse, we found out that one of our water bladders had also leaked an additional half liter of water into the bottom of the day pack. Already carrying less water than we really needed for the day, this would become a fairly serious limitation later on.
Our goal was to make it past the large traverse of Pitch 6 that day. This should be reasonable for most parties. Unfortunately for us, due to heat, lack of water, and a really slow lead of mine on Pitch 5 (be sure to back clean a bit on this one), we decided to call it a day at the top of the pitch. We fixed one of our ropes in place and rapped down and left, hitting the permanent fixed lines and continuing back to the base.
Waking early on Day 2 we made our way quickly to the base and began jugging up the fixed lines to our high point. With wildfires nearby, the Valley filled with smoke everyday and by the time we had reached the top of 5, we could hardly see the Cathedrals just across the Valley. This day would prove much more successful than the day before and we were able to climb all the way to Heart Ledges. Pitch 6 was our first of many experiences with cam hooks. This traversing pitch can be quite heady for a new leader with all the back-cleaning that is required. Also, Pitch 6 is challenging to clean and offers the second some proper practice for cleaning a traverse; all useful skills to have dialed in before committing to the higher wall. Pitches 7-10 went smooth enough. It was extremely helpful to have two #4 and two #5 camalots with us for those pitches.
Upon reaching Heart Ledges we actually found fixed ropes in place that went all the way to the bolted anchor atop the vertical section of Pitch 12, above Mammoth Terraces. While the lines were definitely permanent, and cut specifically for this job, they were not of the same “permanence” as the lines stretching from Heart to the ground (which consisted of two, independent, side-by-side lines, versus just a single line that went up from Heart to Pitch 11.5). The conclusion being that I am not sure the lines going from Heart to 11.5 will be there in future seasons.
Day 3 was when the real work began; hauling the pigs up to Heart Ledges. Our two haul bags were atrociously heavy. With the forecast calling for more days in the 90s, we went as light as we could on water, taking just over 2.5 liters per person, per day, for 6 days. Still, this still ended up being over 100lbs of just water. Add in everything else needed for three people wall climbing and you end up with some soul-crushing haul bags. Tess, immediately upon standing up for the first time with one of the haul bags on, fell over backwards right there in the parking area. Even the short approach to the base of the route was brutal and time consuming.
Moving the pigs up the wall also proved to be quite the challenge. On the more slabby pitches it required two people hauling, even with the 3:1 haul system we were using. Slowly, we got the pigs all the way up to Heart, and then opted to move them one pitch more, to the right side of Mammoth Terraces. Here we staged our pigs and ledge for when we would truly begin life on the wall. Once again, we rapped back down to ground for the night.
Back at our cushy Camp 4 campsite, Arthur decided to take a rest day. Originally, this was the plan for all of us, but for Tess and I the thought of having only jugged the pitch from Heart to Mammoth, and not actually led it, proved to be too much. We woke early and blasted up the fixed lines, with only a single rope, a light rack, and a couple extra two-liters of water for the stash. We completed Pitch 11 and we back on the ground by mid-day. Then, we made the most of life in the Valley. Cold drinks, ice cream, and watching contenders give their all on Midnight Lightning attempts. In the evening we prepped as much as we could for the morning’s departure. The weather looked good, and we were going up.
Leaving behind the fixed lines and flat ground, we were now fully committed to the wall. Our goal for Day 4 was to climb from Mammoth Terraces through Pitch 17, hauling to and bivying on Grey Ledges (top of 15) and fixing the last two . On the whole, the climbing went fairly smooth, requiring a healthy selection of cams (including some mid-sized offsets [Metolius 0/1 and 1/2]), and offset nuts. As a party of three with only one double portaledge between us, we were fortunate enough to find a nice spot to set up for the night. By hanging the portalegde just a foot or so below a natural 10′ x 1.5′ ledge, we were able to have a comfortable (enough) sleeping spot for everyone.
The morning after our first night on the wall we faced one of the logistical cruxes of the route; the traversing Pitch 18. With three of us, all armed with two-way radios, it proved to be a less challenging ordeal than we had anticipated. We positioned a team member at each anchor and one smack in the middle of the pitch. This proved to be a real live-saver as there is a flake/horn that sits about 6′ below middle of the pitch, just perfectly positioned to snag the haul line. While the radios were a bit overkill for a party of three, they would be a real assets for a team of two on a windy day. Our 20m lower-out line proved adequate and got the job done. Thanks to Arthur, we went into the lowerout early in the day with a clear plan, and this time things worked out just as we hoped.
In staying with modern etiquette, our intention was to try and climb as clean as possible. While we were equipped with hammers and pins, they would be relegated to live in the haul bag unless absolutely necessary, at which time they would be sent up to the leader using the tag line. The first real test of this came on Pitch 19, after the traverse. Tess led this pitch, the first C3 of the route, with style. Following this I free-climbed Pitch 20, finding the climbing not overly difficult but mildly worrisome due to the numerous loose blocks and sharp flakes I encountered.
The top of Pitch 20 was to be our home for the night. After hauling up the pigs and setting up the ledge, Arthur and I left the organizational task to Tess and went up to climb and fix the next two pitches. I had the distinct “pleasure” to lead Pitch 21. This pitch has a notable section of awkwardness in the form of a surprisingly unenjoyable offwidth-like slot. It took a mix of free moves in approach shoes, classic french-free techniques, and traditional aid climbing to battle my way through it. To make matters more intense, there was a very pissed off (thankfully small) bird who had built its nest deep in the crack and wanted to fly out just at the time my body blocked the exit. Beauty ended up following this Beast as Arthur lead a lengthy and enjoyable Pitch 22. Be sure to back clean when you can on this one; its long! Pitches done and ropes fixed to the top of 22, we rapped back to our ledge just as dusk began in earnest.
That night, as there was no good natural ledge for one of us to sleep on, Arthur unleashed his secret weapon. Having modified a lightweight, nylon hammock, he had expertly sewn it to the ideal dimensions for attaching to the bottom of our portaledge. Being as he was the inventor, he also chose to be the test pilot. While I dont think it was the most comfortable night for Arthur, it did serve as a proof of concept and performed as intended.
We knew going into it that Day 6 was going to be a tough one. The goal was to get ourselves and the pigs to the portaledge bivy on the top of Pitch 26. The climbing, consistently more difficult than the prior days, contained two of the three crux pitches of the route. After jugging and hauling to our previous high point, Tess took the lead on Pitch 23, the first of these cruxes. The pitch opens with a pretty serious pendulum followed by an equally serious section of aid climbing. Fixed pins, cam hooks, hand-placed peckers and plenty of offset brass were incorporated in pitch. Never once did our fearless leader call for the hammer though. Pitch 24 was Arthur’s lead, another C3 pitch. Ripping a piece of gear down low, he was able to collect himself enough to get back on and finish the pitch.
The second crux, Pitch 25, fell to me and proved to be one of the coolest of the route. A single, straight-as-an-arrow crack splits an otherwise featureless face. The climbing is continuous and challenging, but never (too) terrifying, and the position could simply not be any better. But beware! Clipping the anchor on this pitch is a nightmare! It took me around 20 minutes to do and I tried every trick in the book. From the last placement under a small roof one has to lean back and stand tall to have a shot at clipping the anchor. For me, at 5’6″, I needed a stiff draw with the gate of the carabiner held open (with a sling) to barely be able to clip the anchor. Finishing up the climbing for the day, Tess lead through the awkward terrain of Pitch 26, back cleaning often between fixed pieces.
Arriving at the ledge, it was past dark by the time we got the haulbags up. Thankfully, the bivy was as good as advertised. Again, we set up the portaledge just below a natural 6′ x 1′ ledge, which served as an ideal night-time perch for the third. After devouring some Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup, we then set up the ledge and got to sleep.
In the daylight the view from our position was spectacular. To our right were these diorite bands that reminded me of dinosaur scales. To our left, a blank sea of granite. Above us stretched an unbroken, 300′ long, left-facing corner. Below, the whole of Yosemite Valley spread out before us.
If we hadn’t lost our status as big wall noobs yet, Day 7 is when we really shrugged it off. The goal of the day was to fix lines from our camp to the top of Pitch 30. Being that our bivy spot was so good, we voted to just spend another night in the same place. Arthur lead Pitch 27, and thus having completed his leading for the day (and us not having anything to haul), he rapped back down to our bivy and spent the day organizing gear, repacking the haulbags and enjoying the position.
As a warm-up, I opted to lead a really enjoyable Pitch 28 that featured endless, bomber cam hook placements. Pitch 29, the crux of the route, was intense. It took me two gripping hours to lead. Lots of shallow, mid-sized c3 and offset cam placements were found in old angled piton slots. The cams were separated by sections of hand-placed medium and large birdbeaks. Thankfully, half-way through the pitch is small section of usable crack in which you can build a life-station in. Beyond that, more hand-placed beaks and a magical, hand-placed .5″ sawed angle got me to the top hammer-free.
Following this Tess lead Pitch 30, weaving her way through awkward roofs and over sketchy copperheads (one of which ripped out on her). We rapped back down our newly fixed lines to a delighted Arthur. If we had wanted to I believe we could have made it to the top that evening, but in no hurry and enjoying ourselves, we decided to spend the last night on the wall. Knowing that the major difficulties were behind us, we feasted on the extra food and water we had left.
Day 8, our final day on the route, we hauled to our previous high-point and began the trickery required to get ourselves off the wall. The climbing on Pitch 31 proved to be pretty damn terrifying for me as the leader; it should not be underestimated. Also the “5.7 mantle” on Pitch 32 makes for an exciting finish.
Reaching the summit, we took in moment and reveled in the company of each other. Then we began what can only be described as the worst and most difficult part of the whole trip, the hike off. I was caught woefully unprepared for the difficulties involved in the super sketchy down scrambling with massive haul bags and rain beginning to fall. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Below is a severely abridged gear list along with notes on what we used and what we didnt.
- Tag line (6mmx60m)
- Haul line (10mmx60m static)
- Lower out line (9.4mx20m)
- Lead line (10mmx70m)
- Lead line (10.1mmx60m)
- 000c3: doubles
- 00tcu/00c3-3c4: triples (only doubles of 1-3 after fixed lines)
- Wanted five .5-.75 in total
- #4 c4: doubles
- #5 c4: doubles (single after fixed lines)
- No number 6
- Offset cams (1.5 sets, heavy on the small sizes): definitely useful, could have used more of the Metolius purple/blue and blue/yellow. Essp useful on c4 pitch
- Cam hooks (2 mds) – wanted one micro and two large
- Peckers (2 full sets) only used 2md and 2lg
- Sawed angles (.5” and ⅝”): smaller size was used hand placed. No other pitons used.
- 32 loose lockers (just enough, could have used more)
- 10 sport draws: (see long draw note below)
- 15 long draws (used all draws but only because we short fixed pitches)
- 34 loose non-locking carabiners (since all our cams had their own racking biner, this was too many)
- 3 48” slings total
- 6 cordelettes (Wanted more. 2 cords per anchor: 1 for hauling/docking, one for personal and belaying, one extra for misc. use)
- 20ft docking line/cordelette for each haul bag