‘The Salathe Wall is El Caps most natural line and possibly as Royal Robbins dubbed it “The greatest rock climb in the world”.
The trip to the valley had come around quickly. I’d contemplated not going as I felt I should be working rather than gallivanting across the Atlantic but Dan McManus’ enthusiasm had won. The last time we were together in Yosemite we were lost in the dark on the top of Golden Gate, bone weary and on a timer to get to the top before the rain came in. Having just got down off Muir wall 2 days previously a 1 day effort to do Golden Gate was unwise but having seen an inspiring talk by Glen Denny about climbing in the 60s before heading out I was after an adventure and so was Dan
We went with large but flexible ambitions; to try and free an aid climb on the left side of el cap, complete Golden Gate in a day, possibly do another big free climb and if there was time at the end a solo of Astroman. Lucky the word flexible is in there as we didn’t do any of them!
The new free route was meant to be up Never Never Land and I’m convinced you can pick a good free line in from Dihedral Wall or the left but the main slab will await a visit from Ondra. It wasn’t for us.
The Salathe headwall crack is something which has inspired me for years in both pictures and stories so with Dan psyched we diverted attention to this.
Haulbags were packed and having hauled them beyond Heart ledges we wanted to get them to Hollow Flake before coming down and climbing to rejoin them. Just before Hollow Flake it hailed lightly and I idly wondered if I could do the HF when wet and confidently told myself ‘no problem’. About 10 metres from the top of HF the hail came down properly. I watched it pile up on my shoulders and tried not to move my left foot to keep a foothold dry. Dan having been in South East Asia believed he was in the Arctic and had disappeared to dig out a jacket from the bags. An undignified slither down eventually followed and we left the bags there.
Day 2 was a success in every way. We did a long pitch off the spire to arrive at the Boulder problem pitch. At the top of an awkward corner I got spat off and in flight a voice came up:
“Caff, your going the wrong way”
James Lucas, Hazel’s American partner had arrived on the fixed lines. I’d been interrogating people on these about the demise of ethics in Yosemite but was glad James had come up to offer good advice. Anyone willing to put fixed lines down the whole of El Caps most popular free route was obviously unhinged and it was a problem for psychiatrists rather than ourselves.
We both flashed the techy boulder problem and headed down to rest for the day on the spire whence Hazel and Walker had arrived. Hazel managed a handstand on the Spire and numerous card games were had. She mentioned that she had a sore shoulder.
The next day was more like it. We woke to great views level with snow on the plains above the valley on the opposite side and went about making long ledge home. We went down for a look at the headwall pitch which thankfully wasn’t as bad as it felt the night before but was still an endurance heart-breaker of a pitch, especially when cooked from climbing for a few days. The final 2/3 metres of the 50m crack pitch which lead to a weird leg in hole hands off and the belay supply the crux, giving 2 to 3 6c moves on thin slippery 2 finger locks. There is a good shakeout at 10meters and a poor one at 38m. To do the Groove or GBH at Malham should they have good pro would be a considerably easier affair and the grade the headwall gets should be taken as meaningless to any European. Its exposed enough that a toilet stop is an essentail prerequisate before going near it and a defib may be of assistance.
Day 5 is time to try the pitch in earnest. At 43 metres I gained the better jams where a rested climber can get some small recovery before the final crux. I was not a rested climber and got spat off. I was a little bit embarrassed about running out of juice so quickly, with Hazel watching from above. I thought I’d last a little longer 2nd time round with the increased experience but no, I ran out of beans even sooner! A rest day was in order.
Day 6 Dan did an ace lead on the boulder top bit of the crack, doing it first go, 12c/d leads to a weird small cave and a boulder problem just above. Lots of cards and tea were had. At night when inevitably all fears and doubts come to call I worried about the final 10 metres of the crack knowing 1 rest day was not going to get my body up to full speed with various days and years of abuse flashing to mind.
Day 7 arrived and after a quick warm up we ab in to the stance at the base. The jump left out of the eggshell to gain a good crack goes well. The shakeout at 38 meters gets used for 5 mins trying to get rid of the sickly feeling of pressing on up the very aerobic crack above. Getting past my highpoint I’m relieved to get some recovery on the better jams. The final move involved a very non text book move using a right outside edge (retains much more lateral stability and edge) on a nubbin and pirouetting round to grab the jug. I was a little nervous about falling outward facing the exposure if I fluffed this move. It felt surprising to gain the rest. It would have been nice to link the next bit as well but would certainly have required another rest day (A honn said it wasn’t much harder). Dan came up and after I’d sorted out the next bit of the crack we had a brew and made ready for departure from long ledge. A fantastic 12a led leftwards off the ledge, like a very exposed Pembroke E5 and some easier pitches led to the top where we saw a hummingbird. After a crippling walk down we gained the pizza and beers in curry village.
The celebrations peaked one Saturday night in camp 4 where various opinions were set forward around a camp fire, I can’t remember where they came from but there were a few interesting ones:
>It was said that many conservatives and republicans should do community service for their injust and greedy policies.
>The Norwegians around the fire were shown to be from the most equitable society.
>People who quote Larkin were known to require sectioning, this came from numerous sources.
>The radio was being murdered from insincere love songs by naff boy bands
>Tax people had the least honourable profession, like the opposite of Robin Hood.
>Many great climbers can get booted from boot companies nowadays even though they’ll have made boot companies 1000s in marketing value shown widely on the hardest climbs round. They haven’t clocked up enough air time via social media sites shouting about how great they are! Its about the selfie not the send Ry.
>Investment should be made into exploring the final frontiers now so we can ship Farrage and his voters to another planet.
>It was recognised that miracles do occur, shown by not only Pete Robins but also Jordan Base gaining a driving license
When the celebrations finished and we could see again we looked up to the Cap wondering what to try next. Dan was keen for a look at El Nino having had enough of cracks. I was interested to find out just how impressive Leo and Patches ascent was back in 1998.
The first pitch, The Black Dyke had a reputation as being the hardest pitch and the next 2 were also meant to be runout 7c+/8a. The reputation is well deserved. The Black Dyke is E66b/c to the 2nd bolt where committing moves lead to the crux of the pitch where the unlucky can sample a minimum fallout of 10m, Dan thought this pitch harder than Slab and Crack at Curbar. The 2nd pitch has a 10m runout after the crux and would be E6. The 3rd pitch, the Galapagus has a massive 5c/6a rockover where you’d fall forever before sustained 6b/c with a few sections that look impossible until the very last minute/second! A bust finger combined with sun/tiredness blew our first go up but the 2nd found McManus on blistering form, sending the Black Dyke, Missing Link and flashing the Galapagus on 2nd.
After a bit of plotting we set off and climbed and hauled up to the naff bivvy, the Big Sur, we went ledgeless to save on weight. That afternoon we set off on the hard 2 pitches beyond. The Final move of the M&M flake involved a leap for a jug. Apparently unexpected wins can accrue 4 times more excitement than those you expect, hence gambling addiction. This was how the move felt.
Dan made an impressive flash of the Royal Arch, a bouldery pitch which I managed after some time with a tip ready to explode. A grim bivvy on a sloping shelf led to day 2 after little sleep.
The Enduro corner felt about E6 and the next 12cs only E5s which led us to the Rotten Island and the great roof above. Dan sorted out the mass of shit gear in the roof and checked the moves and I blew the flash at the lip with a mix of fear, tiredness and shit sequences coming into play. Dan sent it first lead and I was happy to 2nd it clean. We were chuffed to get this forbidding pitch out of the way.
Becoming irritable is a hazard of big walling. The rope fankles, the stuck haulpigs, the sun and the climb itself can make it feel that all is conspiring against you. Dan had certainly had the best bivvy spot on the Big Sur but hadn’t stopped moaning about it all day and I was worried about where Dan’s breaking point might be. I was feeling pretty confident that if it came to fisty-cuffs to get the best bit of the ledge I’d be ok, I’d watched Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger on the flight over besides which although Dans tall he has a vegan look about him. Luckily the cards settled things.
The day after things started well. Dan did really good leads on a techy 7b+ and the intimidating Dolphin (E5/6) roof/chimney. The Lucy is a Labrador was our last hard pitch and all that was stopping us from a clean ascent. The problem with hard pitches high up is that every morning big wall free climbing you wake up feeling bolloxed and with skin which feels that it's suffering from a nuclear disaster. The bugger bugger of a pitch was wet. After more than an hour of stressful drying, working and cursing I managed to spoon my way through it and Dan had a similar affair, narrowly missing out on a flash. It would have been pretty devastating to fail at the last hurdle and it made for a stressful 2 hours.
We got to the summit and shook hands. It was a fantastic climb. I wondered about the teenaged excitement of Leo and Patch back in 1998 over having the route with very few falls. It stands out to me as possibly the best effort on rock by Brits abroad for a number of reasons with the tough onsighted pitch of the Prophet up there. They would have been on blistering form and have had a fair wind behind them to do it so well. It also has a very intimidating atmosphere from the Big Sur onwards with reasonably technical hauling involved.
Our timing back in the valley couldn’t have been better with a spring party going off in Foresta. We managed to secure an invite.
The next morning I woke up feeling a million pounds. I’d not soloed Astroman which I’d been thinking about for months but we’d done a hell of a lot of great pitches. With the normal scepticism gone I bounced out of the tent to admire the Vista and looked back curiously at what I’d trodden in. It took me a moment to recognise it and although a bit grim I couldn’t resist an evil smug smile....Dan wasn’t going to enjoy the drive back to San Francisco. A great trip.
There are thanks for many people on this trip:
Dan: obviously for being such a good egg and giving great chess games.
Tobias and Thomas for being ace
Jane Gallwey and Jill for supplies & Steve for the whisky
Mike Kershner for dosses in the Pines
James Lucas for beta and having a sense of humour
Dave Gladwin and Kiwi Mick for dosses in camp4
Sterling rope for shipping us out a rope for hauling
Andy Kirkpatrick for a morning of comedy
Hazel for the wine, cupcake, tips on cultural language differences and lack of literacy.