Continued from Part Two
We packed up camp fairly leisurely, again faced with the same dilemma: Do we pass or wait it out? It was a tough decision — on one hand we were clearly moving substantially faster than either of the other parties, but we could also afford to take an extra day. They also had a portaledge, so we could probably coexist on some of the bivy spots if need be. It seemed that we might be fast enough to do the Jardine Traverse, a short (chipped) pitch to shortcut a few of the normal pitches before converging again after the King Swing. However, laziness ruled and we again opted to wait it out — we would have an easy day climbing to El Cap Tower (P15), fixing the next two pitches to the top of Boot Flake, and sleeping on the plush ledge.
The climbing went pretty quickly — It was still my block to lead and I ended up freeing about half of the terrain from Dolt to El Cap Tower, three pitches total. The hauling had already gotten noticeably easier, which was a huge relief. We were in great spirits, until I was astonished to find one of the parties still at El Cap Tower! It was almost noon!!
I fixed the line for Eric and chatted with the lady stuck belaying on El Cap Tower — a nice, long, flat ledge, maybe twelve by five feet. (‘Tower’ is probably a misnomer, as the actual tower is a couple dozen feet below and not at all flat, hospitable, or even easily accessible.) She was quite friendly, despite their predicament of being so far behind to start off the day. They had shared the ledge the night before with the other party of three — five people total, cozy!
It seemed that the other party had undemocratically elected to go first, slow as ever, while they patiently waited. Her partner, Zach, had just proposed to her the day before — he had arranged a friend to line up a bunch of rocks in El Cap Meadow to read “Will you marry me?” We ended up spending quite a bit of time with them over the next few days on the wall, and they were great company.
I led the next pitch, Texas Flake, after Zach and Lara had finished it. The route tunnels behind a huge detached flake roughly the shape of Texas, with one bolt for a 60-foot section of chimneying. I started up it in earnest, taking my time so as not to get winded. Near the top it started to get wider than the length of my leg, which is my least favorite type of chimneying, with a good 20 foot runout as a bonus. I whimpered to Zach about ten feet below the top and he offered to drop a line as a top rope: I obliged. After talking to a few people it turns out I climbed it facing the wrong way. Go figure.
The next pitch was brilliant, a bolted rising traverse connecting to Boot Flake, a 5.10 hand crack behind a terrifying loose flake, seemingly just perched there defying gravity. At the top we got word that the party of three were bailing — woohoo! I guess you can’t expect to climb El Cap if you can only climb four pitches a day. We were all excited to finally get some breathing room.
Saturday, May 25
Saturday was yet another perfect climbing day — clear and cool, almost too cool. We rose early, jugged and hauled our lines, and did the King Swing. It was Eric’s block of leads, so he got the big badass swing. Imagine running sideways on a vertical granite face 1200 feet off the ground, swinging back and forth, back and forth, until getting enough momentum to latch a hold — then climbing a crack while back-cleaning all your gear and facing a huge pendulum fall the whole way! Exhilarating.
For the last few days we had been passed on a daily basis by parties doing the Nose in a Day (NiaD) — An impressive feat requiring 31 pitches of climbing in under 24 hours, with the bonus of not having to haul. At around Camp 4 (pitch 20) an older guy came motoring up, no big deal, until his 14-year old daughter joined him! What!? They had started at dawn, and she didn’t even have jumars! And to top it off, she was wearing Hand Jammies!! Relieved of any remaining ego, we let her pop, Jim Herson, lead the Great Roof ahead of us. We chatted with the kid while she belayed and regaled us with stories of climbing the classic Valley routes many climbers spend their lifetimes dreaming about.
By this time it was getting late in the day, and got wind (ho ho!) that a quick storm was forecast for Sunday evening around 8PM. This had pretty much set Eric off, and left me a little antsy as I had brought zero rain gear due to the original forecast. Jim sensed our anxiety and offered to fix our rope for the time-consuming pitch. We obliged and skipped to another ultra-classic hand crack, the famous Pancake Flake. After one more pitch the sun had set and we had made it to the spot we had hoped to be a day earlier: Camp 5.
It was kind of a let-down: Two sloping ledges separated by exposed 5.7 climbing. We had grown accustomed to nice, flat bivy ledges. Eric was hell-bent on continuing to climb throughout the night, while I was keen on catching a quick night’s sleep at the last remaining good bivy site. I told him he was welcome to lead the next pitch, a thin seam leading to the Glowering Spot. He spent the next hour plus slotting tiny nuts and stepping on camhooks, and by the top of the pitch he was mentally and physically exhausted. He fixed the lead line and rapped while I dug through the haul bag, cooked up some Tasty Bites, rapped down to the lower bivy ledges, and snuggled up against the cold granite, too tired to worry about slowly sliding down the ledge and off into the abyss. I slept like a rock.
Continued in Part Four: Chasing Legends