The Nose of El Capitan
For climbers who want info and beta on the route skip to Part 4 – it’s at the end.
Part 4 – Route Beta and Info for interested Nose climbers
- Party of 3 system
- Equipment tips
- Pitch by pitch useful info
- Hauling with a 2:1
- Crowds, queues and traffic
- Sources of info, super high res photo link, topo sources
Featured image above – Heading up to the Great Roof. Photo by Wolf Friedmann
The Climb – Part 1
The Days After – Part 2
Greg’s Poem – Part 3
The Climb – Part 1
It was dark. 8.00 pm ish. Three sets of feet on the 2 inch wide sliver of a ledge. Three good bolts on a sheerness of vertical granite that disappeared 2000 feet below into the gloom. Shifting from foot to foot, trying to relieve the pressure of harnesses and sore toes. “So we either hang the portaledge right here and the 3 of us sit up through the night … look plenty of people before us have done much worse in the past … or we push on to Camp V?”. This was a critical point. Together we had decided to keep going late in the afternoon. I had just led The Great Roof. Sensational. Cait and Greg had been on belay way below.
The best pitch I had ever led in my life, tricky, wildly exposed, thin small gear, each aid move tenuous but workable, through the Valley sunset into a blaze of glory.
In my head I was thinking “This is it, this is what The Nose and big walling is all about. This encapsulates what makes The Nose the best rock climb in the world.”
I had hooted and danced high among the sky full of stars across the final moves onto the foot ledge.
Cait jugged up, we hugged then we hauled. Greg cleaned the pitch by torchlight. 2/3 of the way up The Nose.
Day 4, had started at 4.00 am. We had packed up our bivvy on the comfy El Cap Tower ledge and started jugging up the fixed line to the top of Texas Flake at 5.00, a prearranged hour ahead of the German team we had been held up by 2 days prior. Greg had led the notorious unprotected chimney up behind the Flake in the afternoon of Day 3 – a gutsy brave effort, lonely and completely isolated, hidden in the chimney while Cait and I willed him on in silent trepidation from below – until he poked his head thankfully mischievously over the lip. I’d offered to take the risk of the chimney fall from him but months before we had divided up the key pitches and this was one of his, and he was determined. We jugged and hauled again to the top of Boot Flake. That had been one of mine and the last pitch from the day before – a bolt ladder then a cam hook and micro nuts that led into a good crack up the edge of the Boot – brilliant aid climbing. The latest research shows that only 7% of the boot is in contact with the cliff, but reassuringly (?!) it needs another 4% to give way to send the whole thing plunging. I had contemplated this as we fixed our anchor system to the bolts on the actual cliff above the top of the Boot on which we had stood.
At the top of the Boot the crack system and climbable features end in blank smooth granite. This necessitates switching to a crack system about 20 m to the left. I lowered Greg down vertically to a point at which his feet were level with the third from top bolt in the bolt ladder I had climbed to reach the Boot – invaluable detailed intel/beta like this we had been collecting over previous months through research and talking with people. This King Swing was a deal breaker and a legendary pitch. We had met a group retreating from the climb who had spent hours on it and then one of their climbers had become injured attempting the swinging pendulum. Feeling totally amped and confident, hanging by his thread Greg strode back across the face then while he hung horizontally he jogged with large paces towards the protruding edge. First warm up shot he nearly made it. On his return swing he sprinted to build up momentum and as he swung back wildly he took giant athletic slow motion strides thru space, hit the ground running, launched with arms outstretched and grabbed the rib. We cheered, not quite believing he had done it so fast, and the crowd of spectators 1500 feet below in the Meadow cheered as well, along with other climbers on the mountain. It was as if time had slowed right down. Like all his youth of developing diverse sporting prowess and 25 years of PE teaching had led him to that brief moment of athletic mastery in the most hostile and dramatic arena.
For a full screen view search Youtube King Swing Greg Fisher
It was exhilarating for our team as a whole. “He’s our secret weapon”, Cait said with great confidence. She knew him better than me. I was just grinning, shaking my head and thankful to be in his team. It blew his mind. He had found it easier than expected. He balanced carefully across and up to a safe anchor then started up a difficult section after we had lowered him down all the gear. The hardest moves were just above Eagle Ledge which is where he was pretty much on a top rope from the side. He climbed slowly up the crack system but as Cait and I had to lower down from about 20 m to the side he had to place protection then climb up a little before going back down to retrieve the lowest gear. It was like yoyoing bit by bit upwards balancing the risk of a long sideways fall with having enough protection in and minimising rope drag. We cheered and whooped again when he reached the belay bolts at almost the same level as us.
Cait lowered out and rope wrangled her way efficiently down then up.
I thought I had it figured out but managed to tie myself up from both anchors at the mid-point spread eagled in deep space and somehow extricated myself in what would be the first of two key skills that I should have practised more thoroughly back at home.
A good pitch of aiding up cracks took me to a belay at the edge of a steep grey wall. A few well spaced bolts led out left across this almost blank wall while the crack system continued up. If we could climb across the rising traverse we would save at least an hour. Cait was our gun free crimpy face climber and was keen to give it a try. Failure would mean significant wasted time. Below the Germans were across the Swing and looking upwards. Tentatively at first Cait delicately placed her feet on tiny sloping footers and pinched even smaller finger holds and side pulls outwards away from safety. This Lynn Hill Traverse wasn’t sport climbing with bolts every meter. Rather it was bold and hard. She clipped through a couple of bolts at full stretch then the wall blanked out to a subtle arête further up. Climbing wise this was Cait’s forte, her world. Hard, fine, balancy moves. Technique. Smooth. Bold. Control. Strength. But here, so far up that the thousands of feet just turn to huge sucking exposure, she was being tested. Just like the boulderer, Kevin Jorgenson, up on his Dawn Wall. Run out. In the space where “real climbers” do their dance. I held my breath as time once more seemed to bend around us, to focus our inner worlds and our skill into an intense relationship with this stone.
A small nest of microcams protected her final choreography to the end of the pitch. Following her long battle with cancer Cait had determined “not to waste another moment ….. I could be dead or taken into hospital at any time”. As I belayed and she shimmered across the wall the moment was etched into our hearts and into the spirit of the granite that seemed to shine in grey and brilliant yellow bands of colour. Her relentless positivity was infectious.
(Haul bag quote) Cait, you have always been my role model, my biggest inspiration and the person I still hope to grow up to be like. There is not a haul bag big enough to write all the ways you motivated, inspired and shaped the person I have become. Emma Horan
Into the Grey Bands. Cait was on a roll. The day was going well. We were making steady progress. In the ebb and flow of my confidence and feeling that we should consider bailing I felt optimistic. We left Greg with “Kevin” the haul bag, and the now catching up Germans. Cait led a long traversing weird pitch across the Grey and up to Camp IV. She then wove her way, gracefully free climbing, following seams up a huge concave hanging wall below the Great Roof. When all three of us considered our position we made that first decision to keep going, knowing that whenever we needed to stop we could pull out the portaledge if need be. Without a nearby rock ledge for one of us it would be a challenging, uncomfortable and long night. But it would be ok. It would be safe. We were 2/3 of the way up. Still a long way to go. 10 more pitches. None of them easy. Some of them difficult, more difficult than we knew.
Everywhere the outlook was stupendous. The Valley. Half Dome. The forest way below. The Nose of El Capitan, we were there, we were doing it. So amazing and hard and spectacular and fun and stonkingly huge in all dimensions. In our 90 years of shared climbing experience no other climb ranked or loomed larger, more grand, more beautiful, more full of history, more daunting. More wonderful in its surrounding landscape.
And so to the top of the Great Roof pitch. We discussed our options. The promise of a good ledge at Camp V offered some comfort and the possibility of laying down sleep. “As long as you’re ok to lead we are happy to keep going”. With a big rack of gear and under head torch light I set off up Pancake Flake. This would have been classical in daylight. It passed through the narrow beam slowly bit by bit. I was switched on. Didn’t feel tired. Not conscious of time. Just going step by step – place a piece, test it, walk up the aider as high as possible, repeat. A long pitch. Occasional call to the others met with encouragement. Belay anchors, 3rd person jugs, lower out the haul bag, haul, cleaner does their job, eat, drink never enough.
I set off again for the next and last pitch of the day/night. The pitch had no name known to us. Nondescript. The topo just said “awk” and listed the gear needed. “Awk” it proved to be. After midnight. And strenuous. And painful. It was a deep flaring groove. I had to reach far in to place each piece then struggle to fit the aider and detangle then step up with toes squeezed deeply into the narrow fissure with all my weight on them then struggle to place a piece just a little higher. It became a horror. Not unsafe. Just low down awful and strenuous and more painful and more and more “awk”.
(Haul bag quote) “You have to want it more than it hurts.” Tommy Caldwell
Like a too big worm with too short arms I had to struggle in between the walls of the flare. It took an age. The others could hear my struggle and never once exorted me to move faster or try to do other than I was doing. For a too short time there was a blessed crack on the left wall that eased my passage. Then more struggle. I held it together. Just. They must have been drifting in a cold haze of discomfort below. A nightmare awake. In the end I reached a slab and exhausted hauled my way to its top and a couple of bolts. Totally smashed.
The easy 15 feet of 5.6 unprotected slabby wall I just could not face so I called up Cait who flew up the fixed rope then waltzed across to Camp V.
At last. The ledge. Relief 4.00am. Between Greg below, with the haul bag, and me on the ledge and a miscommunication we nearly had a problem hauling into which Cait switched into safety mode and brought us all back into line and onto the Camp V ledge. Hot chocolate and food never tasted so good. Portaledge erected. We drifted off to sleep at about 6.00 am in the first glow of dawn. 26 hours. 10 pitches. Our teamwork had been pushed into another zone – patience, support and assistance for each other, generosity, giving our all and trusting that each of us were doing the best we possibly could do, for each other.
The lead up
Alpine rock. Endless “thousands of feet” of climber’s granite spired, walled and domed skywards across the spine of the “Range of Light”. Over four weeks Ian and I had threaded our way from peak to peak through the High Sierra and brought to fabulous fruition our dream of forty years. Perfect weather, warm rock – Tuolumne, Fairview Dome and Cathedral Peak, Mts Whitney and Russell, Temple Crag and Charlotte Dome. Stunningly beautiful. The routes made up our own “Classic Climbs of North America” list. Then for a final week we pilgrimaged to Yosemite. Like an addendum to the main game. The Valley. Legendary. Even chanced a spot in Camp 4. I’d spent a lifetime reading about the big walls and climbs which over the years had settled back into a nice comfortable place of reverie, like a favourite book lying dusty on the bottom shelf. On another perfect day we climbed the easy “Snake Dike” up the side of Half Dome – a wonderful romp up runout slabs to the glorious summit where we soaked up the grand scenery as the sun set over Yosemite. Then it rained. For four days. We hiked trails through forest and beside streams.
Next day we walked down to El Cap Meadow in drizzle and mist. Again the sunlight streamed up through the valley in the last of the day and lit the top section of El Capitan. I hardly dared breathe for wanting not to break the spell and wonder of the scene. I had fallen in love with the place. Our last day slowly cleared. With binoculars I traced the line the setting sunlight had taken the evening before as it had risen up the wall. The bottom section was less than vertical. There were crack systems that linked nearly all the way. The Stovelegs and the Great Roof – names etched in memory. Totally unexpectedly it looked even possibly climbable. For me. On a maybe good day. The realm of possibility arose from a long buried precious place within. The Nose. Of El Capitan.
Back at home a plan hatched. Two years, two trips, two routes, The Nose and the Regular Route on Half Dome. And the Tip of Lost Arrow Spire. Heart and psyche set a course for the big adventure – the outcome unknown. A new lightweight portaledge arrived eventually.
My partner from the Sierras, Ian, wasn’t interested and another dropped out. From a solo mountain summit in New Zealand I messaged a climber back home, strong and skilled and tough, a teacher friend – Greg. During my pitch to him about the concept a few weeks later at the climbing gym he mentioned another person who would possibly be interested. Cait joined our discussion outside. She jumped head first straight in while Greg needed more time to let the idea percolate.
(Haul bag quote) Aim and dream big you guys. John Fantini
We did some practice and made a plan to climb Australia’s biggest aid climb (Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo) to see if we were ready and willing to commit. Snowy storms got in the way so in the Blue Mountains we did Australia’s longest sport climb (Hotel California) with two of us doing a bunch of jumaring. Then at Piddington and Mt York some technical aid climbing and hauling, a night on the portaledge for two of us and a day of crack climbing (Eternity led by Greg with a few concerned grunts as he had not trad climbed for a fair while) at Piddington. Over the three days we shared some successes and a few rude awakenings. A lot to learn and practice and research. Results were inconclusive on our readiness. There and then Cait was in. I was happy to go with the two trips over two years process. Greg was keen but only wanted to give it one shot with a high probability of success. We could spend 18 months slowly preparing or throw ourselves in with five months intensive work. With something of a casting vote I plunged us right in. Later, in the darkness, on the journey home, after chatter of climbing eventually subsided I listened from the back seat to their close sharing of deep personal traumas and life struggles. I hoped the undertaking might give them some respite and renewal. And that we could meld ourselves into a cracker team.
(Haul bag quote) Greg, you’ve been an incredible, selfless role model. I’m so glad to see you making time to pursue your own dreams after helping so many others achieve theirs. Emma Horan
Cait used her myriad of contacts in the climbing industry, derived through many years of being SuperCoach to up and coming youth climbing teams, to order a stack of gear. The hugest haul bag we could find arrived. We practiced on Greg’s school climbing wall. Hauling 70 kg. That was the weight we had calculated that we needed to start up El Cap with. 7 ten litre water jerry cans just fitted in the bag, could NOT be carried by one person and made up just the right haul weight to practice with. Early on we settled on a strategy for 3 people that involved 2 climbing ropes, a static haul rope and a skinny tag line. It was complicated and several times we ended up badly tangled up and cluster f…ed with all the ropes and the very heavy bag. The big green haul bag became “Kevin”, through an iteration of the common term for such bags by big wall climbers being “The Pig”, which led to bacon, then Kevin Bacon and then just to Kevin. Cait’s “people” had been in touch with Tommy Caldwell’s people who were trying to get us together with him and “Kevin” Jorgenson who would be presenting in our home town Canberra about their epic Dawn Wall climb (just to the right of our Nose route) before our trip. So it was with fondness that the bag became “Kevin”.
Offset nuts and the latest and best Totem cams were obtained. A microtraxion was upgraded to a protraxion for the haul device. I was soon convinced we needed a 2:1 haul system to enable us to more easily haul the big load with the aid of some mechanical advantage. Endless research, “homework”, led to improved pulleys and a workable system. Cait, the gun sport climber, taught me how to correctly use a grigri. Our main concerns were hauling the big load, efficiency in a group of three and the queue for the world’s best rockclimb. There were lots of other things to find out about in amongst watching YouTube videos of big wall skills and climbing the Nose films.
The haul bag started doing the rounds. Our friends and some renowned climbers wrote messages of support on it for us. We had a sense of taking these others along with us to give us strength and inspiration.
(Haul bag quote) Thanks to all 3 of you for teaching and inspiring multiple generations of outdoor enthusiasts. I would have had a completely different path in life without the encouragement and the opportunities you guys offered me. May your protection be bomber and your hauling system be efficient. Stay safe. Matt Cools
Cait went to USA for a climbing trip in her school holidays, she’s Deputy Principal of a Canberra secondary school. She cut her high end sport climbing short and did a few days climbing and familiarising at Yosemite. She returned scared and extremely highly motivated to train, learn, practice and research harder. About this time we started emailing and messaging each other regularly. It didn’t seem to me that Yosemite was the ONLY thing I was thinking about – at least every week or two I thought about something, or someone!, else. Greg was in the zone as well having put his other climbing goals on hold. To augment her amazing climbing training walls in her garage Cait and her Dad built an adjustable crack system to work out on while she watched more YouTube videos.
(Haul bag quote) Climb hard. Stay safe. Brandon Maggs
Early on the time arrived for camping bookings in The Valley. At the stroke of midnight (which was 10.00 am USA time 5 months in advance) on the appropriate day the three of us feverishly typed our requests into the recreation.gov website that contains hundreds of campsites. For our planned three weeks the best we could manage was bookings for about 80% of our nights but pretty much every night in a different site in a different campground. Trying to manage this would have been an absolute nightmare. I’d envisaged this from previous experience and don’t know what the solution is. Camping arrangements for Camp 4 are changing but may still be almost impossible for international travellers. So I booked us in to a permanent tented glamping place “Housekeeping Camp” which had vacancies for all our nights! Except the weekends! This situation is an indicator of the popularity and crowding on the Valley floor. The previous year Ian and I had found that once you are on the trails and up near the crags the crowds melted away. Stories of queuing for 2 – 3 days to get on The Nose and clusters of climbers higher up the climb were daunting. Hopefully patience, a positive approach and solid skills would see us through. I did wonder on the flight over the Pacific how many others were flying or driving a similar path, with similar objectives, to Yosemite.
The day before Tommy and Kevin arrived in town Cait’s people arranged for the local newspaper to do an inspirational full front page story about her near death experience with cancer, her incredible recovery and dedication through a slow build up back to her former climbing performance levels. During her illness the Dawn Wall saga had played out on El Cap and in her psyche. Climbing El Cap went onto her bucket list. She was now inspired herself by Kevin Jorgensen’s own exploits and dedication in transitioning from sports climbing to completing one of the most amazing trad climbs in the world today. With Tommy and Kevin she also did radio and TV slots on the day. And two of us did meet them later before their show. They signed and wrote messages on our haul bag and posed with Cait in CAC (Climbers Against Cancer) tshirts.
Cait also had them sign a special CAC shirt which she had already got Chris Sharma, another world leading climber, to sign and which she was going to auction for the charity at a later date. Next day, unsolicited, Tommy sent her a photo of himself and Kevin climbing in the Blue Mountains wearing their CAC shirts. The photo was great publicity for the charity.
Greg and I did several training days on local granite crags. We aided popular free climbs where we had to be single minded and resist climbing free. We practised with cam hooks and peckers. Surprisingly the cam hooks worked very well and felt secure. On a solo day, while backed up on a top rope, I levered out a block which grazed my helmet, took a chunk out of the stiff brim of my cap and shaved my cheek bone. It seems that aid climbing puts different forces on rocks in free climbing areas. I immediately thought of Tommy’s comment on our haul bag. I went straight up and finished the climb before I went home to clean myself up. Later Greg did a great lead across under a tricky roof then up an overhanging crack line.
(Haul bag quote) Enjoy the process. Kale
It may have been a case of overtraining that led to Cait getting the flu.
Greg and Cait flew up to Frog Buttress near Brisbane for a long weekend to hone and consolidate their crack climbing skills.
(Haul bag quote) You’ve worked hard for this. Enjoy the type 2 fun. Rob H
At another Canberra school we used their climbing wall for simulated multi pitch climbing, hauling and anchoring training. We all had strong connections to Lake Ginninderra College. I had been Outdoor Education teacher there for 14 years and had taken Cait and her brother and sister on numerous climbing, and countless other, trips as part of their year 11 and 12 studies. Both Cait and Joe later became teachers themselves. As a student in year 12 Joe became probably one of the youngest qualified climbing guides in the country. Greg’s five sons had all spent two years at the college with several of them being outstanding Outdoor Ed students and elite level climbers. Greg led one of the best high school Outdoor Education courses in the city at one of the feeder high schools. He has organised and run the state school climbing competition for decades. He accompanied several college trips to Arapiles on which his son Ben led Kachoong 21 and later Daniel led India 28 – amazing. Together the two families have been the throbbing heart of a vibrant youth climbing scene in Canberra. I felt privileged to be teamed up and connected, literally, with the two key players of local climbing royalty.
“Yosemite Erik” Sloan, who authored the Yosemite Big Walls guidebook, talked to us for over an hour. He introduced us to a much simplified strategy for our group of three. Two people is the most common team size and can be very efficient. Efficiency is a major aspect of success. The retreat/failure rate is about 50% on The Nose. If you are inefficient then you take much longer, have to carry more water and food, overflow your poop container, run out of water etc and so you are likely to bail out. Three can be good because there are more people to spread the load – physically, socially, psychologically – and you have more fun. We were committed to our team of three which would automatically take longer and require carrying more food, water and gear. We could hopefully haul well with the 2:1 early on when our bag would be heavy. Erik gave us a simplified system with only two ropes – less chance of getting things tangled up. We still brought over all our ropes so that if we changed back to our earlier system we would have that option. Many groups also do not take a portaledge and camp on the available ledges where possible. With our lightweight double portaledge we intended to sleep two on that and only one on a ledge nearby. Hopefully this would provide some good flexibility, but it would be another substantial extra bit of kit to cart up.
At a dinner with partners and family within the first couple of minutes the two wives shared perspectives on how we had been extremely focussed on our climbing and research and training. In retrospect now I would probably agree but feel also that all the time spent had been necessary. Even with our combined extensive climbing experience we all had tons to learn and sort out and practice. In the end we still might have been underdone and alternatively if we were successful then maybe our level of prep was just right. All three of us had become swept away with it all. Just as I had been captivated by The Valley and the possibility of tangling with the Capitan. Intellectually our wives supported us but they struggled with our unavailability and preoccupation at times. The support of loved ones was an enabler for each of us. I hoped we could return refreshed emotionally with a deep sense of gratitude. Our best selves.
In the lead up I had wavered in my assessment of our chances. From strong confidence to doubt. Sometimes it was related to how our skills practices had gone – Cait and I did some smooth hauling of a bag full of stones and each other, a breakthrough in our systems – or how my puny muscles and ageing joints had stiffened up after a session at the gym.
“I think I understand and can work the systems now and concentrate on being faster”. Cait at our final practice the week before leaving. “In the nick of time”, I replied as we high fived.
Friends were full of the generic questions. “How do you go to the toilet up there? What do you eat? Where do you sleep? What happens if you roll over at night? What do you do if it rains? Have you updated your will?”
(Haul bag quote) The bigger the dream, the more important the team. You have done the work now enjoy the success. Stay safe, look after each other and enjoy the view from the top. Cait’s Mum and Dad
During the first part of the flight from Sydney to LA I listened for the hundredth time to some tracks from our Yosemite playlist. And I reflected that it was similar to the start of a marathon. You have to be thrilled that you have reached that starting point – completed enough training to be in the ballpark to finish in reasonable shape, to be healthy. And different to a marathon – to be part of a cracker team.
Our efforts telescoped right up to the point where we stood at the bottom of Pine Line. The initial access pitch. 6 months of training, planning, research at home. Long haul flight to SFO Saturday. Food shopped then drove to Yosemite Sunday and checked out El Cap. Monday we multi pitch free climbed. Tuesday and Wednesday we worked with a guide, Greg Coit, to tune our systems and obtain last minute beta on the route. Greg suggested we start the next day and get straight into action. The weather forecast was excellent and our Greg had an important commitment a week later. An evening packing. Early morning start.
(Haul bag quote) Peter, I will never forget the confidence and trust you gave me on Danielle. Now it’s time for me to return that confidence and trust. I have no doubt you will achieve your dreams. Mike Law-Smith
Pine Line went well. I led, we hauled, Cait cleaned. As the most experienced aid climber I led the first two main pitches which were fabulous. To get us going as smoothly as we could. It was a fantastic feeling to be actually climbing on the big stone. Tried to just focus on the pitch, the placement at hand, the systems, being careful and efficient. Not on the huge distance and steepenings in the corners far above. Just the job at hand. I dropped an offset alien. Bugger. Pin scars, totems, offset cams, micro cams, micro nuts. Bolted belays. Quad anchors. 2:1 haul system. Everything went pretty much to plan.
(Haul bag quote) All three of you, Pete, Greg and Cait, are people who have touched my life in only positive ways! Enjoy the climb up that wall. Chris Webb-Parsons
That left Greg with the two hardest pitches. Two of the hardest of the climb. Thin aid. Pin scars. Slippery smooth rock.
One fall when his gear pulled out unexpectedly. A big pecker the only thing he could find to get through one section of pin scars. Lower outs. He did well. The practice back on home crags paid big. Then a big complex lower out and traverse right and he was on Sickle Ledge.
A smooth day. In anticipation we enjoyed spying out the route ahead up high.
We met up with a German pair who we had spied during the day jugging their fixed ropes up to Sickle and hauling quite slowly. We secured our haul bag and portaledge onto the ledge then fixed and repelled our own ropes 150m down to the ground in the late afternoon.
The lost alien was replaced at the mountain shop. We packed up our stuff and sorted all our food.
4.00am start. At that stage we didn’t know this would become the norm. Everything in the car. All the leftover food and other scented stuff went into a bear box at the Meadow. By 5.00am we were jugging the fixed lines with our sleeping bags, some snacks for the day and extra water. Hard work. The third rope we dropped to join others at the base (we had arranged for it to be picked up).
Getting stuck in amongst other groups on the Nose is a major problem and almost inevitable. We had spent time on previous days scoping out the traffic on the route. There seemed to be a pretty good gap ahead of us, maybe due to some cold weather that had just passed. And miraculously no one else had climbed up to Sickle on the same day as us. Things looked good until we arrived at Sickle 5 minutes after the German pair, who had bivvied there overnight, were ready to go. They seemed to have a lot of stuff. We waited. And waited. While one of them led the next pitch and then tried to haul their large load.
A pair of Nose In A Day (NIAD) speed climbers passed through quickly. An American pair jugged up with their haul bag. And another pair who were doing a run to Dolt Tower. Eventually Cait led off, only to have to wait while the Germans struggled first with a pendulum across to the Stoveleg Crack system then with their big load and inefficient hauling system. This was really frustrating and required all our reserves of patience.
Getting gridlocked with other groups is one of the primary reasons for the high bail rate on the Nose. Greg Coit, Erik Sloan and Tommy and Kevin had told us that early on we would be looking for excuses to go down, that the secret to success is just to never give up. We were a group of three which is slower than a regular group of two. And we weren’t experts, but we had practised and for a group of three were travelling light. We had proved the previous day that we were in the ballpark to be successful. Our water supply was calculated to last a little short of 4 full days, now we were getting behind schedule, maybe critically. The Dolt runners bailed and rapped back down.
The Americans looked fast and needed to get high up as they had no portaledge and only 3 days water. We let them take a higher route through the Dolt Hole but then they caught themselves out by running the pitch too far. They lost communication with each other and got tangled trying to make sure they didn’t lower out their haul bag onto us to the side and below them. Clusterfuck. More hold up for us. The wind picked up.
Cait eventually pendulumed across and we got set up in the bottom of the Stoveleg Cracks mid afternoon. She had been training and practicing trad crack climbing intensively for 6 months – building a crack machine in her home climbing garage, spending multiple weekends at local crack climbing venues and flying up to Frog Buttress for a 4 day weekend. She set off with a big rack. Made slow progress. The hours of “hanging around” had taken their toll. She fought the wind. Communication was difficult. I gave out slack and held the belay tight at the wrong times. She inched upwards then stopped for a time. Alone. Strung out.
(Haul bag quote) Very important – DON’T FALL! Stay strong. Will be thinking of you crushing!! Peta
Then she moved on again. Not much free. Eventually reached the belay. We made our way up and joined her. Her face was tear stained, her jaw set rock solid. Silent.
She gave me the rack and I aided up as the light faded. A piece pulled and I took a long fall scraping my shin in the darkness. Set my own jaw and continued up two pitches. Three of the most famous pitches we’d got smashed on due to the traffic, out of our control – the Stovelegs.
At 2.00 am on Dolt Tower the Germans were in bed. While we set up our ‘ledge and had some dinner. Tried to regather ourselves. Respect. Mutual support. Dig deep. We decided to negotiate with the Germans to go first in the morning. This was one of those critical points where it would have been so easy to bail but almost without speaking our plan was hatched through this very low point – Cait had really lost it for a bit, I’d led for hours through the dark, Greg was psyching out from spending the day hanging, hauling and cleaning but isolated from the leading. We started a nightly round of ibuprofen with the best hot chocolate on the planet. The wind had dropped. 20 years earlier Cait had been a student in my outdoor ed. class. I had introduced her to climbing and then she passed that on to her brother and sister. At my retirement they had given me a small clock with an engraved quote from Ed. Hillary, “It’s not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves”. The night was velvet and star studded – I did notice this for a second as I zipped my sleeping bag shut. Up was the plan. Bed at 4.00 am.
We were woken early by a NIAD (Nose In A Day) group climbing past. Up at 6.00 am.
We then chatted with the Germans, Wolf and Herbert, “Your climbing is great but your hauling takes a long time. Could we leave first today and see if we can stay in front?” They agreed. We were off by 7.00 am. I led down into a bottomless gap then up a steep crack system. Great to be in front. The Americans were a long way ahead. Our combined teams strategy was working. Maybe we were settling into our groove with a team above and another below.
Cait took over the lead and really enjoyed two mixed free and aid pitches. We cracked along nicely.
On one of the belay ledges Greg confided to me that although this type of climbing was not really his thing he had wanted to be part of the undertaking to assist Cait and I who were so deeply passionate about it and that we were two people who he respected so much. We hugged and cried.
In the early afternoon we reached the palatial El Cap Tower ledge – “a good bivvy for 4”.
After a short rest and food and precious water Greg led into the Texas Flake Chimney. He was super psyched, extremely well informed, very nervous and his heart was pumping. When we had first met local big wall guide, Greg Coit, he had straight away asked who was going to lead the Texas Flake Chimney – unprotectable, dangerous and scarey. A hard part was actually getting in to the bottom of the chimney. There were some gear placements there and a bolt higher up but if Greg clipped these he would not be able to swing the rope out of the chimney to make the going easier for the second climber. Also the bolt in the chimney was where the harder climbing was. Further to the west in the chimney there were more flake holds on the wall. Greg had set off into the chimney but had to retreat to the bottom to reset his shirt and the gear on his harness. It was digging into his back as he chimneyed up so he went back down and switched it to the front of his harness. He had also left the rack at the front of the Flake for me to collect as I jugged up.
When I joined Greg at the top of the Flake we considered the time of day and the shortage of good bivvy sites ahead (and the strong pull of the fabulous El Cap Tower ledge) and decided to fix the Boot then rap down and stay the night on El Cap Tower.
Cait set up camp and had the dinner ready as we arrived back down. The Germans had arrived. We shared chocolate, yarns and good times together. Respect. Patience. Support.
Just before dark a wacky, fun motormouth, Pass The Pitons Pete, and his mate passed through our camp on their way to set up a camp higher up and out right on their New Dawn route. In a party atmosphere they regaled us with tales of haul bags full of beer and margaritas. Total wall rats completely at home up there.
(Haul bag quote)
Shut up and climb! Pass the Pitons Pete
The ledge was like a small horizontal oasis in an ocean of verticality. We savoured the delightful evening, the shadows, changing colours – John Muir’s Range of Light. Warm sleeping bag, harness still on, tethered to the wall.
Greg’s spot on the ledge was a little too close to the German waste case, we would get to retaliate later.
We jumared through the dawn to the top of the Boot. Then the King Swing, Lynn Hill Traverse, Great Roof, Pancake Flake and on to Camp V. Each of us digging deep, being our very best selves with each other and in our own private journeys across and up the mountain. Endurance. Support. Care. Trust.
“Even if we’re breaking down, we can find a way to break through
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you” Rachel Platten
Through the longest and hardest day that any of us had maybe ever encountered. Time stretched to allow us to fit it all into one exquisite day of struggle and joy and awe in the grandest place and quest of our lives.
At some stage Cait said, “I’ve never done anything as gruelling as The Nose.” I could only agree.
The sun opened up across the wall. Heat pulled us out of slumber at 8.00. “I’m starting to poop my pants,” Greg. It was his way of telling us he was getting scared, struggling. We needed to get going. Breakfast and packed up.
Big walling is an intimate pastime. The portaledge is small. On belay you hang off the same anchor bolts for long periods of time together. Your daily issues are closely shared. Space anywhere is limited. One of our waste cases was full. A wag bag is a clever invention that mostly does the job. You poop into the large plastic bag which contains some crystals that absorb moisture and some of the smell. Then you squeeze the air out and tie a knot to seal it up. This is stowed in a heavy duty zip lock bag which again you squeeze the air out of to reduce the storage volume. The wag bag also comes with a small supply of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. And in the logistics of cramped space you often have one person that pushes them down into the waste case that hangs below the haul bag. In a moment of brilliance back home I had bought a second waste case. “Look the other way guys”. I shuffled round the not quite corner of the Camp V ledge. While Greg and Cait busied themselves. Every morning was the same, for each of us. “There’s something not right with my system”, Cait said as we stowed her wag bag in the waste case. Change of diet, lack of food, not enough water, too many Cliff Bars, dehydrated dinners, physical and psychological stress, too much of the energy drink additive. Any of the above. Life on the wall? Concerned I asked her if we needed to go down. This would have been a dreaded prospect of 20 abseils. But we would do it if necessary. “Absolutely No Way”. Fierce determination.
I led through a section of thin aid above small ledges that would not have been nice to fall onto. Then up to cool shade in the Glowering Spot, a comfy but slightly sloping ledge big enough for two people to sit down on. While Cait belayed Greg into the next pitch I dozed as the sun arrived in the alcove. I rested while Greg pushed thru an awkward wide section then up the higher part of the long and taxing pitch. I’d suggested he just take it slow and carefully, one small step at a time.
(Haul bag quote) As long as you’re going up you’re sending. Kevin Jorgenson
In the heat of the day Greg made it up to Camp VI. A nice triangular gently sloping ledge, big enough for us to spread out and arrange our stuff, all clipped in to safety ropes. It had been a short day. Welcome relief from the day before. Occasionally we caught faint noises from the Germans down below. One more pitch to fix and that would set us up for the summit next day. Changing Corners. Another game breaker and the higher crux for us. Famous for aid and the few free climbers able to give it a shot. Another key pitch for Greg. He was psyched for it but fatigued. I really hoped he could push himself into it. I was wasted. I made him a sun shelter so he could cool down a little and some lunch wraps. There was a 1 foot wide crack at the rear of the ledge that dropped down about 15 m and then into the bowels of the mountain. Cait handed Greg the stove bag with the instruction, “Don’t drop this down the crack”. Immediate tinkling sounded our disappointment as it fell down out of sight. Greg! Oh No! Hot dinner gone, hot chocolate, coffee gone. Oh No. He wanted to abseil down in a forlorn hope of finding it. I pretty much vetoed that idea as I wanted him to have every last bit of energy for the pitch above.
In the cool of later afternoon Greg geared up bravely and headed up. Things got steadily harder. Another long pitch. At some bolts he had to move right from one corner system to another. It was all very steep. These were the corners way up high in the top, over vertical section of the route we had tried to avoid looking at from the Meadow. He reached a lower set of bolts but then headed up to a higher set that were strung with old climbing tape and cord. He clipped a couple then teetered round into the next corner, placed an offset alien and a micro cam, moved up slowly. “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!” Both pieces popped up there and he took a decent fall, slamming back into the corner. He had just missed reaching a fixed wire.
(Haul bag quote) We tend not to remember the easy days out adventuring. Make this trip one to remember. It’s going to bring with it suffering and anxiety. But for some reason it will all be worth it. Savour both the moments when one is riding the metaphorical suffer bus, and when you are filled with wonder, joy and happiness, because it’s a mixture of these two that drive us up the walls, across the continents and has us training tirelessly for months on end. Enjoy the good and bad moments because there will be plenty of both. Daniel Fisher
Straight back up, delicately round the edge, cam hook, micro gear then the wire. Slowly upwards. Cait and I held our breaths, again. The rope stopped inching upwards. He was out of sight. Up there alone. 2,500 feet up. Time stood still. He’d been studying this for months. Visualising. We willed him on. “Safe. Yeah!” Met by whoops from us. We were going to the top for sure now. Four pitches to go. Tomorrow. Nothing could stop us now. Cait and I hugged. Golden light. Greg fixed the rope and abseiled back down, cleaning the protection as he descended. In the highest spirits we hi fived and chattered. Jubilation. Tension relieved. (Apparently if the leader top steps on the third bolt and tensions right it may be possible to reach the fixed wire at a stretch.)
Just before dark we hung the portaledge just over the lip and had muesli for dinner which we ate with our nut tools from our now one shared remaining cup. Our sporks had gone down with the stove. Herbert, one of the Germans, appeared below and called up. We tried to convince him to make his camp at a nice small ledge about 10 m below ours. He preferred to come up and check out any spare space on ours. Cait and Greg collapsed into their sleeping bags. I rearranged all our gear and our anchor system to make space for Wolf and Herbert. My climbing ethics demanded that we share whatever space we could with another party in need. Herbert ascended through our waste cases then anchored his ropes carefully underneath ours to limit tangles the following morning. By then we were good friends with them and this was more a meeting up than a cluster. We had been clustered and held up by them low down on the route but had been clear of each other since then and worked together so that both of our parties could move at their own pace. He then descended to the smaller ledge below where they set up in comfort. Cait, Greg and I had traded hours of sleep for a clear run. (In the following week, from the Meadow, we had noticed a major cluster of parties high on the route. This would have been much more problematic as climbers would have been strung out, dehydrated and fatigued and slowed up within sight of the summit.)
(Haul bag quote) Have the best adventure sufferfest ever. Tracey
Greg and I slept on the ledge, Greg with his shoulders over the crack, and me, at regular intervals through the night shuffling back inwards, at the edge.
“I’ve battled demons that won’t let me sleep
Called to the sea but she abandoned me
But I won’t never give up, no, never give up, no, no
No, I won’t never give up, no, never give up, no, no” Sia
Cait slept fitfully on the portaledge – alternating gazing up at the stars and peering over the edge to watch tiny car lights snaking down the valley way below.
A plane passed high overhead – its flashing red light reminded her of her flashing monitor lights during her year in hospital.
No tea or coffee. “What peanut dropped the stove?” It would take a lifetime to live that one down. I took the haul rope and the huge rack and I began jumaring up the fixed rope. For about 25m the rope hung out away from the wall, which showed that Greg’s Changing Corners pitch had overhung, and made my ascent of the rope exhausting. Maybe my arms were already tired from all the jugging and climbing and hauling. I had to break it down into small sections, each with its own end point objective, just like marathon running when you’ve hit the wall.
(Haul bag quote) “Swing on some jugs for me Pete. I’ll be willing you on”. Ian Brown.
Ian’s message echoed in my head. Eventually I was able to reach the wall with my feet and the going got a bit easier. Greg came up and we got ready to haul the bag. By this time we had drunk most of the water and eaten a fair amount of our food so we could body haul instead of using the 2 to 1 system with pulleys. We took the weight of the bag. Cait then lowered it out of the anchor below. Greg and I pulled it up a little so she could get started ascending the fixed rope. Unbeknown to us this meant that our two waste cases, which hung below our haul bag and were by now pretty full and ripe, hung right next to Wolf’s head. He had re ascended to our Camp VI ledge and lashed himself to the anchor. In her sensitive and interpersonally aware way Cait noticed his discomfort and yelled up to ask us if we could haul up the bag some more. As the bag ascended slowly Herbert thanked Cait for asking the question.
From the belay at the top of Changing Corners the action picked up. I led up a nice pitch of easy aid, shuffling red cams up a curving cracked corner.
The view back down the pitch funnelled down the Corners, past Camp VI, then down past the Great Roof, the Grey Bands, eventually to the sloping section of white stone glistening in the morning sun around Sickle, eventually to the base, the Meadow and then to the forest of tiny trees. Over a lip of rock above a rope snaked down followed by an abseiler. “Hi. I’m Brad” “Yeah Hi. I’m Peter.”
He continued down some more then started doing free practice on the hardest section of the Corners, falling and grunting. “Hey that’s Brad Gobright”, whispered Cait to Greg, “He’s the Alex Honnold you’ve never heard of.” So he had hiked up and ascended fixed ropes from the base of El Cap to the top (1000m+), abseiled down 150m, to do 30 minutes practice on the Corners then reversed the whole approach – very impressive motivation and effort. Since Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of The Nose only about 5 – 6 other people had managed the feat. The Changing Corners pitch is the hardest free pitch on the climb. Perhaps Brad was working on trying to be the next. Two groups are also competing with each other for the fastest ascent of The Nose. Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold currently have the fastest time of 1 hour and 58 minutes. Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds hold the second fastest time of 2 hours 2 minutes. As impressive as these speed ascents are they are also incredibly dangerous. Many of the recent accidents on El Cap have been on the faster ascents where aspects of safety are compromised while climbers are simul climbing. Tommy, Alex and Brad, the elite of world rockclimbing with athletic capabilities equivalent to Olympic gold medal level are pushing the envelope of possibility. To witness Brad training on the hardest pitch on The Nose between us and the Germans was almost as good as his offer that we could jug his rope that was anchored nearby.
All’s fair in aid climbing and he totally unexpectedly sped us up a pitch to The Wild Stance before he jugged out and pulled his rope up.
We found the megadeath loose spike beside the Wild Stance that we had been warned about. The thought of anything falling off the climb was horrendous. Even a dropped water bottle or carabiner could cause a major injury 1000’s of feet below.
We could see the summit overhangs but not the well known pine tree. 2 pitches to go. Cait showed off her latest and best aid climbing skills lacing up a curving crack that led to a bolt ladder. High stepping, back cleaning like a big wall pro she was taking us to the top in style.
Meanwhile Greg and I guffawed and laughed as we likened the sound of our regular farts to various makes and models of motor bikes. Must have been the change of diet or too many cliff bars.
The bolts led Cait, with her trusty extender draw, through an overhanging section to a very uncomfortable stance. Greg lowered out on the haul rope and swung out over 3000 feet of space on the single 10.4 mm of nylon life line. I know that if I did what Brad had done and gone to the top and abseiled over the edge I would have found it terrifying. When I start at the bottom however and slowly ascend step by step increasing the height I get used to it and as long as I am connected to the rope and cliff correctly the exposure doesn’t really concern me. It certainly focuses the attention and adds massively to the experience and perception of the landscape but it’s not like when I stand unroped near a cliff edge and feel the fearful sucking pull of vertigo. After Greg left I had an alone overcome with emotion weeping moment – deep dreams only occasionally reach fruition in life.
“Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to that feeling” Journey
I found following the bolt ladder really strenuous. I tangled, thrashed and graunched ungainly up to the stance completely devoid of style or finesse. The others were in a state of uncomfortable distress on the very poor stance. For some reason our toes were squashed into the wall. (Cait and I have ongoing big wall nerve damaged big toes that should heal eventually) Cait then free walzed off across a wall then up and round out of sight and then to the top where we heard a very faint “Safe” call. Greg once again floated in wild space up and out of sight. “Oh My Gosh,” Greg. I was out of sorts, out of style, totally blown emotionally and deeply satisfied. Following the bolts up I made a mistake and found myself stuck in tight on a quickdraw. In haste I took out my knife and sliced it free of the rope. This climb never broke down or got easy even to the final moves. Greg was at the final bolted anchor. He had jugged and then hauled. And was now hot and dry and wrecked.
We struggled up to the famous pine tree with a bit of the gear and collapsed. Sipped some of our little remaining water, sat or lay down, let the focus and being switched on drain away. We smiled and cried and hugged. One of the best experiences of our lives. 6 days. Massive in every way. Together. It was like everything had fallen into place. Sipped some more precious liquid. After a while we carried the rest of our gear from the bolts up to the tree. Called home, reported in safely to our supporters. Then we took summit photos in soft golden light in our Climbers Against Cancer t shirts.
Deeply fatigued as we were we couldn’t face the daunting task of switching on again and carting our heavy load down the unknown East Ledges abseil descent. So we stashed all our climbing gear under a rock then packed up all the stuff that bears might tear to bits – left over food, rubbish, flattened drink bottles, full waste cases and other essentials. Just prior to leaving we discovered a stash of water under a rock and took some glorious big gulps like nectar from the gods. “Light and Fast” we set off on the long hike down the back at about 6.00 pm. Tired, sore, slow. But elated. We would make it down that night. In the darkness with head torches we trudged. Greg muscled the haul bag. I carried both waste cases in a smaller backpack. Every time I stopped the smell enveloped me. The others always walked in front. Through the forest. Across rock slabs. Up and down. For hours. Then to the steep descent which went on forever. 12 km never seemed so far. In a quiet moment of rest, “I feel like a real climber now,” Cait. Down. Switchbacks. Down. At about 9.15 we realised the last transit bus that could return one of us to the car would be at 10.00 pm. From somewhere deeper than I knew existed I summoned the ability to run downhill. For 45 minutes then I saw the bus disappear. In desperation I flagged down a passing car after I had ditched the stinking waste case backpack into the scrub beside the road.
(Haul bag quote) Get after it and take the whip! I always thought you were a bit on the nose. Joe Horan
An English couple who never mentioned my smell and showed great interest in the climb thankfully gave me a lift. In my fatigue I walked up and down the road looking for our car. After an age I located the car and picked up the others. We collected our stashed food and stuff from a bear box.
Shower. Hot chocolate. Bed. Horizontal. Sleep.
The Days After – Part 2
Rest day. Bruised legs. Swollen hands. Greg had sausage fingers. Numb big toes – nerve damage. (Tommy’s haul bag message kept repeating)
“We climbed The Nose”. Greg said about every 10 minutes. Coffee. Deep satisfaction. We felt surprisingly ok. Walked round just smiling. Savouring. Pizza for lunch.
In The Meadow later in the afternoon we spent a long time just drinking in the scene. Tracing the route on the mountain. Checking out the other climbers. Beautiful. Grand. Powerful. “Yes I know Greg. We climbed The Nose.” Smiled a lot more. Cait – “You know. Up there. Here. This is the happiest I have ever been.”
A fellow in a red shirt with a big camera. Tom Evans! The legend. Turned out he had started his daily photo record of El Cap climbs for the season the day we started from Sickle!!!!! And he could give us copies of photos of our climb later that night!!!! When he asked how we found it I mentioned the pitch above Pancake Flake that I had led in the depths of the night and found so hard. “Oh that pitch is notorious. Lots of people have had accidents on that pitch. It’s called the ButtCrack.” I’m glad I didn’t know that beforehand.
Erik was there too. “I’ve only got one thing to say to you Erik”. And I just gave him a big hug. His info and encouragement had been instrumental. He offered to help us retrieve our gear from the top the next day, especially as he was going up anyway.
Later that evening we met up with Tom and picked up a USB full of his great photos. Brad just happened to be there as well.
Even though Cait had climbed across the world for 20 years and coached the Australian team it wasn’t until she had completed The Nose that she felt “like a real climber”. It struck me that being in the spiritual home of rockclimbing and mixing it with the world’s best was perhaps a fitting place to come to that realisation.
Next day Cait dropped me off at 5.00 am on her way to take Greg towards San Francisco to catch a bus to the airport for an engagement in Canada. I hiked back up the 1000 m and 12 km to the top of The Nose. True to his word Erik was there assembling our gear. He took the haul bag and I a large rucksack. A program to clean up Yosemite, The Facelift, was on and Erik had set himself the task to update the abseil ropes on the East Ledges descent route. We donated our static rope. We spent the rest of the day replacing the ropes that were worn and abseiling down with our gear. Erik was a trooper. I was very fatigued. We paid him well. At the bottom I met Kevin Jorgensen and reminded him of our meeting in Canberra and the message he had written on our haul bag. He said he wanted to catch up with Cait and congratulate her.
She met up with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin that evening in one of the many circularities and synchronicities associated with our climb.
We arranged to meet up with Greg Coit. We had heard his prearranged stuttered horn honking encouragement each morning as he drove past El Cap on his way to guiding work in The Valley. He was generously interested in our climb. He told us that when he saw our slow early progress he doubted we would make it up. I also sensed that Erik might have doubted we would be successful. We were an unusual team for The Nose. A group of 3. Two males and a female. An old trad climber with some aid climbing experience in Australia from decades previous, an experienced traddy who was now a committed sport climber (also an all round strong athlete) and a younger gun sport climber. Different ages with at least 12 years between each person. And we each had our fears. Greg was worried about dropping stuff and the height and exposure during his down time. Cait became very anxious during the lead up – failure, not being able to do it, fear of dying, worried about the media hype, what if something goes wrong, anchor failure, ropes getting cut, falling rock, falling on trad gear. She had a major crisis of confidence in her own climbing ability and got sick three weeks before we departed Australia. I was mainly concerned about my body breaking down. We were all scared of being the weakest link. The bail out rate was high – over 50%. Greg Coit told us he had bailed on his first two attempts though I wasn’t sure whether he was just telling us this to soften us up for our own possible failure. We had met teams from UK and Australia who were going home without making it. The Germans too had failed on The Nose and Half Dome in previous years.
In the aftermath we considered at length what may have been critical factors in our success. We had an unusual combination of experience and skills. 90 years of combined climbing experience. 75 years of combined outdoor education leadership. Being in a team of 3 where there is always someone to share things with on the wall and more fun to be had. Very serious research “homework” in the 6 months prior. Substantial training in the lead up. Good gear. Diverse and complimentary skills. The depth of our shared dream. The public nature of our climb, encapsulated by the messages we carried up on our haul bag, added a sense of wider support. Cait wanted to make her family and Greg’s wife proud. We had the ability to cover for each other. Our life experiences that gave us the endurance, the will and and the wherewithal to be able to dig very, very deep. Our emotional commitment to each other borne of appreciation of each other’s struggles. Friendship.
(Haul bag quote) To the team. The fellowship of the rope is one of the most powerful bonds. Climb hard, climb strong, live life and come back as mates. Zac Zaharias
Our journey up the mountain together was a massive test of each of these. Throughout, our underlying respect for each other and mutual support prevailed. What more could I have asked for when I shared a dream and an interpersonal hunch.
“All fired up (now I believe there comes a time)
All fired up (when everything just falls in line)” Pat Benatar
Sometimes things do fall into line. Sometimes things go your way. And sometimes when you do good things in the world with good intentions things around you conspire to make things happen. Fate and karma intertwined.
On our last night in The Valley we went down to the Meadow. A string of twinkling lights hung down the Nose and marked the bivvys of climbers on other routes across the Cap. And possibly of others like us climbing into the night. Stars blanketed the deep blue sky above. Huge black pine silhouettes framed the whole magical scene. Once again I was overcome with emotion – the surreal beauty of the place, we had been those starry lights up there, everything had fallen into line for us. The three of us together had climbed the most famous and beautiful route on the best cliff in the world.
Text msg 3 weeks later “Hey. We climbed The Nose.”
Especially to our partners and families for their support and forbearance.
Erik Sloan and Greg Coit
Tom Evans for your brilliant photos
Tommy and Kevin for inspiration and generous encouragement
Ian and Dan for loaned gear
Canberra Indoor Rockclimbing, Mont, Climbing Anchors
Greg’s Poem – Part 3
Slack Pete, Cross Cait and Safety 5th vs the Nose Greg Fisher
It was early in 2019 that Peter made his emotional plea,
Let’s have an awesome adventure, by going over to Yosemite.
The goal was to conquer The Nose on El Cap,
A wall climb, 28 pitches, 1000metrs high, ooh..crap!
This would take much more than some training in the gym,
What was needed, was the Spirit of Adventure, just to follow him.
Increased fitness, new gear, different techniques and a little sacrifice,
Pete’s little adventure was going to change us for the rest of our life.
Three friends, comrades, colleagues and mates,
Would form team awesome combining their special traits.
Peter, Cait and Greg were the three who dared,
They trained, practiced, studied and constantly prepared.
Greg was the comedy relief, grunt and crash dummy,
Caitlin organised everything and her pro deals saved money.
She was the chauffer and all round booking queen,
But it was her free climbing skills that cemented our team.
Pete was our wise leader, full of passion and desire,
With him on our team, he did nothing but inspire.
From YouTube, Erik, Tommy, Kevin and Greg our guide, we drew,
On the wealth of their experience and knowledge to make this dream come true.
We were pumped and excited as Peter led the way,
This was the start of our inspiring first day.
Greg pulled out the Pecker, early on the Sickle Pitch,
But with the haul bag up, the day went without a hitch.
We jugged up early the next morning, and ran into a road block,
The Germans were in front, and so we fell way behind the clock.
Americans too decided to thwart our ascent to Dolt Tower,
Pete was undeterred, head torch on, he forged forward on will power.
Cait found Stovelegs hard, but it only fuelled her fire,
To make certain this achievement on her bucket list, would transpire.
Going down was never an option in the words of Cait,
She was going to drag us all to the top and strive to keep Greg awake.
Who needs sleep? was to be the slogan for this epic wall,
After only 2 hours of sleep, Pete kept climbing to give it his all,
Onto El Cap Tower which is the goal we would reach,
Smashing Texas Flake, The Boot Leg and fixing ropes from each.
Things were working smooth in our team, hauling and ropework understood,
Cait cooked up a storm that night, the hot chocolate and dinner, sooo… good.
At last we got some sleep and our bodies were so thankful and glad,
Greg fell unconscious after laying his head directly under, the Germans poo bag!
We were up again early and jugging to the Boot,
Greg did the King Swing and found it a hoot.
The Lynn Hill Traverse Caitlin left in her wake,
She led us to the roof with skill, make no mistake.
An ominous roof, lay directly in the path of this little group,
Most people would look at it, and it would make them poop!
Pete smashed The Great Roof and enjoyed the challenge and thrill,
He climbed like a demon, and so continued up, on desire and will.
His energy maxed out, after grunting through the Bum Crack Pitch,
He called on Cait to now lead, and so they did a switch.
Greg was struggling with micro sleeps and staying awake was hell,
Cait finished the pitch and used a clear mind, to save the haul bag as well.
Her toilet routine had been affected, and was totally out of whack,
Greg had lost focus and had to get back on the wall to stay on track.
Pete led to the Glowering Spot, then slept as Greg led and Cait was belay,
Greg pushed on and reached Camp VI, pitch 23, hip hip hooray!
Greg felt like a King as food, drink and shade was provided,
His crew was helping motivate him and get him excited.
Up Changing Corners which he had studied for months,
Where’s all my gear, cam hooks to the rescue after falling just once!
A good sleep would help, knowing tomorrow we would top out,
Was crushed as the Germans, messed our sleeping quarters about.
We jugged past the corner and then past Brad Gobright,
He gave us his rope to use, and the end was in sight.
We planned food and water for four days on the wall, but five it would take,
We had all been so determined, no one in our team would give up and break.
Greg dropped the jetboil, no coffee, this could be bad,
It pushed the team to their limit but they weren’t even mad.
Pete and Greg talked of motor bikes, and laughed at sounds that we made,
As Caitlin focussed on the last two pitches, bolt ladders, she would smash that grade.
The team, awesome, incredible, cohesive, formidable, focussed and it shows,
We had arrived at the top the incredible and impressive Monolith, The Nose!
The Nose had taken its toll on our party of three,
There was no major celebration or jumping up and down with glee.
We sat and reflected, we hugged and we cried,
This whole epic adventure had been one incredible ride.
Greg Fisher (Peanut)
Greg – “This climb took our friendship to a whole new level. The Nose changed our lives forever.”
Cait – “El Cap is no match for 90 years of Canberra Climbing.”
“In the fellowship of the rope
time shifts and dreams become reality
as we journey upwards together
into the golden light.”
Notes for other climbers
Did we belong up there? Our ascent was slow – 6 days total (1 to Sickle then 5 days on the wall). We arrived at the top pretty wasted. Chris McNamara, in his “How to Big Wall Climb” book which we had used extensively, exhorts teams heading for the Nose to hone their skills by climbing a series of lead up big walls in Yosemite so they are efficient. For international teams this ideal prep is difficult as it is sometimes not possible to do multiple trips to The Valley due to expense and time shortage and many of us cannot stay for long periods. We did lots of training at home on small crags. We practiced hauling with real loads and doing thin aid climbing. We researched and practiced our system with three people. We gathered good information. On the climb we didn’t hold up any other teams, we arrived at the top with enough water to make our descent, we didn’t endanger ourselves (more than anyone else) or anyone else, we still had space in our second waste case, we didn’t leave any rubbish behind, we could have retreated at any point, we could have bivvied on our portaledge at any point, we patiently and respectfully dealt with being held up ourselves and we could have assisted any other team in difficulty at any time. And we had the most fabulous time!
Getting held up by crowds – In the main big wall season from mid September to late October there will be other teams wanting to attempt The Nose. It is one of the most popular routes in The Valley. Being delayed by other parties is inevitable. There is no formal queuing system at the base from what we could see and Greg Coit and Erik Sloan told us. You just have to get to the base on your preferred approach to the actual start of Pitch 1 and then wait for your turn among whoever else is there at the time. We didn’t have anyone else on our climb up to Sickle day but then the next day when we jugged back up to Sickle the team of Germans who had portaledged up there the night before and started climbing 10 minutes before we were ready, then an American pair arrived having started in the night, then a pair planning to go to Dolt. In amongst all this a NIAD pair cruised past us all. During that day the Germans held us up considerably, we let the Americans overtake and then they too held us up and the Dolt runners bailed from Sickle. By the next day we had all sorted ourselves into a workable order that continued for us to the top. We were clustered for one day which required much patience and made us dig into our water supplies. Later after we had finished our climb we noticed clusters near the top of the route which would have been worse. ADVICE – plan to get held up, prepare to be patient and respectful, be friendly to other groups and take photos of them to share afterwards, bring some extra food to share and bring extra water. Be prepared to climb in the dark. In the lead up to your start spend time in the Meadow and at the actual base of the route tuning in to the ebb and flow of the traffic.
Sickle Ledge – we climbed to Sickle and hauled a third rope and our bag with everything except our sleeping bags and 3 litres of water each. We secured our load on Sickle then rapped down on 3 ropes to the ground and spent the night back in camp. The next day we jugged up pre dawn with our sleeping bags and 3 litres of water each to Sickle having dropped our third rope back to the ground on the way. We had arranged for someone to pick up the third rope but several ropes had just been left at the base for later retrieval. This process worked really well for us. Not having a group behind us up to Sickle meant we could take our time and check all our systems. Not camping on Sickle meant we saved carrying up one extra day of food and water. But maybe it also meant we didn’t start before the Germans. The Germans had climbed without hauling to Sickle, rapped down, had a rest day then jugged and hauled and camped on Sickle.
Aid climbing practice – High stepping, placing and weighting gear, managing ladders, using Fifi hooks. Use of peckers and cam hooks. Use of offset nuts and cams. Multi day multi pitch endurance. Portaledge set up and pack up, sleeping in, hanging vertically and off ledges, using the rain fly and bivvy bags. Hauling with your estimated loads – body, space, 2:1. Get your jumaring nailed using different methods for off vertical, vertical, overhanging – with 2 people you will jumar half the route and with 3 you will jumar 1/3 of the route. Belay and anchor setups and changeovers – quads worked well for us. Rope management on hanging belays – use of rope hooks, rope bags or saddle coils with slings. Bolt ladders including overhanging leading and cleaning. Lower outs and pendulums. Free and French free with a big rack. Climbing in approach shoes. Climbing in the dark. Be very careful practicing aid climbing in areas which are not regularly used for aid – aid placements put unusual forces on rock. Anchor systems, attaching, backing up then releasing the loaded haulbag straight up and on traversing terrain. Hauling straight up, traversing, overhanging and off vertical, releasing from getting stuck.
Pitches – consider dividing up pitches to be led beforehand. That way each person can practise, psyche up for and research their pitches. Share info in case things change on the mountain. Practice each key pitch – King Swing leading and following, top overhanging bolt ladder, Great Roof, ButtCrack flaring awkward groove.
Key bits of equipment
Portaledge is great to give flexibility in timing and placement of camps and fitting in with other groups. Without a Portaledge you get committed to specific objectives each day which adds pressure and may turn hold ups into more stressful situations. We used a lightweight Runout Customs ledge that took several months to arrive from USA.
Cam hooks – we used two wide and one medium.
Pecker – we used one large
Proper belay/climbing gloves – your hands will get worked
Climbing balm and tape for hands
Spare head torch and batteries
Light rain shell jacket (used for wind shell as well) and pants. OR Helium were great and surprisingly durable.
Sun protection hat system and sun shirt.
Clothing – wear bright colours for photos!
Footwear – TC Pros were excellent with TX 4 approach shoes. I led a lot in the TCs and Cait only occasionally – we both ended up with numb big toes with nerve damage. Apparently this is common.
Rack – Totem cams were great with a range of small alien offsets and micro cams, brass micro and larger offset nuts, regular cams. The listing by Erik Sloan in “Yosemite Big Walls” was great.
Topos – we mainly used the one from “Yosemite Big Walls” by Erik Sloan. Have several copies with associated collected beta on each pitch.
Waste cases by Metolius are excellent. Taking 2 for our group of three was a masterstroke.
An extender draw was found very useful for fixed gear and bolts.
Descent – sort out options for the descent. Have a map of the hike and detailed topos for the East Ledges. A great idea would be to recce the East Ledges by hiking and jugging up it or climbing the East Buttress then doing the East Ledges descent.
Sources of info
Erik Sloan – “Yosemite Big Walls”. Erik also offers a 1 hour chat over the Internet – his support and encouragement is fabulous. Check his website too. He also has an as yet unpublished guide to climbing The Nose – this has terrific info on each pitch. https://store.yosemitebigwall.com
Chris McNamara – “How to Big Wall Climb” (associated videos on YouTube) and also his guide “Yosemite Big Walls” – both published by Supertopo. Also “The Road to The Nose” supertopo.com
Websites – Supertopo and Mountain Project are great
Yosemite Mountain Guides is the only licensed operator in The Valley. Greg Coit is fabulous – as well as instructing he guides various big wall routes on El Cap and other Valley cliffs. He provided lots of good beta on the route.
Yosemite grades – “Remember Yosemite 5.8 is probably 5.10, Yosemite 5.9 is also probably 5.10 and Yosemite 5.10 is about 5.10 as well.”
xRex Studio – extremely high resolution panorama photo of El Capitan. You may be able to zoom in on this image to show a series of about 2,000 individual overlay photos of Erik Sloan and Roger Putnam climbing on every pitch of The Nose route over a seven hour push from bottom to top. I could only zoom on my phone. http://www.xrez.com/blog/el-capitan-gigapixel-climbing-routes/
2:1 hauling system – we used this system from Alpine Savvy. It was excellent and worked extremely well with our Protraxion, Rock Exotica PMP 2 pulley at the top, small Petzl Partner pulley at the bottom. A Rock Exotica Pirate carabiner for the hauler to clove hitch into worked well as it had a round spine. We used this for most of the climb until we were able to do a standard body haul near the top when the load diminished. Our starting load would have been about 75 kg. https://www.alpinesavvy.com/blog/the-2-to-1-z-pull-haul-explained
System for our group of 3 – our team of three was fabulous from a mutual support and fun point of view. We researched widely, tried several systems and sought lots of advice. The system we settled on was recommended by Erik Sloan and checked by Greg Coit. It is simple, straightforward and reduces the potential for complicated tangles (which we had experienced in practice with use of 3 ropes and a tag line). Key bits of equipment – pretied quad anchors, 2:1 hauling system as above, microtraxion, 3 rope hooks (not essential), lead rope, haul rope, 17 m lower out rope for the haul bag, long back up sling for haul bag, anchoring cord for haul bag long enough to anchor and tie munter/mule. The beauty of this system is that there are only 2 ropes to deal with.
- Leader leads pitch trailing up haul rope.
- On reaching the anchor leader attaches quad to bolts (on the Nose there are always at least 2 bolts at each anchor) and makes self safe. Leader communicates “Safe”. Leader fixes haul line and communicates “Haul Line Fixed”.
- 3rd Person connects microtraxion from harness to haul rope (Grigri won’t work due to traversing nature of many pitches on the Nose) and pulls through slack. 3rd Person attaches jumars to haul rope then lowers out from anchor generally by hand over handing from the bottom end of the haul line, which is still attached to the haul bag, which is still anchored to the belay at the bottom of the pitch.
- 3rd Person jumars up the haul line with the microtraxion as a backup so they don’t have to tie back up knots. She carries a small backpack with the haul kit and some water and food.
- While the 3rd Person jumars the haul line the leader pulls up 4 m of slack in the lead line and then fixes the lead line. The leader communicates “Lead Line Fixed”.
- When the 3rd Person reaches the anchor she makes herself safe. The 2:1 hauling system is removed from the 3rd Person’s small backpack, which they have jumared up with, and is attached to the quad and the haul line is set up in the 2:1 system. Excess haul line is coiled on a rope hook and the haul line pulled up tight. 3rd Person communicates “Ready To Haul”.
- The Cleaner undoes the haulbag back up sling from the anchor at the bottom of the pitch. The Cleaner then undoes the releasable munter/mule knot and lowers out the haul bag. The lower out line is not tied into but is threaded thru a snaplink biner on the Cleaner’s harness (the Cleaner will not be dragged sideways but can access the lower out line while going up near the haul bag in case it gets stuck)
- The Cleaner starts cleaning the pitch using a grigri as a backup and tying knots in the lead line which are attached to her harness to stop it hanging down too far and getting stuck.
- The 3rd Person or the Leader or both haul up the haul bag. The person to lead the next pitch eats, drinks and prepares. The haul line is coiled onto a rope hook as the bag comes up.
- When the haul bag arrives it is attached to the anchor with a munter/mule knot then backed up with the long sling. The haul kit is detached and stowed in the 3rd Person’s small backpack. The haul bag rope coils are rotated as necessary to allow it to feed out smoothly on the next pitch.
- When the Cleaner arrives she is made safe. The Leader collects the cleaned gear. The lead rope is coiled onto a rope hook. The Leader attaches the haul rope to the back of her harness and sets off up the next pitch.
Communication – needs to be very simple and very consistent. We used a combination of calls, radios (2 very small and rarely used), rope tugs and visual signals.
Rope coils – pro tip. When using the rope hook or lap coiling into a sling start off with a long coil then make each subsequent coil a little shorter than the last. This stops the coils getting tangled in each other.
Tag line – we did take a 60m 6mm cord tagline in the haul bag but ended up not using it. Sometimes when the leader was less than ½ the rope length out we tagged up gear on the haul line.
Some specific pitch beta – the best pitch by pitch info is on Erik Sloan’s as yet unpublished “Guide to Climbing The Nose” which won’t be reproduced here. (Call or email him). The beta below is based on Erik’s topo (28 pitches) which seems to be preferred to the Supertopo one (31 pitches) – the pitches are slightly different in where they start and finish
- Pine Line is the best approach if hauling – climb and haul round to the right of the tree and up to the anchors at the start of Pitch 1.
- Pitch 4 – Greg used a large pecker twice on pin scars. Use the higher anchors on Sickle.
- If hauling Pitch 4 don’t let the bag go low or it will get stuck in the “man eating flake” – haul and lower out at the same time.
- Pitch 6 – the lower line with two lower outs worked well.
- Pitch 9 to Dolt Tower we used larger cams including leapfrogging 2 no. 4s towards the top.
- Pitches 10 and 11 – do not link
- Texas Flake – leave the rack at the base of the chimney.
- Boot Flake Pitch – a cam hook, micro cams and micro offset nuts were used above the bolts, leader to clip bolts across top of Boot for Cleaner.
- King Swing – For the video with tips and beta look at Section 1 above or search; Youtube King Swing Greg Fisher. Leader is lowered down 16 – 20 feet below The Boot to where her feet are level with the 3rd from top bolt on the bolt ladder on the Boot pitch. To get maximum traction on the wall and a good sprint action Greg positioned his body so he was running with his toes pointing towards the direction he was running to get maximum speed. The hardest section of the aiding up to the anchors after the swing is through the wide part of the crack just above Eagle Ledge. It saves time for the leader to back clean as s/he climbs so that no-one has to go down to Eagle Ledge to clean it and also to reduce rope drag. The Germans did an extra pitch by anchoring on Eagle Ledge and lowering their haul bag down.
- Lynn Hill Traverse – is not sport climbing. It is 5.10 face climbing with bolted protection and a little bold. An extender draw is useful. Cait only found 3 bolts (not the 4 marked on both Erik and Supertopo topos). A few micro/small cams can be used together to protect the section between the 3rd bolt and the anchors.
- Great Roof – there is usually fixed gear with various tat up the final section into the roof.
- Pitch 21 up to Camp V – this is a very awkward and strenuous pitch! It’s called The Butt Crack. Take care there have been accidents on this one.
- Pitch 22 up to the Glowering Spot – On the thin aid section up the crack offset nuts are good. Don’t back clean as there are ledges below to fall onto.
- Changing Corners – there are two bolts that lead right into the right hand corner – don’t take these. Continue up the 3 bolt ladder above. From the top bolt if you high step in your aid ladder and tension right you may be able to reach into the corner on the right high enough to reach a fixed wire. Cam hooks and micros in this section until bigger gear up to the anchors.
- Wild Stance – Avoid the MegaDeath Spike on the left of the anchors.
- Pitch 27 – an extender draw is useful. The anchor placement is uncomfortable.
- The Top – communication may be very difficult from the top down to the anchor below. Plan for this prior to setting off on the last pitch.