The Nose: An Ordinary Climb on an Extra-Ordinary RouteBy Calvin Landrus, SRCFC National Director
During the end of September and the first of October of 2002, I was able to fulfill one of my climbing dreams. With a great partner and the Lord’s blessings, I was able to climb the Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Although I have climbed several “walls” that required one overnight stay on the route, I would consider this my first (and perhaps last) BIG WALL. May I take a few minutes of your time to share this great adventure with you? My desire is not to brag but to spur on the climbing passion we share!
It all began on a Saturday morning when Bill Erler and I drove into the Valley. We gathered up our rack and the four ropes we needed to fix to Sickle Ledge. We soon encountered a Swiss party of three planning to fix to Sickle as well. They said a rather slow party had their own lines already fixed the day before to Sickle Ledge. “A line-up… just what we thought might happen. It’s OK, we have a good block of time to make this happen.”
The Swiss team headed up first and did the four pitches to Sickle in good time. “That’s good, a competent team; perhaps being behind them won’t be too bad.” As we started-up, the weather turned sour. It began to spit a bit of rain. “No worry, we have enough ropes to get down if it really dumps.” Bill and I freed the 5.10 climbing in this section with a few hangs, got to Sickle and put the third set of ropes to ground on the anchors. “Oh well, at least we have gotten our place in line.” And as we looked back, it was a good thing we climbed on that stormy day. Seven people climbed to Sickle the next day!
Sunday dawned sunny and cool. We began to pack the haul bag. Bill said it was getting too heavy (we were planning 4 liters of water per person per day). I said, “No problem; hauling is the easy part.” As we continued to prepare, we saw some looking up with excitement at the giant granite monolith of El Capitan. A speed ascent of the Nose Route was in progress. As we eventually heard, it was Hans Florine and a partner, flying up the route. Awe-inspiring! They sat a new speed record of 2 hours and 48 minutes.
Arriving at the base of jug-lines with all our gear, we noticed the Swiss team had headed up earlier in the morning. They were in the critical process of traversing with easy climbing and pendulums into the Stoveleg Cracks. Also, the “slow” third party was getting their ropes and bailing. “Thank-you Lord, we are now second in line.” As we began hauling our bag up, we noticed that the Swiss team was making very slow progress. “If they are going to make it to a ledge to spend a night, they better get moving.”
Most parties don’t sleep on Sickle, but we decided to secure our position on the route by doing so. You could sense the frustration in the seven who climbed to Sickle on Sunday when we told them we were camping there. Hoping to blast-off on Monday, they realized no matter how early of a start they got, they wouldn’t be able to pass us. Then they would be trying to reach a ledge, very late in the day. That would led to a very trying first day for them. As the day was ending, it was obvious that the Swiss three-some were not going to make it to a ledge. Soon they were rapping off the route. “All right, first in line!”
Monday was another clear day. Having fixed two pitches above Sickle Ledge during the evening of the previous day, we jugged and got the bag to the belay in short order. On this section of the route, two “Nose in a day” teams climbed over us. While they were moving fast, they slowed us down a bit. Bill did the first pendulum and I did the second one into the Stoveleg Cracks. We used the lower pendulum, the one suggested by Chris McNamra on his “Super Topo.” Amazingly, we did them in good time without any screw-ups. “Perhaps we will make it to a ledge. Now, off to the races in the 5.8 to 5.10 Stovelegs.”
Well, I began and the 5.8 crack climbing was pumping and went on forever. Although, I freed the moves, I needed to hang to rest and back-clean to have the gear needed to finish this beautiful hand crack! Bill led the next pitch; he climbed well and hung only once. As we continued up, we encountered fists cracks that we ended up aiding. But by later afternoon, we got to the top of Dolt Tower.
Being fairly late in the year, we didn’t have much daylight left. However, we decided to gun for El Cap Tower so we could stay on track for our proposed two-night ascent (not counting Sickle because most parties don’t sleep there like we did). Moving quickly, we got two of the three pitches done before the lights went out. I grabbed the rack, with the headlamp on, and rambled up the 5.7 pitch. It was a good thing that the climbing was easy because that was the first time I had rock-climbed with a my whole world only being a three feet circle of light in front of me. Because we didn’t climb like speed demons anywhere on the route, this climbing after sunset became a regular pattern for us.
After spending a great night on El Cap Tower with a threesome doing Sea of Dreams, we changed the order of leads. I was handed the sharp end to lead the Texas Flake. Bill swears that there wasn’t bolt to protect the 40 foot, 5.8 chimney when he did the route twenty years ago. It would be real scary without one. I quickly got to the bolt, clipped it and began the last twenty feet. But I could barely move. “How am I going to hang in there to the top?” This became the mental crux for the climb for me. I wanted to belay Bill up and have him do it. “NO WAY, that would take too long….come on, it’s only 5.8.” Another failed start and Bill made a wise suggestion. He shouted, “Leave the rack on the bolt and bring up some slack of the haul line.” Wonderful, I felt so much lighter and took-off again. Chimney move after chimney move, my heart started to race. It was partly from athletic moves but mainly from the fear of taking a screamer. “Wahoo, I made it! It’s Bill’s turn.”
Bill aided up the Boot Flake pitch, having a little trouble getting something to work between the bolt ladder and the big crack. As I arrived on top, the weather looked bad. “We are going to get dumped on.” We holed up in our storm-gear and watched as the rain shower hit us. As we stood there, we had some “entertainment” - a helicopter rescue on El Cap. Through the blowing droplets of rain, we watched the bird make circles around the Valley as it lifted the rescue team to the top. Then their gear went up and the bird sat down in El Cap Meadow to wait.
The weather seemed to lighten up. It was time for me to have the “most fun a climber can have” by doing the King Swing. The topo says lower 15 feet below the Boot. That seemed big enough, but there was a huge rib to my left and I couldn’t see to what I was swinging to. Oh well, I started pumping. “Wow, this is athletic, my lungs are heaving!” Out as far as I could go to the right, swinging across, but not coming close to anything to grab. I gave-up and jumarred back up the rope to do it in two pendulums. Still a lot of work, but I got the job done. Weather was starting to rip again. Hail this time. It was a good thing; I didn’t really feel like freeing the 5.8 layback with the possibility of reserving the swing. After some aiding and back-cleaning in the storm, I got to belay. It’s here I observed the finish to the rescue. The helicopter picked up the injured climber who had been lower to the rocks near the base of Zodiac. “What a feeling it must be to be strapped into a stretcher, hanging 100 feet below and flying through air! However, I would rather not pay for the ticket of being injured to experience the ride!”
After another couple of pitches of aid, we arrived at a long traversing ledge. “How are we going to get the bag across it?” I had an idea to try to haul it via a straight pull across the ledge. The haul line was running through a biner 50 feet to my right and down to the bag. My suggestion left out the basic laws of physics that I had learned in college. I couldn’t budge the haul bag. Bill couldn’t hear me in the wind. As I waited for his help, the rainstorms were backing up, coming down the Valley. “We may get wet again.” The frazzled look on Bill’s face as we worked together to bring the haul bag up to the ledge and then across it, was totally offset by a tremendously beautiful scene. The late afternoon sun was reflecting back to us in a double rainbow. “Thank-you, Lord, for such a beautiful sight.”
Now, it was time for our nightly tradition; breakout the headlamps. In the dark, Bill led the last pitch up to Camp 4. Truly, it is a poor bivouac for two. I arranged a semi-hanging sleeping spot with the haul bag. The skies were clearing, the temperatures were dropping and the wind was starting to howl. We had a quick dinner and got into our bags to get warm. The night was cold as 30 plus miles an hour winds constantly blasted us. The night went by slowly, but the morning dawn with bright blue skies.
“Great, the first pitch of the day is a 5.9 pitch for me. Cold day, freezing rock, and free-climbing!” I didn’t want to get going. Then we noticed the party of two who had caught us the day before via the free variation of the Nose Route moving up quickly. I suggested that we let them pass us. “Surely, they will fly up and we will never see them again. They might even top-off today.” They did the Great Roof pitch and Bill started leading right behind their cleaner. Soon, Bill was waiting as their second struggled to remove gear. Michael and Mowich may be good free climbers, but their aid skills are about the same as ours. As it turned out, we followed them up the rest of the route. It was an “OK” thing. They were a friendly Europeans and having others around was a bit reassuring.
The climbing from Camp 4 to the top is truly superb. The Great Roof is the best C1 pitch that can be done. The Pancake Flake (5.10) is beautiful free climbing in a spectacular position. We arrived at Camp 5 with an hour and half of daylight left. “Well, let’s at least get to the Glowering Spot.” I flew up some super fun C1 (easy placements, less than vertical, top-stepping a few times). “Shall we stop or keeping going? Night will fall if we go on.” We decided not to break tradition and broke out the headlamps. Climbing days of about 12 hours of light are just too short. On his previous ascent, Bill spent a night at Camp 6 with four and he was committed to not do that again. Thankfully, there is a good ledge for one or as in our case, an OK bivouac for two thirty feet below.
As morning arrived, we were excited. “If we don’t mess-up, we should reach the top today.” “Should we have a bowel movement now or wait for the top?” I decided to make it four for four. We used to 100 ounce, liquid detergent bottle to haul 4 days worth up the wall with us. The wide mouth was just big to enough to receive a “crap in bag.” I stayed regular by keeping hydrated (easy to do because of the below normal temperatures) and eating a high fiber diet.
The first pitch off of Camp 6 is the Changing Corners. “The first 75 feet is easy aid on big cams, but how many do I leave for protection?” I arrived at the traverse to the next dihedral with everything being too big or too small to fit into the consistent crack I was in. I ended up hanging from a fully extended Cam-a-lot acting as a passive chock (they are strength-tested in this position to hold a fall.) Soon, I’m aiding off dinky stuff being utterly amazed that Lynn Hill was able to free this section. The walls of the dihedral are baby-bottom smooth and the corner has barely room for your fingernails. After what seems like forever, I arrived at belay. This single pitch took us longer to lead, clean and haul then it took for Hans and his partner to do the whole Nose Route. Talk about a different kind of ascent.
The next three pitches are fantastic pitches of hard 5.10 that Bill and I were wishing we had the time and stamina to be free climbing. We arrived at the base of the bolt ladder to the top with the sun getting low in the sky casting a warm, golden glow on the rock. I began the ladder by thanking the Lord, each of my family members, and my partner as I clipped each bolt, new, big and strong. Also, were so grateful to American Safe Climbing Association and others who have replaced almost all the bolts placed by Warren Harding over forty years ago. It makes the Nose Route a super safe place to spend 6 days of climbing.
As I sat-up the final anchor and began to haul, the feelings of finishing such a huge task was overwhelming wonderful. I know in the big scheme of things, the ascent is low on the importance list. However, the personal lessons of pushing through when my body was exhausted, hanging in there when the was weather ripping, and not panicking because we were moving so slow will under gird my growth potential when things are tough in “ordinary” life.
As I made the final haul, it seemed the bag even now was not feather light. It still had over a gallon & 1/2 of water and extra food in it. “Why did we haul over 10 pounds of un-needed weight up 3000 feet of rock?” We had been all stressed out about it being too hot and not having enough water. We ended up using only about 2 & ½ liters a day. For that reason, it was easy to stretch our ascent one additional day.
“Where is Bill? It’s taking him forever to jug the last pitch.” I checked the cord to make sure he was on it. When he finally arrived at the lip, he said he was enjoying the moment and snapping pictures as he spun around, hanging free, 3000 feet off the deck. When he finished the route, we shared a high five, victorious hand-grab style, and congratulated each other. We had climbed well together. We had traded leads all the way and felt both carried their part of the climb.
Once on top, we were faced with a decision. “Should we spend the night on the summit or hike down tonight?” I had told Jan not to worry unless I didn’t call here by Thursday night. Our discussion didn’t take long. “Let’s start hiking; the 8 mile hike down to Valley floor won’t kill us.” Besides it wasn’t time to start breaking tradition. So we grabbed our headlamps, and began moving in the dark. Only this time, the terrain was much closer to horizontal.
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