This is a tough one to write. For most of our trip I was gathering excuses as to why we didn’t even get on El Cap, now I am thinking of how best to avoid simply gushing about the trip of a lifetime. Sometimes you go away for a bit and come back a different person, and that’s how this trip feels – life changing in that you managed to do something you genuinely believed yourself incapable of.
I’d never embarked on a trip with a definite goal in mind before, and when we got to Yosemite it quickly became evident how underprepared we were for doing a big wall, even a small big wall for that matter, and we were both wishing we hadn’t told anyone our plans. We were slow, and intimidated, and besides from aiding a few single pitches and practicing hauling with a very light, very small bag, had basically no experience (although I thought we had plenty before we tried it for real).
It was a learning curve from the word go. On our first wall we were trampled all over by other parties, we discovered what hauling really was and the perils of crowds (and forgetting your stove)… so we bailed. Then we noticed The Nose wasn’t busy all of a sudden so we took that as a sign and decided to do the first 4 pitches, fix our lines, and haul our bags to Sickle Ledge. All excited, we got some stuff together, walked a few miles to the base before sunrise, were the first party on it for the day, did a couple of pitches, took a lot longer than we expected, ran out of water, got sunstroke, got dehydrated and bailed at the top of pitch 2. Which was kind of embarrassing although we both lost about 10lbs on those two pitches so that was a bonus, and some German tourists came by thinking we’d climbed the whole thing, wanting to take our picture… so we just sort of let them. At least some one thought we were gnarly. Tails firmly between our legs, we headed back to camp.
So after that introduction to El Capitan we rethought our ambitions and decided to go back to our ‘practice’ wall – Washington Column – and actually do it this time. Maybe if we got to the top of something our confidence would improve and then we would get to the top of something else. But that didn’t quite work out either, and to cut a long story short… we were slow again, and it was hot and windy and we were having a rubbish time… so… yeah… we bailed.
This forced us into REALLY rethinking our goals. Our feelings were that we just weren’t ready for a big wall, we were too inexperienced and it would take years to gain enough experience to go and crush El Cap. I felt a bit ridiculous to be honest, all the big talk I’d talked and the turkey workouts I’d run around doing in front of everyone… all I wanted to do was some fun climbing on moderate multi-pitches and boulders because that’s what climbing is meant to be, isn’t it – fun! So we rented bikes and gave up big walling. It was the right thing to do. People kept asking us if we’d big walled before and our answer was no, or if we’d done much alpine stuff – no, none – ‘we’ve basically trained for this in a bouldering wall. A big one, though’. But it was kind of hard to stop thinking about why we were there, and what we were giving up on before we’d really tried. Like… really really tried.
Luckily enough we made friends with Andy Kirkpatrick and Paul Tattershall who had lots of advice for us. Stuff like, give it a go, don’t come down, you’ll cling onto every excuse to come down… don’t though, be more professional about it… and I really think it’s largely thanks to them that we didn’t give up in the end. That and messages from Al such as ‘rest up and go get it!’
Then came a revelation – yeah we were slow, but we did have all the skills (or nearly all the skills, as it turned out) – the climbing wasn’t a problem, it was just time consuming, and the hauling was simple enough, it was just really hard. So what if we couldn’t do El Cap in 3 or 4 days, we could just do it in 6 days and take more stuff! Eureka!
So we chose to do Triple Direct for a few reasons – the bottom of The Nose was very, very busy and on Triple Direct we could do just 4 pitches a day and have a ledge to sleep on every night. Triple Direct also gave us a nice tour of the block, yup, I just called El Cap a block, and still meant we got to climb that amazing central pillar of El Cap. We still spent a lot of time doubting whether or not we should get on it because it would be pretty horrendous to bail from and bailing seemed to be our thing… but I think we both knew we were going to try. As if we could go home without doing at least that.
So with 10 days left of our holiday, we got on Triple Direct. I won’t say too much about the actual climb because I’m just polishing off the edit of Push It in which the whole experience is summed up in about 5 minutes instead of me rambling on here. I will tell you that my finger is healing nicely though, sleeping hanging in your harness is only funny for a few minutes, El Capitan is big, the 8 mile walk off was the worst part, and I would do it all again tomorrow.
Big walling as it turns out is a remarkable weight-loss program and a good money saver. All I can really think to write is wow. And that was hard. Wow wow wow it was hard but some adventure. Whatever it is you’re psyched for, go and get it. When you’re old and grey and looking back on life, I’m sure you won’t regret it.
Oh man and I nearly forgot to write a thank you to a whole load of people whose hints and tips got us safely up and down. First off, again, Andy and Paul for making us believe we could do it, and Aldo for showing me how to work the Go Pro. The two Mikes who we met at the bottom of the route and who then helped me out of a very tricky spot from two pitches below, and Ben from Alaska who was soloing ahead of us who sent a tonne of psyche our way, especially the morning we woke up on the hanging belay, and the French Canadians for blocking the wind from our belay on top of the Pancake Flake and giving us a rather valuable aid-climbing-time-saving technique, merci! And finally to Steve Offwidth and Jerome who reminded us several times that it WOULD be fun – it sort of was. And Andy for carrying our water to the base, and Clayton and Chris for the champagne afterwards! And Alice for being our heroine and Yuri for reminding us it doesn’t matter if you’re rubbish, enjoy it anyway!!!
Here’s to a mind blowing trip and what I reckon was an awesome team. My film (Push It, I may have mentioned it before) premieres on Saturday October 27th at 2pm in the George Square Lecture Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, do come along! It’s not just about our big wall adventure but also features mega beasts Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, Natalie Berry and Vicki Mayes. If you can’t make Saturday, check in again for details of screenings at TCA Glasgow, Kendal Mountain Film Festival and more…