Friday, July 6, 2018

El Capitan: Salathé Wall

El Capitan with the Salathé in red.

The majestic Salathé Wall starts near the base of the Nose and follows incipient cracks and blank slabs up El Capitan’s fortified base to gain a major corner system several hundred feet up. It follows this corner system to Mammoth Terraces then traverses disconnected ledges with a final pendulum into the infamous Hollow Flake. From here it pushes straight up the ever-steepening wall connecting crack systems with pitches of bold face climbing. The line’s obvious conclusion is the Salathé Headwall: a slightly overhung face of perfect rock thousands of feet above the valley floor, split by a single thin crack. Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt did not shy away from this challenge on the first ascent. In their characteristic uncompromising style, they negotiated a major roof to gain the headwall and followed it to Long Ledge, where a final nerve-racking pitch brought them to El Capitan’s majestic summit.

The vision that it took to climb this line, and the mental strength that it took to climb it in such a pure style, is one of the most impressive achievements that I know of in climbing. I hope to one day have the skills and strength to climb in such good style myself. But now, even with the most advanced modern gear and all of the beta and topos I could desire, the Salathé was the hardest climb I have done in my life.


I met Nate in Yosemite on Saturday evening after a long drive from Seattle. He had been in the valley for a couple days already and climbed Center of the Universe the day before. We wanted to get a bit of climbing in before dark, so we soloed the pleasant Sunnyside Bench Regular Route, then ran over to the base of Munginella as the sun set. About halfway up the route, we found a slab that we didn’t feel comfortable soloing in the weak light. We carefully downclimbed the route in the dark, feeling a bit dumb for not bringing headlamps. Shut down by a 3 pitch 5.6, we hoped the Salathé would go a bit better!

Sunset on Half Dome from the top of the Sunnyside Bench Regular Route

We spent most of the next day packing for 4 days on the wall. We made a couple trips to the base of the wall, then started hauling the fixed lines to Heart Ledges as the sun left the wall. We made it to Heart Ledge a bit before 1am and settled in for a night in the heart of El Cap.

Packing the haulbags at the base of the fixed lines to Heart Ledge

The base of the fixed lines to Heart Ledge

Late night dinner on Heart Ledge

In the morning we rapped fixed lines back to the ground and spent the day swimming in the Merced and relaxing in El Cap Meadow. Late in the day we fixed the first two pitches of the Salathé and then found a nice bivy in the forest.

We woke up at 4am and made it to the base of the Freeblast at first light. After jugging the first two pitches, I aided out of short roof, not wanting to waste any energy trying to free it. A short thrutch through a chimney brought us to a beautiful finger crack that was just too good to aid. After that I french-freed up a seam and across an intriguing slab that eventually became bolted enough to aid. I followed a corner system to the base of the Half-Dollar and aided out under it, then awkwardly pulled into its side and climbed a well-protected flaring chimney to its top. Nate linked a couple easy vegetated pitches to the top of the Freeblast at Mammoth Terraces.

The Half Dollar

Nate finishing up the Freeblast with some Cascades climbing

We rappelled fixed lines from Mammoth Terraces to our haul bags at Heart Ledges. Nate led a complex traversing pitch up to Lung Ledge, then he fixed an easy pitch above and we set up camp. The next pitch was the infamous Hollow Flake. 

Nate on Lung Ledge
Looking up at the Heart of El Cap from Lung Ledge

It was Nate’s lead. He was understandably anxious about it and wanted to get it out of the way today. We waited for the sun to go down and jugged up our fixed line to the base of the Hollow Flake. I lowered Nate down and he swung across a blank section into the flake. He climbed up the flake until he was a bit above the belay, then left a #6: the only piece of protection on the pitch. Above here the crack is too wide to protect, so it’s a terrifying runout to the chains. Nate led the pitch with impressive composure. I certainly would not have.

Preparing for battle with the Hollow Flake on Lung Ledge

Questing up the Hollow Flake with a long way to go

The next day, we jugged our fixed lines to Hollow Flake Ledge. Nate climbed up a flaring chimney then swung to its outside on a questionable jug, 40ft above the ledge with no gear. Another spooky Salathé wide pitch.  

A couple straightforward pitches took us to the base of The Ear: a bombay chimney that may be the most sandbagged pitch I have ever seen at 5.7. 

Above the Ear, I aided up a beautiful crack above paralleling the Monster Offwidth. The climbing was straightforward and peaceful; I enjoyed the position high up on El Capitan as the sun set. Nate led the final pitch up to El Cap Spire which involved a short but hard offwidth, then an spooky step-across move behind the spire. 

Aiding a beautiful crack that parallels the Monster Offwidth

It was well after dark when we made it onto El Cap Spire. We both felt wrecked from a long day without enough food or water, but some lemonade and canned peaches cheered us up again.

The next morning passed slowly as we sorted out the clusterfuck that we had made the night before.

I aided up a thin crack above El Cap Spire and then thrutched up a short well-protected squeeze chimney. The squeeze was a good way to wake up and got me psyched to free the beautiful thin hands corner above.

El Cap Spire

Nate aided up a thin corner crack next to the boulder problem crux of the Freerider. It didn't look too hard until I realized how steep it was. How the fuck did Alex Honnold free solo that?

Nate aiding a thin corner with the Freerider's boulder problem crux above

I led the Sewer, which was vegetated but fortunately not wet. I guess that is the advantage of climbing the Salathé in July.

In the vegetated but dry sewer

Nate led a heady pitch to Sous Le Toit. He climbed easy loose flakes up to a crack, then tension traversed out left. Some hard, poorly-protected face climbing was required to reach another crack, followed by another pendulum to the belay.

This pitch wouldn't nearly as scary if you climbed to the top of the crack above the belay (lots of tat) and then did two pendulums to the left.

Spooky flakes on the pitch below Sous Le Toit

Nate led the stunning Enduro Corner as the sun set.

Nate aiding the Enduro Corner with the Salathé Headwall looming above
I aided the Salathé Roof on mostly fixed gear. It was dark enough now that the thousands of feet of air beneath my feet didn't register.

I started up the headwall. Hordes of silverfish coated the rock giving it a truly psychedelic appearance. Nate even met King Silverfish himself! The valley below was quiet and lightless. It was the most awesome position I have ever been in: high on the Salathé headwall in the middle of the night, with nobody else on El Capitan.

After hours of steep C1, I made it to the final crux of the headwall. I had never used a camhook before, but 3,000ft up El Capitan seemed like a good place to learn. A beefy wall spider guarded Long Ledge, but he was kind enough to let me pass.

The Salathé Headwall
We passed out on Long Ledge at 4am.

In the morning, Nate and I felt as wrecked as we ever had. We spent a couple hours laughing at ourselves and regaining the use of our hands, then sorted out the clusterfuck from the night before.

Morning on Long Ledge

Feeling wrecked
We had just three pitches to go, but the Salathé wasn't done with us yet. Nate aided up a thin crack off of Long Ledge which eventually peters out. He placed an optimistic micro camhook at the end of the seam for protection and quested across the slab.

Nate leading the final hard pitch off of Long Ledge

A couple easy pitches brought us to the top of the Salathé.

Topping out the Salathé!

A moment of rest before the descent

We descended the East Ledges and made it to the bottom of the rappels at sunset. Back at the car, we made some pasta and passed out in the forest.

Sorting gear back at the car. I'm glad Nate owns the poop tube!

We spent the next day showering, eating fresh fruit, and admiring El Capitan from the meadow. Andy Kirkpatrick is right when he says big wall climbing "is not like rock climbing, which is fun, fun, fun, but rather just work, work, work, with the fun being when the work stops." Now I'm ready for some chill summer bouldering, but I'm sure I'll climb El Capitan again some day. It was the most full value experience of my life.

Gear notes:

0.1 X4
0.2 X4 (not useful with triple black Totem)
Blue-Green (0.2-0.3) offset Totem basic (very useful)
Triples from black Totem to BD #3
Double BD #4
Single BD #5
Single BD #6

2 sets of DMM brass offsets
1 set of DMM alloy offsets
A few smaller DMM wallnuts

Micro and narrow camhooks (very useful for upper aid pitches)

70m 9.8mm lead line
70m 9.5mm static haul line

11 gallons of water (used almost 9 gallons)

Should have brought more lemonade and canned peaches/mandarin oranges.

1 comment: