Alone on the Wall
At times I find myself despising the comfort of my own bed. Deep into the night my warm body lays pocketed between layers of smooth sheets and down comforters. My alarm goes off at 3:30 am. Just a couple of hours after falling asleep. I laid awake for most of the night unable to calm my mind and stop obsessively thinking about the climb I was about to start.
I wondered if I was crazy. If I should roll over and go back to sleep. No one would have to know what I was planning to do. They wouldn’t find out that I set my alarm for the middle of the night to have an epic but bailed before getting out of bed. I could just close my eyes and pretend like it never happened. The beauty of solo climbing is that the plans never have to leave the head of the soloist. No discussing strategies or meeting times with partners. No disappointing anyone if you decide to bail. I laid in my sweet cocoon turning the idea over in my head. But I got up. Leaving warmth, comfort and security to throw myself at a wall with no one to keep me company.
I never would have thought that I’d attempt to do a climb by myself in one day that had once taken me three and a half days with two partners. I first climbed The Nose of El Capitan in 2011 with my ex-boyfriend from high school and his friend. It was a tumultuous accent but we battled our way to the top. I realized then that The Nose is the best rock climb in the world. The Nose is a vertical obstacle course that follows a natural line straight up one of the proudest seas of granite. It’s got splitter cracks that literally go on for days, a 100’ pendulum, a massive flake shaped like Texas, a great roof that makes you feel like an ant.
I’ve always enjoyed long days. I like having epics on big routes, climbing through the night and getting passed by swifts and bats as they dive in and out of the cracks during twilight hours. I started climbing long routes in pushes and linking routes together. My objectives kept getting bigger in order to satisfy my urge to suffer. Just like all my favorite climbs of the area I climbed The Nose many times. What once was a multi-day epic turned into a 10 and a half hour burn. To move quickly my partners and I would short-fix, forcing the leader to self-belay. Before long I realized that a belay from a partner is not a necessity but luxury.
I had heard of people soloing The Nose in a push and some suggested that I try it. I brushed them off figuring they were crazy. But the idea still lingered in the back of my mind. In fall of 2015 I decided to try it. It was my first solo ascent of any wall. I made it to the top in just under 27 hours. I got to try a lot of new things. Some went well and some failed miserably. I learned a lot about solo climbing. Not long after I had forgotten how painful it was I decided I should try it again one day.
By the following spring my thoughts began to drift back to soloing The Nose. I started to obsess over ways to move faster. On my first solo ascent I kept my plans a secret, not wanting to commit to anything, let anyone down or feel any external pressure. I didn’t ask for advice or solicit beta. The following year I asked a few people for tips. Hearing other people’s strategies and comparing their methods was incredibly helpful. Some climbers used rope tricks, running it out with almost no protection and free soloed many sections. This strategy scared me. Others said that they roped up and belayed themselves the whole way. Roping up for every pitch using the typical aid soloist strategy is by far the safest option but is also the slowest. It requires climbing, rappelling and jumaring all 30 some pitches. I decided to rely on my quick climbing abilities and rope up for every pitch. The security of having a rope and protection would make it less scary and allow me to climb faster. It also made it easier for me to get out of bed that morning before starting the climb.
I chose to do the climb on August 5th, the middle of a hot and sweaty Yosemite summer. Fat tourists walked around in bathing suits as the temps climbed towards the triple digits. Every climber in their right mind new to stay away from Yosemite Valley for fear of heat stroke and traffic jams. I was surprised to see headlamps above when I got to the base of the routes. Who is crazy enough to climb this route in this heat? I wondered. The giant monolith loomed above me like a tidal wave and I wondered if I too was crazy. At 5:30 I started climbing. I convinced myself that the wall would seem smaller as the day went on.
I quickly caught up to the party above. A team of three Koreans spread out between Sickle ledge and the pitch above. They hit on my shamelessly with very broken English. “Prettiest girl in Yosemite” they said, I laughed and told them I was the prettiest girl on El Cap, knowing that I was probably the only girl on El Cap, the only person on El Cap besides them. They stopped to let me pass, making me pose for a dozen or so photos with them. I complied, trying to smile for pictures as I re-stacked the rope and racked the gear. Before long the Korean team became a distant memory as I kept chugging along through The Stove Leg Cracks up towards Dolt Tower.
The only way I can commit to such a long climb by myself is by not committing. My first goal of the day was to make it to Dolt Tower, from there I would decide if I wanted to keep going from the top. I got to Dolt in under 5 hours and found almost a dozen bottles full of water. I did a little dance knowing that things were going too well to bail. The early morning sun was already hot. I took the abandoned water as a sign to keep going. I emptied one bottle into my bladder, crunched it up and through it into the bottom of my back pack. I drank as much as I could from another bottle until I almost needed to vomit. And on I went.
Before long I realized there was yet another party up ahead. What were people doing up here? Didn’t they realized that it would probably get to over 100 degrees today? The sun blazed in the sky and the wind failed to blow. I tried to ignore the mild pain in the back of my head. Behind the Texas flake I was relieved to find cool air untouched by sunlight. Over a thousand feet up on a wall, this sliver of shade was as refreshing as jumping into the Merced River. The other party was just above me now. They saw me advancing quickly and told me they would stop at the top of the Boot Flake and wait for me to pass. Great!
The dull ache in my head was turning into a pounding throb. I was dehydrated despite all the water I drank on Dolt. The team waited patiently on top of the Boot Flake. I could tell that the sun was taking a toll on them as well. They politely asked if I could take their rope and fix it to Eagle Ledge. “You don’t want to do the King Swing?” I asked, I was very confused. They were so nice to wait for me to pass I figured it was the least that I could do. There seemed to be some confusion on their end about how they would get over to Eagle Ledge once their rope was fixed. I tried to explain that they could use a jumar. My explanation was met with blank stares on sunburnt faces. Our brains were frying in our helmets under the scalding sun, our thoughts were swimming in stagnant air. I decided to let them figure it out on their own. I rapped down below the giant boot and started swinging around 2000’ above the ground. The breeze I generated from swinging back and forth felt amazing. I pulled over the lip to Eagle Ledge and heard hoots and monkey calls from the meadow.
I was concerned about water. It was so hot that I needed to drink much more than usual. One week earlier I climbed the route with a friend. There was a bottle of water at camp 5 and a half gallon at camp 6. It didn’t seem like anyone had been up there since then so I assumed that it was safe for me to drink up.
The Great Roof marks the halfway point of the route. I was amazed to get there in just over 10 hours. After the Great Roof the sun ducked behind the west end of the wall. The shade was a great relief. I was worn by the sun but pushed on, telling myself that I could chug water and eat a sandwich at Camp 5. But when I arrived at Camp 5 there was no water. I rapped back down to my bag and found a few sips left in my bladder. I wanted to cry. Just when I thought I would be suffering less, I realized that I would be suffering much more.
I had 7 more pitches to the top. I decided to ration one sip of water per pitch and couldn’t eat any food (the salami and cheese sandwiches I had brought would only make me thirstier). I prayed to the monkey gods that there was still old stinky water at camp 6. The past couple of times I was on the route there was the same two water jugs, each a quarter full. Both times I smelled the water and put it back in the crack it was stashed in, deciding to risk running out of my own water over drinking someone else’s abandoned funky water stash. I was thankful for my past decisions, cursing my decision this morning to only bring up 3 liters.
It got dark, the wall steepened and I embraced the aid climbing. My hands and feet were swollen but felt good compared to how they felt the year before. I was glad to have invested in comfortable free climbing shoes two sizes too big and to have worn tape gloves. Despite my thirst and fatigue I was feeling pretty good. I arrived at Camp 6 and was overjoyed to find the same water still stashed there. I literally danced and sang. I chugged water and ate a sandwich. It turns out that even funky, back-wash infested water that’s been steeping in a plastic jug in the sun for weeks, maybe months, is better than no water at all. I felt like a new woman. I finished off the water and clipped the empty jugs to the outside of my back-pack.
Like an inchworm I continued up the last fourth of the climb; extending and retracting, two steps up, one step back until I reached the last 100 feet of scrambling to the top. I was too tired to trust myself without a rope so I threaded one end through the last anchor and clipped it back to myself. Often referred to the Pakistani Death Loop (or the American Hero Loop), this rope trick gave me just enough protection to get to the top. As the climbing turned into walking I untied the rope and attempted to pull it through. Of course the rope got stuck. I pulled as hard as I could and it wouldn’t budge. I knew that I wasn’t done until me and all my gear was at the top so I fixed the rope to the summit tree and rappelled down to get the rest of the rope. I retrieved the rope and made it back to the tree and checked the time. 3:17 am, 21 hours and 47 minutes after I started. I managed to take one selfie after checking the time and my phone battery died. I used up so much of my phone battery on the climb trying to text my co-workers to see if they could take my shift for me the next day that I almost didn’t get to see what time it was when I topped out. It turned out that would have made it to work on time anyways.
I was so happy and satisfied that I curled up and slept for a couple of hours by the summit tree. I made my way down to the valley floor at first light. I knew my parents would be worried if they didn’t hear from me so I called them as soon as I plugged my phone in. Shortly afterwards I found myself back in my cozy cocoon, between soft sheets and down comforters.
Soloing the Nose had been a project of mine for almost a year and it was one of the most satisfying projects to send. It feels great to tackle such a large goal alone however my accent wouldn’t have been possible without the support from my community. My parents were convinced that I could do it despite the fact that I was not. My friends Yosemite encouraged me, inspired me, gave me valuable advice and helped me prepare. Despite wanting to be self-reliant, all climbers in Yosemite (including me) are covered under a giant safety net called Yosemite Search and Rescue. Yo-SAR is like tying a back-up knots in the rope while jumaring. You might not actually use them and they might not save your life but you’ll always be a little safer with them there.