Text and pictures © 2003-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"To apply human standards of measurements to this monarch of mountains is sacrilege. To attempt by mere words and figures to convey some idea of its stupendous massiveness, its nobly-defiant impressive individuality, is rankest folly." — Herbert Earl Wilson, about El Cap, 1926.
Yosemite. Hello again after 8 years. Driving from Tuolumne we arrive at Camp 4 and inquire on friends who should have arrived a few days ago. I thought they were coming a week later, but a call to Cécile, Vincent's wife, and she tells me: "He's been there a week and could you please tell him to call me at least once during the month". I expect to find them getting spanked on short pitches (like I did 8 years ago) but I cringe when I hear they are currently on the DNB. We go to bed without news, but in the morning they are here, getting up late and looking tired.
Left: Camp 4 bulletin board: 'Will get naked for cams', '4 $ale, slightly used cams picked up at base of El Cap' and more for every climber's wish.
Right: Bread baked in a camping oven.
Left: Baking pizza at Camp 4.
Right: Raccoon also interested in the pizza.
In the evening we start using our camping oven and make a cheese soufflé under the surprised stare of the other campers. A nice addition to our stove, the next few days we'll bake pizza, make lasagna, apples pies, brownies, crêpe cannelloni; and bake bread every few days. That's a change from their cans. On the days when we get back to camp later than our friends, it's funny to see them waiting around our own table... Then even weirder, a few days later a crew of the National Geographic making a documentary on Camp 4 comes and films us while cooking; they say they wanted to contrast with the other climbers eating cheddar cheese on crackers stolen at the lodge or cold Spaghetti'O out of the can. I'm not making this up.
Left: Jenny on the sustained Lunatic Fringe, at Reed's Pinnacle.
Right: Frank, a Chamonix Guide in action (5.11c) on Middle Cathedral.
Left: The reason why Frank grunted. And heaved. And failed. And bailed. His expression tells the whole story under the amused stare of Vincent.
Right: Jenny on the roof of Moby Dick (5.10, base of El Cap).
Arch Rock, the Cookie Cliff, the base of El Cap, Church Wall... so many places with great single pitches that you'd want near your home...
Left: Morning light on Middle Cathedral, host of a heap of excellent routes: (from R to L) the DNB (5.11), Stoner's Highway (5.10+), the Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9+), the East Buttress (5.10a)...
Right: Jenny leading the Central Pillar of Frenzy.
I haven't climbed with Vincent in ages. When was the last time ? Something like 5 years ago on the Central Pillar of Freney. A few days later we all go on the Central Pillar of Frenzy, a very nice route on Middle Cathedral. Vincent climbs with Frank and his girlfriend Vanessa. She leads the last two pitches and Jenny, who's just beginning to get over her last knee lockups is feeling the emulation and leads them too. While the others rap from above just next to her and take pictures she's almost ecstatic to be leading again, even if getting pumped to take poses on lead for the pictures.
Left: Jenny leading the 4th pitch of CPoF.
Right: Vincent rappelling off the Central Pillar of Frenzy.
But the view on El Cap, which should be great from the Middle Cathedral, is all obscured by smoke. There are 'controlled' forest fires all around Yosemite, and for several weeks all our pictures will be hazy and smoked up.
We then climbed the Steck-Salathé on the Sentinel, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, stories reported on two other pages.
Left: Guillaume on the first moves of the delicate Stoner's Highway.
Right: Jenny whose feet are dying: 'No! Don't take the photo now!');
Looking for shade and short approaches, back to Middle Cathedral on Stoner's Highway. The 1st bolt sets the tone of the route, 15 meters up and no cheater stick will reach it (even if I had one); but I manage to place a TCU before. Then plenty of traverses that your second will hate you for: on the first pitch the bolts are located right before the crux traversing moves (not so good to the second). Bolts are good but few and far between. I think the 2nd pitch is the crux, with a 5.10b move that feels much harder on those tiny crimps, with a 00 TCU two meters below my feet... It takes me 20 minutes to do the move: going up from my rest position, trying, sweating, then going back down. Repeat. When I finally do the move I notice that a whole bunch of other hard moves were necessary to finish the sequence and a bad case of Elvis leg kicks in. Now I must decide quickly between falling on my smallest TCU (how much does it hold again, something like 200kg in a laboratory setting ?) or continuing. You'd think it'd be easier to decide, but at that point it takes me a good number of popping neurons.
At the end of the short day we've done only 6 pitches but we are both drained emotionally.
Left: Jenny 'playing the piano' to reach a virtual hold on a delicate move.
Then a short trip to Tuolumne to climb Lucky Streak on Fairview Dome and Crest Jewel Direct on North Dome.
Left: El Capitan from the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, with smoke from the wildfires.
Besides the fact that it's in the shade most of the day, there's decidedly a lot of interesting routes on Middle Cathedral. I've done some of them 10 years ago and the East Buttress is marked in my old guidebook but I have no memory of the route itself, except taking pictures of El Cap from its base (great view); maybe I just confused it with the East Buttress of Higher Cathedral (yes, I do remember that 5.9 slot). Anyway, because of its inclusion in the 50 Classics and its moderate level, it's often crowded and we decide to leave very early. We are at the parking lot while it's still dark, but there are already 3 Russians starting the hike in. At the base it's even worse: 2 French already on the route (but they will be fast and we won't see them again), the Russians and a party of two americans taking it good-heartedly. I want to go somewhere else, but we are here and we don't want to loose our place in the line as 2 Swedish girls show up followed by yet two other parties...
After a pitch of two it's clear that the Russians are slow. So are the Americans but they tell us that they don't mind being passed on one of the upper variations. But on the pitch before the variations a cam gets stuck just above a small ledge in the slippery dihedral layback crux of the pitch. After 10 minutes of Jenny wrestling with it I want to try to. She joins me at the belay and quickly lowers me down back to the cam. In the meanwhile the leading Swedish girl has arrived. I let her pass while I work on the cam. She places a cam above and starts the layback while I manage to retrieve mine. Then I look up when there's a noise, a butt in my face and we are both airborne. She fell on me 5 meters and we are both hanging below the ledge. I see some stars. After a quick checkup and a few excuses we all finish the route, passing the Americans and the Russians in the process. I'll keep a scraped hand and a stiff neck for the next few days.
Left: Jenny leading the 1st pitch of Reed's Pinnacle Direct (5.10).
Now that the temperature has dropped a bit the south facing walls down low are getting climbable; not like 3 weeks ago when I greased off the only route we tried at the Cookie Cliff. So we are early at the base of the Reed's Pinnacle, a famously crowded route, but there's a party just starting, so we wander off towards some of the excellent single pitch lines further right, like Lunatic Fringe and Stone Groove. After having a good time on those we come back to the easier but longer Reed's Pinnacle. A party is on the 1st pitch but the second is just about to start so we queue up. Jenny looks at the 5.9 crack (finger slowly widening into a fist-sized crack) and deems it sexy enough for her. She takes a carefully selected few cams and starts the lead after we wait a long time for the second to flail and get his butt up to the belay. She makes good on the first boulder moves but gets pumped near the top, where it's a sustained fist crack. She rests a few minutes on her last cam and finishes the easier section above without adding gear. When she gets to the belay the guy from before goes: "Hah! I see you had to hang too !" She was all proud of her lead and now he bursts her bubble until her reply: "Yeah, but I was on lead..."
Right: Guillaume on the 2nd pitch.
After I get there we wait an eon or two for the leader to hang onto every pro on the second pitch. But it's okay, we are in the shade, we've already done some good pitches for the day and our friends are on El Cap, so we don't need to cook for them tonight. But I start getting edgy when he fiddles poorly with a stopper at the belay unsuccessfully trying to remove it. After 10 minutes of banging and yanking in all directions, I was already thinking that we had just got ourselves a new booty stopper, but I grab my figure eight, hit the stopper once and hand it to him. Off he goes with a surprised "thanks!". Prudent I decide to wait till he's three-fourth of the way up before I start this long sustained looking pitch. When I reach him he's only done one more meter and still fighting... But wisely decides to pull on the rope at this point. They rappel off, leaving us alone on the last scary looking pitch: a wide chimney that narrow down to a mean greasy offwidth. I place a few tiny wires on a seam on the right rope while I clip two old pitons with the other rope. I have a good large cam on the crux but it's so greasy that once I'm up Jenny looks at me with this look that says: "If you want me to wear bikini while climbing, then don't take me up any offwidth..."
Left: Jenny on Pitch two of Serenity Crack.
Decidedly, Jenny wants to climb a lot of things I already did 8 years ago. I don't keep a fond memory of Serenity crack. First it was too hard for me and I fell (on second) on the crux. Then I was with a girl who never stopped talking the entire time with an annoying high pitch voice. Then we started very late behind a bazillion other parties and we didn't have time to do the last 2 pitches of Sons of Yesterday, the continuation of Serenity Crack. Okay, she uses the excuse that I haven't finished it to drag me up there. And we just did another 5.10d without problem at Tuolumne a few days before.
Right: Jenny on the crux of Serenity Crack (5.10d).
We get there at first light but there are already two other parties. The first, americans, are really fast and disappear ahead. I cower in fear when I learn that the others are swedish; the guy looks at me funny and then goes: "Was that you ? I heard the story..." After the hard pitch they'll be fast. While we are on the 1st pitch something like 5 parties show up at the base. Those after us are excruciatingly slow to the dismay of everyone else behind. Well, I know the feeling, but this time we can relax on the route, we are 4 pitches higher by the time they finish their first one.
Left: Jenny on Serenity Crack.
Or I could relax if only I wasn't just arriving at the crux of the route, where I fell a decade ago. The guidebook says to step on a knob, place a TCU or two high up and fire the sequence above. I do just that, but after a few moves I chicken out and start fiddling with an Alien Offset, trying to put it in the thin crack while my feet smear the mirror below and the tip of the fingers of the other hand are slowly being crushed. After way too long I'm finally done with the cam but I have the hardest time finding some juice to finish the sequence. Jenny comes up looking like she's doing great hand jams and it may even be true. And higher up I get to finish the last two well worth it pitches of Sons of Yesterday.
Right: Precarious foot traverse on Sons of Yesterday (5.10).
Left: Rockfall above Camp 4.
Back in Camp 4, it's the afternoon before the last day of Vincent, Frank and Vanessa. They are still tired from their ascent of Triple Direct the 3 previous days and we are having a couple beers looking at the guidebook for their last day. We decide on the Good Book, on the wall that runs above Camp 4. A few minutes later we hear a loud staccato noise followed by a cloud of dust and people start running around Camp 4. A huge piece of the wall right above that route just came off ! And the rangers arrived with screeching sirens block the road for the next 3 days. Well, back to the guidebooks for another destination, going to get sandbagged at Arch Rock. Frank ends the day dejected after having greased off the 3 routes he tried... I guess one month in Yosemite is not enough.
Left: Guillaume on the dihedral of the Moratorium (5.11b), pitch 2.
Right: Jenny on the dihedral of the Moratorium, pitch 1.
We are slowly getting nearer El Cap. Shultz' Ridge is a blocky formation at the base of the East side of El Cap, standing in the shadows of its giant brother. Few know of an excellent route on it, the Moratorium with 4 pitches of very sustained thin dihedral. If we have enough time we'd like to link it with the East Butt of El Cap above, but we arrive at the base just behind another party; as usual. We chat with them a lot while they start as they are two Yosemite locals. Unfortunately it means we start an hour late, and we already took our time this morning. They rappel off after the first pitch, not sure why but I can somewhat understand as I'm sweating by every pore on that 5.10+ layback in full sun. The next two pitches are even harder but the sun is just beginning to go behind the dihedral. My fingers are too fat for the 5.11 crux and I kind of scrape shoulders on one side and feet on the other, with a little help from the wired stopper stuck in the middle. I leave smears of sweat on the wall with my shoulder. The last pitch is a long 60m section of blocky boulder moves and we arrive on the ledge at the base of El Cap. But it's already 2pm; damn those hard pitches took some time... Should we keep going on the East Buttress ?
Left: Sunset on El Capitan, with the East Ridge in the sunny part in the right. The Moratorium is hidden in the shade below.
Right: 2nd pitch of the East Ridge.
Well, 8 years ago I did it in 3½ hours. Or was it 4½ ? Or something like that. It won't get dark till 6pm, so we should have the time for 13 pitches, right ? The first two pitches are hard, a 5.9 chimney with smooth rock and below average gear placements. The 2nd start really hard with gear placements so poor that my two cams fall off as I step over them, and then it gets weird, an over-extended stem around an offwidth that itself contains a hand crack. Near the end I squeeze into the offwidth and find some good placements. Argh, it took us more than an hour to do those two. 11 pitches remaining in 3 hours... We speed up hard on the next few pitches: there are a bunch of 5.8 moves with plenty of 4th class and we simul climb till we get to the next 5.9 pitch.
Left: Traverse on the upper part of the East buttress of El Capitan.
We are sitting right on the East edge of El Cap, with an incredibly open view; El Cap turning yellow with the light of the ending afternoon. I don't recall any of the next pitch, a left slanting crack. I see plenty of options and try them all before all the polished rock force me to hand traverse. Even though it's hard and tricky to protect. And we are loosing time, but I take good shots of Jenny as she traverses towards me.
Right: Jenny on the same traverse, seen from above.
I remember the next pitch: it's a choice between a 5.9 offwidth and a 5.9R face. Last time I chose the face. Same this time. I pull on the same little piece of webbing around the same flake that looks like it should have fallen off with a fat climber a long time ago. It's very polished and overall I'm impressed by how polished this entire route is. I first think it's all the traffic on this crowded classic, but Jenny thinks it's the water running down in winter. Or could it be the wind itself, running around the edge of El Cap ? 5:15, in the next 45 minutes we run up the last 3 pitches (plenty of 5.8) and summit just as the sun goes down the horizon.
It's been so long, I don't remember the descent clearly so we make so quick coils on the rope, change the shoes and start running down with the descent description in one hand; something that Jenny's knees will remember for a while. We find the fixed lines just as it gets completely dark, but further down we miss the trail and end up going down the leaves covered gully till the road. It's not very late when we reach the car, but it's already so quiet looking at El Cap from the meadows... Is that the next destination ?
Left: High on the East buttress of El Capitan with the last sunlight down the valley.
And after that, we finally think we are ready for the Salathé Wall up El Capitan, 1000m of vertical rock. On the next page.