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El Capitan: Heading up the fixed ropesOur attempt to climb that iconic route, The Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan, did not get off to a good start. We left the campsite at 6:30am and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam. In front of us a car had hit a tree and landed on its roof, blocking the road. No one was injured, apart from the drivers’ pride (the idiot had been texting at the time). It was not a good omen. We lost a good hour, and in that time the heat in the valley had soared.

As the saying goes, everything in America is big. Yosemite in particular is home to ‘Big Wall climbing’ and El Capitan is the best example of Big - it is over 3,000 feet of vertical rock.

The climbing here is completely different to climbing in Europe.  The method is to pack everything into a bag, and haul or winch it up after you. These haul bags are usually nicknamed ‘pigs’ because they can be a pig to move.

There were three in our team. Me, and my two great American friends Jeff and Faerthen. Jeff had made one of the very early ascents of The Nose 40 years ago, was returning for his anniversary climb and had invited me along.  It was to be my first experience of Big Wall climbing.

So we eventually parked the car and wrestled the pig out of the car boot (or trunk, as the Americans call it). It contained 36 litres of water, climbing gear, ropes, sleeping bags, food, plus underneath we had attached a portaledge. As it sounds, it is a portable ledge which can be erected in minutes, and when set up you can sleep on it.

All this weighed over 100kg, and it was left for me carry it to the foot of the climb. As approaches go it was not very far - about half a mile - but still, 100kg is the most I have ever carried.

During the previous days we had climbed a certain distance and fixed ropes up the first eight pitches, to the start of a feature know as the Stove Legs. These are giant cracks, which were originally climbed by jamming sawn-off stove legs in place.  ‘Fixing’ means we had left a giant 200metre rope in place so that we could climb up quickly using special ‘ascenders’ which clamp onto the rope - rather like cleats on yacht rigging.

Our plan was to climb the fixed ropes to our high point and then haul the pig. Jeff set off up the rope first. It was as he arrived at a small overhang that he called down to say that he had torn a muscle in his back and that he was in considerable pain. I headed up the ropes to meet him. Jeff's face was glum. When he tried to sit in his harness, he was in agony. We were going to have to descend and abandon our attempt.

Before we could get to grips with the disappointment (something that is part and parcel of mountaineering) we had to sort the practicalities of getting the pig and ourselves safely down.  It made sense to jettison the water in order to reduce weight. This task was far more difficult than it sounds because I was suspended several hundred metres above the ground with nothing to stand on. Eventually, after some spectacular acrobatics, I eventually lowered the pig down to the ground to join the others. We were all disappointed but at least we were safe and sound and still in a position to try again sometime in the future.  And as a bonus, we had not been eaten by bears.

Cover photo: El Capitan: The Nose takes the obvious prow line between light and shadow

Above photo: Heading up the fixed ropes

21 June 2014 by MarkSeaton

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