riders in the storm: conquering the captain

It took one miserable storm, three airy nights and four back-breaking days on the wall, but eventually we lugged our over-sized haulbag over the final lip, pulled out the celebratory jerky (no biltong was on hand) and everything seemed worthwhile again.

El Capitan in all its glory. The Nose, the first route established on El Cap (in 1957), follows the prominent arete up the centre of the wall


While the Nose no longer represents the cutting edge climbing achievement it once did, it’s still regarded by most as the right-of-passage into big wall climbing and its siren song continues to float out to the most distant corners of the planet. As a result, thousands of teams of all shapes and sizes converge on Camp IV every fall to throw themselves at the route, creating an internationally-shared experience like no other.

Looking out over the porter-ledge just below the Great Roof (about 700 meters up). Don’t drop that toothbrush!


The 1,000 meter route has also attracted a lot of media attention in the past few years as the most coveted speed record in the world (currently held by Potter and Leary at 2 hours and 36 minutes) and much of the appeal of the climb lies in seeing for one’s self how outstanding this feat really is.

Hauling “the pig”, the worst part of big wall climbing


With enough work, the nose is theoretically achievable for almost any climber, perhaps akin to cycling through Africa or hiking the Appalachian Trail. However, just like these other straight forward but arduous challenges, the Nose is by no means an easy tick and remains elusive for the great majority of climbers, especially those with one foot planted in the real world. In fact, the Nose is often cited as the most tried-and-failed route on the planet.

Warning: It takes a LOT of gear to climb the nose! Note the home-made Stealth rubber knee-patches, a nifty trick stolen from John Sherman.  Also note the long sleeves, long pants and bandana under the helmet – staying out of the blazing sun was helpful.


After spending the past few weeks learning to climb cracks, aiding (using gear placements to make progress over difficult ground, instead of just for safety) and generally preparing for El Cap, we were starting to get more than a little anxious to get on with the job. Our poop tube was ready, we had procured a mountain of canned food (to be eaten cold), handfuls of Cliff bars and Goos and over 30 liters of water bottles.  We were also armed with just enough camping gear to create a small home in the sky and enough camming weaponry to take on a Scottish legion.

Therefore, despite still feeling a little green at the big-wall thing, we ditched the training schedule, gathered our stuff and headed up to the base of the climb to begin our own personal odyssey with the route.

Toby following above Camp IV


We took our time getting ready on Day 1 and ended up only making it four pitches up the wall to Sickle Ledge. After a quick assembly, we decided our porter-ledge was too unstable for both of us on the slabby outcropping (and just barely stable enough for one!)

For those unfamiliar, a porter-ledge is a nifty fold-up sleeping-platform that fits exactly two humans and not much more. We borrowed ours from a friend who used to big wall climb in the eighties and the contraption was more than a little sketchy, often twisting out of shape and making loud stretching sounds whenever we weighted it! Of course one always stays tied-in to the rope at night, so it’s more of a psychological thing than a real danger.

Given the unstable nature of our porter-ledge, Toby decided instead to brave the sloping Sickle ledge, while I spent a careful night hanging out over the abyss!

Bedtime, Day 1 (just below Sickle Ledge)


The next morning we broke camp before dawn and set out in the dark, hoping to get ahead of any parties looking to overtake us.  Sunrise on the wall is truly spectacular and we paused a few times to take it all in.  Above Sickle, the route heads right into “the Stove Legs” a system of cracks, first climbed using actual camping stove legs (cams hadn’t been invented yet and regular pitons were too narrow.)  This section of the route provided some of the best free climbing, with a perfect splitter crack separating two blank walls for a few hundred meters.

Enjoying some early rays of sun before the stove-legs


Cruising up the stove-legs to Dolt Tower


As evening approached on Day 2, the sunny, pleasant afternoon gave way to a menacing, high Sierra storm front.  Within minutes and with virtually no warning we were being pelted by freezing rain and hail which refused to let up for several hours into the night.

Virtually everything got wet. The only thing that saved us was being near a good ledge (El Cap Tower) and that our sleeping bags were safely packed into a dry bag.  We got through the worst of the storm huddling with our wet bags under the fly of the porter-ledge as we couldn’t get the full ledge up in time.  We were disturbed to see water streaming unperturbed through the faded material of the fly, quickly soaking us and our gear. Perhaps the manufacturers intended it as a sun-fly?

The ropes taking a beating in the storm


We crouched under the porter-ledge fly for about 2 hours while the storm raged 


After dark the rain cleared and we were able to set up and dry out the ledge and flake and hang our ropes, all the while jumping around to stay warm.  Luckily, the gear dried fairly quickly and it wasn’t long before we could climb into bed to eek out a freezing, damp night on the porter-ledge.

Drying out the morning after the storm on El Cap Tower. Or as Toby put it, doing our best lizard impersonations.


Luckily for us, the storm cleared all other parties off the wall, and once we had warmed up and dried out we made fairly easy headway to the top of the route.

Toby leading up the bolt ladder below Boot Flake


Me belaying the same pitch from the Texas Flake


Toby leading up the unlikely formation of the Boot Flake


Toby on the King Swing, a tension traverse requiring you to run back and forth along the wall until you have enough momentum to reach the next crack system


Getting ready for bed below the Great Roof, Day 3


Aiding through the Great Roof


Starting to get high! Toby getting a work out jumaring the Great Roof pitch


On the summit as the sun went down four long days later


We thought this was the famous “Nose tree” that marks the end of the route but actually the Nose tree is the larger one up the hill.  Maybe we could call this the First Signs of Life tree (photo taken the next morning)


Another amazing tree on top of El Cap


The “Wisdom tree” 100m up from the top of the Nose. Okay, we hadn’t seen trees in a while!


Looking down on the Cathedral Towers across the Valley


Conquered! The obligatory El Cap meadow photo shoot


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