A post by contributing writer & PG Route Setter Walker, aka SMASH.
“I hate this!” Screams a voice in the dark. Its 12am and I haven’t slept in two nights. An aid team is making their way up the monster off-width, a 200 foot gash in the rock that intersects directly with our bivy at the top of pitches 19. I can hear the leader as if he is in my ear, cursing the slippery slot, screaming while holding onto a number six camalot desperately trying to make upward progress. To their surprise, their intended bivy is already taken. “Kyle keep it down, there are people sleeping up here,” the leader screams at his belayer. “Sorry, sorry” he says, and lights up a cigarette. My alarm goes off an hour later. I tear my sleeping bag off and think “It’s 3am and I’m not wearing a T-shirt; its too warm.”
My hands are still raw from the efforts the day before. I lathered them last night with chapstick, but they still sting. “You awake?” I ask Eliot, my partner and PG Sunnyvale’s gym manager. “Haven’t slept.” he says. It’s his first time climbing El Cap, and to relax this high on the wall, much less sleep on your first time up, is not easy. I click the jumars on our fixed lines and ascend into the dark. I pass the aid party soothing their stress from the climb with cigarettes. I feel as if I am on a mission. My brain thinks of nothing but the task at hand. I’m tired, but focused.
Four pitches above our camp is the crux of Freerider: a 35 foot corner which involves shoulder wrenching stemming and precise footwork on slick granite. Having only tried the Teflon Corner, aptly named, very briefly once before, I feel the pressure. Here I am, two thousand feet in the air, trying to send a 5.12d stem corner that I haven’t done before in the dark with a headlamp. If it sounds hard, it’s because it is. If I don’t make quick work of the pitch I wont make the cruxes higher on route while they are still in the shade. I try not to think about it, concentrating on resting longer between each attempt. Twenty minutes go by and I’m close. The short but incredibly precise sequence involves stemming and palming a flaring corner, while keeping tension in your shoulders and walking your feet back and forth. After a day’s rest, my shoulders feel strong. Three more attempts and I have the sequence dialed. A few more and I find myself at the chains, sending the pitch. Feeling relieved, I try not to get too excited. There a dozen pitches ahead including four with real possibilities of falling. One step at a time, I tell my self. It was working so far.
In the dark, a team of strong Canadian climbers Evan and Jasmin, also on a free ascent of the route, jug to my anchor. With a few hours time left they intend to work/send the Teflon Corner and leave ropes fixed to the Block, a large sloping ledge 200 feet up. Eliot joins me at the belay “Nice! Going to the top.” We exchange gear and I continue with renewed psych. As I leave the belay, I notice the first glow of dawn. Upon arriving at the Block, it is already light. I sip cold water that I had stashed the weekend before and rest lying on my back staring at the outline of the summit against the pinkish blue sky. I shove my headlamp into a crack at the back of the sloping ledge. Eliot soon arrives and I’m off, moving upward on the sea of granite.
I arrive at the bottom of the Enduro Corner as the sun hits the west side of El Cap. Feeling the pump and fatigue, I slap my forearm hoping for fresh blood. They twitch and then seize. I drink more water and massage my arms. The previous weekends, I had mini-traxioned from here to the top clean. However, I have never led any of them. I had just climbed 2,700 feet without falling minus that one crux pitch, but never mind that. Have Confidence! It was easy to imagine myself calmly placing the pieces. I start up the first pitch, which is given 5.11b, cough! Sand bag. It starts off easy with good hand jams, but becomes tight fingers quickly. Jamming my side into the corner I shake my hand out, but I am over gripping. I feel flash pumped. Muscle memory takes over and I cling to the final section of weird slippery pods. I clip the anchors. Yikes, that one is way easier than the next! It’s over, I’m thinking. I belay Eliot up the first corner with a tremendous effort on his part. We hang from the belay staring at the road making small talk. I slap my forearms arms desperately trying to lose the pump. But it was here to stay. “How’s it going up there?” Screams a voice from below, the Canadian team has been following our ascent. “Sent the first one, resting for the second.” I yell back. “Did you guys send?” “Yeah! Evan and I both.” “Awesome!” I rest 25 more minutes.
The second pitch is rated 5.12b. It begins by lying back a very rounded corner that slims down to crimps and then with a curve, becomes steep, abruptly intersecting with the underside of the massive granite expanse know as the Salathe Head Wall. The second pitch goes even easier than the first. Perhaps I was finally warmed up after 2,800 feet of climbing. Laying back through the sections, which you can be sure Paul Piana and Todd Skinner did not, I sink the finger lock and almost lose my cool as I paste my feet high and with one desperate move, sink my hand into a flaring hand jam. Why not now? Just do it now, I’m thinking, just fire the thing. I slam a #1 C4 in the crack. Feeling really good with not a hint of pump, I blast the final section of the crack to a jug and clip the anchors. I let out a scream, and am joined in celebration by Eliot, Jasmin and Evan.
Here is where, if it’s your first time sending a route on El Cap,m you most likely will sneak around to the left. A series of unassuming huecos and flat jugs lead around an arete high on the wall to a parallel crack system avoiding the Salathe Head Wall. The problem with mini-traxioning routes is it’s very difficult to work on a traverse. I had spent most of my efforts on the corner that I had just sent and dialing the final wide pitches that still lay ahead. But this small, 35 foot section of campusing 3000 feet above the ground on the most exposed section of the climb, I had yet to send. I had been across the traverse 3 times before, even aiding it solo when I let a rope go with the knot still tied, but had not yet climbed it free. I send the pitch. Eliot follows again with a valiant effort. “Proud” he says as he clips into the belay. Having just sent all the cruxes climbing to the top was too easy. It felt rehearsed, which it was. I almost felt like rapping from here, but had promised Evan and Jasmin our stash of water that was waiting at the top. They planned to spend another day resting before pushing to the top.
So just like that, it was done. I stood on top exhausted, sipping water in the shade of a small tree laughing with Eliot about the different pitches of the climb. We rested only briefly and then with the stashed water, began the long rappel back down to our stuff at the alcove and finally to the ground.
What did I learn from sending a massive route on El Cap? A whole lot of rope management and aiding skills. That, no matter how tired I felt on Mondays, somehow, I was always psyched by Thursday to do it again. I spent countless weekends over two years without any previous crack climbing or big wall experience, climbing exclusively on granite, learning the skills and building the fitness to make an attempt at the Freerider. Just like other aspects of climbing, there are no fast tracks. Learning to move over the granite with minimal effort takes a lot of time. And I’m only beginning to understand this. I enjoy the troubleshooting and problem solving most about climbing a huge route. Moving up the wall with a strong partner, learning and making mistakes is what it’s all about. Even though the send is sweet, I will savor the time and efforts spent with friends over the weeks it took to climb the Freerider.
GoPro video of Walker mini-traxioning the Enduro Corner by Simon Moore.
Walker is a contributing writer for the Planet Granite Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias Smash. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite. Check out more of his work at http://wemersonpro.blogspot.com/