photo by Tom Evans

Mike and Walker working the Golden Desert pitch, 5.13a. Photo by Tom Evans. Borrowed from his site:

It’s been ‘splitter’ weather here in Yosemite, and I’ve been taking full advantage of it. Every Friday I make the 4 plus hour drive to the valley and bang my head against some small part of the massive monolith that is El Capitan. This is my 3rd season climbing on El Cap and I’m finally beginning to feel comfortable and relaxed enough to focus on the climbing. It’s pretty tiring being stressed out 3000 feet in the air, but things are becoming easier and like I said, I’m now able to focus.

This season got off to a late start. Just when things started to cool down in Yosemite, a fire broke out outside the park, burning hundreds of thousands of acres and filling the park with unbearable smoke. Although the valley remained unscarred by the fire, it was impossible to be there for weeks. After the fires died down, I headed straight to the top of El Cap with a huge bag of rope. Having used this method the year before to prepare for Freerider, I knew it was the best way to attack this massive wall.


A smokey Valley

With my sights set on Golden Gate, I rappelled over the edge where I was pretty sure the climb topped out. Not far down I found a ledge with a single bolt for an anchor. I clipped it and continued down the wall, passing two massive pitches described in the topo as razor 5.11. I was surprised to find number two and three sized hand cracks. I realized that what made these pitches “R” rated were that the flakes were so thin that they would not sustain the outward force of a camalot. Similar to Waverfly Wafer at the Cookie Cliff, climbing these pitches at the end of the push, when you are tired from days on the wall, will certainly be scary.

Over the next two weekends I worked the A5 Traverse 5.13a, which intersects with the bottom of the razor flakes, and the Golden Desert 5.13a, which is just below that. These four pitches are the best on the entire route and you want to have all of them dialed. My good friend Mike Kerzhner, whom I’ve climbed a lot with over the years, joined me in my efforts. We stashed food, water and sleeping bags to eliminate any hauling during the climb, and prepared for a push the following weekend.

We drove into the park at 6am to discover a dozen other cars parked in meadow. We parked the car, threw our food bins and coolers into the bear lockers, double checked that we had everything, and hurried into the woods to the base of El Cap. We climbed quickly, making it through the 5.11+ friction slab pitches before the sun hit the wall. As we came over The Mammoth Terraces we saw a single aid climber a few pitches above the Hollow Flake. Mike and I climbed as quickly as possible through this section, which requires a 100 foot down climb in order to free the route. I kept looking up at the aid climber above who was moving with incredible speed! Not only was he climbing every pitch, he was rappelling down to retrieve the gear, then jugging back up and hauling the bag!

As we approached the Monster Off Width, we started to catch up. To the right of the Monster OW is a thinner crack that is standard for aid parties. Forgoing the large cams for smaller ones and micro nuts, this is the preferred route for most parties. But to our astonishment we discovered that he was going via the Monster; not only was he solo climbing the Monster, he was actually free climbing it with no assistance from the number six cam! Our mouths dropped. It was hard enough climbing that thing with someone feeding out slack for you, but to have the entire rope in a grocery bag hanging off your harness while feeding yourself rope out with a grigri, is just ridiculous. As we watched, he made quick progress, popping out of the crack to lay it back in true ‘euro fashion’. He clipped the anchors clean and rappelled back to us at the bottom of the pitch. “Hey I’m Jorg. How’s it going?” I explained that we started climbing this morning. “Oh” he said. “You guys are climbing fast.” We laughed and replied “No my friend, it is you who is climbing fast.” As he jugged back up the Monster I shouted “Can I clip our gear onto the bottom of your haulbag if I help you haul it?” “Yeah no worries, you don’t need to help though” he answered. I thought to myself how awesome is this -the solo climber is helping the party of two!

After chatting at the alcove for an hour and waiting for the evening temps, we continued up one more pitch to a 12c down climb that is the first pitch of the Golden Gate. Having tried it in the full sun the weekend before with no success, I knew the sequence and hoped for the best. Mike went first and sent on his second try. I went next and still fell in the same place: a hand to foot match with a tenuous mantle. I pulled back up into the stance and tried again. With the same results I just couldn’t get my foot off of the hold in order to step down. I pulled out an alcohol wipe from my back pocket and swabbed the toes of my shoes and my fingers. I tried again with everything I had, completely forgetting that I was 2000 feet in the air. I took my foot off of the hold, replaced it with my hand and lowered my body onto the foot rail below. I took my hands off the wall and screamed. Agagaahhg!!!! I did it! With a few more moves to the ledge I crimped as hard as I could and stepped down on the ramp that would be our starting point in the morning. We lowered to the Alcove to see Jorg’s smiling face, “You guys send?” he asked. “Yeah, we’re on point!!” Jorg, Mike and I stuffed our faces with everything we had brought up: cans of fish, Bombay potato tasty bites, quinoa, candy, carrots, bars, trail mix. With our bellies full, we prepared for bed and set the alarm for 5am, hoping to climb the first half and one of the crux pitches, called “the Move pitch”, in the morning shade.


Lucho Rivera working “The Move” pitch, a 5.13a face climb sparsely protected by a few bolts.

We arrive at the Move pitch: a 5.12 sparsely bolted face climb ending with a V7 boulder problem. Mike takes the lead and on his first attempt he falls on the final move of the boulder problem. He lowers to the foot rest at the bottom and clips the entire rack and his water bottle to the bolt. With a light harness and a clean conscience he tries again, this time sticking the final move of the boulder problem. “That’s a bit easier  without all that weight!” he yells. With no tag line we are forced to distribute the weight between us. I go next and a few moves off the anchor I’m  unable to reach the next hold. I smear my feet high and crimp down really, really hard to try and figure the sequence out. Having never tried this section before, I slip. I return to the anchor. On my second attempt I climb clean to the boulder problem. I stand at the foot ledge and have Mike take. He lowers a loop of rope and I clip the gear onto it. I send the boulder problem first try without the extra weight. I take the next few pitches and we arrive at the bottom of the Golden Desert 5.13a. We pull onto the large sloping ledge and chug the water that we had stashed the weekend before. Its mid-day and we are baking in the sun. We lay waiting for the wind to pick up and whine to each other about how hot it is, and how we should of waited for better temps. Just as we were beginning to lose hope, the wind begins to blow and the temperature drops. I put my puffy coat on and grin. We got this!


The Golden Hour on El Cap

Mike takes off on the Golden Desert; it begins with a V6 undercling traverse that is super balancey and very awkward. Mike climbs clean through the boulder problem and up through the thin hands section to the bottom of the thin tips. He clips one piece and runs it out to the hand jam; at the end he lets out a hoot as he sticks the finish. I follow. This pitch is hard for me; it’s steep tips lay-backing with bad feet, and I have trouble getting my fat fingers into the crack. Mike sent this pitch last weekend but I had yet to send this 15 foot section. I climb quickly not stopping to think about the difficulty or that my fingers don’t really fit; one hand over the next, keep the feet high. This is easy I think to myself, why am I not getting pumped?! I guess I just need 2,500 feet to warm up properly. I sink the hand jam at the end and let out a howl. Only one crux left to go!

We hang at the anchor below the A5 Traverse 5.13a. It’s my lead and I try to rest  as long as I can, giving myself the best possible chance of sending. But the hanging belay forces me to give it a go after only 10 minutes of waiting. I execute my beta perfectly and with not a single hint of pump, I clip the anchors. Its over! I’ve done it! Mike and I both celebrate. Now Mike’s just gotta do it and it’s in the bag. Last week Mike fell a few times on this pitch so I was a little worried for him. But if there’s one thing about Mike, he can seal the deal. I aid back across the traverse to retrieve all the gear from him so he can climb it with no extra weight. He follows clean and we rejoice. Only 4 more pitches to the top and we’ve sent Golden Gate!

I take the first 5.11r pitch and Mike takes the second, cursing me for telling him the wrong gear beta. One more pitch and we’re on top. Fatigued and worked, we smile and high five. With the sun setting and a long hike ahead of us, we pack our stuff up and quickly make our way down the east ledges to the car. Turns out Jorg Verhoven also sent. Over 4 days he on-sighted every pitch except two, which he repeated clean, all the while belaying himself with a grigri. What an incredible weekend on El Cap!

walker bio photo


Walker Emerson, aka SMASH, has been climbing for over 10 years. He enjoys all types of climbing. He has free climbed two El Cap routes, red pointed 5.14b and bouldered V13, making him extremely well rounded in all aspects of climbing. He is inspired by long pitches and aesthetic climbs. Other interests include photography, film and food.