Last week, on March 3rd, Touchstone owner Mark Melvin and long time Yosemite wall veteran Chris McNamara saw a chance to climb the Nose on El Capitan. With a forecast of 70 degree temps, the pair nabbed a "winter" ascent of one of the largest granite formations in America. Chris wrote about their ascent. I'll share a secret just with you guys: you can find summer-like conditions on El Cap even in the middle of winter… as long as you are in the sun.
I saw a forecast of 63 in Yosemite for March 1 and called up Mark Melvin. Mark took me up my first wall when I was 15, and let me use his rack and portaledge for my first Yosemite summer. Those two events were the only way I got to climb El Cap so young, drop out of college and start Supertopo/ASCA and basically avoid ever getting a real job. Thanks Mark! Fast forward 20 years… (yikes, 20 years!!!) and it was time to get the band back together.
What inspired me to call Mark was my trip down the Grand Canyon five years go. No, not the part where I got busted for BASE jumping. That process was not inspiring. But it did give me some much needed street cred. What was inspiring was just how clean the Grand Canyon was considering how many people go down it. No trash anywhere. I thought, "Why can't The Nose, the most badass route in the world, be that clean?"
So I've had that question in the back of my mind for five years trying to think of a solution and all I can come up with is this: everyone just has to leave the route a little cleaner than they found it. Over 100+ ascents over 2013 the route could be spotless (except for a mild urine smell)… and more importantly, stay that way. I know, not earth-shaking stuff. Any kindergardner could tell you that. But thats the best I can come up with.
So I figure, on what might be the first ascent of the route in 2013, we will climb the route in a day, bring up some extra trash, spray about it on the internet, and then hopefully every team who climbs this route will do the same. By the time 2014 rolls around, the route will look like it did for Harding. Or as close to that clean as is possible.
We started at 7:14. Not exactly an alpine start but we felt it important to burn an hour of daylight sitting in El Cap meadow drinking coffee. Actually, we were just a little slow and overconfident. The last time we did the route was in 5:36 so we figured we would have plenty of time. Oh were we wrong!
Our first mistake was bringing too big a rack. I was a little too excited to test a bunch of different cams for OGL which meant we brought about double the small cams as I normally do. To neutralize this disadvantage, Mark had his belay card.
Temps at the car were in the 40's. Mark asked a time or two… "So you really think it will be warm today?" Sure enough, as soon as the sun hit us on pitch two it got warm. And by pitch 4, it was borderline hot. Not the 100 degree August hot. But the "It's the middle of winter, why am I so thirsty and having to shed every single layer?" type of hot. And it just got warmer.
Mark cruised up the lower pitches. In a few hours we were at Dolt. Not as fast as we normally climb but not too slow for our planned 8 hour ascent. But what surprised us is just how tired and thirsy were were. I was already cramping up in ways I never had on El Cap. My hands would seize up and contort into lobster claws. Not ideal for handling gear or say... climbing. And I hadnt even led a pitch yet! Mark reported some of the same which made my ego feel better but meant the team was now composed of not one but two semi-struggling off-the-couchers.
And it just kept getting warmer. I kept thinking to myself, if its this warm in winter, how does anyone climb the route in spring, fall or… summer!?
We burned through water and I tried to make every juggin motion as efficient as possible.
By the time we got to the Great Roof and it was my time to lead, it was not a question of how fast are we going to climb this… but are we even going to get off in daylight? My lobster claws were not getting any better. But, luckily, they were not getting any worse. I didnt even bother putting on free climbing shoes because I knew there would be little free climbing with seizing-up limbs. The glass half full outlook was.. "Sweet, I get to wear comfy approach shoes the whole way to the summit." The glass half empty side was "You loser, you are actually going to aid every inch of the Pancake Flake?"
Wait, lets go back to Great Roof. Actually, lets go back to Camp 4. SAFETY ALERT: No, not that kind of safety. Really, I almost sent a giant diorite block down the whole face. Mark ran out the section off of Camp 4 which meant I lowered out into terrain seldom lowered out on. I was a little too casual and almost sent basketball-sized rocks onto the teams at the base of Salathe… so even on the most popular route on El Cap you still need to be really careful with loose rock. And everyone should always wear a helmet at the base of El Cap, even when just hanging out between climbs.
Ok, back to the Great Roof. I really dont like this pitch. I know I am not supposed to say that considering its one of the most famous pitches in… well all of rock climbing. But those last 40 feet to the belay are always creepy, dark, and a little wet. This time was no different. But this time all i could think about was Alex Honnold on the Triple going through that section with daisies and no rope (?!). I got a little sick when I was there and I just got a little sick writing this.
The rest of the route went great. And somehow, as always happens, I got really psyched at Camp 6. The cramps faded, the pace picked up a little, and we topped out 10.5 hours after starting to a perfect Sierra sunset. The upside to winter top outs is the warm soft light that makes everything look perfect. The downside is that soft warmness is quickly replaced with a hard chill. Oh yeah, its winter! As I said in the first line, it's only summer-like on a winter ascent in the Sun.
Sadly, I was not able to grab any trash. I was just too cooked on the route. My mindset on about pitch 7 went from idealism to survival. I just wanted to get to the top. I was a little sad as that was half the inspiration for the whole climb (the other half being getting to claim a winter ascent while climbing in what felt like 70 degree temps).
But as we collected our gear for the descent, Mark said "We'll it's not much, but i did grab a dozen pieces of trash and cram them where i could in in the pack." Luckily, as per usual, Mark had more mojo. While I led the upper part of the route, he pulled wrapper and cans out of cracks. It wasn't a lot, but that was the whole point: It doesn't have to be much as long as everyone does it.
We made it to the east ledges before pulling out the headlamp. We only had one and it was one of the ones I got 3 for $9 at Costco. The irony of co-owning a gear review company is often all your best gear gets sent out to other testers… and I actually end up with the worst stuff. But we stumbled down and were back at the car at a reasonable hour. The last great thing about a winter ascent, and perhaps most importantly, your beer stays cold even without a cooler
Tags: Mark Melvin, Chris McNamara, The Nose of El Capitan
Past blog entries can be found at http://touchstoneclimbing.blogspot.com/