The Tortoise and the Hare: Six Days on The Nose

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By Miles Fullman. All photos by Miles Fullman and Eli Spitulnic.

I first started climbing with Touchstone during a summer camp in 2010 at Diablo Rock Gym. Loving everything about the sport, I checked out the teen climbing teams at Diablo, Berkeley Ironworks, and Great Western Power Co. I decided to join Ryan Moon’s team at the Oakland gym in 2011 and it instantly became my home away from home. I climbed on the teen team until I was 17, when I started working as belay staff there with GWPC’s manager, Jeremy Yee. I only left Touchstone in September 2017 when I moved to Vancouver to attend my first year at the University of British Columbia. Touchstone, and especially GWPC, has given me everything that is most important to me in my life, and will always hold a special place in my heart. It was there that I began to gain the skills I’d need to climb The Nose, perhaps El Capitan’s most famous route.

I still remember the first time my parents took me to Yosemite and sticking my head out of the car’s sunroof to stare up at El Capitan as we drove past, my hands sweating. From this moment on, I knew I had to climb The Nose. It took me several years to teach myself how to big wall climb. I didn’t have any mentors and spent countless hours reading The Freedom of The Hills and How to Big Wall Climb. After learning how to aid climb with a personal hero Ammon McNeely at the Red Rocks Rendezvous and spending my first night on a wall on Washington’s Column with my friend Eli, we were raring to give The Nose a shot.

The first time we got on The Nose it was 110 degrees; we bailed from the first pitch on the verge of heatstroke. Deciding to never set foot on El Capitan in summer again, our next viable break from school was in the middle of winter. We started up the route for our second time and spent the night at Sickle Ledge, but bailed to avoid a forecasted snowstorm.

“The third time’s the charm,” I said as we racked up at the base of The Nose once again on a crisp and sunny day in May 2017. We had been obsessively checking the Yosemite forecast on our school’s library computer all month. Having seen a week of sun, I blew off my senior ball date and told Eli to drop everything. This time when I started up the foot of the Nose I felt an iron feeling in my stomach: I was not going to go down the way I had gone up!

The haul bag had everything we needed, the weather was great; now it was a matter of sheer obstinacy to get up the route. We decided to go for it ground up this time, giving us less incentive to abandon ship by fixing lines to the ground. We made it to Sickle Ledge with all our gear in tow on the first day. The route was packed with people swarming over the first clear week in months. The wall rats were coming out of hibernation and everyone was going for the Nose. We set up the portaledge at Sickle and slept comfortably.

In the morning we packed up as people were ascending their fixed lines to Sickle Ledge. We waited patiently for the congestion of climbers to clear. Normally I can’t stand waiting to climb, but this time I was enjoying every second. I had kept a hand-drawn map of the route taped above my bed, staring at it every night before I fell asleep, dreaming about it, waking up and running through it in my head, waiting. And now here we were, climbing the materialization of my dreams!

The Stove Legs were just as incredible as I had imagined while salivating over photos of the route. The last pitch of the day was very long, and with only two cams that fit the size of the crack, I had to climb for over a hundred feet without protection. I inched my way up by head lamp light and shut out all thoughts, flopping onto Dolt Tower triumphantly. We shared the ledge with another party and admired the lights in the valley below us. The night breeze was warm, and everything was still and right.

In the morning we basked in the warm spring sun. The pitches to El Cap Tower went quickly and upon reaching the ledge, the entire wing of El Capitan spread out before us. Soon I was chimneying up the infamous Texas Flake, a massive two foot-thick detached flake with one bolt halfway up the inside as the only protection. Panting and wriggling to the top I swung my leg over and sat up. Things started to get interesting and exposed here. The next section of the route was a featureless sheet of granite traversed by a series of bolts. This was one of my favorite positions on the route, the whole wall sweeping away beneath us. We decided to set up the ledge on top of Boot Flake. A forecast of rain prompted us to set up the rain fly and hunker down. Feeling cozy and safe in our island in the sky, we talked late into the night, clouds gathering in the valley below.

In the morning I peeked my head out from under the rainfly and over the edge of the portaledge. Everything was a swirling mass of grey. The ground was nowhere to be seen. The wall and the clouds became a uniform golden grey color. Feeling the exposure, we fumbled to pack up camp and get everything back into the haul bag. A fast party of three French climbers came up to join us on our perch atop Boot Flake. I was feeling nervous about The King Swing and was eager to see someone do it before I lowered down. We let them pass, one of them getting lowered into the mist for the pendulum.

“You guys are a little slow for this route, I think,” one of the Frenchmen said.

“Probably so. A lot of teams have passed us doing it in a day,” I replied. We weren’t in a hurry; we had hauled enough food and water to enjoy ourselves and soak in the experience. Why rush something that we will remember for the rest of our lives: our first time up El Capitan?

After watching them do the king swing I bolstered my confidence and Eli lowered me into the unknown. Level with the bottom of the Boot Flake, I started jogging across the wall to the right. The rock was slick from the fog and my feet skated across its glassy surface. It took a few swings and then suddenly I was flying, the rope above me bouncing and sawing against the flake above. I was simultaneously wildly elated and terrified. I slowed my momentum. Eli cleverly flicked the rope over the left side of the Boot Flake so it was at a less aggressive angle. I launched into motion again. Hurtling horizontally, I caught the arête at the farthest reach of the pendulum. Pulling myself around the corner, Eli gingerly fed out slack so I wouldn’t lose balance and rocket back to the right. After a delicate few moves against the tension of the rope I was safely perched on Eagle Ledge. I let out an ecstatic howl.

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We were passed by another two parties doing the route in a day, both of which were astounded by how young we were. The rock between Eagle Ledge and Camp IV is of lesser quality than the flawless granite that composes the rest the route. Its fractured, blocky nature is tricky to navigate with a heavy haul bag and we got our haul line snagged behind a flake. Eli took command and winched the haul line towards him with the lower out cord, the thin rope digging into his hands as he yanked the rope free of the flake, finally letting the bag swing free so I could finish the haul. We wanted to climb past the Great Roof, but a clog of parties and lack of daylight prompted us to set up at Camp IV, which is exposed to the wind and cold; we had to tie the ledge down from below to keep it from billowing like a sail in the gusts. Wanting to move quickly in the morning, we didn’t bother with the rain fly and suffered a cold night. Without sleeping pads the wind froze us from below.

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After a night of shivers we packed up early. The Great Roof was eerie and intimidating. It looks massive from the ground, and was awe-inspiring up close. The hood of granite hangs out over an oozing crack that makes gear placements dicey. I took a long time on this pitch, making sure all of my gear was well-placed. Wanting to make cleaning safe for Eli, I back cleaned the entire roof, risking an enormous pendulum into the left wall. Just at the end there is a step across to get over to the exposed anchor. Facing a huge fall with no gear in the roof and some powerful gusts of wind, I gingerly stepped across, keeping my body as close as possible to the wall. Clipping into the bolts was an enormous relief! The wall was so steep here that the haul bag hung out in space, but the exposure had stopped bothering me. I found that our steady pace up the wall was like an incremental acclimatization to each new position. The trees looked like broccoli and I could see over the Cathedrals to the snowy high country.

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After the Pancake Flake, I cracked when the carabiner on our hauling device jammed. For a moment, all rationality went out the window as I cursed and yelled at the carabiner, willing it to open. I wasn’t going to let one stupid carabiner stop me from climbing the Nose! Unable to free it, I thrutched up the next pitch full of frustration and doubt. After a horrific haul using a carabiner and ascender, Eli’s triumphant grin greeted me. Thankfully, he had managed to unscrew the carabiner as I climbed. Instantly flooded with relief I felt silly for my extreme overreaction, and a great a surge of gratitude and love for Eli—his ability to remain calm and reasonable through the inevitable hiccups balances my fiery passion. We have each helped each other through difficult moments, and our experiences together fuse the bonds as great partners and friends. I couldn’t have asked to climb the Nose under better circumstances.

It was always important to me that climbing El Capitan would be something I’d come to do with my own initiative and drive, and Eli, naturally being a fast learner, was enthusiastic about taking on the challenge with me. This climb is something special that we will always hold together.

Taking a deep breath, I continued climbing. We made it to Camp VI with the sun melting into the horizon behind us. We didn’t talk much on our last night on the wall, each of us drinking in the raw experience in its beautiful immediacy.

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Our last day on the wall was extraordinary. The exposure was unbelievable, from the Changing Corners pitch to the Glowering Spot to dangling off the overhanging bolts above 3,000 feet of air. I hauled the bag for the last time and lay down on the slabs in the sun. I let the emotions course through me that I had shut out on the wall. Feeling myself relax from the constant responsibility for a moment, I started crying and laughing. Eli and I hugged on top in disbelief.

I have never given so much of myself in the pursuit of a singular objective, and sitting on top made me realize I taught myself things in the process that will stay with me forever: both the technical skills and the raw reservoir of emotion and courage that comes with accomplishing something so audacious. We started our descent as storm clouds gathered. The descent was brutal and unglamorous, but a toll I would pay any day for such an experience!

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Once back on flat ground we staggered deliriously into the road and hitched a ride back to the meadow. We lay on our backs staring up into that massive black breach between the ground and the starlit canvas above, now just a little bit less unknown. That stretch of emptiness in the night that is travelled by headlamps, the weavers of colorful stories on its impassive tapestry, has stolen a piece of me that can only ever exist up there on its walls.