Picture being alone on a sea of granite for over a week. Climbing one of the world’s largest granite formations by yourself is an intimidating prospect, and for Alice Ng, a Berkeley Ironworks member, it was quite the adventure.
Over 10.5 days in the end of September and early October, Alice Ng made her second ascent of El Cap, rope soloing the Zodiac of El Capitan. Though her big wall resume includes the Leaning Tower, Washington’s Column, and The Nose of El Capitan, this was her first big wall solo.
Climbing El Cap requires an enormous amount of labor. Often, hauling and jumaring take more energy than the actual climbing. “I think anyone can climb a big wall, they just have to learn the systems and want it bad enough,” said Alice Ng. Still, climbing El Cap takes a lot of tenacity and remains a big goal in itself. To solo the formation is another feat entirely.
“I knew nothing about rope soloing, so I spent a lot of time on the web reading what people did, practicing a self belay, working on my aid/hauling skills, and learning to set up my ledge from a hanging anchor.” For every one pitch led, the soloist climbs the pitch twice, once leading it and once cleaning the lead. This means that in a single El Cap ascent, the soloist climbs El Cap twice and rappels it once.
Alice’s prepped well for the climb. On her first day, she stashed a small food cache on the summit, knowing she would reach the top and that she would be hungry on her arrival.
On her first climbing day, things began with some excitement. Off the ground, she aided a challenging left facing corner. Near the anchor, a piece blew and Alice took a thirty-five foot fall. “My grigri didn’t engage, but the backup knot caught me. THAT was exciting.” Despite the enormous fall, Alice continued climbing unshaken, fixing to the top of the second pitch.
The following day found the 115 pound climber hiking loads to the base and hauling everything to her high point. She led the third pitch, which involved a bolt ladder inbetween tricky C2 placements. She polished off the pitch and climbed the fourth. She wrestled her haulbags, which she dubbed Henri Le Cochon, to the anchors after a small epic, forgetting her jumars at the anchor when she needed to clean the pitch.
Day five began with plans of reaching the top of pitch six, maybe even seven. The sun blazed on her as she climbed the fifth pitch and she arrived at the anchor very dehydrated. She rappelled to her bag, drank some water, and proceeded to climb the pitch. “Just shy of the pitch six anchors, I took a short fall and a piton caught me. *phew*,” said Alice. “Let me just say this… I do not like gear popping out – especially when I’m top stepping.”
The heat and the difficulty of the route began to add up. “By now, I was drinking a gallon and a half a day and I couldn’t eat during the day. Every attempt to put something in my mouth caused me to dry heave and I nearly threw up several times.” Alice’s hardships increased when while setting up the portaledge; her headlamp popped off and spiraled to the ground. “I didn’t have a spare light. I just sat there for a bit trying to get my head around the gravity of the situation. I was spent and the heat amplified my emotions. So hot. So frustrated. So dehydrated. And feeling so very alone.” After a long battle with what to do for light, Alice realized she brought an emergency LED light with her. She strapped the tiny keychain light to her helmet and cast off.
“I was amused to realize I had duct taped the wonderlight slightly skewed – so in order to look at my placements, I had to rotate my head left and stare through the corner of my eye. I couldn’t be bothered to fix it, and it was kind of stimulating when the aiding requires hooks.” Alice’s tenacity kept her going up the wall.
On her sixth day, Alice climbed the difficult Black Tower pitch and began getting into the meat of the route. She reached the top of the black tower using her HB offsets and placing a tomahawk. At the anchor, she found two and a half gallons of water that a Spanish team left earlier in the week.
Day seven brought her through the Grey Circle and into the Nipple pitch. The climbing moved smoothly. Things looked promising for Alice. She climbed out the wild traverse of the Nipple using inverted cams and reached the belay.
The next day was Alice’s birthday! It also brought more smooth climbing, a deceptively light Henri, and loud shouts across the face of El Cap that night. “Happy birthday Alice!” yelled Mark Hudon, who was climbing on the nearby Lost In America route. After hot chocolate and bourbon, Alice settled in for the night. “With the Milky Way above and me wrapped up in my sleeping bag, I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face. It was the best, most unique birthday ever.”
The following day saw Alice to Peanut Ledge. With only three pitches to the top, Alice caught a bit of summit fever. She paced herself though and climbed well on spaced out but secure gear. The pitch above Peanut ledge climbs a long run out flake of large cams followed by an airy traverse to the next anchor. “At this point, I was very happy that my friend Robin Liu had convinced me to borrow her second #5!”
Alice climbed the next pitch, and came within 90 feet of the summit. She contemplated heading for the top but decided since she had enough food and water she would rest. The next morning, she led the final pitch.
“As it turned out, this last pitch was the scariest pitch of all for me,” said Alice. The fixed gear was gone and the pieces were far apart. She wondered if she’d climb the wrong way but finally reached a pin and the top.
Near the summit, Alice encountered a mantle. She stood high in her aiders and pressed to the top of El Cap, elated to complete a solo ascent of the Zodiac. Over the course of the wall, she lost six pounds from dehydration and being unable to eat. She had suffered oppressive heat and difficult climbing. But in the end, the hard work and tenacity had paid off!
“I threw my hands up in the air and cheered, and then was completely overwhelmed with emotion and wept. The climb was so demanding and spanned so many days… I couldn’t believe I actually made it, ” said Alice. “I thought I would feel empowered after finishing the route, but not so much… I’m profoundly humbled. I struggled greatly through this climb, and was lucky on many incidences.” She gathered her kit and made the slow hike down.
Congratulations to Alice her inspirational ascent A full account of her ascent can be found on Supertopo.