I wrote this after climbing the Nose on El Cap twice in a week in spring 2014. Enjoy!
I’m lying on the grass in the Californian sun; even with my eyes closed I can feel the expanse of El Capitan towering above me. I got down from the Nose with Bron, my girlfriend late last night. We climbed the most famous big wall route in the world over 4 days, sleeping on the few conveniently spaced ledges on the way. Now it’s time for victory photographs and relaxing in the sun…
I slowly open my eyes and look up to see the manically grinning face of my friend Danger Darren from Tasmania. He seems to be saying something, he wants to climb the Nose with me, but I just got down from the Nose… What’s going on?
My alarm goes off at 3am the next morning, I stumble out of the tent, my pockets stuffed full of disgusting energy gels and Clif bars. In order for Darren and I to climb all 31 pitches of the Nose in a day, we will be block leading in a “French-free” style, short-fixing with a "Pakistani death-loop" and simul-climbing where possible. All highly un-recommended ways of climbing faster in exchange for some of the safety of regular pitched climbing
Leading the first pitch before dawn I’m rushing. Both feet pop and I’m off, somehow by reflex I catch my fall in a one-arm lock off on a cam.
“Take it easy, you’re not Hans Florine.”
After the first pitch things begin to feel easier, the sun is coming up and I start to enjoy myself. I find my bivi bag that I dropped from high on the route 3 days earlier. It fell 22 pitches to land back on the Nose! The day is off to a good start.
Next we get overtaken by Hans Florine himself, the king of the Nose speed record! Climbing the route for his 97th time, just as a quick hit before heading to a party in San Francisco, as you do.
Climbing quickly and efficiently over the endless golden granite in the sun feels over-the-top euphoric. About halfway now.
My block takes us to the Great Roof, which I swing across making good use of the plentiful “fixed mank”, but clipping no runners. This way Darren can second the pitch quickly whilst I’m self-belaying up the Pancake Flake.
“Hey Darren… this is fun!”
I casually stand up in a wire and PING…
I stand up on the ledge and spit. Blood.
“Where am I bleeding from?”
“Darren, where am I bleeding from?!”
“err… dunno mate turn around… Nah, looks like you’re good”
“My foot hurts. MY FOOT HURTS! I think I’m ok apart from my foot… but I think my heel is broken.”
A quick “up or down?” discussion leads to the full realisation that we are 22 pitches up a 31 pitch route with only one 60m rope; the idea of retreat is not a pleasant one. I think I can probably still jumar and Darren says he can take us to the top. At this point it would be easy to be feeling pretty sorry for myself, but to my surprise I find I am actually enjoying the experience. The situation is a bad one, but not life threatening, and getting off the route is going to be a real adventure.
A few pitches higher I’m lying on the ledge below the infamous Changing Corners pitch, Darren seems to be grinding to a halt. I’m there for 2 hours, my foot throbbing, my body aches now the adrenalin is cooling off. Two falls, but he finally makes it to the belay. I pinch some ibuprofen off some Swiss climbers who arrive to spend the night on the ledge, unclip, swing, and begin ascending the free-hanging rope. The 800m of exposure below my feet feels wild.
Darren tells me his arms are toast and there’s no way he can lead the final four pitches.
“Are we having an epic?”
“Dunno, I hope not!”
With one approach shoe and one rock shoe I set off, trudging upwards, terrified of falling and jarring my foot again. I’m not really thinking any more, not scared or excited, just mechanically going through the motions necessary to get us off the route.
I stagger over the top just as the sun sets completely, almost exactly sixteen hours after starting climbing. I flick on my head-torch and sit down. My mind is alive with excitement and emotion again. Despite my injured foot, I’m aware right now that this is why I go climbing, for this kind of intense experience that’s impossible to find in regular mundane existence. Darren whoops as he tops out.