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Direct Southwest Face of Yosemite Valley's El Capitan

Direct Southwest Face of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan

Edward Cooper

IN THE history of mountaineering the climbing developments in Yosemite Valley are uniquely and wholly American. Nowhere in the world has climbing advanced so far in so little time. The first piton was not driven in the Valley until the 1930s. Now it is not uncommon for 20 to 30 pitons to be used in practice climbs.

This phenomenal development has sprung both from the increasing number of climbers doing difficult climbs and equally from the advanced equipment that has made these climbs possible. Equipmentwise, I speak specifically of the chrome-moly (chrome-molybdenum-alloy steel) piton. On such climbs as the three routes now on El Capitan, pitons are placed from 450 to 700 times. Since the hardware must be limited to 60 or 70 pitons, each will be used on the average of six to ten times; some, of course, will see greater use than others and will be inserted twenty to thirty times. The chrome-moly pitons now made in the United States by Chouinard, Long and others (ranging from postage stamp size and thickness Rurps to 4-inch-wide Bong-bongs) are the only pitons equal to these climbs. Such ascents practically cannot be done with ordinary steel pitons, which become brittle and break with this type of heavy usage.

Climbingwise the most significant developments have been postwar. The five-day direct ascent of the Lost Arrow from the bottom, made in 1947 by John Salathé and Anton Nelson, set a new tradition for climbs in the Valley. Five years passed before the next important achievement. The north face of Sentinel Rock was climbed in 1950 in five continuous days. The sheer 2000-foot face of Half Dome saw a serious attempt in 1955. The era of the great faces was here—almost.

It arrived in 1957 with the first ascent of the face of Half Dome. The era of the new Yosemite Grade VI was here. (Half Dome is now barely considered VI.) The east face of Washington Column, the second VI, was done during the summer of 1958. The logical culmination of the increasing number of climbers and the advanced technical equipment was the ascent of the direct south face (the Nose) of that great bastion of rock guarding the northwest end of the Valley, El Capitan. This climb, completed by Warren Harding, George Whitmore and Wayne Merry in November 1958, required 45 days of effort spread over a year and a half and used 675 pitons and 125 expansion bolts. (See AAJ, 1959, 11:2, pp. 184–189.) It remains perhaps the greatest achievement of its type in the history of climbing.

Lesser VIs followed, though they may have had more difficult climbing technically. Further ascents of El Cap were done. The second ascent of the Nose was accomplished in 1960 in one continuous push of seven days. A brilliant new route, the “Salathé Wall”, was made on El Cap in 1961 in two pushes: one of three days, in which ropes were fixed, and the other of six days that completed the climb. (See article in this Journal.) Some 475 pitons and 13 bolts were used. This route, which starts just left of the Nose on the south face and ends on the southwest face, has more difficult climbing technically than the Nose and a higher percentage of non-aid climbing. This route was again repeated this year.

There was on El Capitan one line left, the direct southwest face, logically left unclimbed to the last. In almost 3000 feet there appeared to be only one sure ledge, and that at 2500 feet! The first 700 feet followed an arch that leaned to the left. Next came an overhanging blank section of perhaps 50 or 100 feet. Some possible cracks led to the “Black Arch”, leaning to the right, which again ended in a blank overhanging section. At 1200 feet, not quite an arch but an open-book corner rose 500 feet and leaned to the left. At its bottom we hoped to find a small ledge, but even this was doubtful. From the road it appeared that much of this open-book corner and the entire 300-foot wall above actually overhung. Above there the climb apparently eased somewhat. A 500-foot ramp, at about an 80° angle to the left, Jed to a definite ledge at 2500 feet. A 500-foot exit ramp of about the same angle led to the right and to the final unfriendly overhangs at the top. This, then, was the unappealing, even appalling prospect.

Certain obvious difficulties faced anyone challenging this route. In the first 2000 feet there would be almost exclusively hanging belays, and there would undoubtedly be nights spent in slings. (The Nose route has perhaps a half-dozen hanging belays and the Salathé Wall less.) Because the route went left, right, left, etc. with overhangs intervening in all instances and no ledges to stop on, it would be necessary not only to prusik up fixed ropes, but to prusik down them as well. In addition, working under the leaning arches or corners is, at best, awkward and difficult, and there would be 1400 feet of this type of climbing. To sum it up, it would be a real horror climb. And we did not yet know how bad the piton cracks really were.

* * *

When Jim Baldwin, of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and I went to Yosemite in the spring, we had no notion of any of this. We had in fact never climbed there before. We knew only of rumors of a great unclimbed wall on the southwest side of El Capitan. We came prepared for whatever we might find—with almost 3000 feet of rope and a great amount of climbing hardware.

But we were not prepared for our first view of El Capitan. Bathed in the afternoon sunlight, El Capitan rose incredibly bold from the valley floor in one continuous sweep of granite, crowned with winter snow, overwhelming us with its gigantic scale. We felt small and inconsequential. After picking out the line on the southwest face with glasses, doubt gnawed at the back of our minds as to eventual success.

Nevertheless, filled with enthusiasm, we climbed the first pitch on the afternoon of March 31. This very first pitch gave us an indication of things to come. Pitons hit bottom in the shallow crack and often only went in a short way. Many had to be tied off. (This is a practice of hanging a sling on the blade of the piton where it emerges from the rock, rather than in the eye, to reduce the forces of leverage. This renders otherwise unusable pitons serviceable.) Further, they would fit in only certain places. There were often many feet in a row where the crack in fact disappeared. Some pitons required as much as a half hour to place ; even more time consuming than placing a bolt. With the exception of the blank sections, which always seemed to occur on overhangs, this was the story of the next 2000 feet.

The climb was divided into two phases, the spring and the fall assaults. About 900 feet were climbed in the spring. A point just under the “Black Arch”, but above the first overhanging blank section, was reached in some ten days of climbing. We made two hanging bivouacs during this period. Other than a ledge at the end of the very first pitch, not a one of any sort was encountered. The spring assault was cut short for two reasons. Jim’s prusik knots slipped on a smooth, braided nylon rope at the top of the overhang at 700 feet and he slid nearly a hundred feet, almost at the speed of a free fall. His descent was stopped when he was drawn into the wall at the bottom where the fixed rope was tied to pitons, but his prusik knots burned partway through. He suffered serious burns of the hand and was incapacitated from climbing for a month. (Further repetition of this accident was prevented by winding the prusik knots three turns around the rope rather than the usual two in order to increase friction on smooth ropes.) By the time his hands had healed, the tourist season had arrived at Yosemite. All climbing was forbidden at this time by the rangers, and not without good reason. The crowds and traffic jams that would be caused by people watching El Cap climbers would completely disrupt Yosemite Valley as happened once before. We decided to put the climb off until fall, though not without qualms, as the thought of ascending fixed ropes after a full summer in the Yosemite sun was not attractive.

During the summer Glen Denny of Livingstone, California, decided to join us in the effort. This materially added to our chances for success, both because of his experience and since the burden of effort placed upon two by the demands of the climb was almost too great. Furthermore, Glen and I had to begin the climbing earlier in the fall than planned because another party intended to complete the climb we had started. The mountains remain noble, but those who climb them do not always remain so. The history of mountaineering shows this from the time of Balmat and Paccard, to the present day. Perhaps the spirit of competition which exists in the Valley brings out weaknesses in some.

Jim would be occupied in Vancouver until early October, but Glen and I decided to resume the climb in late September. Events commenced with the storm, in which no progress was made for two days and a night, followed by pushes of two, three, eight, and five days and finally the six-and- a-half-day assault in late November (together with three days in early December to take down the fixed ropes, which extended to 2000 feet).

We had planned a three-day push and prusiked up to our high point one very hot September day with heavy loads. Being tired, we had time and inclination for little else than preparing for a night in slings. (We had special seat slings which, even if we managed very little sleep, at least were comfortable for periods of an hour or two until circulation was cramped at one or more points; then we would have to stretch out by standing up on our direct-aid slings.) Just as it became too dark to prusik down the fixed ropes, we sensed the first lightning. For an hour it stayed at the eastern end of the Valley out of our sight, but we could tell of its presence by the eerie light that it cast on Cathedral Rock on the opposite side of the Valley and from the evil sounds it was making. When it lashed upon us with its half-inch hailstones in all its fury, we were forced to stand up in our slings to get close enough together for both of us to receive the protection of our bivouac sack. The bolts on which we were suspended for the night were too far apart for us to remain sitting. The sack, thrown over our heads, gave more psychological than physical comfort. This lightning storm was more intense than any either of us had ever seen before, which included some real shockers in the Bugaboos and the

Canadian Rockies. It was in fact the worst electrical storm to hit central California in a dozen years. Hundreds of forest fires were started, some of which we could see. Even the valley floor received strikes during the nine continuous hours of lightning. Concerned friends reported seeing bolts actually strike the sides of El Capitan and bounce off. We descended the fixed ropes the next morning after actually living through the mountaineer s nightmare—spending the night hanging in slings in a big storm.

The rest of the climb was spectacular enough without this type of experience. Our next push we cut short to two days when we decided that we were too tired after spending the night in slings. At that point Jim Baldwin arrived. A further three-day push saw us reach 1200 feet and a ledge at 1150 feet, which we called The Ledge. For us it had all the elements of the miraculous. Absolutely level, it just sat three people comfortably, although it was a bit cramped at night. We had spent the first night again in slings, but the second was in the luxury of this ledge. Progress was still very slow. Occasionally “incidents” would happen, such as when a piton popped on me just as I was reaching to place another; I found myself hanging upside down fifteen feet lower, my foot caught in a stirrup loop, with an excellent view of the ground.

The next eight-day push brought us some 600 feet higher and to some really grim climbing. We stocked The Ledge with food and water and spent seven nights there. The placing of pitons in the open-book corner, which leaned to the left, was even more difficult than down lower, if this was possible. On the seventh day we managed to reach the overhanging wall above this open-book. What exposure ! A dropped piton here fell free for hundreds of feet. Jim took a bad fall on the third day, ripping his hand so badly that he had to descend to the ground. While he was placing pitons upside down under an overhanging flake, the last one he was hammering in loosened the previous ones, and several pulled. In his fallen position he had to attach prusik knots to the climbing rope and prusik back up to the last piton that held. Since we had been taking turns, two men climbing while the third descended to the ground to get more food and water, this left us critically short of supplies for the remaining days. On the seventh day we ran completely out and came down on the eighth. During this period Glen also had an uncooperative piton pull out on him.

Although I had to return on business to New York, Glen and Jim extended the fixed ropes above the overhanging section in a five-day push. The afternoon of the first day was spent in reaching The Ledge, and the morning of the fifth descending. We were now at about 2000 feet and still had not reached a single stance since The Ledge. Above the ledge at the top of the first pitch, 17 of the next 19 belays had been of a hanging nature. (There was another hanging belay in the final 1000 feet.) In the first 2000 feet there had been approximately 80 feet of fifth-class climbing, or about four percent.

We were now prepared for the final assault. We planned on seven to eight days and had at the start about 175 lbs. of gear to carry, including 55 lbs. of water and 600 feet of rope. The climbing had eased somewhat. We felt that we could make this last thousand feet in one push no matter what difficulties a few doubtful places and the summit overhangs might present. There were now occasional fifth class sections, and there was one entire lead of fourth class in a chimney about 300 feet below the top. On November 19 we spent the night on The Ledge. The second and third nights were spent in “the cave”, a sloping recess into the rock at 2200 feet, out of which it was difficult to climb. It was only one step better than hanging in slings. We reached early in the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day the large ledge at 2500 feet, appropriately termed Thanksgiving Ledge, and celebrated by resting the remainder of the day. We could walk more than a hundred yards on this ledge, which was ten feet wide in places. We spent the fourth and fifth nights here and pushed off on the sixth day to sleep where darkness caught us, hopefully on the summit; we were now only 300 feet below the top, and one lead (the chimney) appeared very easy. Being my turn to lead, I was within 30 vertical feet of the end of the difficulties before darkness and the intervening overhangs made it impractical to force a way through. The night was spent on some almost non-existent sloping ledges about 140 feet from the top. Though most uncomfortable and under threatening snow clouds, we were in good spirits. The last pitch is worth describing. Three overhanging, flared bong-bong cracks of 15 to 20 feet followed one another. Pitons could be placed only deeply within them. A short section of mixed aid and fifth class led to an overhanging corner, which in turn led to a seemingly impassible ceiling, through which a way would have to be found. This was done the next morning by nailing 15 feet straight out over one of the ceilings in a crack formed by the juncture of the ceiling and an overhanging wall. The crux piton was a knife blade placed at the outer edge. And there it was for the first time possible to see the end of the difficulties, a scant 20 feet away. The friction became so great on this last pitch that it was necessary to untie from one climbing rope and tie into a second, unclipping from most of the pitons placed.

At noon on the seventh day, the three of us stood together on the top, feeling that wonderful friendship you have for comrades with whom you have made a difficult climb. It was the greatest day of our lives.

Interesting Facts

Climbing time

Placing fixed ropes on first 2000 feet 

25 days

Additional days on face with no forward progress, hauling supplies, bad weather etc

8 days

Final assault, last 1000 feet

6½ days

Removing fixed ropes after completing climb 

3 days


42½ days

Nights spent totally suspended by ropes and pitons on vertical wall

5 nights

Other nights spent during the placing of fixed ropes

12 nights

Nights on the final assault (3 of them partially hanging) 

6 nights

Nights spent removing fixed ropes

2 nights


25 nights

Date climb started 

March 31, 1962

7:00 A.M.

Date climb finished (reached summit)

November 25, 1962,

11:00 A.M.

Date last fixed rope removed

December 7, 1962,

5:00 P.M.

Total time span, start to last rope removed

8 months and 8 days


Footage of rope used as fixed lines on first 2000 feet (many of them doubled for safety)

Footage of rope used in actual climbing (two 150-foot climbing ropes and 300-foot hauling line) 

600 feet

Additional rope available if needed

550 feet


4480 feet

Number of pitons carried on climb (replaced if dropped or left in rock

75 pitons

Number of pitons dropped

15 pitons

Number of pitons left in rock 

30 pitons

Number of times pitons were placed

600–700 times

Number of expansion bolts placed

75–85 bolts

Number of piton hammers broken 

6 hammers

Weight of water consumed on last 6½-day assault

55 lbs.

Approximate weight of water consumed total

310 lbs.

Prusiking, etc.

Approximate footage prusiking up fixed ropes

15,600 feet or c. 3 miles

Approximate footage prusiking down fixed ropes

11,100 feet or c. 2 miles

Approximate footage rappelled down fixed ropes 

2,800 feet

(In most instances it was impossible to rappel down the ropes because they were either overhanging, went diagonally or both.)


Number of places to stand in the first 2000 feet 


1: The ground

2: 120 feet above ground at end of first rope length

3: At 1100 feet (room for only 1 person to stand)

4: At 1150 feet, The Ledge (only one of two places on entire climb suitable of three people for night, and very crowded at that)

Next standing place at 2180 feet

Only place suitable for good night’s rest: Thanksgiving Ledge 2500 feet


Highest: middle of day in September 


Lowest: at night during final assault in November


(While we were removing the last fixed ropes on December 7, the late afternoon temperatures on the face reached an incredible 85°–90° after a night temperature of about 30°.)

Summary of Statistics

Area: Yosemite Valley, California.

Ascent: New direct route on southwest face of El Capitan, completed November 25, 1962—Dihedral Wall.

Personnel: James Baldwin, Edward Cooper, Glen Denny.