American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Muir Wall—El Capitan

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1966

Muir Wall—El Capitan

Yvon Chouinard

Just beyond this glorious flood the El Capitan Rock, regarded by many as the most sublime feature of the valley, is seen through the pine groves, standing forward beyond the general line of the wall in most imposing grandeur, a type of permanence. It is 3300 feet high, a plain, severely simple, glacier-sculptured face of granite, the end of one of the most compact and enduring of the mountain ridges, unrivaled in height and breadth and flawless strength.

—John Muir, The Yosemite

More than any other mountain or formation, El Capitan has been responsible for the changing philosophy and the rising standards of American climbing. I speak not only of rock climbing but of ice as well, for new standards of ice climbing are being established by Yosemite-trained "rock specialists.”

The new philosophy is characterized by small expeditions going into remote areas and trying new and extremely difficult routes with a minimum of equipment, no support parties nor fixed ropes to the ground; living for days and weeks at a time on the climb and leaving no signs of their presence behind. This purer form of climbing takes more of a complete effort, more personal adjustment, and involves more risk, but being more idealistic, the rewards are greater.

Probably the basis for this type of climbing was established by the naturalist John Muir. He used to roam the Sierras for weeks, eating only bread and whatever he could pick off the land, sleeping under boulders in only his old army overcoat, and rejoicing with the summer storms. He chose to accept nature as it was without trying to force himself onto the mountains but rather to live with them, to adjust himself to the rigors of this sort of life.

It was a vigorous life indeed, but his writings tell us of his communion with nature and his profound mystical experiences. Scientists will explain that when the body is weakened by fasting the senses become more acute and receptive. This partly explains Muir’s mysticism but does not explain how, even though he was essentially fasting, he still managed to keep his prodigious strength. The answer to this is simple; he was fully adjusted to his environment and to eating less food.

This same attitude was later accepted by John Salathé and "Axe” Nelson, who trained their bodies to do with very little water in anticipation of their 1947 Lost Arrow climb. Their five-day ascent with only one pint of water per man per day is still the most remarkable achievement in American climbing.

The nine-day first ascent of the North America Wall in 1964 (A.A./., 1965, 14:2, pp. 331-338.) not only was the first one-push first ascent of an El Capitan climb, but a major breakthrough in other ways. We learned that our minds and bodies never stopped adjusting to the situation. We were able to live and work and sleep in comparative comfort in a vertical environment. When the food and water ran low, we found that we could obtain an enormous amount of energy from eating just ten raisins. We reached the summit feeling as if we could go on for another ten days. No longer would we ever be afraid of spending so many days on a climb, whether it was a Yosemite wall or a long Alaskan ridge.

After this climb we asked ourselves the inevitable question, "What next?” The answer was obvious … another first ascent on "El Cap” in one push with two men instead of four. This would not only double the work load and responsibility, but would also considerably decrease the safety factor.

It is the unknown that frightens brave men and there are plenty of unknown factors in trying a new route on this great wall. In the spring of 1965, after studying our proposed route for two years, calculating our equipment down to the last piton and cup of water, and weighing the consequences of a failure high up on the face, TM Herbert and I felt at last ready for the big push.

Our proposed line started to the left of the Salathé-Wall route, ascended some inside corners and arches, crossed the Mammoth terraces and continued more or less up, keeping to the left of the south face or "Nose” route.

June 14: In the cool early morning we walked to where we had left our duffel bags and equipment the day before. The climb begins at the "Moby Dick” slab, a popular two-pitch climb of F9 severity. From the ledge at the top we dropped down en rappel for twenty feet to the left and began nailing up. The pitons held well but they were awkward to place in the inside corner that leaned left. There was gardening of dirt and grass before a piton could be placed and as usual, belays in slings. We had to place two bolts in order to reach a sixty-foot-long horizontal flake and from these we hung our hammocks and had a secure, restful sleep.

June 15: I completed the traverse placing the pitons very carefully so that the flake would not expand. Then TM continued on, alternating pitons and bolts in a dangerous-looking loose arch. After reaching a trough-like groove, the climbing became easier and we rapidly gained height. Towards sundown TM pendulumed to a large ledge where we were to spend the night. Somehow our hauling system got fouled and many a terse word was exchanged and much needed water spent in perspiration before we were able to lift our two 50-pound bags onto the ledge. The strain of the climbing, the terrible California sun and that ever-present fear and uncertainty were all working away, and were reflected in us.

We had a fine ledge where we could lie out at full length and use our hauling bags for extra warmth. Besides, in the morning there would be no problem in having to repack the bags while hanging from pitons. The single fact that we had a ledge put us back into an elated mood and we joked and talked until we fell asleep.

June 16: As we had expected, the third day turned out to be mostly moderate free climbing up the right side of the "Heart.” In the late afternoon we reached another fine ledge a pitch above the enormous "Mammoth cerraces.” The last lead was done in the rain as the weather had quickly turned from oppressive heat to a fine drizzle. When it began to pour in earnest we crouched in our cagoules and waited. In a brief break TM started nailing the next day’s lead, while I belayed and collected water that was running down the rock. But the water had a bright green color and tasted so foul that we decided to keep it only as a reserve for the last day.

June 17: For the first half of the day we followed a single crack and then switched to another which we followed until we were forced to quit climbing early when the intermittent rain settled into a downpour. Since we were obviously in for a nasty bivouac, we prepared for it as best we could. We even tried to hang our hammocks above us as a shield against the torrents of rain. It never stopped all night and the cold was intense, as in a high mountain storm. Soaked through, we huddled together to keep warm. TM had a particularly bad night, shivering so violently that he could hardly speak. When he did, he sounded almost delirious. We were despondent and for the moment had lost the vision and our courage. Yet we kept any thoughts of retreat to ourselves.

June 18: The returning light restored our courage. A perfect crack in an overhanging corner allowed us to gain height rapidly while the overhanging wall shielded us from the rain. At the top of the corner Herbert began placing bolts across a blank area, doing a fantastic job of stretching out the distance between them. This traverse we hoped would lead us to the "Grey Bands” from where we would reach the beginning of the upper part of our route. After resting from the exhausting work of placing eleven bolts, all horizontally, he dropped down, went around a corner and began to layback up vertical flakes. Losing voice-contact with me, he painstakingly backed down until he could belay from the top of a very shaky flake. It was a tremendous effort and certainly saved the day. I just had time to finish the next pitch and to reach the "Grey Bands” before dark. We rappelled down to a good ledge and fumbled around in the dark to set up our bivouac. My down jacket was hopelessly soaked from the constant rain and so TM gave me his sweater, which had to do for the rest of the climb.

June 19: The cold grey dawn revealed an appalling sight. Barring us from the summit were 1000 feet of wild, overhanging wall capped by a 30-foot ceiling. A quick inventory showed two days’ worth of food and water and only nine expansion bolts. There was no going down from here. The only practical retreat would be to traverse the "Grey Bands” for 400 feet to the "Nose Route”, up which we knew we could make the top in two or two-and-a-half days. Aside from the uncertainty of the way ahead and our short supplies, we were physically and mentally exhausted from the strain of the climbing and the cold, wet bivouacs. Should we retreat or go on? Here was that line that has to be crossed of which Herzog speaks so eloquently in Annapurna. The cost of a failure can be dear, but the values to be gained from a success can be so marvelous as often to change a person’s whole life.

After all, why were we here but to gain these personal values? Down below there were only ten people who even knew we were up here. Even if we were successful, there would be no crowds of hero worshippers, no newspaper reports. Thank goodness American climbing has not yet progressed to that sorry state.

Our decision made, TM led upwards. At this point the route becomes vague in my mind. The artificial climbing blends into the free. The corners, dihedrals, jam-cracks, bulges, are all indistinguishable parts of the great, overhanging wall. The pitches never end, and one day merges into another. I recall only bits and pieces. A horrible flaring chimney sticks in my mind, and the most difficult pendulum in my life. Always the overhangs and bulges keep us from knowing exactly where to go.

And I remember a wonderful Peregrine falcon eyrie deep back in a chimney; soft white pieces of down stuck on to the crystals of grey granite.

June 20: The view below our hammocks was terrific — 2500 feet between us and the ground. But that was another life and we began to discover our own world. We now felt at home. Bivouacking in hammocks was completely natural. Nothing felt strange about our vertical world. With the more receptive senses we now appreciated everything around us. Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shapes of the clouds never ceased to attract our attention. For the first time we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for 15 minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color.

How could one ever be bored with so many good things to see and feel! This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultra-penetrating perception gave us a feeling of contentment that we had not had for years. It reminded TM of his childhood days when the family all came together on the porch of his home to sit and watch the setting sun.

The climbing continued to be extreme and in our now very weakened state strenuous pitches took us hours to lead. TM is normally a fairly conservative climber, but now he was climbing brilliantly. He attacked the most difficult pitch of the climb, an overhanging series of loose flakes, with absolute confidence; he placed pitons behind the gigantic loose blocks that could break off at any moment, never hesitating and never doubting his ability.

June 21: Awakening on the eighth day, we promptly devoured the last few bites of food and the last of our water. Four bolts were left; 400 feet to go, and always that summit overhang weighing on our minds. It was going to be close. When the cracks were good, they were all one size; we had constantly to drop down and clean our own pitches in order to use the same pitons higher up. Often the cracks were bottoming, which meant having to put pitons back to back and tying them off with only the tips holding. The slow progress was extremely frustrating. The rain continued to fall in a silvery curtain that stayed a good 25 feet away from us. Hanging from pitons under an overhang we placed our last bolt, hung by a "cliff hanger”* on a tiny flake and barely reached a good crack to our left.

Our friends on top urged us on with promises of champagne, roast chicken, beer and fresh fruit. But the summit overhang still barred us and we almost insanely tried one blind crack after another. Finally, with the help of a light from above, we placed the last piton. We took a few halting steps on the horizontal and abandoned ourselves to a gastronomic orgy.

Looking back up at our route late one afternoon when a bluish haze covered the west side of El Capitan, it seemed to have lost a bit of its frightfulness but appeared even more aloof and mysterious than before. It is far too deep-rooted to be affected by the mere presence of man. But we had been changed. We had absorbed some of its strength and serenity.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Yosemite Valley, California.

Ascent: The first ascent of Muir Wall of El Capitan, June 14 to 21, 1965. (Yvon Chouinard, TM Herbert).

Technical Data: 350 to 500 pitons; 30 bolts. NCCS VI, F9, A4.

*A small hook used in direct-aid climbing to hang from flakes or irregularities of the rock.

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