American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The West Face—El Capitan

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1968

The West Face-EI Capitan

Royal Robbins

THE west face is the plain Jane sister of the Salathé Wall of El Capitan. It would be more distinguished were it not adjacent to one of the most sweeping and magnificent rock walls in the world, flanked as that wall is by the pure and noble lines of the west and south buttresses. It’s true that the other sister of the Salathé, the North America Wall, is no charmer, but it at least faces the onlooker frontily and sternly and inspires the sort of fearful awe one would feel facing the medusa. Not so the west face, which is tucked in a corner almost out of sight, except from such distant viewpoints as the Wawona Tunnel overlook. Unfortunately, from these positions the aquiline form of the west buttress is invisible, so the west face and Salathé Wall appear as one unbroken precipice, to the esthetic detriment of both.

Notwithstanding the above, the west face is nearly 2000 feet high, and composed of some of the finest rock in Yosemite. Besides which, when TM Herbert and I approached in early June, 1967, it was still virgin; and virgin walls are becoming as rare in Yosemite as condors in California: there are a few left, but you have to look hard to find them.

Herbert and I walked along with little of the fear and anxiety that are normal passengers of the mind when nearing a big wall. We had both already met the challenges of greater walls than the west face; and with 30 expansion bolts, we were confident we would succeed, or at least certain we could escape safely if we failed. Our attitudes had changed much since a dozen years earlier, when, scrambling toward the Lost Arrow Chimney with my friend Joe Fitschen, I was almost dizzy with fear contemplating that horrendous gash topped by the unreal pinnacle of the Lost Arrow Spire.

But we approached the west face with a self-assurance born of years of experience in just the sort of climbing we expected to meet. Thusdeprived of any significant element of the unknown, our venture promised little of grand alpinisme, but it would surely be a first-rate rock climb, and so it proved.

We passed the great pillar of the west buttress and peered upward through leathery evergreen foliage of canyon live oaks. There was the west face, first white and then reddish brown as it curved upward slowly out of sight. The wall has a curiously plated appearance and lacks deep continuous fractures. However, there are many shallow discontinuous ones, which, if we could somehow connect, would give us a good route with few bolts. But could we tie them together?

We began at a large block which sits between two cliffs in the El Capitan Couloir. Our first goal was a great arch separating the lower white granite, more normal of Yosemite, from the upper, unusual, rusty- hued rock of peculiar construction. The first pitch, one of the hardest we would face, was a problem in aid climbing. A skyhook placed with a two-foot length of stiff wire was the key. But it did not exactly open the door, for the pitch was hard all the way.

Herbert came up the fixed line with Jümars (odd how it is natural for TM’s friends to call him "Herbert”—for short as it were—instead of his first name, the letters "TM”). He removed the hardware as he came, while I hauled our 50-pound sack. Above, a 45-foot piton crack arched upward behind a thin exfoliating slab, seemingly the type that each piton pries outward loosening those below. One abhors starting a pitch like this for one knows the gut-biting anxiety, the unrelenting dread as repeatedly there passes across the mind pictures of those pitons being torn from their grip as the body plummets downward. Strangely, it is the thought of the pins ripping out that most horrifies, rather than falling or hitting.

Herbert no more wanted to take a long fall than I did to hold one, and so we were delighted that the flake proved solider than anticipated. Higher, Herbert was stymied by a blank area. After an hour of fruitless effort he reluctantly resorted to using the only bolt we placed on the climb.

The next pitch was great fun: mixed free and aid climbing requiring alertness and good form, but no major efforts or plumbing of one’s personal depths. We bivouacked at the foot of the arch, one easy pitch higher.

Next morning we passed the arch with the aid of a nut fitted snugly in a slot at the lip of the overhang and next enjoyed some very un-

Yosemite-like face climbing among spikes and knobs, cracks and solution pockets, with good nuts and runners for protection and hardly a piton.

After three pitches more or less straight up, there was Herbert belaying in slings just below an excellent ledge. He wasn’t on the ledge because it lacked anchors. The weather was beginning to deteriorate as I minced up on rounded holds and began a long aid traverse with pitons hard to place but easy to remove. We finished the traverse and rappelled to a good ledge where we passed a wet night, mostly standing to keep the rain off our legs. For half the next day we continued standing and sitting as the showers came and went. When they came no more, Herbert climbed up and belayed in slings at the junction of two cracks which disappeared over a bulge above. I joined him and took the left crack. It was the wrong one, and that was too bad because this pitch had some superb face-climbing. It was a wonderland of chockstones, spikes and knobs, enough for nine natural runners. But at the end I hit a blank wall and escaped only by lassoing a horn 30 feet away, thus reaching the other crack which led up from Herbert.

We passed a second night on the same ledge and on the fourth day went up left for several pitches to a large terrace. Just below this terrace is a loose block, a deceptive one. Those who come after are advised to watch out for it and to pass via the face on the right.

Above the terrace is a great dihedral 250 feet high, with a crack in the corner varying from one to ten inches. The wall was still damp, the crack a wet, slimy, gruesome thing, especially at the bottom. Luckily, very luckily, we could by-pass the first 35 feet using a crack on the left wall; this Herbert proceeded to do, eventually making a difficult pendulum into the corner, where he found nuts very useful among flakes and blocks. He continued upward on aid and set up a dripping hanging belay in a streamlet. I joined him and moved past his soggy stance as quickly as possible, using nuts and pitons for aid as I continued up the corner. There were two hard spots where it was necessary to free climb the left wall because the crack opened up too big for pitons and was too steep and slippery to jam. But the left wall was wet and mossy, and hard.

We could barely see in the dusk when Herbert joined me on Thanksgiving Ledge, that fabulous terrace running along for hundreds of feet near the top of El Capitan. We slept in a cave with a sandy floor. There was plenty of firewood, but our matches were wet.

Next day, after two hours of easy climbing, we stood once again on top of El Capitan. It was a fresh and sparkling morning.

The Nose will doubtless always be the most popular big route on El Capitan. It is the least difficult and has the finest line. But the runner-up may well become the west face. It is shorter than the others, has no horror pitches, and contains large doses of moderate but exciting face climbing. We recommend it and hope that others will enjoy it as much as we.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Yosemite Valley, California.

Ascent: El Capitan, first ascent of West Face, June 3 to 7, 1967 (TM Herbert, Royal Robbins).

Technical Details: 195 pitons, 100 nuts (artificial chockstones), 57 runners, 1 bolt. Bongs, nothing above 3?. NCCS VI, F8, A4 or A5.

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