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Alone on the John Muir Wall, El Capitan

Alone on the John Muir Wall, El Capitan

Royal S. Robbins

I knew that I had done the right thing when I learned that Jim McCarthy had soloed High Exposure. McCarthy, of course, is the rock of the East Coast. He’s an ace climber, lawyer, and karate expert. He doesn’t have to climb solo.

But what is this solo nonsense, anyway? Oh, just solo nonsense. Just another way to prove something. A sort of spiritual onanism. The thing about a solo climb is that it is all yours. You are not forced to share it. It’s naked. Raw. The fullest expression of the climbing egoist. It is also a way of exploring oneself. A solo climb is like a big mirror. One is looking at oneself all the way up. If it is a way of showing off, of proving something, it is also a test, a way of finding out what one is made of. Or is it? I really don’t know. I don’t know why I solo. But I sense it has much to do with the ego, and with proving something. Proving something to myself, mainly, I think. But who knows?

Maybe climbing El Capitan solo is using it as an exercise bar. But will the spirit be stronger afterwards? How does one tell? If one faces life better. Do I? I don’t know; I can not remember exactly how it was before. I think I am just as afraid of as many things as I used to be. Only I am a little less afraid of El Capitan.

There are no reasonable reasons why one solos. At least not why I do. I have done solo climbs because I had to do them. I was driven by an unrelenting demon inside, and that demon is difficult to assuage. He always asks for more, more, more. He never gets enough. He is insatiable, gluttonous, ever lusting for more of the peculiar meat upon which he feeds. The Leaning Tower was not enough. Soloing Sentinel was not enough. Edith Cavell was not enough. Perhaps now, after El Capitan, he is satisfied. I hope so.

Writing about this climb is not easy. It is agonizingly personal. It is well to record that I started climbing solo at the age of 16. I used to hitch-hike into the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, scramble down a remote canyon, and pass the day clinging to a 600-foot cliff of poor rock. Good training if one survives. I was lucky. I have long dreamed of emulating Bonatti’s fantastic solo of the southwest pillar of the Dru. I did not succeed, of course, but that was one of the great examples that spurred me on.

El Capitan had not been soloed. I had not climbed the John Muir Route. It was the obvious choice. And this would be the second ascent, which would give me something to gloat over, if I were inclined to gloat, which I am, secretly. The story of the epic first ascent by TM Herbert and Yvon Chouinard has been well told in the A.A.J., 1966. But Chouinard’s enthralling account was a bit sparse in details, and I was to regret this in the days ahead.

May is a good month to sell paint in the Central Valley. That being my trade, I was forced to start in April, a bit too early for my taste. April showers, you know. And worse: Liz walked to the base with me. It was a bitter, evil day, with a bitter, evil wind whipping down over the north rim and tearing at the trees and buffeting the rock. And windy thoughts were tearing at my mind too. Chances were that I would be safe enough, but something could happen. I said earlier that I had to do it. I lied. I had a choice. And that choice was made in complete freedom on a windy April morning, at the base of El Capitan. I chose to go up because I told myself I had to do it. The interesting thing is that the contrary decision, the choice to remain on the ground, not to bother, would probably have more favorably affected my character, and almost certainly have a more profound and far-reaching effect upon my life, than soloing the Big Daddy. Or would it?

Belaying myself with Jümar handles, I started up, using pitons for aid, climbing free when I could. From the top of each pitch, I rappelled back down to the start, unhooked the hauling bag and let it out on the rappel line, and Jümared up the fixed climbing rope, removing the pins as I went. After hauling the bag, I was ready to repeat the whole process. By nightfall I was hammocked only 300 feet above the ground. Hmmm … it would take me ten days at this rate. Well, I was prepared for eight fat, or ten spare ones.

Liz departed to take my place selling latex or oleosinous coatings in Modesto. My friend Chuck Pratt, while taking a dim view of this sort of stunt, would nevertheless call her each night to appraise her of how the battle was going.

That nasty wind had at least presaged good weather. The second morning dawned fine, as did the rest. That day I traversed several hundred feet to the left. There is no rappelling sideways, so I had to climb each pitch three times. It would be good to reach the more straightforward upper section of the wall.

I broke my piton hammer. Only one left. If I broke or lost that one, I would need to be rescued. Dismal thought. If I broke it, well, OK. But losing it would have made me look so foolish I would be a long time recovering. I tied an extra cord to the remaining hammer.

On the third day I reached Heart Ledge, a spacious terrace which the Salathé Route now shares with the Muir. There was a trickle of water, too feeble to collect. I was able to sip it, along with a few wigglies, and so save my precious water supply.

When dawn came, I climbed a 150-foot pitch to Mammoth Terraces, also a familiar landmark on the Salathé. Then up into new territory. I was maintaining my initial average of 300 feet a day, and beginning to feel it. Such a pace would have driven some climbers into a frenzy. Me, it merely irritated. I’m heavy on patience. Some erstwhile friends have described me as “plodding.” Fair enough, but soloing the Muir doesn’t require mercurial qualities. It takes technical skill and a turn of mind which can steadfastly accommodate the tedious. The second ascent of the John Muir Route was certainly an exercise in tedium. That was its primary characteristic: a certain mechanical methodicalness composed of hundreds of similar movements and actions: piton after piton, rappelling after each pitch, removing the hardware, hauling the gear, untangling the ropes, preparing the next pitch, and then the whole rigmarole all over again; and all the time the constant awareness of every danger that might threaten me: the swami belt knot, had it loosened? were the slings on the Jümars abrading? were the ropes securely anchored? would the rope run freely? was the complex carabiner brake for the rappel properly arranged? These questions and many more tormented me with their continual demand for attention. I had to give each a fair hearing. And under this burden of minutiae, I moved inexorably, but without esprit, toward the summit.

Eventually I began to crack. The tedium and the loneliness. The loneliness and the tedium. I had started to talk aloud to myself on the second or third day. It is hard to recall how much of my monologue was really audible. It does not seem to matter much when no one is around to overhear. But I do know that on the seventh day the decibels grew. I ran into an unspeakable 200-foot crack 1½-inches-wide all the way. I had only two pitons that size. The memories of Chouinard and Herbert had somehow not retained whatever impressions were made by this fissure. I will never forget it. I climbed up, using the tips of larger pitons and smaller ones doubled. It was extremely disagreeable, for I was forced to descend repeatedly to remove the lower pins for use above. The artificial chockstones I took were useless here, as the crack refused to bottleneck. And the rock was fresh and crumbly. I couldn’t tell how good the pins were. I wished I were elsewhere, such as on a friendly free climb with a

light-hearted companion. I loudly cursed the recalcitrant rock, and the amnesia of my friends, but there was nothing to do except to fit and hammer. Going down was worse than up. Courage comes more easily when it is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Resigned as a man who must have a tooth pulled, I plodded upward, fighting for inches.

On the eighth day I reached a single crack which split the final summit dihedral. I was getting close. But Chouinard had said there was hard nailing up there, A4, he thought. I was to find it harder, but at first the crack was good. I climbed 100 feet and then came down to bivouac on a ledge.

The ninth day started easily, but I was suspicious. I knew there was a meany there, waiting for me. It was lonely in that great open-book. The architecture of the rock was starkly simple: great sweeping planes of granite extended hundreds of feet to either side, magnificently unflawed except for the single thin crack dividing them. This crack ended in a bulging overhang 100 feet above me. The nailing got worse as the crack changed slowly to a shallow indentation. I wondered how my friends had felt up there, so close to success. They had started in enervating heat, and after becoming desiccated by the sun, they became super-hydrated by several days of rain. They arrived at the final dihedral fatigued, hungry, apprehensive. This was no fun-in-the-sun rock climb. They had only a few bolts left. What must they have thought when the crack became shallower and shallower? These chaps never place a bolt unless convinced they need one. But here the ethical stance was reinforced by necessity. They simply could not afford to place bolts where even terrible pitons would do. So they had pushed the limits. It was too hard for me. After an hour of fussing, and a four-foot fall onto a rurp, I gave up and placed a detested Rawl Drive.

I passed the night in a hammock beneath the overhang and reached the top about two o’clock the next day, the tenth. Liz and some friends were there to greet me. The traditional champagne was produced. It went quickly to my mouth and even faster to my head. Good drink, champagne. After ten days of tedious, trying solitude, it was really good to see Liz. It was good to see friends. It was good to have friends. I was immensely pleased. I felt like a prizefighter who has just won a big match. Bathed in the aura of my success, I cared not a whit, for the moment, for anything I wasn’t.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Yosemite Valley, California.

Ascent: The second ascent and first solo of the John Muir Wall of El Capitan, April, 1968 (Royal Robbins).