Some Clean Wall Climbs in Yosemite
25 May 1973
At last! Vindication! You don’t know what I’m talking about? What I mean is that now I know that all our talk about doing long aid climbs on nuts was something other than bull.
After much fast talking I convinced Dave Anderson that we should attempt the Rostrum (V, 5.9, A2) without hammers. This route has an extra element of commitment, since you rappel to the base of it, and if you don't get up the first five pitches, you have to cross the Merced River to get out. It is similar to Tantalus Wall at Squamish Chief, except that it is much steeper. (There is a net overhang of 30 feet on the last 3 pitches.) Like Tantalus, it is a short Grade V.
Last weekend Dave and I got a ride to the top of the climb, and spent the night there. Starting early in the morning, we rappelled to the base and started nutting our way upward. We weren’t using any bolts or fixed pins, until the fifth pitch where using a bolt saved lots of work setting up an anchor, and then we started using the bolt belay anchors. In addition, Dave used one bolt in the middle of a free-climbing crack. We did avoid all the fixed pins, including those in the middle of an eight-foot roof, putting nuts straight upward and slotting them sideward. We finished the climb just as the sun set.
It was nice to be climbing with a rack of nuts, since they were so light, and the hammer sling couldn’t get in the way, since we didn’t even take hammers. A hammer would compromise the “clean” aspect of the climb, tempting the climber to tap, or even mash a nut. All in all, it was a beautiful climb.
The next day, Dave and I climbed the Far West Route on Rixon’s Pinnacle (III, 5.9, A3) hammerless. Dave led the crux free-pitch after I backed off, and I led the crux aid-pitch, which was more difficult than anything on the Rostrum. It was an A3 traversing crack. After climbing free to the base of it, two skyhook moves brought me to the first tricky spot. I opposed two nuts, a #2 copperhead and a #2 stopper, and got a fairly good placement. The rest of the traverse, I could only get nuts in one way, so I had to connect them all back to the original nut. It was exhilarating. As an added bonus, at the end of the pitch there was a pendulum that was hard, requiring numerous tries.
Pardon all this ranting and raving, it is just that I had a great weekend, and we did two fine climbs in good style. On to other things.…
I wrote that letter in the spring. During the late spring and summer, I did other clean ascents. The two weekends after doing the Rostrum I soloed the South Face of Washington Column and the Chouinard-Herbert route on Sentinel, both Grade V’s. A month later I got enough free time to do a Grade VI, the West Face of Sentinel. With these climbs behind, it seemed reasonable to try something longer.
In late August I was talking to Yvon Chouinard, who, like myself, had grown soft from too much desk work. We got talking about aid climbing on nuts, and soon agreed to meet in Yosemite to try a project that had been on both our minds: the Nose route on El Capitan.
Two weeks after that conversation, I was watching Chouinard (I called him Yvon, but I knew he wasn’t Yvon, he was Chouinard) as he started the first pitch. He put the first nut in and looked down.
“You know, I’ve never really stood on one of these before.”
My heart sank. He stepped up, and the nut sank—about a quarter inch. My heart shrivelled up totally. Who was this guy? I had never climbed with him before, but he was supposed to know something about nuts.
He stepped up on another stopper, which also shifted. Let’s see, I thought. If we waste today, I can get my solo gear (which I had brought) and start out early the next morning. I’ll take a while, miss even more work, but it’d be worth it. Still I better start psyching up for a long hot climb.
After the first two bad nuts, Chouinard started fiddling around with his latest toys: Crack-N-Ups, a small stopper head on the end of a skyhook. He used several on that first lead.
“OK, Cliff King, jümar when ready.”
Cleaning, I understood why it had taken some time. The pitch had some tricky nutting in thin cracks, and it was quite a way to get back into the swing of things. Three more pitches with a few manky placements and any thoughts of solo climbing had vanished. We were working smoothly and efficiently, and there seemed no reason to expect failure. We rappelled from Sickle Ledge as the sun set, full of good spirits and hopes for the climb.
If the West Face of Sentinel had been an ordeal for me, the Nose was a vacation. The four pitches up to Sickle Ledge had each required some fiddling around on tricky placements, but as we started up the rest of the climb, the nutting eased off and we were able to move faster. Only two pitches on the upper wall slowed us in our rush to the top: The pitch out of Camp 5 was the crux of the climb (led by Chouinard with Crack-N-Ups flying) and the second pitch out of Camp 6 also required care. The nutting was mixed with beautiful crack-climbing, all on a spectacular big wall. Hauling was no problem since we went light, we had water aplenty since we moved faster than planned, and the food had been carefully picked and packed by Malinda Chouinard, with only fresh green salads missing. Both bivouacs were on good ledges, and we stopped in time to watch the sun go down as we entertained ourselves with cashews, fruit cocktail, cheeses, salami, tuna, and other delicacies. Even the heat didn’t bother me after a summer working in the Central Valley of California. It was one of the most satisfying multi-day wall climbs I have been on.
With that climb, almost every major feature in Yosemite had had a clean ascent of at least one route. Later in the fall, the Nose had another clean ascent by a team of three consisting of Don Brooks, Karl Kaiyala, and Roger Fuggle. Like us, they reported no really difficult nutting. A psychological barrier has been broken, and climbers now realize that nuts are sufficient for many walls.
Chocking up aid routes has two things to offer climbers. First, with the increased use of nuts, we no longer have to make a choice between fixed pins and piton erosion on commonly climbed routes like the Nose. This has been repeatedly emphasized by others with a better grasp of the English language. But more important to me is the added challenge offered by silent aid climbing. Many climbers are skilled enough that merely getting up the “standard” big walls is assured. By leaving the hammer at home, the nut aficionado can regain the uncertainty and adventure of the first ascensionists.
The following climbs are rated by a “clean-climbing” aid system analogous to the current aid ratings. Therefore, C3 means a pitch done hammerless, the aid climbing is about as tricky as an A3 climb done with pitons and hammer. They are listed chronologically and include only those climbs that I happen to have heard about. Apologies to others who have done longer aid routes clean which are not listed.
The North Face of the Rostrum: V, 5.9, C2. (If done without fixed pins, the rating is C3). Crux pitches are the pitch off the traverse ledge and the last pitch. Many large nuts necessary. First aid climbing Grade V done clean.
Far West Route on Rixon’s Pinnacle: III, 5.9, C4. The fourth pitch requires cliffhangers, a good selection of very small nuts, and considerable commitment.
South Face of Washington Column: V, 5.8, C3. The crux is the third guidebook pitch above Dinner Ledge.
Chouinard-Herbert Route on Sentinel: V, 5.8, C2.
West Face of Sentinel: VI, 5.9, C4. There are a number of tricky spots on this climb, with the worst being the crack above the Dogleg Cracks. First clean ascent of Grade VI.
Northwest Face of Half Dome: VI, 5.8, C3 or C4. It was climbed by Dennis Hennek, Doug Robinson, and Galen Rowell using only the original bolts and one fixed pin. Done in this style, it is definitely C4.
Nose Route on El Capitan: VI, 5.8, C3.