El Capitan, El Niño, Second Ascent. In the meadow, on a clear fresh October afternoon, Patrick “Patch” Hammond and I reclined in our hammocks of smoke and alcohol, eagerly scoping the east buttress of El Capitan with the Huber brothers and their binoculars. I’d spent six week on the Valley floor waiting for this: the moment I became completely focused on one goal, psyched for the thin line of slabs, ledges, comers, and roofs that is El Niño.
Based on advice from many Yosemite locals, we decided there would be a storm before the end of October. It was already the last week of the month. In an uncharacteristically rational decision, we concluded we would not go on the wall without synthetic sleeping bags, a haul sack and a portaledge with an expedition fly. (We weren’t willing to pay a $15,000 rescue fine.)
That very evening in the bar, Kevin Thaw introduced us to Conrad Anker. Over a pitcher of conversation, they sorted us out all the kit we needed. We covered the beer. Later, Kevin, Conrad, Patch and I, accompanied by Dean Potter and José Pereya, bouldered around Camp 4, where we finalized our “big wall philosophy” and, with the others’ help, established our plan of attack for El Niño.
Our philosophy, which we developed whilst toying with the Hubers’ stagnant, Bavarian sense of humor, and playing with possibilities of jumping problems on the boulders that surrounded us, was simple:
“Big walling is easy! We’ll take climbing gear, camping gear (of vertical context) and shitloads of water.”
The plan of attack was no more complicated:
“To the Big Sur big-wall style. Onsight. Ditch stuff. From Big Sur, one push to summit. Onsight.”
With an absolute minimum of effort we placed ourselves, fully equipped, on the top of the Footstool at the base of the route. My father happened to be in the Valley at the time. He helped us grunt loads up the talus field, and he too stood with us on our little stool in this, a really special moment of great anticipation and excitement.
First day, first pitch: the climbing’s like slate. Balancey, small holds, technical. I’m pulling hard, starting to sketch wildly, my foot slips.…
Having described it all a thousand times, the ins and outs of every move on every pitch now seem rather trivial. What is important for the record is: I grabbed a quickdraw on the first pitch (5.13b), narrowly avoiding a 70-foot fall. I sent it first redpoint. I pulled on the first bolt on the second pitch to check and chalk the holds. Sent it first go. I onsighted the rest of the 5.13 pitches, along with all the other pitches (half of which I led), placing all my gear. I seconded all of Patch’s pitches clean. Patch did not climb all the hard pitches.
Patch and I are both talented slab climbers. After flying success on the first three pitches, we knew only the Black Cave was going to pose any real threat.
By the time we had climbed and hauled the next three pitches, and set up the goddamn por- taledge for the first time (it took two hours), it was dark. A really late start, along with another two hours wasted attaching the enigmatic flysheet to the portaledge, meant we only managed two pitches before the skies turned black and the rain began. We huddled in the ledge (conveniently strung in a runoff waterfall) for 25 hours.
A first-light conditions-check revealed the awe-inspiring sight of complete cloud cover in every direction, penetrated for two minutes by the mighty golden pillar of the Nose as it protruded proudly through the abyss.
Two o’clock the next day. Clear skies; unbelievably dry rock, dry ropes and the first snow of the season glistening on the tops. A few good pitches saw us with fixed lines to the Big Sur.
Couldn’t face more ledge epics, so Patch took responsibility for the pig and I jumared with the erected portaledge. I felt like a human kite! Another day passed until we finally had 300 feet of 8.2-mm dynamic rope fixed to the Black Cave.
Our plan was that Patch would go up first, load-free, to rest, as he would try the roof first. We thought it would prove difficult, but if we both freed it by noon, we could drop our lines, abandon our camp and go for the top.
What actually happened was that, whilst following Patch up the ropes, a ball-breaking 50 feet of load-bearing, untensioned bouncy jugging, I heard a call: “Chalk bag.” No whistling sound, no black image falling—yet no chalk bag. Having disposed of mine earlier on the climb, this posed a serious problem. Hanging there in extreme discomfort, I got really pissed off as I became painfully aware that things were not going according to plan.
I rapped back to camp, filled a stuff sack with chalk, and jugged the line to the Rotten Island. Here we utilized the big wall essential. No, not the stereo, duct tape! With some small wires and imagination we had created “The El Niño.” Dips to the elbow and holds three blocks of chalk.
Few words were spoken. I went first.
“Wow, I made it, man! Onsight! Fierce!” was my next explainable thought. Patch yelled his approval. He wasn’t fussed about seconding clean. It was 11:30 a.m.
Lines, camp, Conrad’s abandoned gear. We had one-and-a-half liters of water, four Snickers, one tin of peaches and one warm jacket. We had to top out that day.
Patch’s lead was the easiest pitch of the day: 5.11a. Should’ve taken half an hour. Ten feet above the belay he was out of sight, and lost. Two and half hours later we were finally at the top of that god-forsaken pitch. I could feel my toes again and I no longer wanted to strangle Patch. So far every pitch had been three star, even the 5.9!
Beautiful timing saw me arrive, thirsty but fit, on top of the final hard pitch. It was virtually dark. For the life of me, I couldn’t see a line that would go at 5.10 through the ceilings of looming gray granite above. Maybe the Hubers’ “special topo” (they gave us their original) lied. It had once. The “M+M” flake pitch (5.13b) and the “Royal Arches” pitch (5.13c) weren’t graded!
“Thank God it’s his lead,” I thought. Lamps on, a half-hour of frustrated fumbling in anticipation of a very uncomfortable night, and then—
“Eureka!” Patch cried. A line of white tape dots, stuck there by the clinically redpoint-minded Huber brothers, guided us quickly and continuously through the last three pitches.
It’s so hard to describe the senses of euphoria, of freeness, of accomplishment, and of horizontal existence that hit us on that final belay. I felt then, as I do now, that we were truly living the good life.
We headed straight for an empty but welcome Burke’s camp. As we parted for separate tents, the last thing I remember saying was, “Patch, that was the best route I’ve ever done!”
“For sure! Thirty three-star routes in one!” he agreed.
“Yeah, and I think we’ve just made one of the cleanest-ever ascents of El Cap!”
As I lay in my nice dry sleeping bag (courtesy of Burke’s camp), I dreamt of my return to the Valley and of the next route to climb free on this beautiful, BIG wall.
El Niño was my first wall. The feeling of great exposure, excitement, partnership and fun, combined with the experiences of a big wall, dominate my memories of the climb.
Leo Houlding, stoned