1981: A day free climbing on El Capitan
Article in IWA TO YUKI - 82; June 1981
To Foreign Subscribers The IWA TO YUKI
Cover Photo: Free climbing "impossible blank walls". Ray Jardine making the traverse into Eagle Corner on the Nose, El Capitan. Photo: D. Bolster.
This issue features climbing in Yosemite Valley with two articles. Ray Jardine and Daniel Bolster introduces today's one of climbing fronts in the valley, hard-free on big wall route, and a brief history how Japanese climbers have regarded the climbing scene in the valley. Readers may find how Japanese were indifferent to the climbing mecca, though the valley locates just the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.
A day on the Nose by Free
by Ray Jardine and Daniel Bolster translated by Noriyuki Hirata
Ray Jardine (born in '44) is well known as the inventor of the FRIENDS nuts. He moved from Colorado to Yosemite in 1969 and retired from aid climbing in which he had once been eager to devote in 1971. He has marked 50 first ascents of free climbs in the valley including seven 5.12's and the first 5.13 on Phoenix route.
The first free ascent of grade Vl wall also was made by the author with Bill Price in the spring of 1979 on the West Face route of El Capitan Wall. The present article special to ITY by Jardine and his steady partner D. Bolster is their diary on a day in their attempt on the Nose route in the spring of 1980. The climb took from January 24 through May 24 to climb 20 pitches to Camp IV.
It was a little bit beyond Japanese climbers' imagination to climb without any aids on multi-day routes (given grade Vl in the local climbing circles.). They adopted an interesting idea on the very hard and long route which once had been given A4 grade. That was to fix the ropes for the section once being climbed by free. It is a realistic compromise to seek for and enjoy really fascinating free climbs on big routes. The route is possible to develop bit by bit in a day and to descend by the fixed ropes. Next attempt starts after jumaring up to the high point. Climbers can enjoy hard free pitches everytime successively on once hard aid multi-day routes.
"Necessity is the mother of invention!" is true. And only the one with creative mind can do it. Jardine did it in 1974 because he needed more trustful belayer, the FRIENDS for his eager push to free climbs.
We can see clearly how the authors seriously pursue the free climbs in the tedious repetition for four months. When they discussed who to lead the next pitch, which looked very difficult, Jardine recommends Bolster to do it; "Go ahead, Daniel, you put such an effort into it last time. Give it a shot". "I would, Ray, but I'm not sure if I could do it or not." "Well Daniel, that's what we're here to find out". Yosemite has led the the climbing of the world in the last decade, and is still now one of the most fascinating climbing spots through metamorphosing its styles flexibly.
A Day on the Nose
In the spring of '79 Bill Price and the writer completed the first free ascent of a grade VI wall climb on El Cap. Our route, the West Buttress, was a popular multi-day aid climb with a rating of A4. Like all the El Cap routes, it was considered "unfreeable" by the local free climbing faction.
Today, a year and a half later, the West Face has already had dozens of free ascents. In this short period it went from "impossible" to something of a trade route!
In nearly every aspect of the climbing spectrum we read of continuous achievements. The frontiers of only a few years ago are today's commonplace, while the action at the frontiers of today is nothing short of astounding. The mainstreams of climbing evolution continue to move at an accelerated pace. The reasons are complex. Today's climber approaches his objective with a greater amount of knowledge, experience, physical and mental fitness, determination and personal commitment, and technologically advanced equipment.
Logically speaking, there must be limits. Unfortunately for this era, those limits only keep getting further distant and unapproachable. A common statement is that to progress much further we will have to figure out a method of climbing blank vertical walls, a la superfly!
The epitome of this attitude was exemplified in a fictional satire published several years ago by an American magazine. In it the hero was freeing the Nose of El Cap. At the first big pendulum above Sickle Ledge he moved gingerly out across the blank expanse. Type 17-b chalk on the right hand and xx02 on the left, he had an inside parallel toe insert on the left shoe and an 3x2 shoe on the right.
I kept thinking of that article as I moved gingerly out across the blank expanse of this same pitch earlier this year. Using plain ol' gymnastic chalk and a pair of EB's the pitch went free at 5.11.
We actually started at ground level. Fixing the pitches as they were freed and rappelling off the wall in the evening. Each day I would grab whoever I could persuade to act as belayer, and we would jumar back up to the next unfreed pitch and start free climbing. Some of the pitches took days, even weeks to boulder out the moves.
This progression went on for four months. Slowly one after another the pitches were climbed. The end of the season found Daniel (by they my steady partner), and me at the 2000 foot level at Camp IV, 20 pitches up the route. It was time for a break so we descended and pulled all of our fixed ropes.
It was truly a wonderful experience, climbing and getting to know the rock in such a high and fantastic place. Rarely did it ever seem like we were making much progress, and quite a few times we were discouraged and tested to the max, but to quote a frequently run Yosemite climbing movie, "The vision must be kept, for it does not shine brightly by itself."
I've pulled a selection from my journal at random to show our efforts and feelings of a typical day. Actually this particular day wasn't all that typical in that we were working relatively easier pitches and actually gained quite a bit of altitude. Also I've asked Daniel to write about the same day and have included his writings at the conclusion of the article.
It was still dark when I drove into the camp parking lot to pick up Daniel. Half expecting to find him still sound asleep, he was actually out fussing through his gear which was spread over the hood of some car. My wife Susie is zonked out in the back of the van, as usual, oblivious to all as we drive on down to El Cap. We pull into our "reserved" parking space and put on our jumarring shoes - mine a floppy pair of earth shoes worn toeless by scraping up and down literally hundreds of fixed ropes.
Heading on up the 5 minute trail to the base of the Nose, we find the bottom of the first rope still tied to the tree where we had left it two days earlier. Six o'clock, warm and windless. Today will be Daniel's third day of working the route, and my 37th.
And so we begin the long haul. Step by step the jumars slide up the ropes, one after another. The first four ropes are very steep and strenuous and we perspire heavily, even though the sun hasn't yet hit us. Then the wall leans back a few degrees and the jumarring becomes a bit easier.
An empty tin can comes clanging down from somewhere above and bounces down the wall for several minutes. Somebody's having breakfast up there. Off to the right we view a magnificent profile of Horsetail Falls. Direct sunlight now strikes only the water as it descends in a fine mist, well free of the rock.
We negotiate a couple of diagonaling lines and then the rock steepens once again, as we travel past the stovelegs. Soon we arrive at a ledge and the first place to stand: Dolt Tower at the 1200 foot level. Here we find a party of 2 climbers just beginning their first lead after their bivouac. I jug on past their leader who is struggling with his aid slings - right in a perfect 5.9 hand crack! Soon he is far below as Daniel and I continue one-two'ing our way upwards.
Eventually we gain our destination - level with Texas Flake but a hundred feet to the left, a crack system called Eagle Corner. The next unfreed pitch was actually a part of a nearby route, the Grape Race, and for us an escape around the Boot Flake Bolt Ladder on the actual Nose route.
We lean against a common set of anchors and share a little foot ledge. The ground is so far below that it's not even part of the picture anymore. Crammed into the confines of the tight corner, we carefully avoid making too great a commotion against one another as we change into free climbing attire. We put on tight fitting EB's and apply tape to the fingers.
"Could you hold this lens for a second?"
"How many 5-1/2 stoppers do we have?"
"Who's leading this pitch?"
Go ahead, Daniel, you put such an effort into it last time. Give it a shot."
"I would, Ray, but I'm not sure if I could do it or not."
"Well, Daniel, that's what we're here to find out."
So he took the rack and tied into the sharp end, and our day's climbing began.
Slowly and in very good control Daniel made upward progress. I'm very impressed with how solid he looks today. The crack is very narrow, allowing only the fingertips. Feet stemming on the opposing smooth walls of the dihedral, he moved slowly, deliberately, firing an occasional small stopper into an opening. Reaching the crux he suddenly looses composure and begins to struggle. Feet come unglued and he fights desperately to maintain... and then, hopelessly, he's on the rope. Back down to the station. His only remark: "Darn!!"
We trade rope ends and I take what's left of the rack. Progress is considerably easier with the top rope, and I quickly gain his high piece. Climbing higher I manage to place a few more stoppers and struggle over the crux and on to a tiny stance. Above, the technical difficulties lessen to 5.10 plus, and I eventually gain Eagle Ledge. What a wonderful feeling to be up here in this outrageous place. firing off some good climbing!
But an unseen climber above starts screaming at the top of his voice. Sounds as if some terrible disaster has happened - but in reality the words are: "Are you ready to haul!?" and "Can you hear me!? Can...you... hear... me!!!?" and the like. Daniel and I have agreed not to yell. Ever. We believe that a very large part of our climbing ethics is in being silent.
Even so, I lose composure momentarily... "Shaddup!"
That taken care of, I haul the ropes and gear and belay my trusty partner. Daniel only slows at the crux and cruises up the final crack grinning ear to ear. We both agree that if this pitch were at ground level and more accessible, it would be classic, popular and difficult.
Daniel leads the next short pitch and we are once again onto the Nose proper. This is where the "King Swing" comes over. The way ahead is again uncertain. 50 meters above and 40 feet to the left is the Gray Band Ledge, our objective. Between us and it, a long aid pitch and a large pendulum.
I lead on, past loose blocks and tenuous and steep fingercracks, plugging in #1 Friends one after another. Searching for a way towards G.B. Ledge but not finding much, I continue up the standard line. Nearing the end of the pitch I was tiring and finding the difficulties unrelenting. Finally though, a #4 Friend stuffed into a horrible flare protected the last few feet of liebacking to the station anchors. 5.10D, but very hard 5.10D.
After an exhausting session of hauling gear and fixing ropes, I belay Daniel up. The clouds are now threatening a hefty little storm and if we are to have any chance of making an epic-less descent we would now need to be heading down. With that in mind we decided to try just one more pitch real quick.
I lead up a strenuous lieback to the pendulum point, then with an overhead belay I climbed down and left. Large flakes which have never held body weight and which are about to break off provide the key to success and our objective. Preparing a hasty station with Friends everywhere in little pockets and holes, I haul the stuff and bring Daniel over. We hang the gear and start the arduous descent.
A few ropes down we reach another party who pause briefly to let us by. We both giggle secretly as we find them aiding up our chalk marks.
Down innumerable fixed ropes and we arrive at Dolt Tower. The weather has calmed so we decide to take a lunch break. Gorp, oranges and fruit juice. The view here is awesome and humbling. We are very happy and elated at our progress.
Nine more rope slides and we are safe once again on walkable earth. Susie is there awaiting our return and we hike back down to the van. We drive hurriedly back to camp - it's very late and I'll have to do my work-out of pull-ups in the dark tonight.
A Day on the Nose part 2
By the light of the silver moon hanging high in the pre-dawn sky, Ray and I hiked up the trail leading to the base of El Capitan. The peaceful silence was broken only by the sound of stones grinding beneath the weight of our shoes. As we hiked my mind was filled with thoughts of the grand elegance of El Capitan and of the olympic jumar we were about to make; following a perlon highway strung to near mid-height on the wall.
We arrived at the base and the beginning of our fixed ropes just as the first arrows of morning sunlight shot into the valley. In a few minutes we were ready to begin. As Ray began to jumar up the first rope I kidded him about the fact that while most Americans drive to work, he jumars... at least the commuter traffic is not too bad!
At times jumaring the fixed lines was plain work. On this morning I lost myself in the rhythm of the slow steady rate of ascent. Rope lengths passed and ground fell away, leaving me to marvel at the incredible place I was in. Upon the wall grew yellow monkey flowers, their petals quivering in the gentle morning breeze. Droplets of water trickled from the bottoms of tiny cracks, sparkling as they emerged from the rock into the light of the new day. The granite glowed golden in the early morning light, revealing subtleties of form which are washed away by the harsh light of afternoon. Warm and textured, the rock radiated a softness which belied it's granite composition. I filled my senses with the vision of a sea of golden rock sweeping towards the sky, and watched as two spidery shadows climbed their web - two thin strands of nylon stretching to reach the sky.
In an hour we'd reached Eagle Corner where our day's free climbing would begin. The left facing corner was still in shadow, the rock cold to touch. The first thirty feet of the corner is split by a finger-tipped size crack. After thirty feet the crack widens gradually to finger jams, and from finger jams to hand and then to fist jams, and finally to off-width. Fifty meters of incredibly beautiful climbing.
Whose lead would it be? Ray breaks the silence. "You put an awful lot of work into this thing the other day, you want first crack at it?"
"Why, are your powers of levitation not working up to par today?" I jokingly replied. More seriously, I said that I didn't know if I could do it.
"How do you ever expect to find out unless you try?" End of discussion. "Hand me the rack please, Ray."
While sorting out the rack I gathered my thoughts, occasionally mumbling a word or two, not really saying anything, just easing the nervousness from my lips. In a cloud of chalk I began to climb. My fingers became one with the crack as we shared our intimacies. Energy built within me and was focused on the thin crack which grants me passage and opened my body to feeling the beauty of climbing.
Three feet from a good finger jam I fall off, not due to aching with fatigue, but from an ebbing of inner strength, a loss of control.
All day as we climbed we were entranced by the beauty, the majesty of El Capitan. We watched as clouds spilled over the rim and were sliced in two by the prow of the Nose. It is magical this energy born of communion with rock and sky. I am awakened. A graceful dance upon sun warmed granite.
Difficult pitch after difficult pitch of climbing greeted us. Weariness tugged at my bones. But what is weariness when compared to the joys of free climbing in this high place. Graceful, curving lines of rock giving wings to my spirit and capturing my imagination. I wondered aloud that I felt like the luckiest man alive. Out of all the climbers in the world, Why me? Ray replied, "Why not?"
In the afternoon we began the series of long rappels to the ground. Three rappels from the ground, weariness and fatigue caught up with me. A moment of thoughtlessness found me five feet below the anchors - hopelessly tangled in a mass of ropes. Too numbed and tired to get myself out of the mess, Ray had to come down and rescue me. Two more uneventful rappels brought us to terra firma once again. We shook hands as Ray exclaimed, "Great day, man..." It truly was a great day of free climbing in one of the most incredible places for free climbing on Earth. The Nose of El Capitan.