This is an article by Finn McCann about his ascent of one of the most famous routes in the world, The Nose on El Capitan with is father. What makes this story so special is that Finn's Dad was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a form of terminal lung cancer, in 2004. The statistics for this cancer aren't good; in fact they're about as bad as they come. Less than 40% survive the first year, less than 20% survive to live a second year, and less than 10% make it into a third year beyond diagnosis. So an ascent of The Nose some 8 years later is pretty inspirational!
When Dad received his diagnosis nine years ago he had no illusions of trying to 'beat' the cancer, the statistics can't be ignored, but as Stephen Jay Gould said "The median isn't the message". Just because the cancer has a median mortality of eight months does not mean that you will probably die in eight months. Dad is a scientist, and therefore very familiar with how statistics work and what they represent. Rather than focussing on the median, Dad was much more interested in the variation surrounding it.
Attitude matters in fighting cancer. Those with a positive outlook, a strong will and desire to live have been shown to live longer than individuals with the same medical conditions who lack those attitudes. Dad is positive to the core; in fact he takes great pleasure in the fact that his blood type is B positive! Nine years ago when he got diagnosed he didn't sit down and give up, he decided to do his utmost to cram as much into his remaining years as he could. I think we can safely say that he's been successful in achieving that.
It would take way too long to list everything that he has done since 2004 so I will just mention a few of the highlights:
- He has undertaken four major cycle tours, India (highest road in the world), Outer Hebrides, Madagascar and Turkey.
- On foot he has walked the GR20 Corsican high-level route, the Routeburn track in New Zealand, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and the Tour of Mont Blanc.
- On home soil he has completed the mid-Wales 100 miler in 32 hours and taken part in the Long Mynd 50 miler four times with a best time of 10hrs 59mins.
- He has had seven overseas mountaineering trips including an ascent of Stok Kangri 6,153m in the Himalayas and an ascent of 'Motorhead' a world class fourteen pitch E2 in Switzerland.
- All this and more whilst also going under the knife three times, receiving radiotherapy, participating in drug trials, and undergoing two courses of chemotherapy.
I asked Dad if he'd like to join me in climbing 'The Nose' on El Capitan almost two years ago. He was surprised that I asked but after a brief moment of consideration decided that he'd like to take on the challenge. Our original plan was to attempt the route in May-June 2012 but Dad's health deteriorated and he ended up taking part in a drug trial and later received chemotherapy. The therapy had a fantastically positive affect on him and in autumn 2012 we started thinking again about planning our trip.
We arrived into the valley late on Friday the 17th May and began climbing the very next day as the forecast looked good and we didn't want to waste time. There is a very prominent feature about 150 metres up the route called 'Sickle Ledge' and on the first day we climbed unencumbered by a haul sack up to this ledge before abseiling back to the ground leaving our ropes in situ. This is a common practice known as "fixing" which basically means that when you decide to finally set off for good you can race up your fixed lines (using rope ascending devices) to your highpoint, effectively giving yourself a head start on the rest of the route.
Yosemite is an absolute phenomenon. A paradise for me personally, and everywhere you turn you're met by yet another mind-blowingly beautiful sight. Following our day of fixing lines we spent the next two days relaxing, taking in the sights and preparing ourselves for our 1000m climb. Unfortunately, no matter how beautiful your surroundings are, it's very hard to fully appreciate them when you have something as large as an ascent of El Capitan literally hanging over your head! By the Monday evening I was raring to go and didn't feel I could possibly spend another day on the ground.
Setting off early on Tuesday morning we made quick work of the fixed lines, ascending them in well under an hour, before heading on up into the crack system known as the 'Stovelegs' which lead all the way up to El Cap ledge, our target for the day. We had decided to take our time over the route and climb it with three nights on the face so we could really enjoy the experience without feeling too rushed. Three nights however does mean that you have to carry four days' worth of water and food on top of all your other kit, this amassed to somewhere in the region of 40-50kgs in the haul bag (over 30kgs of water alone). As the leader it was my responsibility to do the hauling and after a few hundred metres of climbing I was beginning to resent the decision to go slow and "enjoy" the experience!
We chilled out for about three hours in the afternoon on 'Dolt Tower' eating food and playing the ukulele (we're inseparable) before climbing the final 80 metres up to 'El Cap ledge' in the cool hours of the early evening. 'El Cap ledge' is a luxury bivi if ever there was one. It's less than two metres wide but it's perfectly flat and about eight metres long. We were disappointed therefore to arrive to find two climbers fast asleep right slap bang in the middle of the ledge forcing us to sleep in a cramped spot at its far end. You get all sorts climbing big walls, usually very interesting folk, but not always particularly nice or considerate! We were lucky however to be accompanied for the first two days of our climb by a couple of lads, Corey and Nate from the University of Arizona who happened to set off at the same time as us and climbed at a similar pace making belays wonderfully sociable.
We woke on our second day surprisingly well rested, and relaxed on the ledge eating and playing ukulele until Corey and Nate (who were aiming to get further than us that day) had departed from the first belay. This meant we didn't set off until 11:00am, much later than I would have liked but fortunately my aim for the day was to get to a ledge underneath the 'Great Roof' which was only a few hundred metres away, up and diagonally left. The most exciting part of the day was the 'King Swing', a huge pendulum which is required to reach a series of cracks which are the key to progressing onwards. It feels very strange lowering down a full 40m from the belay, losing the height that was so hard earned, but it's all worth it for the incredible exhilaration of running like a mad man across the blank face, 500m off the deck, to reach the security of a new crack system.
Dad discovered on this day that being the second, rather than the leader, isn't always the easier job! Following or "cleaning" a traversing pitch requires a huge amount of care and exertion, especially when the haul bag needs to be lowered out to prevent it from swinging wildly, and inevitably gets caught up in the crevices and flakes that it's been hauled over. By the end of the second day Dad was exhausted and the bivi ledge we reached offered little in the way of rest and comfort. That night it reached 2°C in the valley and we were shivering on our tiny ledge 600m above!
We had the 'Great Roof' pitch for breakfast on our third day. This is a pitch I've been looking forward to climbing for years and it didn't disappoint. My most heart stopping moment of the climb occurred as I was traversing towards the end of the roof. I had stopped placing runners behind me to make Dads life easier but this meant that if I came off I was looking at taking a big fall. With just a few metres left before reaching easier ground I was hanging off my smallest camming device (a size zero) which fits into cracks less than a centimetre wide, at that moment in time that tiny device was the only thing keeping me from plummeting. I had to really stretch to reach for the next cam placement, a 0.5, and I cringed as my efforts caused the tiny cam holding me in place to creak and slip. At the exact moment that I placed the 0.5 cam, the zero broke out. For a split second all that I was aware of was that I was off and falling. It was with immense relief that a moment later I came to a stop hanging precariously off the tiny 0.5 cam which by some miracle had caught me. What incredible inventions they are!
We made steady progress the rest of the day and reached our ledge in the mid-afternoon allowing plenty of time for lounging, indulging and needless to say... ukuleling!
With only five pitches to go on the last day we were excited to be getting going after a chilly breakfast sat in our sleeping bags and a toilet stop for Dad. This is something that I'm sure a lot of you have wondered about... basically the prospect of going to the toilet is awful but the reality isn't that bad, and yes, we do then have to carry it all up with us!
The exposure on the last few pitches is outrageous. As you can see from the photos it's hard to figure out which way to orientate the camera, all you're aware of is that there's a lot of air beneath your feet. We reached the final pitch quickly as I only had to aid climb one or two harder sections and free climbed everything else making our progress rapid. By this stage the haul bag was significantly lighter too making hauling much less of a chore.
I had mixed emotions climbing the last few metres towards the top of the cliff, I was obviously elated at having reached the top but part of me didn't want it to be over. As it has been said, 'The Nose' is the proudest line up one of the greatest pieces of rock you'll ever see, and it's a climb that's always been in the pipeline for me. I now have a Nose shaped hole in my life! Seeing Dad coming over the top to meet me ousted all those feelings though... he had put absolutely everything into the climb and there were times when he wasn't sure he'd make it. I've done lots of great things with Dad but climbing 'The Nose' together trumps them all. We gave each other a hug at the top and sat down to try and let it all sink in. I say we sat down... I squatted to relieve myself for the first time in three days...
I'm a firm believer that you can turn any negative experience into a positive if you just have the right attitude. I can certainly say from my own experience that some of my biggest successes have come directly off the back of failures. As for Dad, would he have achieved everything he has over the past nine years if he hadn't fallen ill? It's impossible to say, but I doubt it. And I think it's pretty safe to say that this last decade has been one of his most incredible, in a life packed full of incredible decades.
I've written this article in the hope that some of you, cancer sufferers or not, will be inspired by my dad's story as I have. This isn't a tale of hope, this is a tale of action!
You can view a short video of Finn and Seamus' ascent here:
I must say a huge thank you to my sponsor Mammut who supported the trip and provided both of us with amazing kit. There's been more than one comment about how well dressed we were on the climb! Also I must thank Tom Evans of El Cap Report who followed our progress and photographed us from the ground.
- Adventures in Greenland for McCann Brothers 20 Oct, 2014