Andy Kirkpatrick shares beta, tips and techniques for any mortals who wish to climb The Nose on El Capitan, Yosemite.
As climbers we all have tick lists in our heads - their length growing shorter the further out from our own stomping ground, but the climbs on them growing bigger. These lists cover both routes we wish to climb, and routes we know we'd like to climb, then climbs we don't really want to do, but know we must (scary, bold or just downright unpleasant).
These lists come in many categories, such as local routes to do (with these we may grasp how well we develop as climbers), classic routes around the UK we hope to tick off on weekend trips and holidays, then those that require an extra special effort to tick, saved for a big trip away. Of these lists we keep, we all have one marked down as dream routes, the routes we'd give anything to tick off, the bucket list, but routes we really doubt we have it in us to tick. This list may contain the six North Faces (well, all tick lists contain the 1938 route on the Eiger), classic sport routes (Action Direct will be on it if you grew up climbing in the 1990's) and hard boulder problems, even some Himalayan giants such as Ama Dablam or Everest (the last one also needs to coincide with winning the lottery). One climb that will appear on the list of just about any climber with blood flowing through their veins is The Nose on El Cap, which perhaps - when all things are considered, such as location, quality, steepness and difficulty - is the greatest rock route on the planet.
For many climbers their view of The Nose is one of something unattainable, beyond anyone who can't cruise E3 cracks or aid up pitches in the blink of an eye. With teams tackling the route these days in sub 10 hours, and the record being under 3 hours, there is little surprise some feel like they have no place on the wall, and that it is simply the home of super men and women. However, what makes The Nose a classic is not how hard it is, but how it is, by and large, relatively moderate, with ingenious route finding (like the Eiger's 38 route) weaving a line up one of the most impressive lumps of rock you'll ever find. If it was that hard people wouldn't sprint up it day after day.
This article is designed to give you a load of info about the Nose, a kind of psyche shopping list, to help mere mortals both jump on the Nose, and more importantly get to the top!
Before we start, let's nail a few relevant questions that will have a large baring on your ability to begin planning for the Nose (or even visualising yourself on the route).
How hard do I need to climb?
The harder you can free climb the easier the Nose will be (and the more aid you can avoid) but be warned that The Valley is a place that punishes anyone who comes with the idea they can 'crush it'. The chance of just rocking up and climbing at your home grade is almost zero, as once you take into account the heat, rock that can just feel five grades harder than it says in the guide, a body (not to mention feet) that's beat up from day after day of endless punishment, not to mention a rack twice as big as your standard one - well, it all adds up.
To cruise routes at your normal grade I think you need a month just cragging out in America, probably hitting the desert cracks first to get your crack skills up, then ticking off all the classic lines in the valley. To climb hard long walls as free as possible you need to be both toughened up by constant climbing, as well as just fit enough to keep going. So where does this leave the VS leader? Well it leaves you having to rely more on aid, and to accept you'll go slower than someone who can just crank on up. There is also a big psychological factor here, as I've met many strong climbers (cranking E7 and hard sport) who just crumble on the wall due to exposure.
Also, some really good climbers can't deal with fatigue, and just get beasted by the heat, the hauling, and just the general faff involved in a wall (like a ballerina asked to tarmac a road on a hot day, they're rubbish). If you are prepared to aid all that can be aided, and just free climb what can't be, then I think a solid 5a climber should be fine. When I say solid, I mean that, and they should be able to climb above protection, and understand loose rock, protecting themselves and their second(s), and be confident with general problem solving.
How tough do you need to be?
The idea of being 'tough' is probably odd, as most people simply focus on 'how hard can you climb', but a route like The Nose (and many other world class routes) require much more of you than how well your muscles can contract.
The Nose is really an alpine climb, and like any alpine route you will need to be able to hold your nerve. This comes in several forms, from having the nerve to start the route in the first place (you or your partner may look for reasons not to begin), to wanting to go down on the first day when things are the hardest, to being intimidated by wind, heat or simply gravity. In order not to crumble you'll need to have some backbone, and stamina for suffering (you will suffer).
The best way to get this toughness is by having some background in alpine climbing, and very often those who endure and succeed have already endured and succeeded on other climbs. If you have no background in alpine climbing then I would advise that you test your metal before trying the Nose, ideally in the months leading up to your trip to Yosemite (see training below).
How much kit do I need?
This is the killer for many climbers, as they assume they need a ton of specialist kit, putting the route beyond them, when in fact there is very little gear that cannot be pulled together as a team (as well as begged and borrowed) or even improvised. The main pieces of specialist equipment you will need are; a large haul bag, wall hauler, jumars, daisy chains and aiders, but beyond that you simply need three set of cams. I will cover the equipment needed in more detail below.
How much does it cost?
Flying out to California and climbing The Nose may seem like an expensive trip, but I think it compares favourably with a trip to the alps once you take into account both the weather (less money spent on wet weather days), the quality of the climb, and the lower cost of things in the US. Flights to San Francisco or L.A can be picked up cheaply, and car hire can be shared amongst a team making it cheaper than using trains and buses to get there.
Having a hire car also means you can get to the valley in 4 hours, allowing you to get started on the climb as soon as possible. Having a car also allows you to buy food and water bottles on the way to the valley (every town has a Wallmart), which keeps the cost down (food in the valley can be considerably more expensive), plus having a car gives you a safe place to store your kit when on the wall. Camping in Camp 4 in Yosemite is also very cheap (if you can get a place!), and last of all if you're going to be on the wall for a week then you won't be spending anything.
How long will it take?
I know a few people who gave themselves just seven days and somehow climbed the wall, but really that's way too short and gives zero room for manoeuvre (bad weather, jet lag, team set back). A two week trip tends to give you enough time to get over jet lag, get a turn in the queue for the route, fix lines, take your time on the route, and not have to rush. This amount of time also allows you time for some false starts, low retreats and a warm up (climbing the East Buttress on El Cap can give you a heads up on the descent for example, and just getting used to the rock is a good idea).
So with the basics out of the way how do you feel about your chances on The Nose? Do you think you're up to considering it? If so, read on...
The first thing you need if you want to climb The Nose and enjoy the experience, is to learn how to jumar and clean, learn basic aid techniques, and how to haul. All of these things can be achieved in a couple of sessions both down the wall and at the crag (single pitch outcrops are fine). Read all the books out there on big walling (Chris Mac's Supertopo big walling instruction book is the most current. I've also written an Aid basics book as a download for Kindle or iBooks) and take them to the crag and put them in to practice.
When I teach people to aid and jumar I put more emphasis on jumaring, as this is where people can save time and energy by doing it right, plus if you do it wrong you could very easily kill yourself! Your rope skills need to be very good, and an ability to improvise and visualise problems and 'pre-problems' is vital. Seeing a problem before it actually becomes one is a vital big wall skill, and every member of the team needs to be 'on it' at all times. Unlike most walls The Nose has a couple of tricky lower outs (such as getting over to the Stovelegs, and off the top of boot flake) where people can really come unstuck (and bags the opposite), but as along as you don't 'over think things' you can always find a good way around such problems (it's also a big part of the fun).
Fitness-wise the days will be long, often starting at dawn and finishing in the dark, so recreating this back at home is a good idea (big days in the mountains are ideal training). It's also vital to understand and get on well with your partners, as there will be stress on the wall, so being able to support (or just ignore) each other in the hard times is important.
I would always recommend a three man team on any big committing route as you divide the load between three, you have more skills to apply, as well as an extra brain and two more legs to carry crap down. Psychologically, a team of three has a huge advantage over a team of two, as the second is never alone, and there are always two people at the problem coal face (i.e. the belay, where bags get stuck, ropes tangle, and the wind whips!). If climbing in such a team, try climbing in blocks that help suit the leader, and don't be worried about one person doing more leading, as no one gets an easy ride on a wall - in fact leading is generally the easy bit.
Gear - basic approach
Unlike walls such as Zodiac or the Shield, you should try and view The Nose more as a super alpine route, and try and keep all your gear as minimalist as possible (no solar showers or boom boxes), while still covering food, water and survival. Hauling lower down can be a little tough, but nothing compared to heavy weight walls (learn to space haul for the first third of the wall if you're in a 3 person team), but ideally you need to get all your kit in one bag.
1 x set of Totem Offset cams (main use is on pitches up to Sickle, but can be used for pro higher up, saving your other micro cams)
1 x Black Fixe Alien
1 x Blue Totem Basic or Fixe Alien
2 x sets of micro cams (Totems are the best, going from blue to Red)
2 x Link Cams size 4 (these will save you a ton of time, as their massive range means you can leap frog them endlessly, leaving your other cams for pro).
1 x Camalot size 2 (pro only)
3 x Camalot size 3 (2 for leapfrogging and 1 for pro)
2 x Camalot size 4 (some people get away with 1 but 2 makes things a bit easier).
1 x Black Diamond Grappling Hook (very little hooking, but good idea to have one).
1.5 set of Nuts (1 full set and 1 odd set)
1.5 set of Micro Nuts (a mix of Wild Country Micro Rocks, DMM Peanuts and DMM Brass Offsets).
1 x medium Tomahawk (for hand placing on pre Sickle pitches, or higher up if fixed gear is missing)
2 x Narrow Cam Hooks (learn to use these on a top rope on a route like Church Bowl Tree at Church Bowl crag, as they will save you a lot of time, and are bomber!)
15 x Quickdraws (including slingdraws)
1 x stiffened (30cm) quickdraw
Protection over Progression
I have climbed most of the route on a double set of cams, but doing so means you often end up back cleaning almost the entire pitch, fine as long as you don't fall! I tend to back clean all my cams, and leave nuts and fixed gear as pro. Bounce testing or simply weighing nuts can see then welded in, so I tend not to use them to aid, and just place them like I would when leading. Having a second with some skills in getting nuts out is vital (or take a small DIY hammer for the job!), otherwise you'll leave a lot of gear behind.
The main technique for speedy aid (on the Nose you'll be doing the same A1 moves over and over again), is to get the two sizes you need on each daisy/aider, and leapfrog them up the crack (consider attaching them via a locker to your daisy, so they can't be dropped). Try and avoid clipping into the cams with your fifi connector, and instead just hold them, not forgetting to exploit any footholds with your rock boots. As you step up on one aider, you will remove the one below and replace it above the one you're one. Now, instead of climbing into the aider of this top cam, simply step higher on the bottom one, and as you do, push the top one up again as high as you can (your feet will probably be in the second to top step).
This technique helps you squeeze out the greatest distance from each placement. Also learn to get high on your aiders, as this will allow you to bypass difficult or marginal placements - vital if you're missing cams or gear to fit.
Take a new 60metre lead line (+/- 10mm) and an 80metre 10mm static haul line (or 60metre 10mm climbing rope as haul line). Having a long haul line allows you to simply secure the haul line mid way along the line, and lower it out using the rope itself, rather than a second lower out line. Having a very long haul line also gives you a little more flexibility when it comes to tricky spots, such as lowering the bags from the top of Boot Flake. On the wall your ropes will get trashed, so try and start with ones in good (ideally new) condition.
Take the largest haul bag you can find, as packing a bag that's a bit too big is easier than one that's too small. I carry a very basic pack on the approach that lives in the bottom of the haul bag on that wall, and allows one person to carry the bag down, the other the pack, and the last person both ropes and part of the rack. Pack your water bottles in the bottom first and fill all the gaps with soft kit, and consider lining the bag with Corex plastic sheeting or cardboard (this will protect your bag and the contents). Foam sleeping mats are the biggest killer for space, so take small inflatable sleeping mats as they will save a load of room (lay them on your rope on ledges to protect them from damage).
Two daisy chains each, with a fifi or krab to shorten are vital, with the current Metolius Ultimate Daisy being the best (super strong and very safe). Two lightweight aiders are recommended as they won't weigh you down, and can be clipped off out the way, with my favourite being the Metolius Pocket Aider. A lightweight chest rig like the Black Diamond Zodiac or Metolius Double Big Wall (much stronger) is great if you don't want your pants around your ankles, and harness-wise just make sure it fits and isn't too skimpy and that all layers underneath have no seams to rub.
A Petzl GriGri is good to have, as belays may be long - you can leave them clipped into the rope when cleaning, acting like a running knot, plus you can use it for lowering the leader for the King Swing, short fixing (won't cover that here, but a technique I highly recommend you learn), and lowering heavy bags/hauling. Make sure you carry a normal belay device as well.
What to wear?
Try and stay covered up on the wall, so long baggy light-coloured pants (that can be rolled up ideally) work well on the legs (get light volleyball knee pads for jumaring, leading and hauling), while a long sleeved lightweight shirt is good for the body (again sleeves can be rolled up). Take a thin peaked cap with built in neck guard to keep off the sun. I tend to keep so well covered that I don't really ever use sun screen. Don't forget leather gloves (never haul or clean without gloves as your hands will get trashed), whether cut offs or full finger (full finger ones protect your finger ends, that get trashed otherwise but also tend to be hotter). Sun glasses are also vital, as well as a watch to keep a track on your speed (clip to your harness or gear sling).
Having a small rucksack of around 20 litres is a good idea on The Nose, containing water, snacks, headtorch, warm top and windproof top (always keep everyone's shells close to the top of the haul bag). Keep the weight down as having a heavy pack will waste energy. Thread a 60cm sling into the grab loop so you can quickly clip it off on belays.
There is a ton of beta on the web about The Nose, much of it very good, and so it's worth building up a picture of the climb before you get on it. Remember to focus on the positive info and ignore the less than positive (there are really no 'death blocks' on The Nose, or anywhere were you could kill yourself). Don't forget to check out videos on Youtube for extra beta about pitches and check the forums for current conditions.
I could give you a blow by blow account of the route, but such things take a lot of the fun out of the climb, so instead I'll keep it to 10 bits of beta I think it's good to know.
The Boot Flake is the one pitch that could cause someone problems, and it's vital that you feel confident on chimneys and remind yourself that "it's easy!" Wear rock boots and leave your gear rack at the belay, just taking belay stuff, a few quick-draws and three camalots (1,2,3) for the moves into the flake (5.8 even with some aid). Once you are in behind the flake you can either move to the left hand side and with your back against the flake, chimney up (good footholds appear as you go), or chimney up to a bolt in the middle, then traverse left. If you're not feeling confident then this is one place where you could hurt yourself on the route, as falling from the top moves would see you hit the deck inside the chimney, and so some climbers have taken a cheater stick to clip the belay. Make sure if you clip the bolt inside the flake that you can still flick the haul line out and around onto the front of the flake.
The King Swing: The best way to do the King Swing is to get everything up to the top of the Boot Flake, then remove all your rack apart from 2 camalot size 4s, and take off your haul line. Make sure you have your rock boots on, and some chalk, and lower down (try and have your rope flicked over the 'shin' of the boot). Lower all the way past the bottom of the boot (ignore the intermediate lower off) until you're about 5 metres below it. What you're aiming for is the arete just below (1 metre) a small triangular roof. It's not necessary to go crazy here, just swing right past the bolts, then run across the wall until you hit the dabbled rock, at this point simply free climb/smear sideways until you can grab the arete, pull yourself over and stuff a Camalot 4 into the crack. Climb up the Eagle ledge and get your rack lowered down to you via your haul line clipped to the lead line, then lead the next pitch, back cleaning all the way (you are basically on a top rope).
To get the rest of the team over to the belay above Eagle Ledge (marked as pitch 15 on some topos), (with a 3 man team) lower out the first person on the haul line, until they can jug up to the belay, then do the same. Haul up the haul bag so the second has as much haul line as possible to work with. Tie into the lead line, tight to next belay, with jumars attached. Thread the free end of the haul line through the rap ring on the belay with the haul line, and using this lower yourself over to below pitch 15, then unclip from rope and pull through to retrieve.
The great roof is easy, with plenty of fixed gear and an A1 crack. When the leader gets to the traverse right under the roof, consider creating a mini belay with some spare cord, equalising two fixed pieces. From there lead the roof on fixed gear, and the odd Cam Hook, back cleaning as you go, leaving some cams at the end of the roof (fixed peg), and make the easy free move right. When the second cleans the pitch they simply lower out off the small mini belay you made, saving a great deal of time.
Hauling through the Grey bands can be a pain in the arse, with the rock being heavily featured and very sticky for haul bags, and the pitches traversing (if you haul you will get your bags stuck) - instead hang your haul bag from pitch 16 using a Petzl Fifi hook using it's dedicated Maillon rapide (paired, this design reduces the chance of the bag falling from the belay), with the haul line feeding out of a rope bag attached to the haul bag. Leaving your bag here will allow you to haul it directly up to pitch 18, saving a lot of time, but of course leaves you exposed to the chance of the bag falling from the belay. To avoid it falling back up the Fifi, stacking your rope in a rope bag clipped to your bag (also learn to tie a slippery hitch as a back up).
Advice that could make or break your climb
The first day will be your hardest, most stressful, and require all your will power not to bail, the second a little easier, but you'll still doubt yourself and look for a reason to bail. Get to day three and everything will be great.
The hardest climbing will be on the first day climbing up to Sickle ledge, with some tricky aid and some obligatory free climbing. Get through these pitches and you'll not face anything worse above.
Ignore what others tell you and carry 3 litres of water per person per day. You will drink more on the first day than the last, as it gets cooler the higher you go. Even if you plan on doing the wall with two bivies, take five days water. You will find water on the route, and unless it has a note written on it telling you not to drink it (some speed climbers stash water), then drink it and take the empty bottles with you. Traffic is heavy enough to mean you shouldn't get 'vintage' water on the route.
No matter how roasting it is in the valley, it will get cold on the wall - it may even snow, so take full storm gear and plenty of warm clothing.
Having a portaledge is not necessary, but if you do you can sleep almost anywhere, even as a team of three, with the 3rd man sleeping on ledges. Pay close attention to where the good bivies are, both on the route, as well as off the route (good ledges over on the traverse from the Muir wall for example, or below Dolt Tower).
Never arrive at a bivy in the dark. The ideal is to finish in the light. If you want to keep climbing then fix a rope or two off your bivy. Remember that in the dark speed is quartered and stress and anxiety are magnified.
Keep your rock boots on, and learn to mix up aiding and free climbing, either pulling on gear when free climbing (French free), or using features when aiding, allowing you to get higher on each piece). Make sure your boots are super comfy and having socks in them helps.
Learn to be comfortable leapfrogging gear, as you will often have to go ten or twenty metres with no protection below you, just moving the gear up one piece at a time (having three cams allows you to leave one as pro).
Keep eating and drinking, and make sure your team mates do the same, trying to nibble something at the end of every pitch. Don't forget this is probably the longest, most exhausting route you'll ever do, so harbour your strength ("start out fast, you won't last - start out slow, go, go, go").
Keep control of your ropes at all times, as tangles and stuck ends could cost you the route, both in terms of speed and psyche. Use rope bags (small recycling plastic bags - like quarter size Ikea bags work well), and have the second stuff the bag into their rope bag as they jug, with the hauler stuffing the haul line away as they haul. When the wind comes up around 11am your ropes will be all over the place unless you have them secured in bags (coiling or looping can work, but is less effective).
So there you go, a ton of beta that may help smooth things just a little, but that's all. What most people don't get about big wall climbing is that really it's just a lot of hard work; hauling, rope untangling, a bit of fear, sometimes with the odd bit of climbing thrown in to remind you you're a climber. This is the reason why most people bail, and no amount of beta will change the hard facts that to climb The Nose is going to take a ton of work - but then again, when it comes to putting a line through one of the greatest climbing ticks there is, would you want it any other way?
Andy Kirkpatrick, Hull's second best climber (after John Redhead), has climbed El Cap twenty five times, including one day ascents, several push ascents (climbing from the bottom to the top with bivy gear) and three solos. He is currently writing 'Me, Myself & I' and a manual for big wall soloing.
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