Brits in Yosemite - James McHaffie Report

Last week we ran a short report about Hazel Findlay, James McHaffie and Neil Dyer making the second ascent of Premuir on El Capitain in Yosemite (report here). In this longer account, James McHaffie describes their ascent of the Premuir, and other excellent efforts by British climbers in the Valley.

2012 was a considerably different trip from 2011 although still a regretfully large carbon footprint. Highlights include; freeing every pitch of Premuir with Neil Dyer and Hazel Findlay after some abortive efforts to get going due to weather and hold-ups; watching Dan McManus and Callum Muskett climbing Golden Gate over 5 days; and trying Golden Gate in a day with Dan McManus. Of particular note were Hazel's performances every day on Premuir which were some of the best I've seen in my climbing life and it didn't surprise me hearing a top American climber suggest she may be the best female trad climber in the world.

The team on good ledges above the 12d knob pitch., 197 kb
The team on good ledges above the 12d knob pitch.
© Tom Evans
It didn't surprise me hearing a top American climber suggest she may be the best female trad climber in the world.

Things weren't looking hopeful before setting off. After losing my partner Ben Bransby to a form of labrynthitis I was left with vague messages from potential partners travelling down from Canada. Messages about how hot the weather was weren't sounding optimistic either and I'd written off using my new haul bag.

Things looked up straight away though and climbing with Dan and Callum on the first few days was ace. We did Astroman the first day and with only 1 litre of water between us - syrup-like mouths for the last 5 pitches. Dan and Callum then began preparations for Golden Gate. Just before they set off I picked up Neil Dyer from Merced and, passing under the Cap at midnight, with the rolling stones playing and a full moon making it glow, Dyer is stoked for a look at the Muir Wall and we make plans to try the 1st quarter called the Muirblast.

We get up at 2.00am and climb Moby Dick then two 5.12s by head torch and a 3rd in the dawn light to arrive at the 5.13b traverse well before the sun hits it as the weather is still baking. Having seen a piccy of Kurt Smith undercutting across the roof I set off doing the same and after a quick tussle fall off. Realising shorties need to palm across it, with a quick rest at the belay it goes. 3 more great pitches lead up to heart ledges where we abseil off talking about the best day out of climbing we've ever had.

One of the 'easy pitches' on the Pre-Muir - a 12a layback., 183 kb
One of the 'easy pitches' on the Pre-Muir - a 12a layback.
© Hazel Findlay

First Attempt

The next person to arrive was Hazel. Her potential partner hadn't made it but she had the idea of trying the Muir Wall so we formed a team. In preparation Neil and I haul a bag of 60 litres of water and other crap up to Grey Ledges, about 16 pitches up. The day after I set off on the Muirblast again, with Hazel, whilst the legend Dyer hauls a bag of food alone. We arrive at the 13b traverse at first light. Hazel had been saying all sorts of self-deprecating stuff on the way up but when she mentioned the word "flow" I was starting to become concerned about her sanity let alone climbing ability. When she set off quite slowly across the easier bit I settled in for a long belay stint. I'd told people I wouldn't be surprised if she flashed it but as she used her same slow pace to waltz across the crux I was in fact surprised. We reach Dyer a give him a hand hauling to past Mammoth.

Going back up a day later Hazel leads 12b (E5/6) by head torch and I lead through linking a 12d and 11d as the aid belay is in the middle of the crux. Arriving on Grey Ledge my heart sinks as two other climbers - Mike and Mike - are climbing the Shield which makes for some bad congestion. By the time they've polished off the 13b corner it's in the sun and mission shutdown ensues. I have a burn and after 2 falls reach an impasse. Hazel does a superb effort, breaching the impasse via a heinous move, and falling high on the final corner. I second up and, realising times getting on, suggest to Hazel that she gets to the next belay anyway she can. When I arrive there it was very cold, neither of the 2 pitches we'd wanted to do were completed, the forecast was shit, we couldn't communicate with Dyer and other aid climbers were coming up to use the good bit of grey ledges. Feeling gutted I suggest we bail as thoughts of the Sierra Nevada beer in the bear locker to commiserate our efforts became prominent. We fix down to Mammoth and have a beer. After a couple of days getting impatient in Camp4 the forecast is for it to shit out at 11.00 and, as Dyer had done no climbing, and these pitches were awkward in a 3, we head up and do the corner and slab first go before patching the haul bags up to weather the rain and Dyer does everyone a favour by replacing 3 of the fixed lines down from Heart.

The team on the 'chicken-head' ledge on day 4 before their final push up the last hard pitch
© Hazel Findlay

The Ascent

With the weather not improving an extra rest day or 2 was had. Nico Potard and Paulo set off on the Friday in the bad weather and we join them at Grey Ledges ready for a final push. Hazel does the 13b corner first go and Neil follows through climbing the 13a slab first go and Hazel making short work of it. We do 2 more easier pitches and bivvy on the triple direct.

The next day was a big one in the sun. An 11d links into a 12b, a 12a/b layback, a 12c layback and hauling doesn't sound much but it felt it. Hazel laybacks up the 11d leading to beneath the crux and pulling out of sight onto what looked like a ledge from the meadow starts moaning about it being hard. I manage to hold my tongue wanting to tell her to get on with it which was lucky as it was an awful and desperate pitch when seconding. It felt like a 12c slab with very loose flakes making climbing across it feel like the old board game 'operation' trying to avoid dislodging the flakes since they would decimate teams starting the Nose.

We make a base beneath the crux which looks incredible and Nico and Paolo were good enough to leave 3 pegs in. Keen to save time, I aid the corner that night and lower down to climb it with 2 rests and sleep more happily in the knowledge it was doable. The next day was quite fierce. We all warm up with a burn up the corner on a rope, then Hazel and I check out the top crack which has a sting boulder problem near its end. We wait out the sun and in the evening I have a burn in the sun on a rope to save time and Dyer blasts the corner looking like Samson pushing the temple apart and almost flashes the top crack. Hazel, Ms Patience, makes an awesome ascent pulling the ropes she leads it easily first go. Under pressure I was well happy to second this pitch before darkness. I was so close to falling off the top crack it felt like a stiff breeze blew me into the final finger locks.

The next day is another big one in the sun. After a slow start we arrive on a 13a traverse, involving a burly down-climb of an arête, to a dyno for a jug where your feet run out, necessitating swift execution of 2 quite filthy moves before a much easier lip traverse. Watching the sun creep across the face prompted a frantic effort. After falling near the end first go, I get it next thinking it quite reachy and was therefore super-impressed with Hazel working out a shorty sequence in the sun so quickly. The next 12b gave us all some grief but luckily Hazel found the midget variation. The brilliant 12d pitch beyond, involved some hot knob pulling and it led to some great ledges where we had some porridge and grub.

Dyer led the next traversing 12a dyno pitch which leads us to a fantastic ledge above the Shield wall. As the ledges are getting set up I quickly fix the 11d above ready for morning. This involved using shrubs to reach a chickenwing to gain a layback. I abbed to the belay thankful I didn't have to climb this 'choss' pitch in the morning.

The Pre-muir 12d knob pitch up to good ledges., 153 kb
The Pre-muir 12d knob pitch up to good ledges.
© Tom Evans
The team on ledges below the holdless corner., 122 kb
The team on ledges below the holdless corner.
© Tom Evans
I ask for one last go and manage to slither to a high point, pasting my feet wherever I slap the ledge, mantel and spin round to look down most of El Cap and crow down with delight at my friends.

The next day started badly. Some strange noises coming from the 11d as I'm belaying are at first amusing but after ten mins are worrying. Hazel had gone the wrong way on the layback and had become stuck in a chimney. It was seriously close to a 999 episode and I was concerned for Hazel. Luckily our dihedral queen got extricated and we continued via an ace 12b to the penultimate pitch a 13c corner. Hazel and I check it out and Dyer pulls a blinder flashing it easily on second. About 7c laybacking to half-height, it then gets really hard for 5/10 metres. We hang out hiding from the sun and, just before dark, I give it 3 burns in 15 mins slipping off the easier bit each time. I was pissed off and knew the evening was going to be long. Hazel has a sterling first burn, almost catching the ledge post hard climbing. Her next goes are more tired and things begin winding down with Dyer having belayed the both of us for 3 hrs by headtorch. I ask for one last go and manage to slither to a high point, pasting my feet wherever I slap the ledge, mantel and spin round to look down most of El Cap and crow down with delight at my friends. Hazel quietly sends it next go and we have a very tired final feast on our ledge. Topping out the next day was fantastic and I was more than happy with how we had climbed it with Neil and Hazel being great company on the wall. Neil giving the strength, Hazel the next gen' talent and myself offering an impatient edge. Almost every pitch was as good as it gets. As well as relief at being finished, it was also sad as we may not climb with the same team again. The moment passes.

The Rest of the Trip

With the weather due to close in we had to be quick if we wanted to achieve our target of a 1-day ascent of Golden Gate. The first rest day doesn't go too well for me though since I lost a forfeit in cards with McManus over who was going to lead the Monster OW pitch. Dyer and Callum are going for Freerider the same day and Naomi and Gareth on the Nose - there were jokes about a mass Brit rescue as the weather was due to go bad at 23.00.

After 2 days rest we set off at midnight and things don't start well. Falling low down I realise I've put the dud batteries in my torch. As I'm blocking to Mammoth, Dan kindly lends me his torch and chatting to Dan about how much better life is I fall again on a 4b move cursing into the night. Climbing without due care and attention this time I felt ill and knew Dan would be thinking, "what am I doing on the cliff with this clown". Not wanting to let Dan down, I pull myself together re-climb it and things go fast and smooth from here to the move pitch. Dan hasn't fallen to here and, having grabbed a good side-pull, he needs only to pull his right foot up. He has 2 goes getting cringefully close. With the grey clouds having moved in time is against us. I get close on the second twice in ten minutes. Dan tells me later it was horrible to watch as my fingers uncurled on the finishing holds. We hit the Tower for the People (pitch 30, 8 to go) zonked and nervous about the weather. Going French-free and getting a little lost in the night, we top out around ten and stagger down east ledges to Camp 4, both of us more knackered than we could remember being. The heavy rain comes down an hour or two later. If Dan had got through the Move pitch I'm pretty convinced he'd have polished it off or would have gotten deadly close. Dan has been one of Britain's best trad climbers for a decade now and has been going very well the last 2 years, if any companies would like to give him free gear he'd be a great ambassador for it. When I go again Golden Gate in a day with a bigger weather window will be top of the list. From that effort, I couldn't open my eyes for more than 20 secs for 2 days, looking out like Moley from Wind in the Willows enviously at everyone with 20/20.

Dyer cooks up a mega feed round a fire in Camp 4 on the final night in the valley. Dan, Callum and I finish the holiday hanging out in San Fran eating loads. The Fort Mason YHA overlooking the Golden Gate and Alcatraz must be one of the best based YHAs in the world.

A MEGA trip! Thanks a lot to my partners, Pete Graham for helping haul gear to El Cap's base, Justen Sjong for ace beta, Scott Cosgrove and Kurt Smith for being bold enough to find the line and placing the belay bolts for our horrifically-heavy haulpigs, Nico and Paulo for the pegs and Will Stanhope for picking up the bags.

Thanks also to Sophie for not having too many parties while her devious partner was away, my sponsors for ace gear to try and trash and the Brenin for the time off.

Neil Dyer, Hazel Findlay and James McHaffie after their ascent of the Pre-Muir on El Cap
© James McHaffie

This is an edited version of Caff's full account from his blog.

Hazel Findlay is sponsored by Black Diamond , The North Face , Sterling Rope and La Sportiva

James McHaffie is sponsored by Arc'teryx, DMM , Sterling Rope and Red Chili

Thanks to Tom Evans of Yosemite Report for his photos

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