I stand gazing up at the most famous piece of rock in world; El Capitan, The Captain, one vertical kilometer of sheer granite looming over the floor of Yosemite valley. It’s 6.30am and my partner Asher and I are preparing for the culmination of years of dreams and planning, a speed ascent of that historic route, the Nose. After 10 weeks of touring the US, learning to crack climb, use aid gear, and master big-wall techniques, we know we are a slick team, and fast, but this is an objective like no other. Most teams take three to five days to climb it so the thought of trying to do it in one day was very daunting.
My palms are sweaty as I do a final check, my heart-rate elevated before I even touch the rock. Asher nods, I hit the stopwatch, and it’s on! I race up the first pitch, no soft touch at 5.10d, pulling on cams in tricky spots and running it out in between. I speed past the first belay, linking the pitches with our 70m rope. The first 4 pitches of the route are extremely technical and difficult to aid, so I hold nothing in reserve as I crank through the flaring pin-scars. 3 pendulums and then I traverse towards Sickle Ledge, tying the rope off to a single bolt once I hit easy ground so that Ash can start jugging a little earlier.
Still gasping for breath as we swap gear at the belay, I glance at my watch; 4 pitches down in 1 hour, putting us on track for a possible 10 hour ascent – if we can maintain the pace! We simul-climb most of the 5th before Ash storms up to the lower-out point on the 6th pitch, swings across to the next crack system, and quickly dispatches the next 2 pitches of continuous hand crack. Arriving at the lower-out point, a horrible thought appears as I feed spare rope through the leaver biner and use it to descend… we miscalculated… there’s too little rope! Disaster… I am hanging on the end of the spare rope with one hand, well out to the side of the next crack system and with no way to safely lower into it.
In my mind there are 2 options; give up and go home, or accept the risk and take a huge, uncontrolled swing across the face of the rock. The wall is smooth except for 1 giant buttress; if I can just kick out around that… I take a deep breath and make my choice. The world rushes upwards and then violently across, the wall drops away from my flailing legs much faster than expected, and then I smash into the side of the buttress with both feet.
I hang limply for a moment as pain blossoms upwards, but adrenaline overrides the shock and I’m quickly back in control, racing up the line. My feet are sore but it’s too early to say anything more, so I decide not to waste the time my stupid decision has saved us. Asher leads us confidently though the next few pitches as the pain in my left foot subsides, and my right swells steadily. Definitely something wrong there, but I’ll be damned if I’ve injured it in vain!
At the top of Dolt Tower we hit a circus; a group of 6 going up, and 1 woman descending. The group ask us to wait until their leader is at the next belay, but the woman, a Valley local, quickly sets them straight on Yosemite speed-climbing ethics and encourages us to keep moving. Ash boosts up the low angle off-width, trusting his hand-stacks and knee-jams, but then stops dead.
“My knee is stuck!” he shouts frantically, heaving at it and desperately searching for leverage. Of course there’s no leverage in an off-width, and I’m helpless to assist. For a full 10 minutes Ash scrabbles and claws at his leg, needing a means to lift his bodyweight and relax the muscles. Finally, the climber above us reaches the anchor and fixes his rope. Asher grabs it and drags himself up out of the crevice with a grunt of pain. Now to make up some time… From the top of the 16th pitch I lower Ash into position, and he executes the King Swing in style, 15m across the wall and around a sloping arête. At this point he’s lead 12 pitches straight at a ferocious pace which I know he can’t sustain to the top; it’s time for me to lead.
I squeeze my swollen foot into its shoe and focus on the climbing. The difficult Lynn Hill traverse is followed by 3 easier pitches which I link into 1, and then I’m pulling out my aiders below the Great Roof. The vast stone ceiling would be an impossible barrier but for a tiny crack where it meets the wall, and I try not to think too hard as I traverse across on my smallest cams. Breathing a sigh of relief as I reach the belay, I fix the line and start rope-soloing while Asher jugs. I’m halfway up the ‘Pancake Flake’ when he reaches the end of the roof, but now I can feel myself slowing down as the escalating pain in my foot begins to overcome my concentration. At the base of the next pitch, an awkward, difficult groove, I know I’ve pushed as far as I can.
Overcome by pain and exhaustion, I fail to fight back the tears as Asher resumes the lead. Only 8 pitches to go though, and once back in my comfy approach shoes I’m able to reassemble my focus. Asher links the next 2 pitches then starts aiding, and I put everything into seconding as fast as possible, arriving at each belay out of breath and covered in sweat.
Ahead is the notorious Changing Corners pitch, but all the work we put into improving speed and efficiency shines through as Asher moves seamlessly from free-climbing to aid and back. Finally there are just 3 pitches left, but we have only 35 minutes left to make a 10 hour ascent! Can we make it? I honestly don’t know, but I’ve never been so psyched in my life. After 9.5 hours without stopping, we are now moving faster than ever.
Ash links 2 pitches, and my arms burn as I jug up 60m like a madman. There’s no-one at the belay, my partner is already halfway up the final pitch and he shouts down at me to start simul-climbing up the bolt ladder. As I swing from bolt to bolt Ash starts shouting down “4 minutes! 2 minutes! 1 minute!” I vault over the lip and he yells “We’ve got to get to the tree!”, the official finish-line for Nose ascents. I don’t even answer as I sprint up the slab trailing 20m loops of rope and dive for the ancient conifer, right on the stroke of 10 hours!
I can’t believe it… completely spent, we fall to the ground and lie there taking in great gulps of air. The sense of exhilaration is hard to describe; I’ve never put so much of myself into a climb, and it has been the most intense experience of my life!
Note: some photos are from our previous (3 day) ascent of the Nose.
Text By Edwin Sheppard