10 Tips for Climbing El Capitan
As we drove into the “Valley” El Capitan looms, a gigantic monolith blocking most of the car windscreen. When I leant forward to get a better view, my heart races with fear, anticipation but most of all awe at the hugeness of a it all. A week later, we had two big wall ascents under our belt, including one of the big stone. These are some of the lessons we learnt along the way.
It seems like an obvious thing to say, but when you want to bail don’t. On the aptly named Ledge of Despair on Lurking Fear we had a long discussion about our options upon realising we possibly didn’t have enough food and water for the speed we were moving at. The options we had were to bail there and then or press on and speed up, with the backup of bailing later if we needed too. This chat helped us reassess and kick into gear and in the end we ended up climbing the route much quicker than expected. That said sometimes you do need to bail, good reasons to actually bail include - being caught in a storm, injury/accidents, illness (diarrhoea and vomiting, heatstroke ie not the sniffles), running out of water (you might get away with it right at the top, but dehydration can quickly lead to complications like heat stroke), running out of food (less of a problem than water, unless you run out really early you can probably suck it up, no one said big walling is easy). Don’t bail unless you are forced to.
Big walling is a massive team effort, everyone ideally wants to get along and support the team. I can’t remember how the saying goes exactly, but first of all you want to aim to come back alive and if you can come back still friends as well even better. Having open discussions about aims and objectives before leaving for the trip (Ideally before you get to the airport!) helps to iron out differences and might help you decide whether the partnership will work. A few of the other points below like; food, preparation, hydration contribute massively to having a good time and I’ll go into more detail in them.
Practising and becoming proficient at unfamiliar skills removes stress and faff when they need to be used for real. Climbing a Yosemite big wall is quite different to cragging in the UK. For the routes we climbed we felt that the practice at home we did was really relevant and helped keep us moving efficiently as a team. Things we practised; clean aid climbing (cams, nuts in crack systems), jumaring different angled terrain, building big wall belays, setting up the portaledge, setting up hauling systems (no practice hauling, but I already had quite a bit of experience). It might be tempting to try and fit all of this in a day or even try and learn whilst in Yosemite, but we found that having practised over a number of days we felt really slick and well prepared. when we were in the Valley
Yosemite can be very very hot and it can be easy to quickly become dehydrated. We found on a big wall you need about one American gallon of water (3.8L) per day in order to have enough to drink and prepare food. This is quite a lot of water to drink and we both supplemented the water with soluble hydration tablets, this helps maintain mineral and electrolyte levels and can make the water taste a bit better (not the cherry and orange flavour, that one is a bit rank). Communicating about hydration levels (wee colour and frequency) helps keep the team healthy by a bit of accountability. Keeping a lightweight water bottle (pop bottles with cord) on your harness works well for easy access, it can be topped up from a big bottle in the haulbag at belay swaps.
Everyone has different food preferences and a big wall isn’t the best place to find out what works for the whole team. Take what YOU want to eat, if there is overlap between you and the rest of the team then great, if not don’t stress too much. Things I would recommend to take; bottles of pop, juicy sweets, tinned fruit, fresh fruit if you can store it - we took apples, easy to eat bars (I like clif bars, they are pretty cheap if you buy the big boxes), instant oats with raisins for breakfast (watch out for flavoured ones, they are mega sweet). Main meals are a bit trickier, next time I would take dehydrated expedition packs for dinner. Our best find was some really gooey brownie/cookie cake in the village store which was about 170 calories for a tiny square and sweated very well in a sandwich bag.
Learn how to space haul. For me I found it nearly impossible to body haul, but space hauling was dreamy. The set up for this is very simple, when you fix your lead line you pull up as much slack as you are comfortable with as a long back up, once this is fixed clip the wall hauler (protraxion, microtraxion etc..) to the belay and clip your jumars with ladders to the rope coming through the hauler (opposite side to the haulbag) and lean back, walking down the wall. Once you get to the end of the backup jumar up the rope and start again. Be careful once the bag starts getting lighter, things can get a “bit” speedy! You can control speed by putting a hand on the “live” rope going to the bag.
It might seem counterintuitive but long clothing does a lot to help keep you cool when you are in direct sunlight. Trousers also help protect against scrapes, especially on the knees which get a bit of a battering. Light clothing works best and some colours also work better than others, leave those British black trousers at home! Sun shirts like the Rab Force Hoody work amazingly well for keeping the sun off the neck and usually have an SPF rating too to protect against UV light.
Keep it Simple
As with the preparation section, having everything dialled and simple makes life easy. Once you have decided on the system you use, don’t change it (unless it isn't working). For us this looked like building the belays exactly the same the whole way up, docking the bag the same way, flaking the ropes the same, passing the gear the same. Another example is that we had the hauling system set up at the start of El Cap and didn’t need to adjust or change it other than to reset until we topped out, this saves lots of time overall and limits faff/stress/potential for arguments.
Take a Chair
I did have a point about practising using skyhooks and camhooks, but really they are quite straightforward to use. Instead, if you are climbing a route with long complicated pitches which require lengthy belay sessions, I'd strongly recommend taking a bosun’s chair. These can be bought for about £50 or homemade from scrap wood and old rope. Again, strongly recommend, your legs will thank me.
Take rest days seriously, big wall climbing is hard work and can take a lot out of you physically but also emotionally so make sure you take a proper break. A few recommendations;
Swimming in the river, there is a really nice spot opposite Pat and Jack Pinnacle on the road to El Portal.
Happy Diner in Mariposa (A/C, wifi, good food, ice cold beers and you might see a cowboy).
Mariposa grove of Giant Sequoia, bit of a drive but can be combined with a trip to Oakhurst for groceries.
Hetch Hetchy - We didn’t visit here but I’m told its pretty cool.
Tuolumne Meadows - a trip highlight for us.
These tips only really skim the surface of what is a very complicated method of climbing, for more tips and beta send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org