With Washington Column and Leaning Tower under our belts, the “easy walls” were over. The next large objective was the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, which required that we climb over 1,400 feet in one day, an enormous undertaking for big-wall novices like ourselves. To practice, we selected a route standing almost as tall in vertical feet: the East Buttress of El Capitan. El Capitan is the quintessential “big wall,” chock full of multi-day routes ranging from pretty-darn-serious (The Nose, Lurking Fear) to you-fall-you-die horror shows (Sea of Dreams, Reticent Wall). East Buttress, despite being situated on El Cap, is hardly in this category. It climbs the eastern shoulder of the Big Stone at the comfy, moderate grade of 5.10b, which most of the climbing hanging in the even-easier 5.7-5.9 territory. It is still a serious route, however, clocking in at 13 pitches (or fewer with strategic pitch linking) with a physically strenuous approach and logistically complex rappel descent.
Long free climbing routes are not climbed in parties of four, period, since the general gist is that each person actually climbs each pitch, rather than jugs a fixed line in the style of a multi-day aid wall. Thus, each team member in your party adds a considerably amount of time per pitch to the ascent. Despite this, we decided to nonetheless employ a fixed-line strategy sans haul bag to best mirror the exact nature of our Half Dome ascent. The climb was a bit contrived, and we were not each able to free climb some of the classic pitches, but as a training device we saw the compromise as valid.
We woke up at 4AM to get an early start, hoping to begin well in front of other parties. To our dismay, two Korean gentlemen pulled in the the parking spot right next to us and immediately began trekking the approach. We followed soon behind, taking an aggressive pace in hopes of gently and subtly passing them. This failed, as I soon found myself huffing and puffing due to lack of fitness. We arrived at the base and tried to speak with the Korean team. The language barrier was difficult to circumnavigate, but to our surprise, we got the go-ahead-and-climb-first gesture. As Elam began the first lead, a long 5.9 chimney pitch, we heard a noise altogether unexpected: another climber, shouting down to us from above! “Climb on through, my partner left his climbing shoes at the car!” shouted the voice. This gentlemen, who later identified himself as Andy, got up at the disturbingly early time of 1AM to climb the route well before any other parties would show. Unfortunately, his partner’s untimely accident had foiled their preparations. Andy was a nice guy, and I felt bad for him.
Right before we blasted off to jug Elam’s pitch, Andy’s partner showed up, clearly short of breath from repeating the savage approach via jogging. His spirits were high, all things considered, likely because he was still in front of the Korean team. This team had now swelled to a whopping six people, filing in from all directions, none speaking English. It was now clear why they had let us take the lead; this train would have been a horror to follow!
Elam’s second pitch was the 5.10b crux pitch, with a challenging sequence right off the belay. I heard roars of frustration as I ascended the previous pitch, as Elam fell three times at the crux sequence. Valley grades are stiff, no doubt, and the summer sun didn’t help with ultra-polished handholds. On the fourth go, Elam crushed the sequence and climbed on through an “awkward” 5.9 groove. Chicken-winging and general shenanigans helped Elam through, but it was a tough pitch by all stretches of the imagination. Pitch Three, one of the route’s “photo-op” pitches, was equally difficult; we completely misread the top and climbed the wrong crack. The money pitch filled with classic arete climbing was replaced with another awkward groove that was no fun.
From this pitch, Voss took the lead with a block of easier 5.5-5.8 climbing. To our chagrin, Voss took a rope-soloing fall on a 5.6 section. As we teased him for this strange lapse in free climbing competence, he threw his hands up and belted “Slippery jams!” and resumed the lead without incident. I took over next, with a 5.7 chimney leading into some super-fun 5.9 face climbing. The chimney had a horrifying surprise within: human feces. Someone had popped a squat on the ledge above and literally pooped all over the route, right on the handholds. I very carefully tried to climb around the disgusting sight (and smell), managing the rope around it as well as I could.
After my block, Matt took the lead for the summit block. The first pitch was another “photo-op” with an exposed traverse out onto a buttress with Half Dome in the background. This time, we got the photo. Matt cruise into a runout section of 5.8 face, sometime made scarier by mist from a nearby waterfall. Luckily, the wind had not so altered the route, and we moved through easily. Matt topped out, and the whole gang reach the summit…by 4PM! We were stunned; this route was considered a “Grade IV,” meaning that most parties require the entire day. We were done by the early afternoon!
Brimming with confidence, we began our descent down the East Ledges. This proved a little tricky, but we made good time. Along the way, we encountered a haul bag with a note attached: “Property of Paul. Will return on 6/22 to retrieve.” We moved on to an easy rappel sequence down uber-convenient fixed lines, and made it to the car in just over two hours. Sitting on a park bench, however, a short fellow smoking a cigarette called out “Do any of you have a car?” Clearly another climber, we offered him a ride and asked him where he had come from. He revealed that he was Paul, the guy who left the haulage on the descent. Visiting from Ireland, he had spent the last ten days on a solo link-up of Virginia and Tangerine Trip, a challenging nailing and spicy aid marathon up El Cap. He was clearly fried but was very grateful for our concern. We drove him to to Yosemite Lodge while he shared many a story about his adventures. After dropping him off, it was time for dinner and some rest. We were tired, but also stoked that our speed had so improved. Half Dome was next, and for the first time we were sure that we could face the challenge.