Smiley’s Project: Salathe Wall
There are few things better than driving into the Valley in October. You come around that one turn and all focus shifts from the road to El Capitan’s West facing walls. Amazing. I pity the fool that stands outside their car on this stretch of road. All attention is paid to the rock, and none to moving vehicles.
This was our second wall, the Nose last year was our first. As a sophomore big waller we had our systems pretty dialed, and we were excited to get going.
Day 0 – Prep. Taking over an entire campsite we laid all the gear out, OCD style, as to mimic Glen Denny’s black and white photos of Yvon Chouinard. Janelle is the master mind of the food and I handle the equipment. She set to work making bagel sandwiches for both breakfast and dinner. We wanted to leave the stove behind, so all food would be fully hydrated meals. When you have to carry all your water, it makes no sense to us to eat dehydrated meals. I’m pretty sure the total weight of things was around 165lbs. Including 40lb kit, 29 lb portaledge and fly, 70 lbs of water, 10 lbs of clothing, and 15ish lbs of food.
Day 1 – Getting all that stuff up to Heart Ledges. There are a permanent fixed lines from the ground to these ledges, which facilitates staging very nicely. You must trust the manky fixed lines, but it beats the alternative, so you try not to think about it too much. Stepping into the aid ladders I had to dust off the brain rust to get into the groove of things. 500 feet up I felt back in the game. Huge exposure, hanging from some crazy thin piece of sun-cooked old rope, wind blowing, 75 degrees, sunny. Life is good. Turns out hauling really takes it out of you, so by the time we got the 150+ pound pig up to Heart we were ready to call it a day.
Day 2 – Getting up early to dodge the crowds, we made our way, with only our free climbing rack and rope, to the start of the Salathe. The first 10 pitches are known as Freeblast, which commonly goes free for people in a mild sized day. Our mindset for the day was to free as much as possible, but if an onsight does not happen, whatever, just get ‘er done, and pull through where needed. All but three cruxes went clean, so we were stoked about that. It’s just so nice to move without a pack, in the sun, simply focusing on pure rock climbing moves on the best stone in the world. Especially after an entire summer of climbing cold chossy mountains.
Day 3 – We jugged back up the fixed lines to Heart Ledges, and launched on the route. There were a couple Brits right in front of us, so we took turns waiting on one another. The sun was out, but not too hot, so the urgency meter was very low. We climbed and aided up pitch after pitch. The Salathe is so classic that nearly every pitch has a name. Ear, Hollow Flake, Monster, Alcove, El Cap Spire, Sous le Toit, to name a few. Some of the aid climbing was tricky, but where it was there was normally a fixed piece of gear. Some were good, some looked awful. I clipped the piece regardless. I mean, it’s only got to hold my body weight, right?! We slept the first night on the wall below the Ear pitch. Setting up the portaledge with daylight to spare is the way to go. Once level, we relaxed on what is probably the best piece of kit we own…our portaledge. Lounging, watching the sun set, eating BBQ Pringels…does it get better?
Day 4 – The highlight of this day was watching one of the Brits onsight the Monster off-width pitch. I was belaying Janelle from above, so I got eyes-on the entire thing. The UK has little to no off-width cracks to train on, so the fact that he onsighted it was extra impressive.
You might think you’re a good climber, until you go to Yosemite. It’s the big pond.
Arriving at the belay he was coated in sweat and chalk, and a few oozing war wounds. I think I was more excited than he was. High-5s, slaps on his back, “you’re awesome” filled the air. He was pretty quiet, as he rigged the anchor to bring up the second. After ten minutes or so I noticed him eyeing my water bottle hanging on the anchor.
“Want a drink?” I asked.
It was as if I just offered him a million bucks.
His mouth said, “Ah no, that’s okay, I do not want to take your water.” His face silently screamed, “I want a drink more than anything in the world!”
I unscrewed the lid and handed it to him. He took a small sip and handed it back with a sheepish grin, leaving 3/4 of the bottle was full.
“Finish it man, you deserve it.”
“Really?!” He said.
“Yeah for sure, we have extra, and you just fricky onsighted the bloody MONSTER.”
The bottle was empty a minute later.
We made it up some more pitches. And again set up the ledge for another beautiful evening.
Day 5 – Our 6th wedding anniversary. I am one lucky man to have found, and won the heart of, a beautiful woman excited to spend this special day doing manual labor.
There was some tricky aid climbing throughout, but mostly plugging and pulling. A party pasted us, Russian brothers, that were trying to free the entire route (Freerider). As they blew by with their light rack, no packs, I was jealous of the simplicity of that style of climbing. Come to find out they had been working the route for three weeks. A lot of hard prep work is what it took to get them to this place.
As Janelle aided up the very overhung Salathe roof, which provides access to the beautiful headwall, the brothers came back down. Successful. They were so pumped. Now they had about 2 hours of rappelling the entire route, picking up cashed supplies as they descended. It was also very cool to witness a small part of their huge success. Few elite climbers have the “Freed Freerider” feather in their hat.
We spent the night on Long Ledge, eating fruit cups, soaking in the beauty that makes Yosemite so special to so many. We were blessed with a sun set that left nothing to be desired. Aside from my shoulder tendonitus flaring up, and being too covered in grim to “celebrate marriage”, it was a perfect evening.
Day 6 – We topped out. Lounged around, in no real hurry to shoulder the 80 pound pig. A couple from Austrian hikers happened by, took some photos of the “crazy climbers” with our gear exploded everywhere. We communicated with hand gestures as their English was good as my German is… nein.
Two hours later, the call of a shower grew louder than the cry of the pig’s weight, so I shouldered it and started down hill, walking like an overweight tortoise that had had one too many.
All in all it was a great experience. I think I have satiated my hunger for big wall climbing for a while. I want to most light and free. When I get back on El Cap it will be to go for the Nose in a day, as that seems like an awesome goal, and a great adventure.