My Epic Fail on El Cap

Yosemite Valley in the autumn is a special place to be. Wilson Cutbirth and I were parked up near the meadow discussing our options given the time we had and the inauspicious weather forecast for the next three days.

A few meters away from us a beady-eyed veteran wall climber shuffled around on his knees meticulously arranging important looking piles of food and gear on a tarpaulin next to the road and overheard our conversation.

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“Why aren’t you up there boys?” he asked, “I’ve been on pitch six in a storm and it’s been sheeting fifteen feet out from the wall”. The words landed abruptly and with an air of authority and anticipated veneration. I exchanged a look with Wilson. Neither of us had been up this side of El Capitan before. The heavy rains and wind forecast to start that morning were nowhere to be seen. At this rate the next three days would be climbable; especially if we were, as the man said, sheltered from the weather by the expanse of overhanging rock above us.

We had already stashed all our gear at the base of the wall, enough food and water for nine days. We were well equipped and decided to start South – Space –- Calito, an A4 route up a steep line, early the next day if the weather was good.

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The yellow morning sun was chewing its way through the palpable valley mist as we arrived at the base of the wall but it was not raining and the bright blue perforations above us hinted at a fine day ahead.

Our climb started on a route called South Seas just right of the Nose in an overhanging feature known as the Alcove. The first pitch climbed steeply to the top of this; above that, like the belly of an unbroken wave, the white granite swept up and gave us a foreshortened horizon as it towered above us.

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As I sipped some water I noticed a certain quietness about Wilson. The night before he had mentioned that he felt ill and the distinct lack of ear slaps and insults that I had received that morning made me feel slightly concerned. He studied the wall, and then in his usual playful style said he’d take the first pitch because he knew I was scared, this immediately dispelled my doubts.

He set off adroitly and made rapid progress to the first belay, we were off! We alternated leads and pitch two was like a climb through history, I gingerly moved up and around a corner and came face to face with a line of small, old and obscure pieces of corroded metal jutting out from many holes in the cliff at all angles. Using small rivet hangers on my aid ladders (etriers) I gently moved from one piece of metal to the next, after fifty feet of traversing I hadn’t left a single piece in place to protect myself in case of a fall fearing that whatever pieces I clipped would surely be ripped from the wall by the force of a lead fall and make re climbing that section tremendously difficult. I later discovered that these pieces of metal were sections cut from the supporting aluminum frame of a rucksack and hammered into the wall by Charlie Row, one of the first ascencionists almost forty years ago. Crazy bastard.

The next few pitches went well and it felt good to be moving upwards into this sea of rock once more. As usual with Wilson the sense of adventure was as real as ever, all my senses were heightened and the air filled my smile as well as my lungs.

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Wilson started pitch five with confident movements; he followed a thin crack, which leads into a roof, and I heard the satisfying rising note as he hammered another lost arrow home. Shortly afterwards I heard a heavy thud alongside a muffled and short lasted groan, he had fallen onto his daisy chain (the short length of rope attaching each aid ladder to the harness). Falling onto your daisy’s is like being petted with a sledgehammer, it hurts. I heard him mutter something about an expanding crack and then heard another resonating ding ding ding as he hammered the piece back in. Moments later the same sound indicated a second daisy fall. I winced. I noticed the light beginning to fade and Wilson reached the belay as flame red and orange clouds, like mythical dragons, were smothered by the deep blues of dusk. I lowered out the bags, they hung perilously 20ft out from the wall like a fat spider on her silk and I was perplexed to feel the first spatters of rain on my face.

I was greeted at the belay by a few rusty rivets and someone else’s junk show rigging. Each anchor was crammed with karabineres and badly dressed knots and there was a battered port-a-ledge tensioned into position. Wilson had done a good job of getting our rigging in place on top of this but it was now dark and starting to rain and we still had our ledge to rig up. We decided that staying dry and building camp quickly was more important than being sympathetic to the rigging already in place. I tore down the ledge and roughly bundled it up as Willy clipped ours into one of the rivets. We managed to rig the rainfly and make it inside just as the heavens opened. “So much for sheeting 15ft out!” I exclaimed. We were dry but our rainfly was getting battered.

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We heated up some food and climbed into our sleeping bags, the rain was getting progressively heavier and the illusive wind began to sing. I was feeling pretty warm and smug until about 1am when a strong gust of wind lifted us about two feet up and away from the wall and slammed us down again, only to repeat moments later. We both sat up, the flapping rainfly sounded like a machine gun. I looked at Wilson and his wide eyes made me burst out laughing. I could tell that his thoughts were also on the slightly below average rivet that we were attached to. I rolled a cigarette…it was going to be a long night.

As it got light it became even more apparent that we were most definitely not in a sheltered position; the corner of an overhanging rock above us was channeling all the water directly on top of us. We had set up camp in what was ostensibly a waterfall hundreds of meters up the wall. Perfect.

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Wilson slept most of the day and it became clear that he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. To make matters worse we had left our tea bags in the haul bags outside and to retrieve them would entail unzipping our rainfly and risking drowning. We had wine and cigarettes and a bar of chocolate. Some would argue we were well equipped.
Night came without letup of the storm, the ledge was still getting battered by the wind and had started to take on water. Every hour I would reach below and swoosh out another gallon or so of rainwater from where it was pooling under us. We had bivi sacks over our sleeping bags but somehow in the cramped wet space we had both taken on water and our bags were soaked through. As the night progressed our situation worsened. I felt cold and knew that Wilson was shivering too. I stripped off my cotton T-shirt and donned my Berghaus Hydroloft down jacket. Never in all my years of expeditions have I been so impressed by an item of clothing. I don’t know what kind of wizardry Berghaus executed in the making of their Hydroloft but its performance is unbelievable. Within moments I was warm. Four times during the night I got drenched wearing that thing whilst draining the ledge and four times my body heat dried it out and I was warm again. I strongly believe that without those jackets my humor levels would have been depleted and Wilson may have even started crying. Who knows…

The next morning found us shell shocked. As it got light the wind marginally died down making conversation intelligible; after thirty-six hours of intense noise and rainfly rapid fire this gave us a serene sense of peace and tranquility. Wilson sat up, exposing the pool of water he was lying in and making us both laugh, he was puffy eyed and looking as beaten up as I felt. The rain hadn’t stopped and it was clear that without climbing today we were not going to make it to the summit in the time we had.

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I had never backed away from a climb with Wilson before. One way or another, through dehydration, rock falls and cactus spikes we had always made it to the top but in this moment I was hyper aware of the seriousness of our situation and retreat, whilst still possible, was a sound decision.

We called it, bust out into the rain and broke camp. Emptying our nine gallons of water into the void below us felt somehow symbolic; like emptying our dreams or ego or something. We made it down humbled and exhausted and as we hiked our ridiculously heavy bags down past the base of El Cap we met Adam Ondra setting off on the first pitch of the Dawn Wall with about three quick draws and a gri gri about him. At that point the contrast between aid climbing and free climbing was hard to bear for Wilson and as we trudged on he solemnly informed me that tomorrow we were going free climbing.
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