El Capitan, Yosemite Amusement Park

We could never see the summit, and usually not the base. The wall exerts a gravity perpendicular to the rest of the Earth's, a pull that only vaguely counteracts the massive yawing abyss, the sky, that is on every other side of you; below, above, and behind.

Getting onto the Boot Flake. Liv is belaying me.

A little further up.

The truth is that Big Wall Climbing is a pain in the ass. It is a constant and almost never-ending series of physically and mentally demanding struggles. Mentally, to keep yourself together while twisting in space, hanging from one rope and not even touching the wall, thousands of feet above valley floor, and physically, to haul and pull and ascend, with yourself and the more than one hundred pounds of equipment that is all in its own way crucial to your survival, up every inch of the wall with you.

You wedge your fingers into cracks in the wall to pull yourself higher, a few centimeters at a time. You use your hands and your back and your bodyweight to drag heavy bags up using a pulley system, bags full of a carefully calculated and frugally rationed amount of food and water for your days on the wall.

And the truth is that it's at least a little fun. The idea of it beforehand is exciting, and the memory of it afterward is deeply satisfying. Although the details of the climb are usually not romantic or pleasurable, the mission itself, the overall progress, and the view of the valley (and of yourself) that a big wall adventure affords you makes it one of the more intense activities that I have engaged in.

We climbed The Nose of El Capitan in 34 hours spread over more than three days. We spent three nights on the wall, comfortably in a portaledge. I lead 17 of the 31 pitches, and I started aid / trad climbing in August (barely three months ago) (allow me to boast). For Liv as well this was her first Grade VI wall, although you wouldn't know it by watching her gently and gracefully ascend the myriad crack systems that are so unlike the style of climbing she dominates.

As untested and inexperienced as we were, we were also fine, as our friend Chris McNamara had predicted. Voila. Nothing so difficult has ever been so straight forward... with the right set of tools, a set of newly acquired skills, and a well written guide book, what could possibly go wrong?

Matt and Liv on The Nose of El Capitan (5.9, C2) - some approximate numbers, for those of you who are into that sort of thing:

Route Length:2,900 feet / 31 pitches
Climbing Time:34 hours over 3.5 days
Average Pitch:93 feet / 55 minutes
Average combined climbing speed including hauling and changeovers at belays1.7 feet per minute
Avg climbing speed without hauling / changeovers:2.7 feet per minute
A Snail's Pace:2.6 feet per minute

So... at about 102 feet per hour, we were significantly slower than Helix Aspersa (the common garden snail / escargot) which rips along at 158 feet per hour. Funny to think that if, on that first morning we began the wall, we gave Mr. Helix Aspersa a slight head start, we would have not been able to catch him. Vive le team escargot rapide!

Me hauling, Liv cleaning.

Both, on top of the flake.

Liv tensioning a pendulum, delicately, precisely.

Me starting out on the classic Pancake Flake.

Me. I think somewhere above the changing corners, on the 28th pitch or so. About 2,700 feet up.

Liv, powering through the Great Roof.

Around 110 pounds of food, water, and equipment...

Hauling this gear was clearly the least glamorous aspect.

Me, leading the 'Pancake Flake' pitch, one of the classics. I combined it with the next pitch for a nice long one.

Right near the top.

The view down, from about two-thirds of the way up. You can see the start of the route (base) at center photo.

3,000 feet higher and six bags of poo heavier than we were on the valley floor. Again, the bottom of the wall is visible, between us, in the photo. There were fun times and difficult times, for both of us, during the climb. I think we were at least somewhat happy in this shot, although at times before and times after neither of us were smiling. But overall... good.

Chilling out on the portaledge at Camp VI, on the third morning. Liv convinced me that bringing the stove for tea in the mornings was a good idea, and although I initially resisted, I later emphatically agreed (see me clutch it greedily in this photo). Liv had a lot of good ideas, and without her the closest I would have ever come to the face of El Capitan would be while jumping from the top. Certainly, the first time I jumped this cliff, I thought to myself as I passed climbers in freefall: "I would never do that - those guys are freaking nuts!"


Special thanks to www.metoliusclimbing.com and www.AlpinSchmiede.com