Before two months ago, the only things I really knew about El Cap were: the Dawn Wall was over-publicized, Tommy Caldwell is a god, and anyone who climbed the Nose in a day was insane. Yosemite was a place you went to when you had mastered the routes at your local crag and were bored by the lowly grade of 5.12 trad. I didn’t think of it as attainable for my climbing. I didn’t even think about it as a place I was allowed to go.
I had just gotten back from seven months of backpacking in South America when my two best friends told me they had an outlandish goal: to try to climb El Cap in the fall. As a fellow moderate trad and alpine climber I thought they were crazy. I had never stood in a pair of aiders and certainly didn’t know wtf a Fifi hook was. My previous goals were inspired by the fast and light ethic of moving over vertical terrain in the alpine setting. My modern day climbing heroes included the likes of Brette Harrington, Hayden Kennedy, and Marc-Andre Leclerc. One thing I started to notice however was that although they slayed in the big ranges, they all had more than a few big walls under their belt. It began to dawn on me that there was a huge gap in the climbing I was doing in the Cascades, and the skills required for the goals I had on bigger walls in more remote ranges around the world. Learning to big wall climb was necessary to take my climbing to the next level. There is only one place to go to take big wall climbing seriously in the United States. Yosemite is that place. And if you are going to Yosemite, you have to say ay ay to the Captain.
With no experience or big wall skills, the idea of starting with the biggest wall in Yosemite seemed overly ambitious. We didn’t even have a route picked out. Lurking Fear is the easiest route overall, and the Nose is by far the most famous, but when we laid our eyes on the striking headwall of the Salathé and the accessible-sounding grade of 5.9 C2 we knew we had found our route. All we had to do was learn what the hell C2 meant, how to sleep on a wall for four days, and how to drag up enough water to keep us alive for 33 pitches.
The first logistical hurdle was learning how to aid climb. With six of the pitches being all aid and a great deal more being too hard for our modest 5.10 trad abilities, aid climbing was a beast that we couldn’t avoid if we wanted to make it up this thing. Not only was there a lot to learn, but it was hard to get psyched on spending my days practicing hook moves and jugging fixed lines instead of climbing long multi pitches in the mountains. It went against everything I liked about climbing: relying on your own strength, moving fast in the mountains and being unencumbered by extra gear. Aid climbing is the antithesis of that ideal, but necessary in order to reach my goal of climbing El Cap.
We started off by aiding various cracks at Index, most often taking laps on City Park to dial in our leading technique. City Park is 5.13d or C1+. C1 means clean aid 1. This indicates that you’re placing bomber gear the whole way up, and that gear is entirely removable without damaging the rock. This is opposed to A1 which relies on hammering in protection such as pitons that damage the rock. The harder clean aid grading gets, the sketchier the pro is. While you could safely fall on just about every piece on City Park, placing an offset brass micro nut well above your head and immediately trusting your body weight on it was not something that I was accustomed to.
After a few pitches of aid leading under my belt, I realized that it was the first time I was getting immediate feedback on my gear placements I make trad climbing all the time. I had never taken a big lead fall on trad gear, and although I thought I knew enough about placing good pro, I wasn't putting it to the test routinely. Whereas for every piece placed while aiding, you must trust it with your body weight and bounce-test it to make sure it will hold a fall. This ended up being a satisfying learning process for me as I knew that I was not only developing this new skill set of aid climbing, I was improving my technical free climbing skills as well.
While our skills markedly increased aiding at Index, we still had a lot of work to do regarding anchor building, haul systems, and setting up our sweet Portia the portaledge. We have a long road ahead if we want to make it up the biggest wall in the U.S. by October.