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Words By
Jacob Cook

Seeing El Cap for the first time is staggering. Some things in nature have power; I think it is easy to see why Native Americans lived in its shadow for thousands of years. At first glance many people don’t notice the climbers, tiny black specks only a kilometre or so away, but who may as well be on another planet.

This cliff has inspired both American and worldwide climbing for over 60 years. It's been the proving ground for generations of climbers, from the first ascents in the 50s, to the cutting edge aid routes of the 70s. In recent years the free climbing revolution started by Lynn Hill in the 90s, all the way to the media circus surrounding Tommy Caldwell’s ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015. It's also been the reason for, and the testing ground of multiple innovations in climbing gear that have revolutionised the sport - including pitons and cams.

Go to climb it, expect to be challenged and most definitely to suffer, but most of all remember to enjoy yourself. To look up at the stars whilst sleeping on the side of the wall is one of the most magical experiences in this world and one to be thankful for.

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Logistics: In and around El Capitan

Most people planning to climb El Cap, or simply to visit Yosemite, fly to San Francisco, rent a car and drive to the valley. This takes about 3.5 hours. It’s also possible to drive from Los Angeles and Las Vegas, amongst others but be prepared for a longer drive. Having a car is pretty essential for logistics once in the valley so hiring one for the length of your stay is definitely recommended.

The best times for climbing El Cap are Spring and Autumn (or “fall” as the locals would say). It’s been climbed at every other time of year as well but in general the cold but not too cold conditions of these times of the year improve friction and make the heat of the sun more bearable when you’re on the wall.

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The climbers’ campground is Camp Four, situated in the heart of the valley and with a name written into climbing lore. If you’re a bit scruffy and carrying an overflowing haulbag containing all your worldly possessions then you’ll fit right in! It’s a “walk-in” campground so you can’t book in advance, just turn up on the day. At peak times you’ll want to arrive early, sometimes the line is full by 5am! Be warned that in Spring there is a 7 night per person limit for camping in the valley, which is a very short time if you’re planning on climbing a big wall! This is something that many a dirtbag climber has found “creative” solutions to. In fall the limit is upped to a much more reasonable 30 days since the number of non-climbing tourists is much lower.

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There is a grocery store in the valley but it is expensive. Most climbers drive an hour out to Mariposa to stock up on food. When you get down from your route you can treat yourself to the traditional pizza and beer in Half Dome village.

The valley itself offers endless opportunities for hiking to spectacular view-points and majestic waterfalls. Alternatively you could spend your rest day lazing in El Cap meadow, sitting on the free Wi-Fi in Yosemite village or even at the 10 dollar spa at the Yosemite bug (with its all-you-can-drink herbal tea!)

 

What do I need in order to actually climb El Cap?

 

Very few people “free climb” El Cap each year. Practically every ascent is newsworthy as some routes have only had a handful of repeats since they were first climbed. However, many climbers do aid climb the face and while this is still a hefty challenge, with some hard work, it’s something that’s within the reach of most climbers.

Prep

It’s important to be leading at least E2 comfortably, the more you can “french free” without resorting to full on aid climbing the faster you’ll be and the more fun you’ll have! Big Wall rope work skills are essential and it’s important to have these dialled before an attempt. Make sure you practice jumaring, hauling, aid climbing, docking the haul bag and lowering out. That being said, possibly the most important skill is problem solving. No matter how many times you practice you’ll always end up in a total tangle or strange situation that requires a unique solution to resolve.

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Determination!

The best bit of advice I received before climbing El Cap (The Nose) for the first time in May 2014 was “Don’t go down”. It sounds silly but it really is true. Many people bail when they didn’t really need to, which contributes to the route’s extremely high failure rate (something like 50%). If it gets dark and you’ve not made it to the bivy, get the headlamps out and press on! If you feel tired or scared, remind yourself that you do this for fun and at least you’re not at work!

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Equipment

You will need at least a double, (preferably triple), set of cams, daisy chains, aiders, a full strength lead line, a static haul line and a haul bag. Things like offset cams and camhooks can make lots of the more sketchy aid placements faster and safer. As for clothing, prepare for the full range of weather. It can be blisteringly hot one day and a full on snow storm the next. I bring quick-dry Interval T, Torque pants, Baseline jacket, synthetic or light down jacket (Xenon X or the Continuum Hoody) and a Flashpoint Jacket for when the wet weather sets in. A good night’s sleep is essential if you hope to make the summit, so make sure to take a quality down sleeping bag and bivy-bag. A Portaledge™ is optional on a lot of the more popular routes as there are ample bivy ledges, but having one with you will give you more options, especially if the route is crowded and you find the natural ledges already taken.

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The Walking Option

 

There are two ways of hiking to the top of El Cap. The shorter but brutally steep option is to hike from the valley floor up the crowded Yosemite Falls trail, then hang a left along a fainter trail leading along the rim. The other option is a flatter but longer slog from highway 120. The view from the top both up and down the Valley is out of this world and it’s a lookout that even many non-climbing tourists don’t make it to, so make sure you don’t miss out.

Jacob likes getting away from the every day and uses climbing to find ‘wild things and real experiences’. Whether it’s bold grit routes, big walls or solo aid missions, you can be sure that Jacob is having fun doing it.

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