I’m sitting at what seems like my regular spot in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria; next to the only working plugs, besides the windows, feeling hungover from my long journey to the Valley. The sun is shining, as it always is here, but I’m happy to sit indoors as I battle jet lag and a bought of man flu that seems at the tipping point of going away or getting worse.
As usual, I’m a man on a mission, plus a man on a tight schedule. On the 24th I’m giving a slideshow to say thanks to everyone involved in the Yosemite clean up program (along with some dude called Dean Potter?) and straight after that, I have to jump in my car and drive to San Francisco for a morning flight East (for three more slideshows).
I have five days - well more like four days - to get well, get rid of my jet lag, and undertake the biggest challenge of my life.
For many years, and like most big wall climbers, I had this dream of climbing El Cap in a day, the very idea of starting at the bottom and pushing to the top with only the shirt on your back both scary and empowering (when I say shirt I mean huge rack of gear). My first two attempts were both near disasters (the first close to terminal!), the reasons for failure obvious (too slow!), with the first one taking three days (Tangerine Trip with Matt Dickinson ) and the second two (Zodiac with Paul Tattersal). On both occasions, this ‘shirt on your back’ approach ended up with a great deal of suffering, and I realised that an ‘all or nothing approach was fine as long as you were good enough to do it ‘all’ in a day, and ‘nothing’ was crushing.
The tricks to climbing a wall fast could be broken down in this following list, the risk factor increasing as we go.
Don’t stop: This sounds simple and obvious, but if you just cut out all the stops (belays, bivvys, looking at the view), you can cut your normal time in half. To do this on a wall you need to be both slick and efficient in everything you do, and also employ ‘Short fixing’ to remove all the waiting at the belay time. Do these things and you will not get up the wall in a day, but you will climb it in half the speed (two days instead of 4 for example).
Self Sacrifice: On a speed ascent you are like a train speeding across the plain, smoke billowing out, the engine red hot, smashing through the day and the night, no obstacle a match for your speed. On a speed ascent, the leader is that train, the seconds the carriages full of coal and supplies. The train must not stop! By working as a team the leader gives it 100%, puts their ass on the line, redlines it, until their block is done - you switch engines, and you push on. I can see that when I failed in the past on speed ascents, its because I was the only train, and pushing so hard alone I either blew up or run out of coal.
Cut corners: Climbing a wall is a game of chess, both on free and aid pitches, where you’re balancing speed over safety, knowing that the more you push it the greater the chance of a fall. Gear needs to be tested, as well as holds, and your strength to jam and layback has to be divided out in order to stay the course. But in speed climbing all that goes out of the window, here you just GO-GO-GO. You just have to trust everything, old pegs, bits of tat, fixed copperheads, the stuff that saw you shitting your pants when you first climbed a wall are now rungs on a ladder. On a normal wall, you are employing a great deal of judgement and experience in order to climb safely, while in speed climbing you’re just trusting blind luck.
Don’t place any gear: When you’re speed climbing it’s easy to just leapfrog your gear over and over so that one mistake would see you falling forever (many times you could take a 100-metre fall if you screw up), and it’s not unusual to only have two or three pieces in a fifty-metre pitch. The reason for this is that the train must keep moving, and placing too much gear could see you at the sharp end waiting for the second to get that gear out and back up to you.
Just be sketchy: The last level of speed is a problem best described as this, as all thoughts of safety go out of the window, sacrificed at the altar of speed. Moving together without any pro, hand jam belays (yes - that’s what I said), dead loops (described in Me, Myself & I) - anything goes.
It took me a long time to work out these aspects of speed climbing, but it took a real leap of faith to actually pull off that one-day ascent.
For a long time me and my ex, Karen Darke, had had this dream of skiing to the South Pole, but Karen being paraplegic added quite a few problems (sit skiing at -30 for 1000km being only one!). It took all my belief in both of us to think it possible, but I only really believed it so when instead of just getting to the pole I considered skiing across Antarctica together. All of a sudden, just skiing to the pole sounded easy.
And so I used this same thought process on my dream of climbing El Cap in a day. Instead of trying to pull this off with partners, I deiced to try and solo it in a day! To rope solo a wall you have to climb, rap and clean every pitch, meaning what was already a mammoth task, actually gets three times higher! The number of people who had soloed El Cap in a day probably numbers under twenty, and at the time this list was made up of Valley locals.
So I came out with this plan, and had a few goes at this style of speed climbing, getting up at 1 am with just a pack full of water and a jacket (plus 2 head torches) and going for it. Each time I failed within a few hours, knowing I was too slow.
Eventually, I went over to Zodiac, a wall I’d climbed three times before over four days, and had a crack at it. I shared the base with two young 19-year-old guys going for a four-day ascent, and again I woke up at 1 am and gunned it, but within one pitch I knew it was beyond me.
I rapped to the ground and went to bed.
The next morning I chatted to the young guys, neither of us psyched for our projects, me feeling unable to pull off a solo, them feeling they hadn’t enough time for theirs. In a flash of glorious stupidity, I suggested we team up and climb it in a day, starting at 4 am the next morning. Maybe I’m persuasive. Maybe I underestimated the craziness of youth. But they agreed, and the next day we nailed Zodiac in about 19 hours. My dream had come true - only it hadn’t - climbed El Cap alone in twenty-four hours was now my dream.
Emboldened by our ascent of Zodiac I had a few days rest then went for my solo ascent once more, starting at 7 pm in the evening, climbing throughout the night, and all through the day. My speed was good, reaching the black tower by dawn, but as had happened before, as I entered the grey circle my strength began to fade. The lack of sleep, the fatigue of having everything on your shoulders, not to mention leading, rapping, cleaning and hauling, some get slower and slower. My water ran dry. My hands and feet cramped and ached. I had only one rope and knew I had to keep going. I had never felt so exposed and committed on any route in my life.
7 pm arrived and I was still five pitches from the top. I hardly even recognised the fact that I had lost my race; now it was all about survival. The exhaustion and tiredness that pouched once the race were lost was incredible and many times I woke up hanging from the wall not even aware I’d fallen asleep!
My engine recked, I barely made it to peanut ledge, two pitches from the top.
Since then I’ve thought a lot about trying this climb again, but each time I’ve been here in the valley, and looked up, all I could think about was the terror I’d felt, alone in the dark, feeling as far from the earth as a man on the moon.
But I’m back, and in this tiny window, I had found the strength to consider it again, the craziness of this tiny window perhaps the best reason to try. Today I’m resting and tomorrow I’d off to see if my body is up for it by going for a one-day ascent of the West Face of Leaning Tower with the ‘big wall virgins’ Andrew Cherry and Stefan Morris, climbers new to big walling, but with all the stupid and crazy energy required for bold adventures. I have no idea if I will shake this jet lag or sickness in time to climb the Zodiac, or if climbing with Andy and Stefan will wipe me out, but having the chance of sharing an adventure with them, and setting aside a dream/nightmare, is worth the risk.