The Nose: a guide
September 6, 2019
In 2014 I wrote a piece for UKC, a 5000-word monster, on how to climb the Nose on El Cap. The piece, which has been read over 65,000 times, was based on two ascents of the Nose (as well as twenty or so other walls). Since then I’ve climbed the Nose a further three times, including a stormy winter ascent, so I thought it might be worth revisiting the article.
The article will be broken down into four or five parts: basic questions, training, equipment, pitch by pitch, and finally, follow up questions (all the stuff that comes about due to the first four parts)
As with all such things I write, I will get a ton of people telling me I’m wrong (the kind of people who generally never take the timeshare the right way to do anything), which can be a rich source of information. Just remember though that I’m just writing about my experiences, and so are they, so always treat all advice as guidelines, not holey lore.
Lastly, as in the original piece, this article is designed to give you a lot of info to digest, allowing mortals to have a fair chance at the Nose; by mortals I mean not full-time climbers, but people with limited holidays and no time to try it twice. Although I cover some technical details, this is not a manual. For that, there are several good books on technique, but by far the most complete is my book Higher Education (300,000 words!). Yes, that’s a plug.
How hard do I need to climb?
The harder you can free climb the easier the Nose will be (and the more aid you can avoid) but be warned that The Valley is a place that punishes anyone who comes with the idea they can ‘crush it’. This is still good advice, and I’ve met many really strong free climbers who have come a cropper due to overconfidence in their ability, resulting in them going home without an ‘easy’ tick.
First off, you need to be able to climb cracks, and I’m not talking about the ten-metre gritstone kind, but smooth, sometimes polished cracks, cracks that feel as if they go on for miles, where you only have a few pieces that fit. Most normal climbers (not full-time climbers) cannot just rock up and climb at their home grade, unless they come from, even if they climb on granite (I’ve met several Chamonix guides who found the transition tough). You have to take into account the heat, polished rock, the exposure, the pressure to perform, the wind, people climbing over you, telling you to get-the-fuck-on-with-it, all while only having had four hours sleep.
In such circumstances, a pitch can feel five grades harder than it says on the topo, which makes you feel like shit, and you’ll bail. Also, add in the reality that for many climbers, the body (not to mention feet), will be beaten up from day after day of endless punishment, even before you go on the wall, and so you’ll be dog tired (deep inside) before you even commit (Yosemite and Camp 4 are not restful places).
There is also a big psychological factor here, as I’ve met many strong climbers (cranking E7 and hard sport) who just crumble on the wall due to exposure, the Stove Leg cracks being a place people often come undone. Up there, the cracks look like they go on forever, feeling harder than people say (“the stove legs are easy 5.8”). Up there the wind smashes unto you, tangles the rope, and you can’t hear each other. The wall stretches on and on into the sky as you look down, ten metres, to your last cam. You slump onto a cam and try and aid instead, but you’ve never practised it (you’re a wad, why would you?), and so you take bloody hours. Then you bail.
I have a friend who said he was going to free most of the Regular Route on Half Dome, but from the very first hard move, he started aiding and aided the lot.
To cruise routes at your normal grade, I think you need a month of just cragging out in the US, and if you had longer, you’d start by hitting the desert cracks to get your crack skills up. You need to feel comfortable, know how to tape up or use crack gloves effectively, run it out without freaking out. Yes, you can do this by ticking off some classic lines in the valley (short and technical for confidence and skill, long for stamina and head), but you also have to keep an eye on the clock. If you spend two weeks getting up to speed, and can’t get on the Nose, you might run out of time (one of the main reasons for failure is people put off committing for too long).
To climb hard long walls as free as possible you need to be both toughened up by constant climbing, as well as just fit enough to keep going, and I find having strong toes and feet (ideally with deadened nerves!), is vital, as crack climbing at this grade is very much about your legs and feet and toes (you move up the cracks with your legs, not your arms; arms just holding you in place as the legs do the work), so general fitness (which you can work on at home) is of equal importance.
Granite can also freak people out, as often there can seem to be no footholds, yet it’s marked as easy free climbing (this happens on the first few pitches), and so doing some Tuolumne slabs is a great practice (having the right boots for cracks is also a huge factor, with mega tight boots for doing V12 boulders not what you want, the classic TC Pro the boot everyone wears for a reason).
If you get in shape, you should be able to French free (A0) all the way to the Great Roof, with the odd section (A1) using an aider, as there are long sections of moderate rock climbing, interspersed with some pulling on gear, or aiding a few moves. Again, you can practice French free at home, even at the climbing wall (going from aid to free and back).
Above the Great Roof things get a bit harder and steeper, and even pitches that would be easy if they were on the ground (like the Pancake flake), can feel very intimidating (I know two top-level climbers who fell off the Pancake flake and busted their legs). And so most people will aid higher up, which although it slows things down, gives the body and mind a rest, which is often just what it needs by then.
Is being able to aid important?
If a climbing team are rock climbing wads, but total nincompoops at aiding, they will often grind to a juddering hold on the top sections of the Nose, or being unnecessarily slow. Around the great roof, such people begin to come unstuck, begin to lose their confidence, their slowness slowing up other parties, which increases pressure, which leads to mistakes, more fear, more slowness. A failure to learn the basics of aid climbing is often tied to the idea it’s somehow beneath someone who can do one-arm pull up when really that idea is as valid as Adam Ondra not learning to deploy a parachute due to climbing 9b. You need to learn the basics as you will need them, plus its not hard aid in any way, but it is exposed, and you can still injure yourself if you’re clueless.
What if you’re not a strong free climber?
So where does this leave the VS or 5.7 leaders? Well, it leaves you having to rely more on aid and trickery (again, it’s easy to aid), and to accept you’ll go much slower than someone who can just crank-on-up (an average free pitch should take a tenth to a quarter of the time of an aid pitch… ideally).
If you are prepared to aid all that can be aided, and just free climb what can’t be, then I think a solid HVS or 5.9 climbers should be fine, perhaps even lower. When I say solid, I mean that, and they should be able to climb above protection, and understand loose rock, protecting themselves and their second(s), and be confident with general problem-solving. The real crux for such a climber is the Texas flake, which cannot be cheated, so it’s vital you’re solid with chimneys (some 8a climbers are not, while some 5.5 climbers are). If you are it’s a path, if you’re not then it would be very scary, and dangerous.
How tough do you need to be?
The idea of being ‘tough’ is probably odd, as most people simply focus on ‘how hard can you climb’, but a route like The Nose (and many other world-class routes) require much more of you than how well your muscles can contract (toughness is also grit, fortitude and all that good stuff). Yes, there are climbers who can send it in 10 hours, onsight, but the world is not full of such supermen (although comment sections are full of them), and real people are more human.
The Nose is really an alpine climb, and like any alpine route, you will need to be able to hold your nerve and “man-up” (women included). This toughness comes in several forms, from having the nerve to start the route in the first place (you or your partner may look for reasons not to begin) to wanting to go down on the first day, the first pitch, the first move, when things are the hardest. Some people are intimidated by the wind, all the kit, the heat, or simply gravity. Very often it’s not fun, it’s not like you thought it would be, it’s stressful and scary, you might even think you’re going to die (seconding the Great Roof and lowering off a rusty peg can be a poop your pants moment). In order not to crumble you’ll need to have some backbone and stamina for suffering (and you will suffer).
How do you get tough?
The best way to get this toughness is by having some background in alpine climbing, and very often those who endure and succeed have already endured and succeeded on other climbs. If you have no background in alpine climbing, say you only climb in the gym, then I would advise that you test your metal before trying the Nose, ideally in the months leading up to your trip to Yosemite (see training below).
How much kit do I need?
People often assumed they need a ton of specialist kit for big wall climbing, putting the route beyond them, when in fact there is very little gear that cannot be pulled together as a team (as well as begged and borrowed) or even improvised. The main pieces of specialist equipment you will need are;
- Haul bag (The Fish Budget is the cheapest at $139, but you’ll need to order it in advance, or have it shipped to the Valley post office)
- Wall hauler (Petzl Micro Traxion is fine)
- Ascenders (Handled ascenders, one set each)
- Lanyards (two each)
- Aiders (Metolius pocket aiders are ideal)
Beyond that, you simply need three sets of cams if you want to aid or, or just two, if you’re happy to run it out (free or aid). I will cover the equipment needed in more detail below.
How long will it take?
I had an Irish mate who wanted to climb the Nose but had very limited time. We met up at 1 pm on Monday, after he arrived on the bus, we slept on the wall that night at Sickle. He’d not climbed a wall before, so we climbed to Dolt ledge the next day, then up to Camp 1 the day after that, and fixed all the way to the top of the Texas flake (with two ropes), as a storm was forecast for Wednesday (the wall was empty due to the forecast). The storm passed in the night, and we climbed up to Camp 3, then Camp 4 the next day, and decided to take it easy (so we could top out in the daylight). We topped out the following afternoon (Saturday), and bivvyied on top (something everyone should do), and walked down Sunday, and he got the bus back Monday (and we got on Mescalito on Wednesday!).
For me, this is a more realistic schedule for your average climbing team than the often quoted three days. Yes, maybe going from camp 3 to the top will save you a day, or going sickle to Camp 1 (it’s only two pitches from Dolt), and you can get it done in three, but doing so - perhaps - reduces your chances. What I mean by this, is if you plan for three (three days water plus some spare), but get slowed down on day one, say you only get to Dolt, or push on till 3 am getting to Camp 1, you’ll probably bail. Whereas taking five days water, and some spare, means you have the ability to do it in three days, or five or six.
Time-wise, I think that for most people, unless you arrive and get on the Nose on day one, two weeks is too short, and you need three or four. Two is way too short and gives very little room for manoeuvre (bad weather, jet lag, illness, sunstroke, dropping the car keys.
A two-week trip tends to give you enough time to get over jet lag, get a turn in the queue for the route, fix lines, take your time on the route, and not have to rush and stress or add in a factor to an already difficult objective.
This amount of time also allows you time for some false starts, low retreats and a warm-up (if it’s safe, climbing the East Buttress on El Cap can give you a heads up on the descent for example, and just getting used to the rock is a good idea).
Do I need a portaledge?
If you have a portaledge you camp anywhere, which means you’re dependant on slow parties clearing off ledges or blocking you from getting to a flat ledge for the night. They also offer much greater storm protection (you can sit out storms that send other parties down), and remove an element of stress that could see you fail.
But on the flip side, a ledge makes you slower, both as it adds more weight, but also that you don’t have the same drive to push on between ledges. This isn’t a bad thing as long as you plan on a leisurely ascent.
A double ledge for a three-person teams means tiny ledges for one (such as Sickle), can be used, or all three can sit on the ledge in an emergency.
An alternative is the new G7 Pod, which is much lighter, more compact, and doubles up as your mat. Just having one of these could make a big difference (just make sure you take off your nut tool!).
If you don’t have a portaledge, you can at least have the full big wall experience, although, be warned that many of the ledges are not great for a team of two or three, with each tending to have one prime spot, and them several slopey/lumpy spots.
What about the crowds?
The main thing to remember is that 50%, if not 90%, of the people you’re jostling position with, are going to bail by Dolt Tower. Yes, they’ll somehow get up to Sickle, fix their ropes, have an epic getting their bags up there, slow everyone down around them; but once they start getting over to the Stove Legs, both the climbing and the seconding, hauling and lowering out, their psyche will crumble. Added to this is that you have rap anchors all the way down the wall from there. Who could resist that?
So I tend to view this part of the process like the swimming segment of a triathlon, where it’s all pushing and shoving, drama and stress, but where nearly the entire field drowns about fifty metres out (or drags their sorry asses to the shore!).
The trick is to be fast and early, the former not easy if you’ve not climbed a wall before, the latter easy if you have a watch. The aim to be at the base of the 1st pitch before dawn (you will probably not be the only one), the 1st pitch the one above the Footstool (this is a ‘solo’, but I would pitch it still, as people drop crap down the wall, it has some loose bits, and you don’t want to die on the Nose on the approach).
You also need to work out who is doing what at the base. This can be broken down into:
- Dolt Run: Just climbing up to Dolt than rapping down again, either to train for a one-day ascent or just for giggles.
- Speed ascent: This party will range from some dope-smoking locals, hoping to do a sub-five-hour ascent, to people who look as if they’re about to storm Omaha beach. Hopefully, speed climbers will be fast - but not always - but let them pass. If they slow you down high on the route, then you can ask them to fix a rope for you (but only if they look trustworthy!)
- Multi day teamsThese are the guys you need to get ahead of, as a high percentage will be bloody slow and useless (and so could you).
- Fixers: You will also encounter people who have fixed to sickle, and are heading up to haul (or get their ropes down, as they’ve had second thoughts.
- Bailers: Teams who are doing the walk of shame, having bailed down Dolt tower before the sun came up.
- Tourons: You will find these at the base at all hours, just looking, and it’s worth working out the difference between them and actual competition, as they can add unnecessary stress.
So the basics are to climb up to Sickle on day one, which can be tough, as here is the hardest climbing for many people, plus the hottest, and fix down from Sickle with three ropes.
An alternative to getting up at 4 am, is to go up at 4 pm, climb Pine Line (a nice little route), and fix pitch one. This means you can walk around to the Pine line ledge at 4 am (you can ‘probably’ sleep up there), and get onto the route and bypass parties (the 1st pitch is also one of the most polished and weird).
If you’ve not got your heart totally set on the Nose, the Triple Direct is another option (a mash-up of the Salathe, Muir and Nose), but this requires some more solid free skills for the Free Blast (it’s not free and it’s not a blast).
What about fixing?
The number one bit of advice from me would NEVER haul up the first pitches to Sickle, as it takes forever and increases your chances of failure dramatically (and slows everyone up). The last time I was in the Valley we climbed Grape Race, which climbs those first pitches up to Sickle, then goes left, and so we had to haul (we fixed to pitch one, then hauled from the Pine Line ledge). As we had our bags on pitch one, everyone seemed to assume that was the way to do it, and so within 24 hours, every single belay had haul bags hanging off it, each and everyone having some kind of fuck-up when lowering out to Sickle. The result, even after all that pain, was every single team bailed after wasting two or three days of perfect weather (I did tell them, but they thought I was being an asshole).
Once you fix to Sickle, you should get on your ropes as soon as you can, ideally the following morning (although some people will be fried). Yes, people might use your ropes (go up or down them), but if set up right they’ll be fine.
You need three 60 metre ropes to haul up from the ground, which means you might need to take a lead line, haul line, and spare line, both to lower out, jug and haul. This could be a half rope you take up with you, or a rope you drop (to be picked up), or left at the first anchor.
How you’d do this is with a two person team is (with three sixty metre ropes fixed down from Sickle), is:
- Climber A jugs the first line (line 1) and waits at the 1st anchor
- Climber B attaches line 1 to the haul bag with the end of the fixed line.
- Climber B jugs line 1 to 1st anchor
- Climber B starts to haul
- Climber A jugs line 2 to 2nd anchor with the end of line 1 (or they wait for the bag to be up).
- Climber A hauls bag to anchor 2 using line 1 after climber B releases it
- Climber B climbs line 2 as A hauls
- Climber B takes the end of line 1 and climbs to anchor 3 (Sickle)
- Climber A climbs to anchor 3 as B hauls
- Line 1 is replaced by haul line, and either taken as the lower out line, dropped to a waiting friend and shorter lower out used)
Needless to say, there are many ways of doing this, and I have just hauled the entire thing in one (passing knots), but this often requires someone on the ground to guide the bags over a tiny little roof (unless you use a hauling cone).
When fixing ropes, study the technique of re-belaying (used in SRT), and no rope should go fully from one anchor to the next, but ideally clipped off to a bolt along the way. This is done by the last person down, and allows more than one person to be on a rope when climbing back up, and reduces the chances of rope damage due to shite jumaring skills.
When training for the Nose, I would incorporate some practising of passing knots with both descenders and ascenders.
Is the hauling hellacious?
When you go on a wall for 14 days with a team of four, where you still have gallons of water left at the end, that’s only slightly hellacious, so no, it’s easy; if it isn’t, you’re just a lightweight who’s not put the training hours in!
You should only have one large haul bag, even for a three-person team, with a maximum of five days of water (so 15 water rations for three people), which is not that heavy, especially if you don’t have a portaledge, fly etc. The higher you get, the steeper the wall, the lighter the bag, the easier it is, so keep that in mind. Don’t be an idiot and try hauling the bag with the haul line running over ledges (such as Sickle, Dolt, Camp 1 etc), and always extend the hauler so the haul line goes directly to the bag (unless you have no option); your muscles and rope will thank you for it. Once the bag is at the hauler, you can just pull them onto the ledge. Learn to do the ‘power walk’ and put the heaviest climber on haul duty, to begin with (not the 50kg V12 vegan). Learn space hauling, but try to avoid using it, and often just having someone else pulling on the ropes as you power walk down the wall is all that’s needed.
How much does it cost?
Flying out to California and climbing The Nose may seem like an expensive trip, but I think it compares favourably with a trip to the Alps or other destinations once you take into account both the weather (less money spent on wet weather days), the quality of the climbing and the lower cost of things in the US.
Flights to San Francisco or LA can be picked up cheaply, and car hire can be shared amongst a team making it cheaper than using trains and buses to get there (but that’s still a good option, but you might end up having to factor in staying overnight somewhere on the way there and on the way back).
Having a hire car also means you can get to the valley in 4 hours, allowing you to get started on the climb as soon as possible, and allows you to buy food and water bottles on the way to the valley (there are several Walmarts on the way), which keeps the cost down (food in the valley can be considerably more expensive). Having a car gives you a safe place to store your kit when on the wall, or in a campsite (there are thieves around), and makes it easier to get all your big wall crap to and from the wall (vital if you’re climbing out of season when the bus no longer goes down to the bridge).
What about the camping?
Camping in Camp 4 in Yosemite is very cheap, and experience, sometimes positive, and sometimes negative, but requires a lot of hurdles to jump. The biggest one has always been getting a place. In the past, you had to queue from about 5 am, with no guarantee you’d get a place, and like all campsites, it’s always best to check in on a Monday morning and avoid holidays. You’re also limited on how long you can stay in the peak season, which is why it’s best to climb in the Autumn when it’s both cooler, less busy, and you can stay as long as you want.
Although I’ve spent months in Camp 4, of late I’ve found it’s been a bit of a shit hole when out of season (sorry), with just a free-for-all for spaces (if you can find an inch of room in a bear box, you can move in), with the toilets and sink (and single tap for 150++ people) getting pretty bad. The low cost keeps people coming, and it’s slowly changed from a climber/walker site to just a site for anyone who’s got no money, with big families, and random psychos often spoiling the dream. But it is what it is. At the moment they’ve switched to a lottery system, which going by how most things are implemented in the valley, I’m sure it’ll be a total unworkable fucking disaster.
Alternatives to camp 4?
Although I do sometimes stay in Camp 4, it’s often more for the benefit of partners who want to live the dream. But mainly I stay at sites further away, both inside and outside the park, which tend to be easier to book into (rangers don’t treat you like animal scum), and sometimes cooler, with camping up in the meadows being really nice (but expensive unless you’re in a big group).
I’ve also done quite a bit of camping ‘elsewhere’, and there are lots of good spots for this, as the days of rangers hunting with IR goggles seem to be long gone. The problem with this kind of illegal camping is it’s not camping, it’s just bivvying, so you need a car, and don’t have somewhere to hang out. This means this is only an option if you’re desperate and can’t find anywhere to sleep for the night (if you get in on the bus in the evening and have no sight, what do you do?).
While we’re on the subject, always bring in all your stove fuel and insect repellent (vital in the summer), as the stock system used in the park is based on not having stock, meaning a long trip out of the park to get gas.
So with the basics out of the way, how do you feel about your chances on The Nose? Do you think you’re up to considering it? If so, look at episode 2: Nose Training.
Read part 2: Spoiler Alert: Nose Beta.