We decided to attempt the El Capitan route while perusing guidebook (amazing book, you should buy one) over a healthy meal of cauliflower fried rice and veggies. The book described the climb as 4-pitches of 5. 10+ OW, with a 3-hour approach. Chris and I were looking for something remote but a bit easier for the technical climbing, El Capitan seemed just the ticket. Additionally, the recommended #5 cam and “optional #6” excited both of us about some OW grunting. I did a quick mental estimation: 3 hours approach + 2. 5 hours descent + 4 pitches of climbing roughly 3 hours. “It’ll be about a 9 hour day,” I said to Chris. “And that’s conservative,” he added. Coming off earlier the week when I estimated that would take 17 hours and we ended up shaving off 3. 5 hours, it seemed pretty reasonable that we could get this 4-pitcher done a lot quicker. 8:30am: We set out the next day and a slow and steady pace, arriving on the trailhead at 8:30am. We followed a broken climbers trail nearly dead south, staying right of the major creek and some old plane wreckage, and cascading (pun :)) across mixed terrain of dirt and logs and talus field. The guidebook said to turn left after an hour and follow the talus field to the notch. Looking up from the trail, we spotted a major V-notch that cut the horizon at exactly 56 minutes. So we turned, moving up the steeper grassy paths to the scree and talus above. Chris reached the to notch before me. “How is it?” I asked, slipping on rocks. Light weight trail runner shoes don’t always make the best approach shoes. Noted. “Good,” he said. “Room for two to sit where you are?” I asked. “Yes. ”
I peered up and over the notch to where Chris had stopped. I immediately questioned the space for two. He was perched on a loose ledge of rock and slipping dirt. The whole loose pile hung over a 15-foot drop into a steep melting snow couloir on the east side of the face. It was cold in the notch. Chris checked an altimeter: 7,500 feet. Exactly where we were supposed to be. Or was it?
“Are we down climbing that?” I asked. A note of worry about the impending gravel slot. “I think so,” Chris said. He took a couple looks at the paths: one trending skier’s right, the other skier’s left. He started down the left trending one first, gripping a lodged rock the size of a volleyball that was half covered in dirt, half exposed. I clutched. He made a couple of moves and came back up. Tried skier’s right. “Chris do you think we can do this?” I asked. Now an obvious two notes of worry. Of the two of us, I’m the weaker climber, less formed in the alpine, and while I hold my own, when it comes down to it I’m the lowest common denominator. And, I kind of hate down climbing. Chris decided we should place some gear and down lead the pitch. He set up a marginal anchor, I took the gear sling and headed down the gully, 11:00am. I nervously touched and tapped at the rocks, lifting full pieces of mud off the side of the gully, and eventually tumbling a wheel barrow-sized rock (safely) down the heart of the couloir. Chris minded my annoying nervous chatter and I found a relatively safe spot to build an anchor under a quasi protected lip of the snow where I belayed Chris to me. We swapped gear and he continued on, down-leading the second pitch far enough for us to gain a low-angle rock slab. As we both touched feet on the slab, we looked north. There, basking in the warmth of the summer day was Big Kangaroo. She was beautiful. Bright. It assumes precisely what has to be proved, which is that https://domyhomework.guru intellectual pursuits are like tennis? Tall. Everything you hope for when approaching a new wall. but. she also seemed pretty far away. Too far away. We checked our clock: 11:30am. We were already 3 hours into the hike, and were nowhere near the base of the climb. Didn’t the guidebook say the approach was 3 hours? We aren’t exactly slow walkers. At first, we tried to save some time by traversing the rocky ledges high and northeastern-ly. But after 20 minutes of down climbing and traversing on small ledges we cliffed out on a band of questionable rock. After deliberating we returned to the colouir and hiked down through the scree to the lower mountain basin, losing roughly 700feet of vertical gain. Our plan was to cross the lower section of the east facing cirque, and rehike the lost vertical on the opposite (N) side of the basin. Had there been snow — and it been earlier season — it seems completely reasonable that climbers could have traversed directly along snow. But given the limited snow, this was impossible. We hiked down. We crossed the basin. We started hiking back up. It was hot. Direct sun and and our awareness of our increasingly long approach time (now 4 hours (12:30pm)) made for a relatively laugh-less approach. We quietly crossed the basin and hiked back up the tallus, attempting to reach a nebulous set of ledges that signified the start of our climb. However, while most of the climbs in the Big Kangaroo area start on climber’s right directly where the face of the climb meets the mountain, El Capitan starts on a higher ledge system. The guide book describes it as “no easy way” to start the climb. I was hot. I was nervous we didn’t have enough water: a little less than 2 liters each. I crossed the field to a small melting patch of snow and stuck my face into the trickle of snowmelt, sucking on water. At roughly 1:30pm we reached the ledge system. With a glance, we guessed the path of least resistance was climber’s left of the ledge system up a broken dihedral and loose rock. Chris started soloing up this feature. He stopped half way for me. I continued, leading the second free solo above him, stopping after gaining a ledge. Chris joined, and we roped up for the last “pitch” which was gained by ascending another broken corner of flaky, grainy rock. “We should have roped up lower,” he said. The rock was exceptionally loose. Finally. At around 3:30pm, we arrived at the prominent ledge system that Blake mentioned in the guidebook. A quick 5. 7 traverse leading up flakes was meant to lead us to the base of the splitter OW pitch. I took the gear and immediately fought maybe four evergreen trees for dominance on the ledge. Like passing a troll, the trees fought hard, and I worried I was either (a) going to be pushed off by a branch or (b) pull out the one of the trees that I was wailing on. They were loose. After passing the trees, I continued on, walking along the large ledge very Alex Honnold-esque except about 5 feet wider than any ledge. I crossed behind a massive flake, squeezing through like a few moves of canyoneering. And gained the corner. I built a belay because I was battling rope drag. But that wasn’t the full pitch. Chris followed my lead. “I don’t think this is the end of the 5. 7 pitch,” he said, flatly. “Okay,” I said. It was now close to 4pm. According to my original forecast, we should have been a half hour away from the car on the return side — not half way up the first pitch of the day. I was more tired than I thought I should be, already two down leads + two free solo pitches + two roped ledge traverse pitches in. I took Chris’s gear and slotting my hands into what was the most clean crack we’d seen all day. A wide #2/#3 steep hand crack that felt more 5. 9 than 5. 7. A few moves later I gained a prominent pillar at the base of a striking off width. I built a creative belay and tucked in behind the pillar, climber’s right, to make room for Chris. Chris reached the top of the pillar quickly. He unpacked the #5 cam from the pack, gearing up for the splitter 5. 10 OW. Without hesitation, he slotted his right leg deep in the crack and bumped his left foot up an opposite wall. He reached for the #5, tried to place it: no dice. Way too wide. Instead he slotted a couple of nuts climber’s left in a small fission between the main wall and the wall his left foot was on. A few grunts (he carried the pack, (thanks, Chris!)) and bumps later, he found the “awkward quartz cave” and belayed me up. My turn. I took the 5. 10+ pitch. Technically the crux, but I’m not sure it was harder than P4. Dirty hand cracks led up and out of the cave, gaining the base of an even wider hand crack above. [Beta here: belay below the wide crack, not to the left into the corner. (We tried the left-more crack too, that was not right. )]
The wide sections were enough to bring 3 #4s to protect the full thing. Chris ended up leading the P4 wide hands section with careful laybacks and some interesting exposure stepping out and over a big knob on climber’s right. He bumped the #4 a couple of times, and even down climbed one section to fetch it for another wide section above. A cold while later I heard: “Off belay, Jean!”
I followed, heaving and hoing up the steep, wide crack (#4/#5) cursing the fact that I kept my puffy jacket on under the pack. Atop the pitch was a big ledge (big enough for a bivvy, I noted. The time was 7:30pm. ). A seeming fifth pitch, or maybe the end of the P4?, continued up and right, but Chris wanted to check out the ridge line south and west of our spot to see if we could regain the front side of the summit and start our descent. As the guidebook notes, most climbers forego the true summit of Big Kangaroo in favor of an easier descent. We’d been going for 11-hours already, we were ready to start the descent. Not to mention, it was becoming sunset. Chris hollered back at me, affirming “it goes,” and I traversed across to meet him on the ledge. Looking down, though, I wasn’t so sure. The ground was several pitches below, and it looked like a fair bit of strenuous down climbing. Not exactly the “easy descent” the book referred to. “Really?” I said. Again, I didn’t think I could do it. The down climb this time seemed almost vertical. I wasn’t eager to hop unroped onto what could have been a 120m fall to the base of the climb after knowing that ALL day we’d been climbing loose and breaking rock. “I think I’d like to get belayed down this too. ” Chris obliged. With a rope on and my nerves more settled, I think I moved a lot faster than I would have. It took 3 roped down climb pitches to reach the ground, which isn’t fast, but at least I’m here typing about it now, instead of. Yes, it took time to set up an anchor and tie in. Yes, it takes time to set gear, and it takes time to pitch out the descent. But all in all, I made moves faster, stayed calmer, and made what I consider the right decision based on the circumstances and my personal level of confidence navigating such terrain. I appreciated Chris’s willingness to meet my needs. It’s the testament of a good partner to help your co-climber through the entirety of the climb, AND descent. In the end, you are a team. And while ego, and aptitude, and efficiencies play a role in the alpine, so too does safety. I was proud of myself for speaking my needs, and proud of my partner for helping with them. By dark, we reached the bottom of the climb. We ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each. We didn’t talk much. We ascended a small notch to the north and then turned skier’s left to start the hike down. It was too dark to find a path, and there was no obvious trail that we either (a) new of or (b) could see. Instead, we strapped on our headlamps (I also taped my iPhone on my helmet and put on the flashlight feature for added lumens) and careened through the dense pacific northwest forest — bushwack style — for the next 2. 5 hours. We crossed streams, slid down muddy slopes, got scratched by sticks, pinecones, rocks. We laughed a little. We walked a lot. We fell occasionally. We used the Liberty Bell Formation above to navigate our whereabouts, and occasionally could see the glow of headlights from cars passing on the road below. After what seemed like a long time, I pulled back a branch and shouted “The road! The road!”
We’d made it. There, sitting a bit higher than the creek was the bright glow of the road posts, reflecting my iPhone/headlamp in a warm “hello. ”
The time: 12:30am.
16 hours in total. We immediately pulled off our creek-sogged clothing and grabbed a bag of corn chips and hummus. We gulped down fresh cold water from a jug. And then, we drove back to Mazama. In the next few hours, and days, I thought about the climb.
16 hours of climbing is a lot, no matter which way you cut it. It’s not the LONGEST day in the world. But it’s a good go. There are times when your plans and preparation go well. There are times when you exceed your plans and preparations (as evidenced by Chris and I crushing the Bell Traverse earlier that week). But there are other times still, where the power of the mountains, and the unknown, and the true value of the unexplored mean putting climbers in situations of the unplanned. These are moments that I cherish. These tend to be memorable and impactful. The moments that change us more as climbers, than casual walks through the park. I was just talking with a colleague of mine at Microsoft, who is a mountaineer who recently was turned around on a summit attempt of Mt. Rainier. He’s been leading a group of 9 over the past 6 months to what is likely the most monumental mountaineering any of these guys has ever been a part of. 1,200 feet below the summit, they made the decision to turn around. It’s never easy to bail. It never feels good. It’s rarely the “only option. ” And yet, they made that call. The whole group of ten of them, with the summit in sight, immediately turned around and pointed their crampons downhill to start the dehumanizing descent of a failed attempt. My friend, who was at the back of the pack said he made the call and shouted to the guy in front of him, “Hey I’m sorry dude but can you please pass along the message that I think we should turn around?” He said he heard the shout go up the line one by one, and then all in one moment nine headlamps turned in his direction. “But what was the most amazing thing was that the guys didn’t think that was the most important part of the journey,” my friend confided in me later. “The thing that was most memorable to them wasn’t even on the summit attempt at Rainier. It was actually a few months ago when we were doing a training lap to Camp Muir. The day hike in was calm and easy. But overnight we got swarmed in a whiteout. You couldn’t see or hear anyone. The team had to navigate from Muir in full mountain conditions, and that’s something they’d never done before. ”
I resonated with my friend. Big Kangaroo didn’t feel like an easy feat. It felt more like a battle. A challenge. Both mentally and interpersonally. But rarely do I feel compelled to write about a climb. Rarely do I think about a climb as much as I did this one. And it’s because there were so many points of learning. A dozen things to improve, to make better, to tighten, to loosen. And when it’s all said and done. it’s for Type II moments like these that I really find myself addicted to the sport. I haven’t been jonesing so hard to get back to the alpine as I feel right now. Yep. Jean.