Text and pictures © 2003-2019 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"In Layton Kor's Beyond the Vertical, you can read about when Galen Rowell got his boot stuck in a wide crack above Hollow Flake Ledge on an early ascent of the Salathé. Kor soloed up to him and hammered the boot out from below."
Right: Early morning on the 1st pitch of the Free Blast. Way to go !
Now that we climbed Half Dome, we need to set our sight onto something bigger. Eight years ago I climbed Triple Direct from the ground up, but we learn there is another option, thanks to some fixed lines to Heart Ledges at the end of the Free Blast. The Free Blast is the first part of the Salathé Wall (shared by some other routes too). So it's possible to take a day climbing it in a 'normal' way, without haul bag and with a light pack (and mind), rappel down, head back to Camp 4 for some rest, come back whenever you are ready and jug up the fixed lines to finish the next, ahem, 25 or so pitches. Two germans sharing the same site at Camp 4 did it just that way a few days before and they are all: "Yeah, go, it's not that hard, you won't have any trouble on it..." A little more prodding and we see that although they took 2½ days to ascend the upper part, they reached the intermediate ledges at night. And they are much stronger than we are.
Left: Pitch 3 of the Free Blast, a bunch of rotten pieces under the roof.
Right: Just before starting on the hard and slippery 5.11 slabs.
After we climbed the Free Blast (and I took a small fall at the Half Dollar while trying to pull on a stopper) we were committed to the Salathé Wall. One day of rest, gear sorting, soul searching and eating and at 3:30 in the morning we are at the base of El Cap. I jug up the first fixed line quickly and start hauling the heavy haul bag while Jenny jumars up. It's my third big wall but the first time I actually haul a pig up. It's a brand new Metolius that didn't look serious enough all shiny at Camp 4.
Left: Jenny on the 5.9 layback of the Free Blast.
Right: Half Dollar pitch (5.10) on the Free Blast, just after I fell off.
As I'm jugging up in the dark I think I hear frogs a few times but just assume it must be some bird. On the 3rd fixed line, right in the pool of light thrown by my headlamp, 20cm from my face, there's a little white frog sticking to the white vertical wall. What it's doing 150 meters up a dry blank wall, I have no idea but we'll hear several more as we go up. At 6 in the morning, after the last fixed line, we arrive at Heart Ledge and wake up a party of two. Bad news, there's another party of two sleeping just above at Lung Ledge. Too crowded, we leave the pig and decide to go back down. Another rest day where we go have a hearty english breakfast in Mariposa and a bit of Internet in Merced.
Left: Jenny Rappelling from Heart Ledges.
Right: Big Wall gear before starting for the Salathé Wall. The food and the poop bag are not there yet.
Right: Jenny dragging the pig up the 4th class pitch.
With the last light of the evening we are back jugging up the fixed lines with a bit of extra water and a zip-lock bag of freshly cooked pasta salad. When we get there we find a party of three fixing the first pitch of the Salathé. It takes them more than two hours and we have to give them our cheater stick (which I wanted to keep secret for only the direst situations... We found it, I swear). Okay, it's dark but we should have taken this as a clue... In the morning they are slow to rise and slow to start. It takes me the same time to lead the pitch than it took them to jug it. Already we start talking with the leader about passing them since we have to wait half an hour at every pitch.
Left: Jenny about to commit to the pendulum into the terrifying Hollow Flake (visible in the middle).
Right: One more squeeze chimney: the 5.9 pitch above the Hollow flake. Not as terrifying though.
When we do the Hollow Flake pitch, there's a change of tide. It's already in full sun when I do the pendulum. The fixed line of the pendulum is tied to a large block hanging by a thread, ready to fly off. The large offwidth above looks ominous and my #6 friend barely fits. I pull on it heartily until... it won't fit anymore and I have to put it back on my harness. So I'm looking at a 30 to 40 meters lead fall combined with a 10 meter pendulum right into a dihedral. And when I look at the sole of my resoled shoe, I see it bend around with the heat... I start an unhealthy combination of Elvis Leg, pig sweat, and shitting my pants. I see Mark, the australian of the other party, just 8 meters above me with lots of coils of rope at his feet. Even with my begging look he doesn't get the message, so I get more insistent with a pathetic: "I could sure use some of that rope, mate..." and loose all dignity and chance to pass them in the process. But I make it to the belay alive.
Left: Jenny after the 5.9 chimney pitch above the Hollow Flake.
Right: The Ear, one of the multiple squeezes of the Salathé, this one rated 5.7 (!?!)
After that we just tag along, belaying over them or just below them. Waiting often, but after the humiliating Hollow Flake I won't say anything. Jenny has to abandon a green DMM that the pig twisted around and stuck inside a crack. Higher up we hear lots of australian swearing at the Ear pitch. 5.7 ? 5.7 !?! But where did they get those insane sandbag grades ? It makes the Steck-Salathé feel like a hike in retrospect. I remove helmet and my rack before starting the squeeze through the roof and hang it all to my harness with a long sling. Good thing I did too as I can't even turn my head around once I'm in. Okay, I got a big nose, but still... The green monster cam proves invaluable once more as its loud 'clunk!' reassures me to no end in the middle of the roof. The only problem is that I need to remove it once I've passed it otherwise Jenny will have trouble jugging inside the roof. How a 10 meter horizontal roof traverse in a smooth squeeze chimneys can be rated 5.7 while the two pitches below which are a breeze to free are rated 5.10a and 5.10c is completely beyond me. Anyway, it wasn't terrifying like the hollow flake, so we are back again behind them.
Left: Jugging up the overhang of the Ear.
Right: Jugging at night below El Cap Spire.
It gets dark just as they start the last pitch before El Cap Spire, the good bivy spot, so we ask them to get our rope up in the process. I jug the rope while their third man cleans up the pitch. There's a mess of ropes behind the spire, apparently Mark spun on himself while jugging and my line, his haul line and now my own haul line are all twisted around. Which brings a near disaster when the ropes release a rock onto the third man cleaning the pitch on the ledge below, crushing his left hand.
Jenny, alone with both pigs at the belay below is getting nervous while the rock flies by her. He manages to wrestle the pigs into submissions while we haul simultaneously through tons of rope drag; he shows up later with a bloody hand, already all swollen, and start choking down Ibuprofen tablets. Jenny shows up last, but in 10 seconds she has all the gear sorted and the dinner out: a can of chicken with a package of mustard, a can of beans and a can of fruit. Within half an hour we are all asleep. It's only 20:30 but with the short days it's been dark for two hours already.
"Cruise or bruise
Summit or plummet
Make haste or tomato paste
Finger locks or cedar box
Climb in style or fly a mile
Unravel the mystery or soon become history
Underclings or angel wings
Nail the seam or giant scream." — Dick Shockley, Cruising Up the Salathé Wall, Ascent 1980.
Right: Jenny sleeping hanging by my feet while we wait for the previous party to finish the pitch.
Left: First (steep) pitch in the morning after night on El Cap Spire. See the hanging rope and how steep it already is ?
In the morning we are up at 6 and ready first, I start as fast as I can, freeing the hard 5.10 above while still chewing on my breakfast, but then revert to pulling on gear as it gets too steep. Fortunately the dreaded 5.9 squeeze above proves no match for my #6 friend (this time). I manage to free the following pitch before it gets too hot and I then start pulling on gear to rest a bit, if not to speed things up.
We get into the Sewer, supposedly the worst pitch on the route for being wet, and actually find it dry and quite enjoyable, going all free. That is to say before I try to link up with the next pitch with a ton of rope drag and end up trying to layback a greasy fist crack in a dihedral while the sun bakes me. Lots of gear pulling here too; on whatever little quantity of gear I have left after 60 meters.
Right: The pitch known as the Sewers, supposedly the worst one of the route, but actually quite enjoyable when dry.
Left: Reaching Sloping Ledge after the Sewers pitch.
At the sloping ledge above I have the 'joy' of using a ziploc bag for a natural need for the first time. The ziploc goes into a Tupperware which goes into another large ziploc. Soon after that I understand why we call haul bags: 'pigs'. It's not the shape, it's the smell ! And I also understand why drug smugglers who believe zip-locks will keep their stash hidden from dogs are quite in the wrong...
Right: Jenny at the belay of Sloping Ledge.
Above sloping ledge I make a mess: I start right, then go left onto what the guidebook calls 5.7 loose flakes. I find them pretty solid and beautiful but much more than 5.7. Then I hit a snag: I barely manage a mantle move onto a tiny ledge, I can't reach an old rotten sling hanging left and end up going back right into what should have been a '5.9 crack'. How an overhanging seam with a few piton holes can be rated at 5.9 is beyond me, but what kills me is the rope drag: I can't even aid the damn thing, with the rope pulling me sideways. A final cam hook move takes me to the pendulum back left, but I wisely decide to clean up the mess below before attempting to finish the pitch; even though, I have a hard time finishing, even without placing more than one cam on the upper part. I hate rope drag and I hate having to climb on a single rope as there is nothing I can do about it besides not placing gear or back cleaning it.
Left: Relaxing on the ascenders.
Right: Jenny hanging out with the pig at the belay below the roof.
Then at the tiny ledge above we have the surprise of finding a fixed rope clearly avoiding the next two pitches. My sense of hurry tells we to jug it while my sense of ethic stays pretty damn quiet... Even though we end up starting the roof pitch while the sun goes slowly down. It gets incredibly airy, 29 pitches off the ground, hanging in this big roof in the sunset. As Jenny jugs up the pitch I see the sun go below the horizon. I have time to take a good look at the headwall: a thin overhanging crack for the next 60 meters. I start it with headlamp solidly tied to the helmet and cheater stick solidly clipped to my harness. Did I use the word 'ethics' before ? Forget it. Still it takes me 2 hours to aid the next two pitches as one. When I reach the 1st belay I put a good sling and go back down to recover most of my small cams which I'll need for the last stretch. Time stretches too, with a bout of diarrhea pushing me up. When I finally reach the ledge I can only bitch at the time it takes Jenny to free the haul bag of the twists of ropes while dancing on one foot. I bring it up as fast as I can to reach the stinky zip-lock bags for a refill...
Left: Leading the main roof of the route under the headwall.
Right: Reaching the headwall above the roof in the sunset.
I'm just getting ready to unroll the sleeping bag and start dinner without her when she yells that she's stuck in the slot below. I go back to the leftmost end of the ledge, very narrow at this point, and see her struggling with her jumars against a taut rope. We are both tired so I toss her the haul line and back her up to the ledge. We jump onto the cans of salmon and corn, intermixed with beef jerky and GORP. I lick the oil off the cans. Jenny has this hilarious remark: "After all, maybe sticking to a diet is easier than climbing Big Walls".
The only problem left for the day is that the ledge is too narrow to sleep next to each other and we have only one sleeping bag. So we settle feet to feet and fight for the bag all night, even though it's not very cold.
Left: Jenny reaching the headwall in the sunset.
Left: Breakfast time on Long Ledge on the last day.
In the morning the first move wakes me up: I have to walk up to where the ledge disappear until I'm almost off balance so I can reach a thin crack and start aiding on a tiny cam quite some way off the side of the belay. After 15 meters of aid, the 5.8 free climbing should be liberating except that, what a surprise, it ends up with a long reach on a sloper with poor feet. If I wasn't fully awake yet...
Right: Jugging up the pitch above Long Ledge.
At the ledge above the sun catch up with me while I haul the pig and Jenny cleans up the pitch. A Slovenian climber comes up from the left (the Free Ride) and asks if we have cigarettes while bringing his pig up one handed. 3 more pitches to go, but let's see if we can reduce it to two. It's already too hot for me to free the 5.10d layback: I hang on the purple DMMs a few time before reaching the cave where the intermediate belay is. Above that looms the 5.9 squeeze, last piece of resistance of The Wall. Once again, for at least the 5th pitch, I clunk the #6 Friend into position and use it to move myself out of the jaw of the squeeze. And when I bought that piece I thought I was only gonna use it to impress girls at Camp 4... A few good jugs later and I'm on a large platform, with a good view of the summit. So close. Jenny makes it up quickly and 20 minutes later, after a very easy last pitch, we are hugging on the summit, closely followed by a pair of overexcited slovenians banging their bellies like King Kong. It's 11:30 on the third day.
Left: Jenny on the very last move of the route. The Cathedral appears so tiny in the background...
Time to eat, rest, enjoy the horizontal ground, toss the 3 liters of water remaining, repack the pig and we start the long hike down. As soon as we reach the road, a car stops in the middle: it's (another) Guillaume, with whom we climbed Lucky Streaks in Tuolumne 2 weeks earlier. Luck. Time to finally remove the harness and hop into a shower.
Right: Guillaume, Jenny and the invaluable #6 Friend on the summit of El Capitan.
At the end of the day a brief surreal moment happens: we are treating ourselves with a (too) expensive dinner at a packed Lodge restaurant. The baby of the family next to us cries a little every few minutes. When his father goes to the bathroom, a fat old guy gets up and whispers something to the mother who, offended, starts crying, takes her baby and leave. The usually quiet Jenny starts muttering hilarious insults at the guy in Roman dialect until her husband comes back, asking what's going on. Jenny is all revved up and yells for the whole restaurant to hear: "it's this rude fat asshole right here who made her leave!" under the agreeing stares of the other nearby tables. I guess El Cap will embolden you a bit... A few minutes later the fat guy leaves quickly, carefully avoiding her.
Enough suffering in Yosemite, let's head out to some quiet place like the Needles.