“El Nino” – Team Expedition on El Capitan
The idea that we could go back to Yosemite for two weeks came to me and my buddy Simon Berger pretty spontaneously. Well, why not? It had to work out alright if we got a bit of luck with the weather, and if not, it’d be a cool trip again. And anyway, we still had an old score to settle with the “Golden Gate”. But let’s just wait and see.
The airport taxi was waiting for us outside the door at 4:15 sharp. A flight to Frankfurt, a flight to San Jose and a spot of frenzied shopping later, we soon made it to the El Cap Meadows and were standing marvelling at all the lively activity on the gold-yellow granite colossus known as El Capitan. The temperatures were comfortable and, as always, there was plenty going on in the “Salathe” and “The Nose”. But the same couldn’t be said of the “Right Side” – the North America Wall – which seemed to be almost completely deserted. You could hear the young Czech climber Adam Ondra shouting every now and again on the “Dawn Wall”, but other than that there wasn’t much happening on the “Right Side”. And so the next day, despite the rather dubious-looking weather, we decided to tackle the first few pitches of “El Nino”, among which were three 5.13 pitches. Said Belaj, an extremely friendly and strong climber from Sweden, had already been attempting the route with a colleague for a few days. They had left fixed ropes in the wall up to the fifth pitch and, after consulting with them, we were given permission to use them for our descent. So, with our daypacks on our backs, we climbed the first pitches to check them out. Some of the runouts on the “Black Dike” were very wide, perfect for curing our jetlag. And so on we battled to below the “Galapagos” pitch, which Simon had a quick look at after flashing the “Missing Link” 5.13a, whereas I was still afflicted by the time difference and had to stop climbing. After two days of rain, we were back at the wall and managed to climb our way through the lower pitches. Now it was Simon’s turn and, as usual, he completed the sensationally cool “Galapagos” 5.13b on his second attempt. He rappelled down and then pulled down the rope. Thanks to his tips and shouting, I flashed the “Galapagos”. After that, we had to rappel down again. There was no sign of “sunny California”, just lots of rain.
Two days later, we climbed onto the fixed ropes with our haul bags and made the ascent to the Calaveras Ledges, where we stored our provisions for the final push. Rain was on its way again, and again we had to make our way back down.
When it rains heavily in the valley, all the climbers leave like passengers deserting a sinking ship. We sought out a nice motel in Oakhurst. A bed and a television make rainy days like this one go quicker than they do when you’re in a wet tent.
We only had fourteen days and were now into the second week, so we had to go for broke. We ascended the wet wall on the fixed ropes again and climbed up to the “Big Sur”, a fantastic place to bivouac. That same day, we completed the “M&M Flake” 5.13a (I managed on my second attempt, Simon flashed it) and the “Royal Arch” 5.13b (Simon did it on his second attempt, I managed a flash). The incredible giant “Black Dihedral” and the “Black Roof” didn’t look particularly inviting in their wet state. We set up the portaledge and got ourselves comfy. The next morning, I opened the fly and saw... Nothing! We were sitting in the fog in a complete white out, and it was raining again. That wasn’t exactly ideal, of course, but when we were done with our coffee and Bob Marley session, we wanted to at least tackle the next two pitches: a 5.9 and the fantastic “Enduro Corner” 5.12a. When it was my turn on the “Enduro Corner”, I slipped off the soaking wet crack after just a few metres. Never mind, I thought to myself. I climbed to the belay and abseiled down. Simon managed the section in one go, and on my second attempt I, too, conquered the picture-postcard dihedral. We fixed the ropes and returned to the “Big Sur” to spend the night there again. The next day we were awoken by the warm rays of the sun and, after a quick breakfast, we hit the ropes again. Simon made quick work of the “Black Dihedral” – an exerting full-body challenge – and I followed in no time in a flash. The “Rotten Island” 5.12c cast me off once, but I managed on the second attempt. Simon climbed the section straightaway. Towering above us now was the crazy roof of the “Black Cave” 5.13b, Simon gave it his all, snatched at it again and actually managed to do it. AMAZING!! One loud yell, and soon he was by my side on the belay. Now it was my turn. Unfortunately, I stumbled on the last move as I hesitated just that little bit too long. I had another look at it and Simon let me back down. I took a quick break and started climbing again. And on my second attempt I, too, managed to conquer this insane pitch, where you can only catch a hold with your feet in the roof. Then came an easy section before we got to the 5.12d known as the “Slalom”. When it was my turn, I stumbled after a long battle at the end of the pitch, whereas Simon managed a flash again. I took a break, then climbed up and managed to tick the section off. Satisfied, we set up our portaledge on the “Cyclops Eye”, a perfect place to bivouac. We got stuck into our cheese and tuna wraps, and devoured the obligatory pot noodles. Happy and pretty exhausted, we fell asleep after two chapters of our shared book.
The day began with a pleasant 5.11b followed by a cool 5.12c traverse, which I managed to climb onsight and Simon completed (unnecessarily) on his second attempt. Next up was the “Dolphin 5.12b, and despite its wet holds and locks, we both managed to scrub through and bridge it in one go. After another easier section, we reached the “Lucy is a Labrador” 5.13a escape variation. Simon had a quick look and found that the holds were completely wet. We both became nervous: were these two metres of wet route going to ruin a whole 1,000 metres of free climbing adventure?? We really couldn’t let that happen. Somehow he managed to heave up, but one thing was for sure: things were about to get really exciting. Now it was my turn, and I realised that the holds were actually so wet that it was going to be extremely difficult to heave myself up. Fortunately, the boulder is only very short. I sacrificed my T-shirt and headband, and scrubbed the holds as dry as I could. Then without further ado, I had a go – and lo and behold, I managed to heave myself over the crazy boulder to get to the belay. Now I knew that nothing else could go wrong, as I was certain that Simon wouldn’t give up until he had this section in the bag. And that’s exactly how it was: he climbed on and, just like that, he was over it. Absolutely amazing. Although the last sections were easier, they were wet and only scarcely secured. We got them over and done with, and in the last light of the day, as we sat at the tail, we were able to enjoy the hissing of our beer cans and take stock of our journey on this amazingly cool trip. We had something to eat, then hung our portaledge on a tree and spent a cosy night there. We descended early the next day, as it was Friday and our flight home was scheduled for Saturday. What an incredible trip.