The hardest part of any big objective is getting started. Apprehension and nerves are rampant. However, once underway, even the most daunting projects can unfold with relatively little anxiety and stress. This is a detailed account of the Choss Boys' most ambitious climb to date.
The Salathe Wall on El Capitan is 35 pitches, with 3500 feet of climbing; the difficulty rating is "5.13b or 5.9 C2". Since the Choss Boys were not skilled enough to free climb 5.13b, it required using a combination of free climbing and aid climbing. After training for months leading up to and during their time in Yosemite, the Choss Boys finally committed to the climb at the beginning of November, 2016.
Day 1, Oct. 29th: The Free Blast
The Free Blast is the first eleven pitches of the Salathe Wall. Due to erratic weather, the Choss Boys chose to climb the Free Blast and rappel down to get a good night's sleep in their comfortable van, Wesley. It was the first nice day after a deluge of rain, so some of the pitches were still wet, especially the Half Dollar.
Daniel: I climbed the first two pitches: a 5.10c hand/finger crack and a 5.8 fist crack. As a beginner crack climber, I was excited about cleanly climbing these pitches and it put me in a great mood for the rest of day.
Nick: The beginning of the Salathe Wall: what a day it was! For the first time in three days, sun splashed across the beautiful white slabs on the South West face of El Cap. After waking up at 5 AM, I was feeling groggy. However, just as Daniel finished his massive 200-foot link-up, the sun peeked around the Nose. By the time Dave and I had joined him at the first belay, I was full of vim from the sunshine. I studied the beginning of the pitch I would lead next, a 5.11b roof leading to easier terrain above. A single fixed nut of dubious strength was the only protection for the strenuous crux. I mustered up some excitement, and gave the sequence my best shot. I clipped the fixed nut, but mixed up my hands in the process, and quickly felt myself pitched from the wall. It was a shaky start to the route, but I continued up the rest of my lead, and felt confident at the top.
Dave: My first pitch was a run-out 5.11b slab, a bit of a stiff wake-up after not having climbed any slab in the past month. I had heard reports that with the correct gear this pitch could be well protected. So, off I went with my rack of unconventional pro. Sure enough, the first section climbed and protected well with offset cams. I was caught off guard by the difficulty of the subsequent bolted slab section. With new, stiff shoes and no recent slab experience, trusting my feet proved to be scary. I resorted to pulling on quickdraws when possible and from then on referred to the climb as the "french-free" blast. Out of quickdraws and mentally exhausted, I stopped at the anchor, deciding it would be faster not to link this into the next pitch. So Daniel french-freed the intricate 5.11a slab pitch, and I was psyched to be able to follow it completely free.
At this belay, while Nick was leading the next pitch, something caught Daniel and Dave's eye: a climber, forty feet below, on the crux move of the previous delicate 5.11 slab, dynamically clipping a bolt with one leg wildly swinging behind him! In the blink of an eye, the climber reappeared five feet below the belay. He had moved with such speed, an updraft in his wake forced the boys to cover their face with their arms. After lowering their arms, a grizzled deity with a strangely human grin was standing next to them.
Their jaws dropped at the sight of the revered being. The godly creature in front of them, recognizable by a missing left index finger, could have been none other than Tommy Caldwell himself, conqueror of the Dawn Wall and master of Yosemite free climbing. He had probably done the Free Blast over fifty times, and could climb it using one arm with his eyes closed if needed. It had taken him forty-five minutes to arrive at the same ledge the Choss Boys had taken 6 hours to reach. The boys blinked again, and he was gone.
Dave: Inspired, I was ready to lead the apparent waterfall that was the Half Dollar chimney. Rated 5.10c, it had been declared the most difficult part of the climb by our friend Simon with whom we had chatted a few days prior. Even Mr. Caldwell placed a couple pieces of gear on the crux section. I was ready to go up there and fall out of the chimney with vigour. I cruised across the wet slab to the puzzling entry move. A soaking wet, slick, flared chimney lay ahead. I placed a small offset nut and tried to execute the puzzling moves. My wet hands slid off the sloping holds in the chimney, and I found myself twenty feet lower facing outwards. Another try and I was able to slide my hand into a soaking wet hand jam and grovel into the chimney. I thrutched and skidded upwards through the rest of the pitch and got soaked in the process. Climbing wet rock is considerably less secure than dry rock, but I was able to catch myself after unexpected slips. The sun was low in the sky as I got to the top of the pitch.
Daniel charged up the last couple of easy pitches as Nick and I simul-climbed behind, bringing us to a huge ledge system called the Mammoth Terraces. It was fully dark now so we wasted no time launching into the rappels. We descended fixed ropes to the Heart Ledges where we met an British team preparing to climb Freerider by pre-hauling seven days of gear. I told them that they were full of s*** when they showed us their five-foot long waste case.
They advised us which ropes to rappel from the Heart Ledges as there were multiple fixed lines. The first of these was soaking wet and skidded through our Gri-Gris uncomfortably, making for an unpredictable rappel into the darkness. Four more rappels brought us to the ground. We had a comfortable sleep in the van that night.
Tired from the ten-hour day of free climbing, the Choss Boys headed to Half Dome village to prepare dinner. Driving in the dark, Daniel parked in what he thought was a valid parking spot. Before long, a Yosemite park ranger knocked on the van's window and "kindly" informed them they were parked in the middle of the road. Nice job Daniel.
Day 2, Oct. 30th: Rain, rest, and preparation
Rain filled the valley, exiling climbers from El Capitan for the day. The Choss Boys went to Camp 4 in the morning for free coffee the park offers to climbers. Although coffee was cancelled because of the rain, they ran into their Australian friend, John Barnard, whom they had met three days prior. After spending a few minutes with David and Nick examining the "for sale" board at Camp 4 looking for haul bags and pulleys, he graciously offered to loan the Choss Boys his own haul bag and pulley. John saved them hundreds of dollars, and contributed significantly to their comfort and success on the wall.
The Choss Boys spent the rest of their day mulling over plans, practicing skills, and preparing their food for the upcoming ascent.
Day 3, Oct. 31st: Haul to the Heart ledges and fix one pitch
The goal was to haul the bags up five fixed lines to the Heart ledges, a series of terraces formed under the giant heart shaped impression in El Capitan's South West face, then climb and haul the next two pitches. After packing the bags and connecting them in a "train", the Choss Boys started hauling at 10 AM. Even though hauling with three people is faster than hauling with two people, it still took the boys five hours to haul the bags up 800 feet of slab to the Heart Ledges.
Daniel: It was 4 PM when I started leading the next pitch. Although it was above my onsight limit at 5.11c, I was ready to free climb and french-free it if need be (to save time). The pitch started with a scary runout 5.10 slab traverse, followed by a sideways downward dyno across a slab. I french-freed moves to pass the 5.11 cruxes and only fell once on the pitch. Dave cleaned, and I hauled the bags, while Nick returned to the van to cook dinner. Ready and rearing to set off on the next and final pitch of the day, we remembered the second rope had been left in the van. Dave and I then did what we do best: we thoroughly analyzed all possible options. After a seemingly productive hour discussing ways to lead a pitch without a rope, we decided to do the pitch the next day.
Day 4, Nov. 1st: Fix one more pitch and wait out the rain
The weather forecast showed potential drizzle in the morning ending at 11 AM. The optimistic Choss Boys woke up to ascend the fixed lines early in the misty morning, expecting to begin the summit push. They finished the second pitch after the Heart Ledges and hauled up the bags before 9:30 AM. The next pitch was the infamous Hollow Flake: the most scary and unprotected pitch of the entire climb. Dave, the brave Choss Boy that volunteered to climb the Hollow Flake, noticed it was still very wet. Thinking a strong bout of morning sunshine would dry the rock, the Choss Boys created a "tent" using Dave's siltarp to keep away the wind and mist while they waited.
The sun didn't come. The Choss Boys huddled and took selfies for hours while mist engulfed them and clouds blocked all possibility of the rock drying. The day was a write-off, and they descended the fixed lines once again to prepare for the final push. The weather showed 18 degrees and sunny for the next five days. Perfect.
Day 5, Nov. 2nd: The ground-up summit push begins
The Choss Boys woke at 4:30 AM, excited to spend the next three days living on El Capitan. In order to speed up their morning routine, they drank canned coffee and scarfed granola with powdered milk. Once parked at the base of El Capitan, they quickly put on their equipment, knowing their harnesses wouldn't be removed for days. The Choss Boys were fast and efficient in the quiet darkness of the morning. They were ready to go...
"Guys where is my headlamp?" Nick asked. "I thought it was in here."
The calm, organized, and expeditious atmosphere was suddenly replaced with frantic, chaotic rummaging. The Choss Boys tore the van apart to no avail. Nick resolved to take an older, dimmer headlamp in hopes that his own would show up in the haul bags. (Note that the headlamp is an essential piece of gear on the wall; many important tasks related to personal safety are conducted after dark, and any errors in these tasks could be fatal.)
Dave: We ran to the base and ascended fixed ropes to the Heart Ledges for the THIRD time, this time as the sun was rising. I was to lead the first block of climbing, four pitches to the base of the famous “Ear” pitch where Nick would take over. My first pitch of the day would be the Hollow Flake. There is much written about this pitch on the internet and elsewhere. It is basically a 200 foot tall flake of rock pasted to the wall that forms an off-width crack. To get to this crack you need to lower off the belay and do a pendulum swing 40 feet across a blank wall. Supertopo writes this about the Hollow Flake:
“No feature terrifies aspiring wall climbers more than the Hollow Flake. To protect the crack requires numerous 6” to 10” pieces (of gear) and results in hideous rope drag. The alternative is to not bring any pro and run it out for 80 feet on a 5.8 squeeze. Opinions vary on which option is scarier.”
With this and many other accounts in mind, I was worried about this pitch more than any other on the climb. Upon reaching our high point, I got ready for the pitch. Unlike most pitches, only two pieces of our gear would fit into this feature - a #6 Camalot and a #4 Big Bro - so I left everything else behind. After calming my nerves a bit and hearing some inspiring words from Nick, I set off.
The nerves dissipated once I swung over to the flake. I scrambled up an easier section then started struggling up the crack, pushing the #6 cam as I climbed. Once through a tricky bulging section, the angle of the crack relented and the climbing became easier. As I climbed above the pendulum point, the #6 cam fit for longer than I was led to believe. The climbing was quite secure and even if a slip were to happen I would have simply slid into the crack even if I didn't have the cam. I left the cam about 40 feet below the top of the pitch with a long sling attached, and continued to the top on even more secure climbing with no rope drag, placing my Big Bro about 20 feet from the top with minimal rope drag. Quick and painless.
Later pitches would deliver the scare Dave had been expecting…
After helping to manage the bags up the Hollow Flake, I free climbed three more pitches as Nick and Dan belayed and hauled gear. The three person system was finally working, and everyone was constantly doing chores to advance our tangled cluster of ropes, bags, and bodies up the wall. These pitches were a bit wet from the previous deluge but the protection was good and the climbing enjoyable. This put us at the base of the Ear. The climb was going quicker and easier than I expected and I felt well-fed and hydrated. All the nerves from the last few weeks had dissipated and we were en route to the top!
Nick couldn't contain his happiness on his kneepad-free ascent of the subsequent "Ear" pitch; his screams of joy echoed through the valley. Entertained, Daniel and Dave dug through the haul-bags and found a few cans of fruit and water - as Murphy's Law would have it, in the bottom of the bag.
Nick: "The hardest 5.7 in the world."
That was the opinion given by the legendary Royal Robbins, first ascentionist of the Salathe Wall. "5.7!" I scoffed, "How hard could it be?"
I was in for a proper Yosemite schooling. 5.7, as it turns out, can be very, very difficult. I pulled my way through awkward cracks to reach the base of this overhanging, downward flaring chimney. My helmet was left at the belay below thanks to advice from past Salathe Wall climbers.
I wore a rack of gear over my left shoulder, hanging on my right side. Shortly after wedging my body into the tightest part of the chimney, I realized that I would be unable to advance unless I rotated my body 180 degrees, and faced the opposite direction. This process took over ten minutes.
As I began traversing sideways through the Ear, I realized another fatal mistake I had made: I forgot to wear knee-pads. The Ear is the perfect width for torture. My head was wedged in so tightly that I couldn't look sideways or down, my torso was compressed enough that flexing my chest muscles prevented me from moving, and at my legs, I had to use opposition between my heels and knees to keep myself supported in the chimney. Without knee pads, I had to support my entire body weight with the tension created by jamming my bare knee-caps into the coarse granite wall of the ear. My screams could be heard in every corner of the valley.
I made inch after painful inch of progress, screaming, gasping for breath, and pushing with my arms in every way I could think of to advance my body through the hellish squeeze. Just as was about to give up and relax my legs, release the awful pressure on my knees, and plummet out of the chimney, I noticed a foothold on the wall just a little further along. I slithered another few inches, and managed to weight my entire body on this one foothold, releasing the tension on my knees. More face holds appeared, and soon enough I clawed my way out of the maw of the Ear, and stood triumphantly on the ledge above. Little did I know my struggle had just begun.
Above the Ear was an unassuming flake of rock haphazardly graded "5.10d" on the topo. After passing a roof, the climbing turned to 5.13. I would have to aid. Soon after setting off in hopes of free climbing this 5.10d flake with my full aid rack on, I became desperately pumped after five moves. I spent the next hour-and-a-half on the most strenuous aid climbing battle of my life. The entire crack was offset on one side, meaning that my body was constantly wedged into a tight flare.
The difficulty of this pitch was compounded by the fact that I had skipped lunch and hadn't drunk enough water throughout the day. (Dave and Daniel had already scarfed lunch and hydrated well as I struggled through the Ear.) I was completely zonked but elated when Daniel arrived at the belay with a can of delicious peaches. The zeal led us to the spire.
Daniel: There was only one more pitch before the famous "El Cap Spire". The pitch started with an intimidating 5.10 Yosemite off-width section and finished with a 5.7 wide chimney that came up behind the spire. I managed to use the techniques we had learned in the past month to my advantage and found the off-width easy! I found the 5.7 chimney section more challenging because there were so many different ways to maneuver up it.
Topping out the spire was fabulous. I took a moment to enjoy the near-360 degree view of the valley and the security of such a large platform.
Dave: The elation upon reaching El Cap Spire was tempered by my fear of the haul bags getting snagged on the way up. Though Nick had originally volunteered to haul the bags, I opted to get the haul started to ensure that Nick would unsnag the bags if they got stuck below. The bags came up nicely as Nick guided them through the "Alcove", another possible bivy spot on the route. Getting the bags onto the spire required setting up a second haul but happened quickly. We kicked back on the spire for a bit and ate tasty burritos and cookies. We kept repeating the mantra “Anything tastes good on the wall” - a partially sarcastic expression, given our experience on the Leaning Tower which had taught us the importance of packing food you would actually want to eat.
After some much needed lounging, Daniel started to prepare for his late night lead, in which he would fix two pitches ahead. I bravely belayed from below on the spire, reclining inside my sleeping bag. Daniel aided his way up the wet finger crack that supposedly led to a hard 5.9 squeeze chimney, imperceptible from below. It was starting to make sense why we were the first party on the wall; many of the pitches had been quite wet so far. By the time Dan finished the pitch, it was midnight. He was soaking wet and exhausted. Likewise, I had found it challenging to stay awake for the belay. We opted for a more relaxed wake-up time the next day. We had an amazing sleep on the spire and woke up with the sunrise.
Day 6, Nov. 3rd: El Cap Spire to Sous le Toit and fix one pitch
Bagels and cream cheese with canned fruit provided the Choss Boys with a tasty breakfast as they broke down camp. Daniel and Dave satiated their caffeine addictions with Clif Shot Bloks, but found that they had mysteriously disappeared from their place in the port-a-ledge bag. To this day they have not been found. Perhaps some lucky climber has since found them in the trees below El Cap. Instead, Daniel and Dave used caffeine pills to prevent their caffeine-withdrawal headaches. Nick seemed perfectly content to wake up naturally with the daylight. After some more digging through the haul bags, the Choss Boys finally found Nick's missing headlamp! Perhaps organizing gear in stuff sacks next time would make the Haul Bags less mysterious.
The Choss Boys would try to make it all the way to Long Ledge that day. They would make the final decision before they passed other potential ledges to spend the night, depending on how fast they were moving. Their speed was, as usual, slower than anticipated.
Dave: After jugging up the pitch Daniel led the night before, I was the first leader on Day 2 on the wall. Unlike the previous day, the first pitch was rated 5.12d. The beginning was also soaking wet. Out came the etriers.
The aid grade was C1 on the topo, which typically means all gear placements would hold a fall. This was the case for the first half, but after a slab traverse on the second half I found myself staring at a grass-filled seam with the worst piton I had ever seen as the only gear within reach. There was a crack through three quarters of the eye of the piton, and it flexed about a centimeter when I pulled on the eye. Not wanting to weight it completely, I pulled outwards (thanks Solid Mechanics!) on the pin and used footholds around the crack to place a good but small cam a few feet above. After aid climbing past more ancient, flexing pitons and free climbing some easy terrain, I reached the base of the next pitch, called “The Sewer”.
The Sewer is considered to be the worst pitch of the route, graded “wet 5.10c” by Supertopo. I had read reports of climbers placing small cams in goo-covered cracks and getting to the top soaking wet. The amount of rain in the previous weeks surely wouldn’t help the situation. Most people seem to aid climb this pitch, but having climbed some wet pitches prior, I left the etriers at the base and decided to try to free climb it. Most of the pitch wasn’t visible from below, so my expectations were pretty low.
Some huge handholds led into the deep corner above. The rock was wet in places but there were ways around it when I looked hard enough. The first part of the pitch was characterized by big stemming moves to big holds with great pro. The next part looked like a miserable wet squeeze chimney at first, but after further inspection I realized I could climb the outside of the chimney using small holds and interesting stemming in order to avoid the water. Thirty feet below the anchor, some unavoidable small, wet holds and a strenuous roof traverse provided the hardest moves of the pitch, but I managed to reach the anchor without falling. I had freed the Sewer and it turned out to be one of my favourite pitches of the climb.
After resting at this anchor, I pulled up into the next pitch, a 5.10a hand crack. Expecting an easy cruise to the top, I was caught off-guard by the difficulty of the first couple of moves. The crack was wet and longer than I expected. Rope drag was horrendous and I realized I had run out of cams and long slings. Dejected, I grabbed a cam, lowered, cleaned a couple pieces, and started clumsily aid climbing the crack with only one short sling. I had to shuffle cams up and it took a long time. I pulled onto the Block, a large sloping ledge, feeling dehydrated, exhausted and frustrated for wasting so much time on what should have been an easy climb.
Nick: Given that our plan was to climb all the way to Long ledge by the end of the day, we were behind schedule. I felt I should make up some time. I raced up the start of the next pitch using a combination of aid and free climbing, and for the first forty feet, made great progress. However, I was presented with an awkward flake and my climbing slowed down as started aid climbing. I still managed to aid quickly, and soon found myself two placements below some old tat (slings left on a fixed piece by previous climbers).
Having read advice on mountainproject.com to go to the first visible pendulum point, I reasoned that I had arrived at my pendulum point. The goal of the pendulum on this pitch is to transfer from the flake to a crack out left which leads up to the Sous le Toit ("Under the Roof") ledge.
I clipped the rope to the tat, and gave Dave impossibly precise belaying instructions as I worked my way to a crack with more old tat far off to the left. After some tenuous coordination with Dave (who I believed was starving, and simply trying to eat a snack), I found myself thirty feet left and only ten feet below the pendulum point. Facing a terrifying swing, I gazed up at what I thought was the proper crack, only to see a blank corner that rose twenty feet without any pro. Shit.
Long story short, I had ended up at the wrong pendulum point. I was supposed to continue much further before trying to swing out left. As a consequence, I had to be lowered carefully by Dave to a ledge, untie from the rope, pull it back through the forty feet I had previously aided through, and re-aid the entire section on my pre-placed pieces. My effort to buy us time turned into a fiasco, and left me feeling uneasy. I arrived on the Sous le Toit ledge after over an hour-and-a-half on the pitch, and was mentally exhausted. I set to work building the belay.
Dave: Meanwhile, I was somewhat dazed and couldn’t focus on the chores required to clean up the belay. We had identified hunger/thirst as a problem on the first day. Daniel suggested I belay Nick while he did chores, and handed me a Clif bar. The instant I took over the belay it became very involved. With no more than one bite out of my Clif bar, Nick told me to take in slack and started to perform an elaborate tension traverse. After a lot of rope antics and determining that he had traversed too early, he lowered back to a ledge and went off belay to pull the rope then re-climb part of the pitch. I still hadn’t finished my Clif bar. It was becoming obvious that due to the mishaps on the last couple pitches that making it to Long Ledge was unlikely that day.
Once it was determined that Long Ledge would be too much of an undertaking for the Choss Boys after dark, Sous le Toit became the obvious option for a bivy. This ledge is an exposed 6-foot x 2-foot platform with a view straight down to the valley floor 2300 feet below. One option was to fix a rope and set up the port-a-ledge at Sous le Toit for Daniel and Nick, while Dave would sleep at the Block ledge 160 feet below. The prospect of a traversing rappel in the dark away from the comforts of the haul bags didn't seem appealing for Dave, so he opted to just stay there on the small ledge, marked as a “poor bivy for 1” on the topo, and described as "Not a bivy" by Mountain Project.
Dave: With a rope to fill in some grooves, I was able to make a decent spot to sleep with my therma-rest. We thrashed around trying to set up the port-a-ledge, which took quite a bit of time as I had never set one up before. Finally, we opened up our supper: a huge bag of Quinoa Salad. We had about 15 pounds, enough for at least three meals. I tasted some – it was decidedly less tasty than it had been four days ago when we made it. After a few more bites it was clear that some of the ingredients had gone bad. A taste of our bag of cut fresh vegetables revealed the same. Three quarters of the way up El Capitan seemed like the worst place I could imagine to get food poisoning, so I ate a less-satisfying supper of chocolate and larabars. Even less satisfying was the thought that we would need to haul the now-decomposing bag of quinoa salad up the wall before disposing of it. Hopefully tomorrow would shape up better. We set off to sleep with a planned early start to head for the summit.
Day 7, Nov. 4th: The summit!
The increasing slant of the port-a-ledge and subsequent reduction of Dave's head-room on the tiny ledge beneath encouraged an early wake up time. At 5:30 AM, the Choss Boys started packing up gear on the small, exposed ledge. The ledge was so small that one person had to be off the ledge and hanging in their harness at all times. Nick was the first to have that unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. Soon, Daniel and Dave felt the same. The Choss Boys knew it was time for the crux of the day - the Sous le Toit poop.
As described in a previous post, containing fecal matter on small ledges is no small affair. This ledge would be the smallest ledge the Choss Boys had ever pooped on. Imagine three grown men standing on a kitchen table... Nick was the first to stand near the very edge of the tiny ledge. He carefully aimed into the Wag bag, away from Daniel and Dave who were an arm's length away. He groaned as the pressure in his stomach was released. The Choss Boys laughed and applauded as each welcomed the chance to rejuvenate their digestive system.
Feeling refreshed, the Choss Boys jugged up the fixed line Nick had setup the night before.
Daniel: The next block was mine and I knew it was going to be exhausting. The three pitches were overhanging aid climbing - the slowest type of climbing that we know of. The first of these pitches was a relatively short, but extremely overhanging pitch called The Roof. I would need to put all my weight onto a free-hanging ladder/etrier coming down from each of my placements. My 4th placement was just out of reach so I couldn't see how the piece of gear was contacting the rock. Knowing it was very insecure, I steadied my swing and slowly transferred my weight to the piece...
Phew! It held and I gained some confidence. After retrieving my daisy and etrier from the previous piece I started to step up on my etrier. Suddenly, I found myself falling through the air. I barely had time to yell before I slammed into the face 15 feet below. I described my very first aid climbing whipper in a previous post. It is especially unnerving because you don't see it coming. You are focused on something in front of you, then you are ripped into midair like an apple falling from a tree; there is absolutely no warning.
Dave: One of the unique aspects of the three person system is that one member of the team ascends a separate rope that is not constrained by any of the protection on the climb. On steep pitches, this means that the rope hangs far out from the wall. To avoid a giant uncontrolled swing outwards into the abyss, the climber on the free-hanging rope must attach a second rope and slowly “lower out” from the wall. I opted to lower out under the roof instead of cleaning the pitch.
Daniel had just completed the first lead of the day, completing the exposed roof pitch after a screaming, swinging fall. I had just ascended my rope with a Kong Duck ascender that wouldn’t grab the rope properly. Nerves were high. Thankfully, my experience on the Leaning Tower prepared me for the exposure. Daniel called out “Blue rope is fixed” and I knew it was time.
Jugging a free-hanging rope over the roof was the most exposed position I had ever been in. The rope hung 30 feet below the lip of the roof, 25 feet out from the wall. 2500 feet below me was a panoramic view of the forest and granite below. Above me was a single 9 mm strand of rope and an overhanging wall of perfect yellow granite, split by a single crack and devoid of ledges and other features. I ascended the rope slowly to savour the improbability of the position I was in. I remembered the chores required at the belay and continued up to get Daniel started on the next pitch.
Daniel: The second pitch of the day was the Salathe Headwall: a 200-foot, continuously overhanging, flaring crack. Free-climbed at a sustained 5.13a, I was prepared for a long and arduous aid climbing battle. Although the placements weren't very tricky, the difficulty lay in sustaining a steady pace on the kicked back terrain for so long. As is customary for very long aid pitches, I carried our entire Salathe Wall rack: some 40 pounds of gear.
Since the crack was a similar size for the whole way up, my strategy was to attach three cams of slightly different sizes on each etrier. This way I could quickly plug them in without clipping and unclipping cams at every placement. For protection, I left nuts and tri-cams every 5 or 10 feet. This method ended up being so efficient on gear, I arrived at the top with most of the gear still on my harness! I might as well have brought 20 or 30 pounds of gear with me just for fun.
Exhausted and drenched in his sweat halfway up the Salathe Headwall, Daniel heard a familiar male voice coming from above. Its resonance was immediately soothing; was it God? Daniel looked up, and was blinded by a flash of light. The sun? He slowly opened his eyes - it wasn't the sun. The voice was coming from a kouros figure donning a bright yellow shirt. A shirt so yellow that the light reflecting from it was brighter than the sun itself. This sentient being slowly floated down like an angel descending from heaven. Confused and unaware of his surroundings, Daniel was suddenly surprised to willingly describe his deepest feelings.
"Aid climbing the Headwall is terrifying." Daniel whimpered.
"This rap though." The voice remarked casually.
The angelic figure was indeed descending on a single strand of rope, 20 feet away from the wall, above a 2700 foot precipice. He was serenely swinging back and forth over the Choss Boys with one hand loosely on his grigri and no knot at the end of his rope. This man seemed to have no fear. In his calming, magical presence, Daniel immediately relaxed and started to breath normally. What was happening? Thinking clearly again, Daniel recognized the deity with the calm, cool, and collected aura. This divine being was the master of fear itself, the conqueror of nerves, and the champion of anxiety: Alex Honnold, the world's greatest freesoloist.
Dave: After watching Daniel lead three time-consuming aid pitches, I was eager to get going on my leads. The plan was for me to lead to the top. The end was in sight.
I had heard accounts of this pitch being scary, so I prepared for the worst. The 5.8 free climbing after a “cruxy” aid section was mentioned by more than one internet commenter as feeling more like 5.10. This one did not disappoint, it was one of the scariest pitches I have done.
I walked 20 feet along the ledge with my tangled etriers in tow. The awkward geometry of the wall made it so that I couldn’t see into the crack from the ledge, it was just out of sight, so I fiddled in a blind ballnut placement. Using this to balance, a small cam a few feet below it. To move over to the crack, I grabbed the ballnut to square up with the crack. Much to my surprise, I heard a popping noise as the ballnut shot out of the wall.
I took a jarring but short fall onto my daisy chain, attached to the cam below. Shaken up, I backed up this well-tested cam and tried to regain composure. Aiding up the crack turned out to be easy in itself so I moved quickly, placing brass nuts and small cams. Holds started to appear about 50 feet up, so I assumed that this was when the free climbing started.
I ditched my etriers and climbed up through some tenuous moves until my last cam was at my feet. No piton in sight – there was one on the topo that was supposed to protect this part. Seeing a good pod at my face, I tried every piece of gear that could conceivably fit. Nothing worked. It was clear that the only thing that could fit was an offset cam placed 30 feet below. I reversed the moves and lowered to grab the all-important cam. Sure enough, it was an okay fit when I got back up there. Off I went.
The holds were small, sloping, and slick in the mid-afternoon sun. The huge rack of gear weighed down on me and no further cracks were in sight. The offset cam was 5 feet below my feet as I started to shake. Thoughts of backing down crossed my mind. I was able to stop the shaking by reminding myself of the 45-foot clean falls on "Heinous Cling" at Smith Rock. All that sport climbing was good for something after all. I committed to the last few moves and grabbed a big hold that marked the end of the difficulty. “Holy S*** that was scary!”. Some good protection and a few more thought provoking moves got me to the belay. The next pitch looked inviting and well-protected. I knew the worst was over.
Bringing up Nick and Daniel (who followed without a nut tool…), I started up the next lead: a beautiful 5.10d crack. I resolved to free climb this pitch as it looked to be one of the best on the route. I felt strong as I pulled over an initial bulge, but soon my arms gave up and I took a nice fall onto a good cam. I tried again and realized that I didn’t have any juice left after three days of continuous physical activity. I am not much of an endurance athlete. A few cams were pulled on until the crack became a more amenable size, then I struggled up to the final roof and chimney system. This last chimney is not often mentioned but was a very claustrophobic experience. With the end so close and the sun setting, I abandoned any notion of good style and got up the pitch by any means necessary. At the top, I even struggled to pull up the ropes to fix for Nick and Dan.
A short, easy pitch was between us and the top. I went on belay and ran up the slab on huge holds in the twilight. The angle eased towards horizontal and that was it. I had topped out El Cap. Cool.
I found a tree with a water bottle underneath, and took a few swigs. I eschewed our standard anchoring setup, tying many knots in the lead rope to secure it to the tree. Daniel called out that it would be at least 20 minutes before we were ready to haul the bags up. So I had some time to chill out and take in the views. The stars were out now.
Nick eventually came up and high-fives were exchanged. I set up the haul on a newly-found bolt anchor and Daniel helped the bags up. Getting the bags over the edge used up the last of our strength - three long days of vertical baggage handling had taken their toll.
It was dark when the three Choss Boys reached the summit of El Capitan. For the first time in weeks, they saw the entire night sky above them unhindered by the granite ocean of El Capitan. They each took a moment to take in the 360-degree beauty of the bright moon and the endless shining stars.
After some brief preliminary celebration, the Choss Boys dragged their gear to a nearby bivy cave. They finally settled down for the night with a well-deserved beer brought up 3000 feet for this very occasion.
Day 8, Nov. 5th: The descent, hot coffee, and showers.
Nick: I woke before the guys, and took a walk by myself to enjoy the beauty of our location. I arrived at the true summit of El Capitan just in time for the sunrise. For the first time in months, I felt a prevailing sense of calm. All of the work we put in, all the anticipation, the dreaming, the tension... everything had culminated in one goal I had dreamed about for years. As I sat on the bald summit, I reflected on our success. Dave, Daniel, and I learned a lot about each other on the wall. We each had our moments of strength, and certainly of weakness, but overall we kept the team dynamic strong throughout. It turned out that the most important training was simply living together in a small space for two months. With each and every task in the van, we learned how to combine our strengths and work as a team.
The Choss Boys rose slowly. Chocolate and nuts were all that remained for breakfast. Begrudgingly, they repacked and shouldered their giant haul bags, and left the comfort of the bivy cave. Tired legs propelled them towards the East Ledges descent. With little trouble, the Choss Boys found their way to the rappels, and before noon they had returned to Wesley.
The first order of business was coffee, and then showers. Finally, Nick, Daniel, and Dave packed everything, and drove along Northside Drive for the last time. They left Yosemite, and set their sights on the familiar destination of Red Rock Canyon, Nevada - the place where they earned their name. It was time for the regenesis of the Choss Boys.
- The Choss Boys
We are Daniel, David, Nick & Erik.
Keep up to date with our adventures! Subscribe below to get an email for each new blog post.