El Capitan

El Cap  005Yes, it’s a rock. A very big rock. A rock that has captured the imagination of many. It’s one of the largest pieces of exposed granite on earth. The holy grail of climbing worldwide.  El Capitan (El Cap).

El Cap captivated me when I arrived in Yosemite and never let go.  It is so massive that you can’t really capture the scale in photographs.

But Hector wants to try 🙂El Cap  001 el cap  040And, as if the rock itself isn’t interesting enough, between spring and fall there are dozens of people climbing it at any given time.  Rock climbers climb other “big walls” in Yosemite; Half Dome, Lost Arrow (a spire by Yosemite Falls), and the Royal Arches are some other epic climbs.  But El Cap is the crown jewel.

The cliff is divided into the southeast and the southwest faces, separated by The Nose, a blunt prow that rises from its’ low point to its summit. There are many routes to climb its 3,000 vertical feet.  The Nose is the most popular and historically famous route, and is considered a classic.


Over 70 routes have been mapped up the face of El Cap

Along the valley floor there are many spectators watching the rock climbers. Hector and I stopped and joined the spectators several times. After all, how many times do you get to see people climbing 3,000 vertical feet of vertical rock?

El Cap  004Time and time again, we stopped for a look. Hector gave me a set of very good binoculars several years ago and they came in very handy.  The wall is so big you can just barely and only sometimes spot the climbers with the naked eye, just colorful tiny specs on the rock.

You really need binoculars or a spotting scope.  And even then you spend a lot of time pointing and describing where exactly on the wall folks need to look to see the almost invisible tiny climbers.el cap  038

Hector captured some of the rock climbers with his a zoom lens. This gave him a new photography challenge.  How to show this in a way that makes sense.  He used a series of photos to zoom in from far away to closer to the action (lots of cropping and magnifying was involved).

See the blue dot on the wall inside the red square… this is a bivouac

See the blue dot on the wall inside the red square… this is a bivouac

For example: we not only saw climbers but also spotted their bivouacs, as most climbers take four to six days to climb and need gear for sleeping.  A scary proposition. Closer up, that bivouac looks like the photos below.El Cap  027

Closer yet

Closer yet

Two little cots attached to the sheer rock face … Yikes!

Two little cots called Portaledges attached to the sheer rock face … Yikes!

Speed climbers on the west wall

Speed climbers on the west wall

Climber on a practice wall

Climber on a “practice” wall

We met two spectators who were the aunt and cousin of a climber who was on the wall trying to make the climb in less than 24 hours with his partner.  Speed climbing has a huge following with records being made and broken continually.

24 hours is considered a huge accomplishment and gets you entered into the record books. It was their second attempt at the goal, having missed by 45 minutes on the first try.  The ladies pointed the pair out to us.  Crazy.  We wondered later whether they made it and hope they succeeded.

Incredibly, the record for climbing The Nose (made last year) was a gravity-defying 2 hours and 24 minutes.  These are the rock stars of the climbing world!

As we continued to watch, I met a climber, Mark, from Washington state so I took the opportunity to ask him some questions.  Here’s what I found out.

Yes, climbers go solo and do so for many personal reasons.  Most do climb in pairs.

el cap  037No, there are no restrictions on climbing El Cap. Basically, everyone has a right to climb.

Solo climbing takes three times the effort of climbing with a partner.  He explained:  they go up, back down to get their equipment, then back up… some technical language here, but I got the picture.

Then Hector joined us.

Mark correctly guessed my interest in women’s accomplishments, and mentioned that the first free ascent (not using ropes to help in the ascent, only for safety) of The Nose was made by a woman, Lynn Hill in 1993.

In 1994, she did it again, this time in 23 hours.  It took four more years for the next free climb of The Nose.

The pictures of the pendulum traverse happen in the little red box about halfway up

The pictures below of the pendulum traverse happen in the little red box about halfway up

When talking about the routes Mark explained that most routes follow cracks in the rock face.

But when there are areas without cracks or other holds, he mentioned that there is a move called a pendulum traverse, where a climber hangs from a rope and swings to get past the blank area to a new line. And we realized we’d just seen this move the day before and Hector had photographed it.

At the time we did not realize what exactly was going on, but we knew it was way cool.  When we told Mark he got very excited.El Cap  003

4 climbers in this picture.  2 on left, 2 on right.

There are 4 climbers. 2 together on left, 2 on right.

Mark said he wasn’t good enough yet to climb as a lead, but could follow if he had a good lead climber.  Then, he had to go. What a fountain of information!  I think this young man will climb El Cap one day. Godspeed.

This is quite a community of hardcore athletes.  These photos show four climbers on a pitch that requires executing a pendulum traverse.  Two have already completed it, one is in the process and the fourth will follow.   El Cap  007The two climbers in red climb up.  The two climbers on the left are on the route where the two climbers on the right want to get to.  Although seemingly lower on the wall, the pair on the left is ahead of the pair on the right on this route.


The two climbers on the right now stand on top the light colored rectangle

The two climbers on the right now stand on top the light colored rectangular rock.  The lead climber on the left is way up the face now.

The climber on the right in yellow has lowered himself on a rope while the climbers on the left continue their ascent

The climber on the right in yellow has lowered himself on a rope while the climbers on the left continue their ascent

And now for the pendulum traverse maneuver.  First the climber runs to the right.

Then back to the left … and back right again … increasing the distance of the swing …

Then once more to the left and a big reach …

And then a one handed grab of the next rock crack completes the pendulum traverse.  What could be easier?!El Cap  022

See the lights of the various climbing parties

See the lights of the various climbing parties

We also had an opportunity to see some rock climbing action at night!  Apparently not all of these climbers sleep at night.

It was the night before the full moon and we were quite surprised to see little lights along the rock face.  There were multiple climbers all taking advantage of the moonlight.

El Cap  034

Two pairs of climbers

Two pairs of climbers

El Cap  036 We confirmed later that they do climb at night. and a full moon night is an ideal time to do so.  The clear weather and full moon combination made this a perfect week for climbing.El Cap  032 el cap  060Watching the climbers was mesmerizing and getting a glimpse into this extreme sport made El Cap even more interesting.

There are lots of amazing statistics and vertigo inducing images online.  You can read more about the sport of big wall climbing here, here and here.

Yosemite National Park continues to amaze.

~ Brenda

19 thoughts on “El Capitan

  1. Great captures and story telling. Thanks for all the arrows pinpointing these daring folks. After envisioning all the strength and endurance involved in this sport, I’m exhausted. I think I’ll stick to hiking 🙂

    • It’s exhausting to even think about. I’d have to drop a lot of weight to consider hauling this body up a rock! Intriguing though.

  2. This is amazing… never having done this I remain fascinated by what they get up to… however it is a long way up, and the same distance down, the thing that worries that distance down could be at high speed and free falling… I assume there must be restrictions on who can climb and the safety factors, although that would still not get me going up there… (rather play with snakes)…
    Hector is a master photographer.. so well taken and boy those photos show the scale of the climb, not for me, my legs are tingling just looking at the photos…

    • Talk about high speed free falling … they used to allow base jumping off El Cap … but after a couple of bug splatter endings they decided that was a bit too crazy and banned it. Amazingly there are no restrictions, although something tells me that the climbing community is a pretty careful bunch. Psych evaluations might be recommendable though 🙂

  3. ohmyGOSH!!!!!!!!!!!! I never understood the scale of El Cap until your photos. Nor did I realized how absolutely TERRIFIED I would be to even watch in real life those daring climbers!!! Whew! I lost a few pounds fretting. As usual, lovely shots and great info. Those climbers would probs love copies of those shots! Wishes for safety and fun.

    • Scale is right. You know it is big. But the climbers bring it home. Even if you know where they are you simply can not see them with the naked eye. Every once in a while if they are in the right spot you can spot a bright flea spec of color. I like the idea of getting a copy of the shots to the climbers. There must be a forum of some kind …

  4. This sure was a heart stopping post and you and Hector weren’t even on the climb!! So…this is a part of Yosemite that we will just observe and NOT participate:) What a crazy activity especially for free climbing. That’s just insane. We watched the 60 Minutes show where that fellow free climbed here. It was so hard to watch even knowing he didn’t fall. Hector did an awesome job of giving us a real feel for what you were seeing.

    • We did some research to learn a bit more and if you start googling this big wall climbing thing you get some REALLY scary pictures. Aye caramba!

  5. What brilliant photograpy! It certainly puts the rock into perspective. But why would anybody want to climb that thing? I’d rather be taking the photos! lol

  6. In my visits to Yosemite, all I did was photograph El Capitan and just glanced and ignored the many climbers. Now with your detailed description coupled with great photography I have some understanding and respect to all those rock climbers.
    Thank you, this is a great post.

  7. Through binoculars we spent so much time watching these fearless athletes. I can’t believe that Hector was able to capture this. Thanks so much for the story. I found it to be fascinating. 🙂

    • Those guys need their heads examined 🙂 But it was mesmerizing. We’d stop and say we’d look for just a minute and then we’d get sucked in. That pendulum traverse thing was nuts. So glad that Mark explained it to us after the fact. When we first saw the guy running across the rock face and swinging around, our reaction was WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING?! I’m not particularly afraid of heights. But these extreme athletes freak me out, I get the heebie jeebies thinking about it.

  8. Incredible!!! I just must see Yosemite one of these days! Your recount was amazing. Thank you so much, my friends. : )

  9. Great images! We really love Yosemite and one of our favorites things to do is plant ourselves in the meadow with a scope and watch the climbers. Last year we actually watched a pair make the summit. We cheered and whooped it up for them but I don’t think they heard us.

    If you enjoy following climbers check out elcapreport.com. A local photographer with some sick glass shoots incredible daily pics during climbing season. It’s a well-done site.

    • Welcome to our blog! I kept hoping to see a climber make the summit, but no luck. Must have been fun. I’ll definitely check out the link, those climbers are fascinating.

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