Yes, 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 🙂 And, 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.
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?
Time 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The 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.
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 …
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.
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. Watching the climbers was mesmerizing and getting a glimpse into this extreme sport made El Cap even more interesting.
Yosemite National Park continues to amaze.