Learning to big wall on the Salathe


Kuklov, Vadim

Dates of Trip: 

June 2, 2019 to June 30, 2019

I first dreamed of El Cap soon after I learned to climb. I saw an iconic photo of Steph Davis high on the Salathe headwall, her hair blowing as she calmly jams a perfect crack bathed in golden light, the base of the wall in shadow 3000 feet below. What would it feel like to be up there? I spent the next 8 years doggedly pushing my trad climbing towards ever higher, harder, and more adventurous routes. Finally, I found myself longing for lines that demand big wall style. With an opportune post-graduation unemployment window approaching I decided that it was finally time to learn by questing up the Big Stone.

The natural choice for my first El Cap route was the Salathe Wall. Put up in 1961 by Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost, the Salathe was a shining example of committing, ground-up wall style. The route follows natural crack systems to good bivouac ledges, meandering across the West face of El Cap to link infamous wide cracks and chimneys, resulting in a route notorious for its complexity, commitment, and length (35 pitches). These factors make the route not an obvious choice for a first wall climb, but the appeal of the shining headwall was too strong to resist.

I enlisted my good friend Jon, who fortunately also had the freedom of unemployment and the willingness to throw himself at the unknown. Without having any aid experience, he met me in Yosemite. Fortunately I had a wealth of knowledge, having done exactly 3 pitches of aid climbing. We set ourselves to methodically learning, practicing, and dialing in our aid and wall systems. Youtube, books, and a safe amount of trial and error were handy in the first week. On an aid pitch, the leader progresses by standing in ladders attached to their protection, the follower cleans the pitch by ascending the lead rope to the next anchor, while the leader hauls up the haulbag of water and supplies from the previous anchor. Learning this sequence was a blur of patient belays, shouted beta, time trials, and incessantly incredulous tourists. Somehow we were able to successfully lead, clean, and haul a 2-pitch route by our 4th day in the Valley.

Obviously we felt ourselves aid naturals, so it was time to take on our first practice big wall. The Leaning Tower is one of the largest continually overhanging walls on the planet, with 1500 feet of steepness that makes hauling a heavy bag much easier. Put up by Warren Harding, many pitches are long bolt ladders that offer straightforward aid, incredible exposure, and ample learning opportunities. Jon and I spent a day packing and repacking our garage sale of gear for the two days we would be on the wall, and with an alpine start we managed to be one of the first parties at the base. To our surprise, the route went very smoothly, if we don’t count the multiple parties bailing, dropped gear, baby scorpions, broken pins, swifts in cracks, and a soul-crushing chimney descent.

With our first wall under our belt, Jon and I debriefed to make sure we internalized what we had learned and would apply it to El Cap. We had made good choices, both in climbing and preparation, and felt that we had done well in learning the variety of aid techniques we would need. Of course, we had no experienced mentors guiding us so our confidence was largely uninformed and thus plagued with self-doubt. All we could do was trust our instincts and each other. We focused on other necessary skills: throwing ourselves at wide cracks, moving over moderate free terrain efficiently, and carefully planning how we would tackle each of the 35 pitches of the Salathe.

After a few more days of brushing up, including an ill-timed and subsequently very wet foray up the first 4 pitches of the Nose, we felt ready to give the Salathe our best go. As most Salathe teams, we decided to forego pure ground-up style and to climb the first third of the route to Heart Ledges (known as the Free Blast), rap down the fixed ropes, rest and haul our bags up the next day to continue upwards. We could thus climb the slabby and traversing Free Blast unencumbered by our haulbag and without the commitment to keep going after the Heart.

The next morning, the first pitch of the Free Blast woke us up with one of the best finger cracks I’ve ever climbed, forcing us to stretch our 60 meter rope. We quickly switched into aid as the difficulty increased and were soon on the notorious slabs a few pitches up. These required the most frightening aid of the route, forcing us to top step on tipped-out tiny offsets above even more marginal gear before reaching the security of bolts. Howling wind and mandatory free moves between bolts kept the adventurous atmosphere alive. We couldn’t help but think of Honnold on the incredibly featureless and glacially polished stone in front of us without a rope. As the day wore on we fought through the Half Dollar, the “easiest” of the named wide pitches on the Salathe. By the time the sun was starting to dip over the valley rim, we had reached the top of the Free Blast and were completely exhausted. Rapping down the Heart lines, we decided to play it by ear in the morning on whether we would continue.

The next day, we awoke still exhausted and decided to take a rest day before hauling up to the Heart the following evening. This would give us 2 nights on the ground to recover: not the ideal style but we were in dire need of the extra rest. After sorting logistics that day, we set out to shuttle loads to the base of the Heart lines at 7pm the next day. Finally committing to spending 4 nights on the wall, we jugged and hauled into the night and were in our sleeping bags on Heart Ledge close to midnight with a celebratory King Cobra. Miraculously, we neither saw nor heard any other parties on the wall.

The first pitches of climbing above Heart Ledges brought us to the Hollow Flake; an infamous wide pitch that is unprotectable with production cams. Luckily, I had brought a custom-made 8 inch cam that made the runout squeeze more enjoyable. From the Hollow Flake, a long day got us up to the Ear, another infamous pitch. The Ear is a monstrous flake that forms a downward-flaring chimney, requiring horizontal squirming over the void and backcleaning all of your gear so the lead rope can hang free for the second. I battled through by headlamp light and in my stress I left a piece of protection inside, forcing Jon to take a monster swing out of the chimney in complete darkness.

We had one pitch to go before bivvying in the Alcove below the legendary El Cap Spire. It was already late, we were completely worked, and this long pitch of tricky aid was the last thing we needed. Thankfully salvation appeared in the form of a cheery dude top-roping the Monster Offwidth in an American flag tutu, blasting music and having a ball. We had spied their party of 3 far ahead of us, and this legend had lowered down from their bivvy on the Spire to top rope the Monster “for fun”. Since the Monster led to the Alcove, he offered to fix our line for us and we gratefully accepted his help.

The next morning, we tunneled behind the spire and popped out on its flat top. It was surreal to be in this iconic location, an island in the sky, and we could see the beautiful headwall looming high above us. Despite the rough previous day, we were able to have a great time climbing up to our next bivvy on the Block. The more relaxed pace let us soak in the surroundings as the valley floor dropped ever farther below us. We passed the Boulder Problem, the free climbing crux, and then the Sewer, an ever-seeping pitch of green goo. When I finally pulled onto the Block, I was welcomed with hot chocolate and rum! The party of 3 ahead of us, all YOSAR rangers, had set up camp and made space for us, and we enjoyed a lovely evening making new wall friends.

The goal for the next day was to make it to Long Ledge, 3 pitches from the summit and high on the headwall. We followed behind the rangers, watching them climb the Enduro Corner in booty shorts. We were fortunate to learn from their style, approach, and attitude, and the route became pure type 1 fun. The Enduro made for exciting, aesthetic aiding and Jon styled the next roof pitch to get us to the Salathe headwall. Cleaning the roof, hanging in space 2500 feet above the base of the route, it started to settle in that we actually might make it! Bailing from above the roof would be very difficult, and as soon as we were at the first anchor of the headwall we felt committed to topping out. Looking up, the perfect crack I had dreamed of split the overhanging headwall. We were exactly where we wanted to be. The aid crux of the route came and went uneventfully and I lost track of time as I enjoyed what felt like miles of easy aid up the splitter. The sun began to move lower on the horizon and the shadow of the valley walls crept up to the base of El Cap. I couldn’t believe it, the golden light and mind-bending exposure were exactly as I had dreamed and I felt weightless as I hauled the bag. I wanted to let my hair down to feel like Steph Davis but, being a good MITOC climber, I could never remove my helmet. Blasting music from my pocket, I couldn’t help but dance in joy in between bouts of hauling.

By the time I finished leading up to Long Ledge, the shadow was just below us and the wind picked up. Though it was getting late, there was one more big obstacle weighing on my mind: the pitch above us. Hardly noteworthy in the topo, I had heard that there were two choices: mandatory insecure 5.10 free climbing above marginal gear or a bolted 11b variation. A climber had to be recently rescued from Long Ledge after blowing the mid-10 moves and breaking his legs. With that story in mind, I opted for sport climbing 2800 feet off the deck. Not believing that I could pull hard moves after so many days in the wall, I stepped off the ledge into immediate exposure. Nightmare visions of having to bail from this high up gave me the adrenaline to pull on holds and bolts when needed and suddenly I found myself fixing the rope at the next set of anchors. We were going to top out! Overjoyed, I rapped back down to Jon and we settled in to watch the brilliant sunset from our narrow perch in the sky, our feet hanging over the sweeping sea of granite below.

The last day, we blasted up the last few pitches and suddenly found ourselves on flat ground… the summit! We could hardly believe it until we took off our harnesses. We spent a few hours on top, soaking in the surroundings and eating our remaining food before repacking the haulbag for the slog down. This might have been the crux of the experience: endless walking down sketchy slabs with heavy bags, with some high-consequence downclimbing to get to rappels. After a few hours, we finally stumbled into the parking lot and back to the car. Our wall friends made it down soon after us and offered for us to crash in the YOSAR sight that night. With little daylight to spare, we booked it to Yosemite village to get burritos, ice cream, and showers before collapsing into our tent.

We awoke in a stupor: did we actually just climb El Cap? Couldn’t be… but here was our mess of gear and the carpal tunnel to bear witness. Incredibly content and yet still disbelieving, we wandered around the Valley before winding up back in El Cap meadow. Looking up at the route, the wall didn’t look quite as big anymore.