The Nose in a Day


Sandoval Olascoaga, Carlos

Dates of Trip: 

August 19, 2017 to September 2, 2017

I heard about Yosemite Valley only a few months after I first started climbing. I was reading an article by one of my climbing mentors where he described his 1970’s ascent of “El Capitan”. The intensity of his experience, the challenges, and lessons depicted in his story motivated me to plan my first trip to The Valley in the summer of 2005. When I decided to plan the trip, I had only been climbing for about three months, but for the four months leading up to my trip, I fully committed myself to training and prepping for the expedition. I deeply immersed myself into the climbing history of Yosemite, and ultimately decided that I would climb The Nose of El Cap. I had to experience the most classic and historic line on El Cap. By the time summer came, I had memorized every single pitch of the route, spent countless hours climbing cracks, and getting familiar with big wall techniques.

I had visualized driving through the Wawona Tunnel hundreds of times in my head. When I finally went across the tunnel and saw El Cap for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the place. It’s granite walls were bigger, steeper and more imposing than I had ever imagined. I thought to myself, “What should a 3,000+ ft wall look like anyway?”. I got goosebumps throughout my body as a full moon lit up the walls behind the Valley. It was definitely the most beautiful place I had ever been. Despite all the preparation leading to the climb, I had to continuously push my capacities, concentration, and mental strength to climb El Cap for the first time. I was lucky enough to have a climbing partner with considerable experience on big walls. From him I learned a number of tricks that I wouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own and found the confidence within myself to be push my physical and mental limits. I came to learn that the capacity to climb a big wall went well beyond the climb itself: the process of establishing a seemingly unreal goal as an 18-year-old, working towards it, and finally, completing the big wall transformed my life. After the summer of 2005, I felt as though I began to live my life in a completely different manner. I suddenly felt that I could push my boundaries where I never felt possible. Where before a big wall might have been an impossible challenge, now, I began to see an opportunity.

After that summer, I kept growing as a climber, setting new goals and going on expeditions every year. Year after year, I went back to Yosemite. Ever since, I have climbed other big walls, but nevertheless, no other has been as significant and inspiring to me as El Cap. While other life goals and passions eventually took me away from pursuing high-performance climbing, bringing me to MIT, the memories and lessons of my first experience high up on El Cap drive me every day.

This year, after twelve years since climbing The Nose for the first time, I decided to climb it again. This time, I would try to climb it in a day. Climbing El Cap in a day requires an increased amount of planning, logistics, and technical expertise: from previous rehearsal of the route, to careful planning of gear and supplies. Technical maneuvers, efficiency, and concentration become fundamental in attempting to climb a grade VI climb in a day. Regardless, perhaps the most fundamental part of the whole enterprise is the complete trust in your partner and in yourself. For this project, I asked my two friends and longtime climbing partners, Odin Perez and Artemia Ramirez to join the project. I’ve been climbing with both of them for more than 10 years, and together we’ve been in very intense situations and walls around North and South America. We know each other very well, and complement our skills and capacities. Despite living thousands of miles apart, we can easily reconnect on a wall, without having to train extensively beforehand.

In early August, we did a few climbs together around Mexico City, just before traveling to Yosemite. Summer is not the best time to climb in Yosemite: temperatures are typically above 90 degrees, and tourists flood the Valley. When climbing big walls, high temperatures greatly increase the amount of water that you need to carry in your haul bag. With a party of 3, we typically bring at least 3.5 gallons of water per day. For a 3 to 4-day big wall, that is way over 100 pounds of weight to carry on your back. Despite the heat and additional logistics, summer is the only time I am able to get away from Cambridge for an extended period of time. So on August 19th, we flew into Reno, NV. The closest airport to Yosemite is Fresno, where you can catch a bus directly from the Airport to the Valley. Luckily, some friends in Reno let us borrow a car, which made logistics easier!

After spending a couple of days in Reno and getting supplies, we drove down to Yosemite. The drive from the eastern side of the Sierras is particularly interesting -alpine sceneries are abundant, and you get to experience Yosemite’s backcountry when driving through Tioga Pass. We drove down in the afternoon, and parked at Lee Vining, the last town before entering Yosemite, to sleep for a few hours. We woke up at 2 AM so that we could get into the Valley by 4 AM and get in line for a camping spot at Camp 4. In the Summer and Fall, you typically have to get in line at 3 or 4 AM to get a spot at the historic campground. To our surprise, we were the first in line. It turns out that by the end of August, most of the tourists are gone, the Valley is a bit less crowded, and the walls are a bit cooler!

Although we had been in the Valley multiple times before, the climbing in Yosemite feels very different to the trad climbs around New England -the cracks are mostly continuous, and the granite is well polished, making it slick and a bit insecure. It is usually a good idea to spend a few days acclimatizing before jumping into the larger walls. We had less than 2 weeks in the Valley, so we had to get into the wall pretty soon, without much climbing prep in smaller objectives. Our plan was simple: we’d do a big wall style test run on The Nose, come back down to the Valley, rest for a couple of days, and have one shot to do The Nose in a day before having to leave the Valley.

So, after setting up our campsite, we spent a couple days getting supplies, doing some prep, and smaller climbs. For our big wall style attempt, we would fix the first four pitches of the route, rappel back down, and rest for a day, before spending 3 nights on the wall. The first 4 pitches of the route are perhaps the most technically challenging. They involve mandatory free climbing moves, protected by somewhat questionable gear placed in pin scars. Although the pitches are not harder than 5.11, they can take considerable time. After these pitches, the rest of the route is just a matter of physical endurance and big wall techniques.

We were able to fix the first four pitches without much trouble. In those first pitches, you start to get a sense of the type of exposure you get on El Cap: strong winds blow around you, and most of the anchors are hanging. Odin and I switched leads, and we got to Sickle Ledge within a few hours. From the ledge, an independent rappel line leads straight to the ground by fixing four 50-meter ropes.

We spent the next day resting at our campsite, rationing the supplies for the upcoming 4-day climb, and getting enough water containers for the wall. For me, the days before getting into a wall are filled with a broad flow of feelings and emotions. There is a persistent tense atmosphere, as you immerse into the uncertain, and committing enterprise that is big wall climbing. The moments and time on the wall give me the opportunity to deeply engage in the present, while at the same time, evaluate and relive the path I have traced. It is through the uncertainty and deep commitment demanded by El Cap that I rediscover earlier trips up on the wall; trips that have influenced and shaped my everyday approach and living.

It is hard for me to sleep the night before getting into the wall. As with any large campground, there are a few gatherings of people going on past midnight. Nevertheless, what keeps me awake are the memories of the pitches to come, the number of ways in which things can go wrong, and recent personal experiences. After a few hours of much thinking, I finally manage to sleep for a bit, before being woken by a flow of people moving through the campground. We spent the morning making the final arrangements for our climb, and in the afternoon, we caught the bus to the El Cap meadows. Tourists look over incredulously at the size of our haul bag, ask numerous questions, and even take selfies with us -I suppose such spectacle is in some way part of any climbing experience in Yosemite.

After a short, but painful hike with all of our gear and a 100+ pound haul bag, we jummared and hauled 4 pitches to Sickle ledge. Once on Sickle we fix a couple of pitches before the first pendulum of the route. We spent an uncomfortable first night on the sloping 2ft-wide ledge. Just after the sunrise, we wake up, start re-arranging all the gear, packing the haul bag and eat breakfast. Breakfast is mostly our only meal of the day. While on the wall, there is barely time to eat, and it is painful to chew granola bars with the limited amount of water that we are carrying. We decided to get on the wall with the least amount of water possible, trying to reduce weight, and fully committing to topping out within 3 days.

We lead the climb on blocks, in a pretty similar distribution to our plan for the Nose. I lead the first five pitches of the day. Just twelve years before I had led the same five pitches leading into Dolt Tower. The first pitches of the day feel magical: a couple of them have short pendulums. Running from side to side of the wall trying to reach the next crack system is an opportunity to realize the immensity of El Cap - your rope feels like a string in comparison to the 2500+ feet above you, and the 500 feet below you. The pendulums are liberating, you trust your gear, your skills and your partners - they are the first point of no (or difficult) return on the route. After the pendulums, you fully commit to the climb: bailing by rapping down becomes more troublesome. The cracks after the swings are gorgeous: hand-sized splitters known as the Stoveleg Cracks. Originally aided by Warren Harding, by hammering stovelegs -literally wooden legs of old stoves-  into the wide cracks as protection, with modern camming units, the Stoveleg Cracks represent some of the most fun pitches on the route. By the time I reach the last pitch of my block, I am exhausted from climbing with a big wall-sized rack and hauling every pitch. Climbing the route big wall style is considerably more time consuming, and by the time we reach Dolt Tower, the sun is almost setting. A few easy pitches after Dolt Tower lead us to El Cap Tower, one of the most comfortable bivy spots on El Cap. At night, we finally get some food, and water to recover. Exhausted from the day, I almost immediately fall asleep, after barely taking a peak at the numerous stars framed by the imposing silhouette of El Cap above us.

The next day, we wake up a bit later than usual, and after the typical big wall morning routine, I rack up for the first climbing block of the day. From El Cap Tower, I get to lead all the pitches up to The Great Roof. The first pitch, the infamous Texas Flake, is a detached flake shaped like Texas with a committing chimney behind it. I’ve never been a big fan of chimney climbing, but as the fastest free climber, it makes the most sense for me to lead all the pitches up to the Great Roof, especially as we prep for a Nose-in-a day attempt. The climbing pushes my mental endurance, and I constantly feel like slipping away from the awkward chimney position. After the Texas Flake a bolt ladder and a few tricky aid moves lead to the Boot Flake, a flake that seems magically floating in the air 1,500 feet up on El Cap, and barely attached to the wall. The Boot Flake provides super fun climbing on a barely overhanging hand crack.

Once Odin jumars to the top of the pitch, I nervously rack up for the King Swing. The King Swing is a wild 80-100 feet pendulum that ends up at Eagle Ledge. From the top of the Boot Flake, Odin lowers me 30 feet below the flake, and then I start running from side to side of the wall as the tourists in the Valley floor point their telescopes at me. The King Swing is physically exhausting: it took me several tries to get the next crack system, and I wasted a lot of energy running from side to side of the wall.

Once at Eagle Ledge, Oding passes me the rack through the haul line, and I start climbing the rest of the pitch without placing any gear until I am at about the same height of the anchor. After I place the first piece of gear on the pitch, I feel much more calm and focused.

Exhausted by the pendulum, and all the hauling, I wait for my partners to get to the anchor. I quickly lead the next two pitches, one of which passes through Camp IV, one of the next possible bivy spots on the route. The first time I climbed The Nose, we moved much slower and despite planning on spending the night at Camp IV, we ended up having to spend the night 100 feet before getting to Camp IV, on a foot-wide sloping edge where we were barely able to sit. With our legs hanging off the wall, this was definitely one of the hardest nights I can remember. After leading those two pitches, we get to the Great Roof, one of the most classic pitches of the route.

We finally switch leads, and Odin slowly aids through the Great Roof. Halfway through the pitch, Odin takes a fall, he was bounce testing a piece, while the cam hook he was on popped off the wall. He quickly went back to his last piece of gear, and finished the rest of the pitch without much trouble. It gets dark as I clean the pitch, and get to the anchor. Odin slowly leads the last two pitches until we finally reach our bivy for the night: Camp V. At 3 AM we finally get to eat something -I’ve been feeling dizzy throughout the day because of the lack of food and great physical effort. Throughout the day, my partners worry about our emaciated water reserve -we quickly fall asleep relieved that next day we’ll be able to top out and will have enough water for the last day on the wall.

The next day, we sleep until a bit later than the day before. We only have about 7 or 8 pitches left. Odin leads the next couple of pitches until he gets to the Changing Corners. The Changing Corners usually involve aiding on steel nuts and micro stoppers, but the constant flow of people has left long slings fixed to the bolts used for the free-climbing variation. By pulling on the slings, Odin aids the pitch quicker than usual.

Just a few pitches below the summit, we switch leads again. Like 12 years ago, I get the chance to lead the last pitch, starting with a short crack and ending with a long bolt ladder to the summit. As I finish the last pitch, an innumerable amount of memories, ideas, and feelings flow through my head. In many ways, I realize how different my current path is from what I thought it would be 12 years ago, and nevertheless, as I look towards the sun setting in the horizon, I find renewed energy, and new goals.

After Artemia and Odin reach the summit, we celebrate, get some food and setup a bivy on top of El Cap. Early the next day it takes us 4 or 5 hours to descend through the East Ledges descent. Exhausted, we took the bus to Camp IV, quickly dropped the gear at the campsite, and headed to Curry Village to take our first shower in a long time. We top our celebration with ice cream, and pizza. Once we are back at the campground, we begin our planning for the Nose-in-a-day attempt.

After a couple of rest days, Odin and I get ready for our attempt. We plan on starting at 8 AM, and going through the easier pitches at the beginning of the day. We would mostly be short-fixing blocks of pitches, and simul-climbing a few of the easier pitches. The day of the attempt, we get a ride to El Cap Meadows, and nervously hike to the base of the climb. I would be tasked with leading most of the first half of the route, and Odin would lead the more aid heavy second part of the route.

The first 4 pitches went through relatively fast and we got to Sickle ledge in a couple of hours. After a short water break, I continued leading the next 4 pitches, getting through a single block without swapping gear. The Stoveleg Cracks felt easier with a smaller rack and without the haul bag, but I started to feel tired. We quickly swapped gear and leads a couple of pitches below Dolt Tower, and Odin climbed to the ledge in a single pitch. Once I reached the ledge, we swapped gear, and Odin short fixed to El Cap Tower.

By the time I got to El Cap Tower, it was already the afternoon. We swapped gear, took a short food and water break, and started the next leading block. I climbed and short-fixed as fast as I could through the Texas Flake, and the Boot Flake. Faster Nose in a day parties back clean the gear  on Boot Flake, so the follower can just do the King Swing after cleaning the bolt ladder leading to the Boot Flake. However, I waited at the anchor for Odin to lower me for the King Swing. This time, it took only a couple of tries to complete the pendulum and arrive at Eagle Ledge.

From Eagle Ledge, I short fixed to the Great Roof. By the time we got the Great Roof, it was already dark, and as we swap gear, and leads, we also transitioned into night climbing. At this point we were both feeling quite tired, but also hopeful to finish the route in a day. Odin climbed the Great Roof, and I quickly jumared to the anchor to swap gear. He short fixed the next two pitches. By the time I got him on belay at the second pitch, he took a fall while aid climbing. I was so exhausted that I got pulled towards the wall, hitting my side. He quickly got back up and finished the pitch.

Exhausted, we took a break at Camp V, we ate and drank some water, and took a little nap. Odin led the next 2 pitches as single pitches -the Glowering Spot, a thin crack eats up a lot of gear, making short-fixing the pitch difficult. Past midnight, we got to Camp VI, and took another power nap -Camp VI is the last good ledge before the summit. The Changing Corners was Odin’s last lead of the route. He quickly, but tirelessly aided the pitch, taking advantage of all the fixed gear left in the pitch.

We swapped gear and leads, and as the night is coming to an end, I started leading the last block to the summit. At this point, my whole body ached, and every move and step took a lot of effort. I decided to lead the rest of the pitches as single pitches to minimize errors due to fatigue. As the sun started to rise, I advanced in the last two pitches. With my last bit of energy left, I pulled on the bolt ladder, and fixed the rope for Odin. When we both reached the summit tree, we hugged and celebrated. We had completed our in-a-day ascent of El Cap.