“Harding’s route up The Nose is the boldest line up El Capitan. In contrast, the Salathé Wall is the most devious – traversing, arcing, and even rappelling on its lower half. But the reason for the devious appearance is that the Salathé Wall follows the chief line of weakness on El Capitan. In the opinion of many top climbers, it is the greatest rock climbing route in the world.” – Galen Rowell
[Excerpts written by Royal Robbins regarding the first continuous ascent of the Salathé Wall as it appears in Galen Rowell’s book, Vertical World of Yosemite, 1974.]
“As we started climbing early on October 10, the sky was clear and the temperature cool. There was as yet no sign of the forecasted rain. However, later in the morning, clouds, fragments and clumps of nimbo-stratus, began moving swiftly from the south and it looked as if the Weather Bureau, which had been unsuccessfully forecasting rain for several days, might finally be right. As the clouds scudded over our heads toward the north, Tom skillfully led the difficult section of the blank area where we had placed thirteen bolts the previous year. The use of more bolts in this area had been originally avoided by some enterprising free climbing on two blank sections and some delicate and nerve-wracking piton work. It would take only a few bolts to turn this pitch, one of the most interesting on the route, into a “boring” walk-up. As the clouds thickened we climbed around the well-known “Half Dollar” and up to Mammoth Terraces, 1000 feet above our starting point. We then climbed down 50 feet and rappelled 150 feet to Heart Ledge, at the base of a large heart-shaped recess, which is one of the conspicuous features of the wall. From Heart Ledge I led the next pitch to Lung Ledge. Following this, Tom made a thrilling pendulum and then struggled up a jam crack for 120 feet to Hollow Flake Ledge. This difficult pitch had been led by TM Herbert on the previous attempt. Darkness fell as I followed Tom’s lead; rain appeared imminent.”
A heavy blanket of darkness still covered the valley. The brisk air nipped at my neck and cheeks as I flaked out our ropes at the base of the wall. I pulled up the hood of my fleece in an effort to ward off the chill. It was early morning of October 6th. The previous day Adam and I had lugged our overstuffed haul bag up the fixed lines to Heart Ledge. While we generally try to avoid fixing and hauling separate from our ground up push on a wall, the idea of trying to wrestle our bag (packed with 5 days of food, water, and gear) across the low angle and highly traversing terrain of those first ten pitches seemed heinous. Working within the small bubble of light our headlamps provided, we started up the first pitch, 3,000 feet of steep granite looming over us. The contrast between the light of my headlamp and the surrounding rock became increasingly subtle as the sky slowly grew lighter; just in time to navigate the blank slab, that, like an ocean, separated one crack system from the next. Unhindered by the weight of our haul bag, we climbed quickly and soon found ourselves on top of Mammoth Terraces. A quick rappel reunited us with our haul bag on Heart Ledge just in time for a noon lunch. Two additional pitches would land us on Lung Ledge, our original target for the first night’s bivy. With extra time on our hands, we pushed upward, completing the infamous Hollow Flake, however, as we began hauling, climbers began raining down on us from above. Like spiders sliding down a string of silk, one after another they slid down our ropes, their ropes… back on our ropes. Progress came to a halt until the last climber slithered past me out of sight. Pause returned to play, and just like that we resumed the wrestling match – lowering out the haul bag and dragging it onto Hollow Flake Ledge. The fiery sun fell behind the horizon just as we settled in on the Hollow Flake Ledge for a comfortable night.
***“To our surprise, no rain fell that night, though the morning sky on the second day was still mostly cloudy. We had no problem with heat and forced ourselves to drink water to eliminate excess weight. After several hours of mixed free and direct-aid climbing that second morning we reached the “Ear”, a large flake, which had caused us considerable trouble and delay on the first ascent. We had lost several hours then in a fruitless attempt to bypass this frightening formation, but finally attacked it directly. This involved using chimney technique to move 30 feet horizontally behind the flake, with the bottom of the flake yawning abruptly into space – an unnerving procedure. Tom led this anxiety-producing pitch with nearly perfect composure – only a few screams of terror and moans of horror. I nailed 150 feet to a small ledge, and thence a fiercely difficult jam crack brought us to the base of El Cap Spire, an 80-foot Lost Arrow-type pinnacle separated from the wall by only a few feet of space. A shower and strong winds hit us here and more of the same seemed certain. We chimneyed to the top of the spire and I then led 75 feet of the next pitch. We spent the night on top of the spire, 1800 feet up. The sky was filled with clouds and a strong wind blew from the south, but again we passed a night without receiving the expected downpour.”
Adam and I woke up with the sun. Our haul bag looked slightly less robust after a night of eating and drinking, but still felt seriously overweight. A morning of climbing led up right to the base of the Ear, a Bombay chimney created by a large flake. The chimney starts out wide and slowly pinches towards the top until you’re forced to traverse sideways out of the chimney and up over the side of the flake. Adam started up the chimney, soon becoming engulfed by the flake and lost from sight. He placed a number three cam in the crack, wondering if I’d be able to clean it because of the massive pendulum it would require all the way out of the chimney to the next piece he would be able to leave. Most climbers don’t leave any gear behind on this pitch so, upon reaching the top of the flake, they can flick the rope over top of the flake, creating a clean line for the second to ascend. I assured him it would be fine, even though the placement was out of sight. The rock looked low enough angle to tension traverse out of the chimney, however, upon reaching the placement the rock angle no longer looked low angle. The rope angled sharply from the cam across the chimney and out of sight. It would be a clean swing, but the exposure felt real. I put on my GriGri and took off my ascenders, then got into a good stance to remove the cam. My hands began to sweat as I took a deep breath and cut loose. A squeal escaped my lips and the party below us began to hoot and holler as I was spit out from behind the Ear, swinging onto the blank face beside it. High on adrenaline, I joined Adam on top of the Ear and we continued upward. Darkness was creeping in, just as we collapsed onto El Cap Spire, exhausted from the long day of climbing. The magic of being on a free-standing spire, 1,800 feet up the wall, took the edge off our sore bodies. Sleep came easy.
“The next day brought more of the same weather, which was excellent for climbing: cool, stimulating and though threatening, only threatening. By nightfall of the third day we had climbed 2500 feet and were faced with an important decision. We could rappel 150 feet to a good ledge below and bivouac or we could attempt to continue after dark in an effort to reach ‘Sous Le Toit Ledge’, 60 feet away horizontally and around a large bulge in the face, beyond a long and complicated pitch, which includes a pendulum. After mentally weighing the factors we decided to continue climbing – a lucky decision as it turned out. A full moon was shining so brightly that we received considerable light through the clouds and seldom used our single flashlight. We reached ‘Sous Le Toit Ledge’ at 11:30 p.m. and settled down for a chilly bivouac. The weather signs still portended rain or snow. With all these clouds moving in from the Pacific there must be something out there. How long would it hold off?”
Our third day on the wall came with decisions. We had planned for an easy day of climbing to the Block, a bivy ledge only five pitches off of El Cap Spire, however, another party was planning to spend the night there. We could either up the mileage to make it to another bivy ledge higher up, or we could spend a second night on the Spire. Our tired bodies happily accepted a day absent of hauling. We slept in late that morning, lazily lounging in our sleeping bag until the hot sun forced us up and moving. We spent the day fixing all the rope we had up the next five pitches, to the anchors at the Block. As another day came to an end, we rappelled back down to the comfort of the Spire.
***“On the morning of the fourth day we ascended a long and interesting pitch to a 20-foot overhang called the ‘Roof’. Surmounting this roof, which was composed of several tiers, each overhanging the one below, involved some of the most spectacular and strenuous climbing on the route. Above the roof was a 200-foot overhanging headwall. The climbing on this headwall was all direct-aid, very difficult in several spots, and slow. All day, as we climbed, the wind blew in gusts of startling strength. We could see how it passed over the trees below as one normally observes its action on tall grass or a field of wheat. Belaying in slings, we were violently blown this way and that, and the wind’s force made it difficult to stand high in our slings to place pitons. We were both up on ‘Thank God Ledge’ by nightfall, just in time to prepare for the rain, which the wind drove on us all night. Just before dawn a little snow fell on the ledge, while on top of the rock, 300 feet higher, three inches lay on the ground.”
The morning of day four, our haul bag felt significantly lighter. We beat the sun to rise, blasting up our fixed lines, haul bag in tow. Sunlight greeted us as we started climbing, crossing a series of pendulums before continuing upward once again. Like a rigid jawline, a giant roof jutted out above us, guarding the steep upper Headwall. Adam traversed out under the roof on wildly exposed terrain. As I followed up behind him I was keenly aware of the empty space dropping out from beneath my feet. With each piece of gear I cleaned, I hung farther and farther away from the wall, until I finally pulled the lip and reached the belay at the base of the Headwall. I sat on the haul bag as I belayed Adam, the wind rocking the bag and I back and forth like a small boat out at sea. Our ropes were alive, twisting and slithering vertically through space. Fiercely golden light sprayed across the granite wall as we pulled onto Long Ledge, just above the Headwall. As we pulled out dinner for the night an intense whooshing of air grabbed our attention – a wingsuit BASE jumper flew past the ledge and, like a raven, elegantly glided along the wall, lower and lower, until he turned the corner of the Nose and was out of sight.
“At daybreak we forced ourselves out of our sack. With considerable effort we ate, and drank a little water. The precipitation had ceased and the storm passed to the southeast. Numbed, we climbed slowly that morning, but by the time we finished the first pitch the sun shone upon us from an almost clear sky. Water ran down the face from the melting snow above and Tom was hit by a piece of ice. The last pitch was a fitting climax to the climb. On the first ascent Chuck Pratt had led this pitch. On that day I was prusiking and hauling, but Tom had followed Chuck’s lead and came up sweating, cursing, and praising Chuck’s uncommon talents. We finished the climb in magnificent weather, surely the finest and most exhilaratingly beautiful Sierra day we had ever seen. The air was cool, but the direct sunlight was warm and friendly. All the high country was white with new snow and two or three inches had fallen along the rim of the Valley, on Half Dome, and on Clouds Rest. One could see for great distances and each peak was sharply etched against a dark blue sky. We were feeling spiritually very rich indeed as we hiked down though the grand Sierra forests to the Valley.”
While only four pitches separated us from the summit that morning, we knew better than to think it would be an easy trip to the top that day. El Capitan doesn’t relent; she guards the top well. So we cast off from the ledge early, making our bid for dirt grounds. The sun blazed hot as we pulled over the final steep section of rock and dumped our bags under the tree marking the end of the route. While reaching the top seems to be an appropriate place for celebration, a climatic end to a great journey up a massive piece of stone, it never seems to be for us. It’s merely the end, with many pinnacles of excitement, celebration, and physical and emotional strength strung between the ground and the top.