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West Face, El Cap 6/94

By Anne Smith

Jim and I have been planning on climbing the West Face of El Cap each Sunday since Memorial Day: Memorial Day itself we were too wiped out from our Crucifix epic, the next weekend I was still too tired to leave town, the following weekend we wimped out due to heat, and weekend before last I had to work at the last moment. Though it appeared we just weren't destined to do this climb, an obvious pattern emerged from our failures. It seems we usually stick to our Saturday climbing plans but haven't yet followed through the rest of the weekend. Rather than risk spending the rest of the summer cancelling our Sundays' West Face plans we decided to shuffle the schedule. Hopefully Clint won't therefore consider it an insult that the past weekend's itinerary was the West Face Saturday, then the Ho Chi Min Trail Sunday. We had nothing but good intentions for the Ho making sure to pack the cappucino machine for that clearly needed Sunday morning boost.

Jim was in charge of setting the alarm for 4:30 but we woke up, sans alarm, in full daylight at 6:00. He swore at the alarm and switched it off. Not an auspicious start but after all our cancellations we could hardly back out. After driving into the valley we didn't leave the car until 7:15.

Despite a good-sized pack, including a rap line, some warm clothes, and 4.5 liters of water, we'd decided on a "no hauling" style. The second would jug on the harder pitches and follow with the pack up higher where the climbing is easier and the pack would be lighter. Jim thought this technique would be a good incentive to get me to do a lot of the leading. It was. I did. He paid.

It was already quite warm as we racked up -- even the belayer was sweating lightly in a T-shirt as we began climbing around 8:45.

P1 11b (J) "worst 11 pitch of the climb", slabby, I jugged.
P2 11b (A) Though slabby, a non-painful, fun, balancy crux move. J jugged
P3 10a (A) Slightly thin corner, not as easy as I expected. J jugged
P4 3 (J) I followed with pack
P5 10a (A) Really cool 10a arete/bulge move following by incredible 5.8 climbing, on atypically Yosemite sculpted jugs which turn out to be the trademark of the climb. J followed with pack
P6 11c (A) I intended to stop at the end of the 10a section but mis-read the topo, misreading a horn for a bolt(?!) and continued through the 11c crux. Unfortunately, the crux occurs at the belay, with little rope to spare, so I played a "rules game" with myself, established myself on good holds about a foot above the belay, then downclimbed and clipped in. Really great pitch otherwise, just right for small stemming specialists. J jugged
P7 11a (A) Again, mostly great 5.8 climbing on positive holds. J jugged
P8 11c (A) A fantastic short but strenous 30' (?) overhanging hand and finger crack; I had to dump much strength in order to over- protect it. The sun hit as I pulled the lip, so despite our late start we about made the goal of finishing the 11 in the shade, a good thing as even the shade was hardly cool. J jugged
P9 7 (A) Traverse to move belay. Was it ever warm in the sun -- the breeze was wimpier than we'd hoped.
P10 10b (J) Delicate 10 face moves to a nice 5.8 crack. I followed but blew the face move. Too slimey in the sun, with the heavy pack, so I took the big swing, conveniently to the easier crack. So much for letting Jim lead.
P11 10b (A) Incredibly beautiful pitch -- a lot of it steep. Almost any other Yosemite crack of this angle and width would be 11 but many more of the uncharacteristic gigantic jugs were very well placed -- gorgeous rock. J followed with pack.
P12 8 (J) Great 7 and 8 climbing, easy enough for me to successfully follow with the pack
P13 9 (A) Another fun jug-ridden pitch. J followed.
P14 10d (J) The party above us let us pass here at "The Terrace" so we sent the fast leader out. Great thin crack then delicate face. I jugged.
P15 7 (A) classic long 5.7 pitch; J followed
P16 2nd class move to the other end of the deluxe ledge.
P17 - 19 junk

At this point I was surprised that the new guide gives this climb only 2 stars. It seemed first rate to me -- though most of the climbing is in the 8 - 10b range I thought it was unusually high quality. However, we then wound up doing three and a half more roped pitches, through absolute junk, until we finally found the 3rd class slabs to the summit. At one point, I managed to lead us through an apparently unclimbed 5.7 loose, licheny chimney where we should have been in 4th class terrain. Jim, following with the pack, was not pleased. Blech. Subtract a star.

We were on top some time between 6 and 6:30, hardly race pace but not bad for a mostly "bolt queen" - led excursion, either. We were back at the car, very thirsty, around 8:45. A long day, but certainly not epic. Nevertheless, it was already clear our Sunday plans were out, as we both had horrific blisters on our feet for the first time from climbing (perhaps due to the heat?) so spending another long day in the cranking shoes was definitely out.

The next morning, the alarm did go off at 4:30, so Jim has now been relieved of alarm responsibilities. Rising again at 8, I was still psyched from the previous day's climb; Jim could only say that he felt like he'd spent 13 1/2 hours digging ditches.

We headed up to the meadows, warmed up on Ground Effects, 11c ** (J) on the Lamb. Never mind what the topo indicates, the crux is high on the slab! I'd done this climb before and felt justified in riding the TR, which felt more than hard enough. Next it was back to our summer home -- East Pywiack. Jim set up a TR on Tuberculo's X, 11d**X. I'd done this once before but was astounded at how hard it felt. Sustained 11d/12a moves for 30' with no chalk marks to indicate the (relatively) good knobs took everything I had -- must have been tired from the West Face as it hadn't seemed nearly so hard last time. Lowering off, I finally noticed the chalk highway on much bigger knobs 5' left. Hint: stay mostly in the white streak! Jim then followed the intended route, spewing about how much easier it seemed -- he'd gone right last time.

Next it was on to our project -- Skinwalker, 12d**. Though definitely not a 13, this climb is at the upper end of its grade, featuring two 12d cruxes and a funky 12b move as well as several other opportunities to fall. Jim reworked the moves well enough. I ripped off the lower crux (which I'd previously worked out) destroying a tip and left this section alone for the rest of the day, but was thrilled to finally work out a reliable sequence on the heartbreaking last bolt "slab power/contact strength" crux. Jim tried a burn, cruised the lower section in impressive style, but blew his strength and reopened a tip getting out of sequence on the 12b move. As soon as his tip closes and we can return he's in there. I felt pretty good next try, skipping the tip crux but very nearly linking to the top from there despite exhaustion.

Jim then started work on European Vacation, 13b, but after all the ditch-digging, the two hard sessions on Skinwalker, and with the bloody tip and feet too blistered for high-performance edging, he'll have to reserve judgement on its apparent difficulty.

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