On Thursday, June 20th, Touchstone Founder Mark Melvin and big wall ace Chris McNamara headed to Yosemite to climb El Capitan in a day. The pair set a speed record on The Lost World via the Squeeze Play Variation, climbing the entire granite cliff in 15 hours 33 minutes. Chris wrote a bit about their ascent.
I'm on the hunt for routes I haven't done that will go down in a day. And by day I am hoping for daylight (no 23-hour suffer-fests need apply). Lost World with the Squeeze Play variation looked like it fit the bill and Mark Melvin was on the same page.
We woke up at 4 which seemed appropriate. However, we hadn't racked a thing so it took us until 7:25 to actually start climbing. Considering it got light at five, we burned 2.5 hours of daylight. So much for making use of the (almost) longest day of the year.
Mark cruised the first pitch which is 5.10 or C2. On the second pitch, it got tricky at the top. He whipped when a thin stopper pulled. Then whipped on the same piece again… but the cam hook he had just placed above caught him! This is one of the all time great moves in aid climbing. The only thing that tops it is when nailing an expanding the flake and having the piece you're standing on pull while the piece you're nailing catches you.
I took over on the third pitch which started with perfect clean "sport aid." (Sport aid = tricky moves between good protection with a safe fall. A sideways hook lung led to inverted cam hooks under an expanding flake. The flake expands a little so cam hooks are much less scary than trying to nail the thing.
The next few hundred feet went super fast. Any weird aid placements (where you might be tempted to nail) can be easily avoided by offset cams, top stepping and easy free moves
At Pitch five we headed left on the Squeeze Play variation. 80 feet up i was stumped. There was a big gap between bolts and a clear sign a flake had pulled. I looked for a micro hook move and saw nothing. So I had to dig deep into my clean a bag of tricks: I made a massive top step and intertwined three stoppers to snag a rivet. You can read more about this at my clean a article: Clean Aid and Hammerless Climbing - Top 11 Tricks. If you have a shorter reach than me then you will likely need to tape your intertwined stoppers to the end of a hammer.
Pitch 6 was a little awkward but pretty straight forward. it might go free at 5.10/5.11.
Pitch 7 is the epic super corner. 5.7 blocky free climbing led to blue Alien leap frogging. The top was the first tricky clean aid crux of the climb. Bring you tiny wires and REACH!
Pitch 8 is by far the crux. In fact, without this pitch the entire climb would probably be less sustained (but more awkward) than Lurking Fear. The pitch started with smallest Black Diamond Camalot X4 in a pod. This has become my new favorite piece of clean aid gear. It magically sticks in weird pods where no other cam will fit. Why? Because its head is so narrow, the lobes are so small and it just seems to always stick.
From here I was stumped by tiny pin scars. Then i remembered the intertwined stoppers used on pitch five. On the first cast I got a bite on distant fish… err pin scar. I moved to haul it in… it held!
This in general would be a very time consuming way to get past a tricky spot. I was just lucky I had the stoppers already intertwined and happened to have the right Dmm Peenut. From here, spicy cam hooks led right under a roof. One placement was so bad I just used it as a handhold to do a big reach. This is another tip I just added to my clean aid tips article: place an intermediated crappy piece to help you stop step or make a huge reach and keep that hammer holstered!
I was about 2/3 of the way through the pitch and thinking I might get this pitch hammerless and therefore the entire route hammerless when I hit Lost Arrow and Tomahawk scars. I had to nail two arrows and two Tomahawks over the next 25 feet which was the only place on the route we used a hammer. This section will go hammerless but will require:
more offset micro micro nuts (we only had a few)
more cam hooks (i only brought the narrow, i should have also brought the micro and the wide)
more big Tomahawks or Peckers. I only had the medium size, with the bigger size it would have been likely able to hand place some and hook the feature
Even with that gear, it still would have been pretty heads up C3+/C4. But it is a very clean fall. So the next team can nab the first hammerless ascent!
Brief rant: I am seeing more and more fixed Black Diamond Peckers with fraying or broken cables. I never see fixed Moses Tomahawks. Either the Peckers are just way more popular, or there is a design issue making them get fixed a lot more. I am not quite ready to say avoid Peckers all together in favor of Tomahawks, but it is something I am leaning toward. It is just depressing to see giant pieces of steel welded in the rock that are impossible to use because the thin cables has broken and there is no way to thread something in the eye. I think Black Diamond needs to A) use thicker cable and B) experiment with ways to curve the bottom like on a Tomahawk so that the pecker is easier to clean and can be re-slung if it gets fixed. End rant.
The next pitch was one of the weirdest in memory: it required new aid trickery. 50 feet up the crack gets funky. Its hard to describe so just look at this photo below. Actually that photo doesn't work either. Anyway, I had to "get all 1920's on it" and make a "nut" out of a knotted sling.
Next, I used a number 2 Camalot as a hex. How? I forgot to take a photo so I'll to describe: with the cam lobes full extended, I slotted it down so the edges of the flake on either side constricted the cam at the axle. The lobes did little more than keep the cam from moving. Possibly the first time I had done either technique. I carried two sets up cams 1-6" and had to SERIOUSLY back clean. Bring 3+ sets to protect every ten feet.
Mark took over from here. This next pitch was awkward with a capital A. Nothing like a really steep wide crack…that oozes. I hoped our 7" cam (#6 Black Diamond Camalot C4 ) would stay holstered and therefore I could save future parties the need to carry it. No dice. The 7" cam makes this pitch just suck a little. Leave it behind, the pitch will thoroughly beat you down.
Upside is... you end at a sweet ledge. Not bivy worthy, but fit for a solid El Cap Lie-back while belaying.
The next pitch passes the bivy between pitches 9 and 10 on Lurking Fear which currently has 4 gallons of water on it. Then leans back right to join the West Buttress. From here, 40 feet joins Lurking Fear. I led the next 4 and set mark up for the last 5 to the summit.
Alert: based on the recent El Cap tragedies, I feel compelled to mention again that loose blocks kill. Even the most trade of trade routes have them. Be aware. There is a block on pitch 11 of Lurking Fear that will probably go in the next decade and likely because someone puts a cam behind it instead of using a nut to the right. Don't be that person!
The sun set, the headlamps came out. Mark rocketed up these pitches as if he was doing espresso shots at each belay. My energy vaporized and his seemed to just grow.
We stumbled on another 5 gallons on Thanksgiving Ledge (thank you Andy Kirkpatrick and or Steve Schneider?). Summited at 10:58. 15:33 from the start.
I was tired. Really tired. Mark pulled out a whole wheel of cheese. I mean, I wasn't even mad we jugged all that weight to the summit... I was impressed! Ok, not really, but the recent Anchorman 2 trailer made me want to mention that line. Mark did actually pull out a giant wedge of cheese... and an avocado... and some spiced almonds. Ive long felt eating is a relative experience more based on situation than ingredients. The best restaurant in the world is the one you visit when you're so hungry you're ready to eat sawdust. Needless to say, tonight on El Cap we were dining at a 3 star Michelin.
Tags: Mark Melvin, Chris McNamara, El Capitan