Californian granite on my mind

02 August, 2016
Granite showpiece of El Capitan

Competition ice climber, Anna Wells, is well-known for her skill with picks but is always keen for an adventure, whether it's on rock or ice. This summer she headed out to California and Yosemite's granite to try out big wall climbing. Below she picks out her highs and lows from the trip.

INSPIRED Perhaps Yosemite is to a climber what Disneyland is to a child: you've always heard of it, always wanted to go there and even the mention of the name has a magical air that evokes feelings of glee and excitement.

This was the case for me anyway and I decided it would be a perfect way to spend my month holiday between finishing nine years of university and my graduation ceremony. I love adventure and so the idea of spending multiple days on a big wall hugely appealed to me and what could be a finer setting for it than the spectacular Yosemite Valley.

PREPARATION The logistics and new techniques to learn seemed complicated, so my first step was to buy a flight to San Francisco. That meant I was committed and I knew the rest would have to fall into place. I bought and borrowed a load of gear and educated myself using Supertopo YouTube videos, practicing at local crags. My friend Tim and I saw Marjorie Razorblade at Dunkeld as a fitting objective for our first aid climb. The overhanging crack took each of us half-an-hour to ascend the 8 metre crack and suddenly the prospect of a 900m wall seemed a little daunting.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS No matter how many photos you have seen of El Capitan, the first time you see it in real life it will absolutely blow your mind. It rises suddenly from the meadows, almost a vertical kilometre of smooth perfect golden granite. The scale is overwhelming and the prospect of climbing it gives you feelings of both fear and excitement. For the first two weeks I climbed with Tom Ballard who was very patient and taught me a whole host of new skills, from crack climbing to hauling. There was so much to learn and it was all unbelievably fun.

JAMMING, OFF-WIDTHS AND CHIMNEYS Many of the free-climbs we did involved these delightful features. Even now, from the safety of my sofa, these words leave me with sweaty hands and feelings of terror. A friend advised me that the secret was to use a 'delicate technique' and it should not feel like a wrestling match with the rock. I frequently tried to remind myself of this whilst writhing around, half a leg stuck in a crack, arm bent backwards and crying out in vain. But then you survive and you feel like you achieved something great. It’s a complicated love-hate relationship.

The Great Roof on El Capitan
TRIPLE DIRECT By the end of week one we had climbed 45 pitches including a big-wall on Washington Column and we were ready to face the mighty El Capitan. Triple Direct (C2 5.9) is a 29 pitch route which links up Salathe, Muir Wall and The Nose. We planned for three days of climbing and filled our haul bag with noodles, bagels and LOTS of water. It had just started to heat up in the valley reaching 37 degrees the day we set off. I loved the simplicity of 'wall life'; climb, eat, sleep, repeat. I especially loved night time, when glowing head-torches decorated the walls and a thousand bright stars lit up the sky! The exposure was awesome and my highlight was leading the Great Roof pitch. We finished the last two pitches in the dark and slept on top, awaking to a glorious sunrise.

LURKING FEAR IN A DAY (C2F 5.7) The very next day Tom was keen to attempt a one-day ascent of El Cap and I was absolutely game for the ride. [Who needs rest days?] He did an amazing job leading all 19 pitches, whilst I ascended the ropes, stripped gear and carried the pack. We drastically under-estimated our water requirements and were very dehydrated by the time we reached the summit after 13 hours on the wall! Exhausted and elated we descended in the dark and I was happy not to meet any bears.

HALF DOME After two weeks, I dropped Tom off at the airport and picked up Tim. We got back to the valley at midnight and set the alarm for 4 a.m. Despite the fact Tim had just ran a mountain marathon, travelled for 16 hours and slept for four, we decided that Snake Dike (5.7R) on half dome would be a suitable objective, with its 5000 foot height gain and 14 mile hike. Friction slabs turned out to be scary but it was worth it for the summit views.

A BIG FALL I was keen to try a big-wall aid route called the West Face of Leaning Tower (C2F 5.7). My first excitement came at the end of pitch two, on a section marked 'camhooks — be careful' in the guidebook. I moved off my smallest micro cam onto two consecutive camhooks but an accidental shift in weight saw me falling with a disconcerting ping, ping, ping as three pieces of gear ripped out. The steepness of the wall meant the fall was comfortable, so unscathed and buzzing I finished the pitch.

The next evening I set off to lead the final pitch with the end in sight and my head full of thoughts of ice-cream and burritos. I scrambled up a slab into an awkward corner and clipped into some fixed gear. Standing on my ladders, the sling suddenly exploded and I was falling. This time not so comfortably as I crashed onto the slab and tumbled down for about 30ft, past the belay onto ledges below. I ached in several places and my left foot was agony but I realised I would have to lead the pitch because abseil retreat from this massively steep wall would be way too complex.

I was shaken and terrified and it was an exhausting two hours of immense focus, staring at each piece of gear willing it to stay in place, and only using my right foot. We spent the night on top to allow for a slow descent the next morning. The mosquitos took full advantage of me as I bum-shuffled my way down, taking five hours instead of two.

 

Lake Tanaya

 

THE HIGH SIERRA After eight days off (and a wonderful Californian road trip), I could limp proficiently and decided I could manage short walk-ins and jumar up routes on my right foot. We went to Tuolumne, which has a totally different feel to the Valley. The highlight was climbing Cathedral Peak, an outstanding granite pinnacle with a striking profile. At 10,912ft with stunning views across Tuolumne it felt like a proper alpine outing. We added an ascent of Eichorn Pinnacle and completed the day with a freezing swim in Tenaya Lake.

FINAL THOUGHTS I absolutely LOVED my month in California and I can’t wait to go back. In total, we climbed 152 pitches, but now my tick-list is bigger than when I started. I learned so much, including the fact that I love squeeze chimneys and fear friction slabs. There are so many more incredible routes I would love to do in the Valley and High Sierra. I especially enjoyed doing multi-day climbs and I'm already dreaming up the next adventure.

Related Items: Big Wall Dreaming, Big Wall Reality.