Big wall reality

08 September, 2014
Pancake Flake
Andrew on the Pancake Flake

In this follow-up article to Big Wall Dreaming, Andrew Cherry and Stefan Morris, arrive in Yosemite and set-off on their first big wall. Did their training and preparation pay-off? Did the reality match their dreams? Having got an email from Andy Kirkpatrick advising them to "just get on it", they dispensed with a 'warm-up wall' and set-off on the 3,000 foot Triple Direct route (C2 5.9): becoming known as "those keen Brits who like suffering in the heat".

Andrew Cherry recounts their Triple Direct experience:

"Standing below El Cap for the first time and taking Andy K's email advice on board we made the inevitable decision that we didn't want to faff around and delay getting started. We booked into Camp 4 for just three nights, which meant we had to be out of the camp and on the wall by the end of that time.

Choosing the Triple Direct Route, which starts parallel to the Nose and joins it at half-height to gain all the classic steep features, we figured we would still get to climb the full height of El Cap but miss out some of the fiddly pitches lower down, as well as avoiding the traffic/mess of the lower Nose.

As it turned out there was nobody else on El Cap because of the heat! We fixed lines up to the top of Pitch 3 and then began our ascent proper the next morning, towing one big haulbag full of five days of food and water plus a portaledge. It wasn't going to be a speed ascent and we wanted to be able to take our time. However, we hadn't quite accounted for just how hot it was. It was almost unbearable. We soon began to run out of water, and rationing it between pitches was quite a challenge.

Tired and thirsty on our second day on the wall, we didn’t quite make it to the ledge we were planning to reach for the night and so cracked out the portaledge at the top of pitch 15. After all the stress of the day, the long pitches, knotted haul lines and unrelenting heat – kicking back on the ledge with a can of peaches at sunset was ecstasy.

The following day we made a conscious effort to lead quickly and eat snacks at almost every belay. The morning was spent traversing into the Nose – grateful for all the pendulum and lower-out practice we’d done in Llanberis as there were quite a few. By early afternoon we'd reached the Great Roof. Stefan stormed through the Great Roof and then I took the Pancake Flake up to Camp 5 – an interestingly small and sloping ledge that was ‘okay for two’ according to the topo. But when you’re that tired, you’ll sleep anywhere.

Waking up on day four we decided we didn’t really have enough water to hang around and so climbed as quickly as we could through the steeper pitches, such as the Changing Corners one, before reaching the wild stance before the final pitch. We took the last pitch – the bolt ladder through the roofs - nice and slow, and savoured the top-out experience. Dragging the haul bag up to the El Cap tree, we fished out the last two litres of water and more importantly… two cans of Coke.

After three nights and four days on the wall, we were totally exhausted, covered in dirt, quite badly dehydrated but psyched out of our minds. We remarked on the surreal feeling of sitting on top of our El Cap dream climb after all this time. We both felt like we’d just about pulled it off and were incredibly lucky to be there. That was the best can of Coke I ever had in my life."

Triple Direct Belay
Changing leaders on pitch 5, right after the hardest bit of compulsory free climbing, a small section of 5.9 that Andrew found almost impossible
Lower out El Cap
One of the many lower-outs and pendulums of the traverse pitches (15 though to 18) that join up the Triple Direct with the Nose - the X-small Bat Plate is a handy big wall tool

Sharing the Lessons

Practice, Practice and Practice

  • Learn essential big wall techniques and practice them multiple times before heading out to Yosemite. We practised jumaring, hauling, and block-leading quite a lot in the UK.
  • Practise hauling with as near to a full weight bag as possible and block-leading on long routes with good belays. This will help you understand the conditions you’ll be working under on a big wall – only you’ll be much higher and much more tired.
  • It helps to practise aid climbing in the UK as well, although it can be hard to find anything similar to Yosemite aid.
  • Practising pendulums, lower-outs and setting up a portaledge on your own before you get on a big wall will make your attempt much safer and less stressful.
  • We had at least eight or nine ‘big wall practise’ days/weekends in the months leading up to our trip. Our drills got progressively harder and longer. We absolutely relied on these experiences when we were on the wall.
  • Knowing about and practising back-up systems can also help you stay safe when there are problems on the wall. When we inexplicably knotted the haul line and only noticed mid-haul, we hauled the rest of the pitch using the lower out line, a Revolver carabiner and an inverted jumar.

Gear and Equipment

  • Offsets and more offsets. Alloy and brass offset nuts are absolute gold dust on El Cap's pin-scarred cracks. If we had known how useful they were, we’d have taken two sets of each and therefore spent much less time back cleaning - which can really slow down the leading. We didn’t take any offset cams, mainly because they’re expensive and quite specialist, but they’d be very useful if you’re really looking to speed up your leading.
  • You’ll need clothing for all kinds of weather. On your first wall you may be up there for a few days, and the weather can turn in Yosemite just as it can anywhere else. We carried stuff sacks with warm layers in and kept our waterproofs near the top of the haulbag so that they were close by should the worst happen.
  • Take food that is refreshing and will cheer you up; dry food is light but will waste water and time cooking. Tins of fruit, bagels and cans of coke are great morale boosters.
  • Take multiple copies of topo’s – laminated if possible. They’re easy to drop or ruin, and without them you’re pretty much stuffed. This includes topos for the descent and neighbouring routes in case you have to bail.
El Cap
The iconic money shot you're entitled to take by climbing El Cap.

On the Wall

  • Manage belays well and as Leo Houlding advised us "avoid the cluster f**k". Keep ropes as neat as possible and learn to properly stack a rope in a sling so it pays out properly.
  • Be patient with your partner; they are probably having as hard a time of it as you. Work together to overcome challenges and don’t worry about 'whose fault it was!'
  • Remember to eat. It may sound obvious, but if you’re really charging along trying to get pitches done, it’s easy to just forget to eat. Unless you make a conscious effort you can just get to a point where you conk out, which is unsafe and a real drain on morale.
  • If you get a little scared - look up towards the belay! Not down at the potential fall.

Challenges

  • Kiss goodbye to your UK onsight grade. After three days on the wall, trying to free 5.9 with a 15 kg hula skirt and trailing two ropes makes you feel like a sumo wrestler trying to ballet dance.
  • Being thirsty. All the time.
  • The descent. It’s much trickier if you're not familiar with it. Take a proper look at the descent. A glance at the topo makes you think it’s easy but when you’re tired and dehydrated it can be difficult – especially if you get lost.
Things that weren’t so hard
  • After a few days the exposure is less of an issue than you may think. You get used to it, and the view is great (Even if sitting at a belay with a parched throat you feel like the river in El Cap meadow is taunting you).
  • Sleeping on ledges is great fun. When you’ve got the bag docked, your dinner out and some tunes on, you suddenly become so tired you could sleep anywhere.
  • The bubble-like nature of big wall climbing is a fantastic experience. There is often nothing else on your mind other than the next pitch and that tipped out cam that you’re not so sure about.
  • Topping out is hard to describe but it is very, very special and makes all the effort worthwhile.