Monday, 19 May 2014

Salathe Wall

I’m planning on hobbling around Yosemite Valley for the next few days until a time that my legs feel sufficiently recovered to contemplate going climbing again. I think it was the descent that broke me, and trying to keep up with Mchaffie who goes about descending in exactly the same way he goes about everything else he does; fast, unrelenting and without showing any sign of weakness. We’d topped out on Salathe Wall on Thursday afternoon, our seventh day on the wall. This was the longest that either of us had ever been on a big wall, which, having probably only done one previous wall each, isn’t too hard. 

A couple of days before setting off we’d been on the wall to give our haul bags a headstart and minimize the amount of hauling required once we set off. The plan was to ascend in-situ fixed ropes to the Heart Ledges and then climb a few further pitches to the hollow flake ledge, leave the bags, descend, rest and then set off for real. This was going well until we were caught in a freak hail storm whilst we were in one of the worst possible locations. I was belaying in a thermal top on an exposed slab in the wind and hail worrying about getting hypothermic. Caff, however, was in a far worse situation being 2/3rds of the way up the hollow flake squeeze chimney, hideously run-out with hail pilling up on his rock shoes. Luckily it didn’t last too long, I managed to get some clothes out the bags and Caff managed to skilfully slide back down the flakes and get back down, across and up to the belay. We bailed from here, back to camp, reasonably content that our bags were only one pitch from where we wanted them.

Freeblast first pitch
Crux slabs on Freeblast

Caff pouting at the Salathe headwall
Alcove bivi

There were more setbacks to come when at the specified set-off time of 2am it happened to be raining. We delayed getting up for a few hours, most of which it rained, and then were in two minds about whether it was a good idea to set off, or whether we should wait another day. I hate waiting - any time between knowing that I have to lead the monster off-width and actually doing it isn’t time I canfully enjoy life – so I suggested we go. Fortunately, we got away with it, some of the starting pitches on the Freeblast were moist but by the time we hit the harder slabs conditions were good and we made good time. We inevitably slowed down once we hit the bags, Caff had a much better time on the hollow flake and at around 5pm we were at the Monster. It was my turn to lead because Caff had led it last time we were on the wall. I got up it, but it felt harder than ever before and I was feeling pretty shaky once we reached our bivi in the Alcove.

View down on El Cap spire
A lunatic on El Cap spire

Day 2 was an easier day, thankfully, because I was trashed. No hauling, only climbing three easier pitches followed by the Freerider boulder problem pitch. With a bit of beta from James Lucas - who appeared at just after the right moment to tell us we were going the wrong way and prevent Caff from falling out of a desperate corner instead of climbing easily around it – Caff flashed the boulder problem. Emulating Caff move for move I also managed the flash and we were stoked that we’d done the pitch so fast and could relax on El Cap Spire for the rest of the day. James and Hazel were able to join us for tea and bagels because, bizarrely, the entirety of Freerider had fixed lines on it. So for a few days the route was a motor-way of people either coming up on mini-traxions or just abbing down for some incomprehensible reason. Needless to say, these ropes were an eyesore, detracted from the experience of adventure of everyone on the route and generally resulted in frequent cluster-fucks when ropes or haul bags got caught up in them. 

Caff enjoying a protein cookie too much
Salad wraps, cheers Hazel!

Day 3, involved leaving the Alcove and... well, using those fixed lines I mentioned earlier to ascend to our high point above the boulder problem. We were going to fix these pitched anyway right. Awesome climbing ensued, followed by the retched endure-corners. I managed to fall out of both of these and did them second go. If they weren’t so vile, these pitches would be amazing. This is then where Salathe leaves Freerider, or Freerider leaves Salathe. An incredibly exposed pitch through some roofs leads to the base of the headwall. We dogged the headwall to reach Long Ledge at the end of a long day, exhausted. Long Ledge was then our base for the next four days as we set about tackling the headwall pitches. 

Enduro corners
Looking down from the base of the headwall
Messed up hands on about day 6

The headwall is simply incredible. Fully 60 metres from above the roofs to Long Ledge, with two intermediate anchors separating sections of 13a, 13a and then 13b. We opted to try the pitch in two sections which, I gather, is often how it is attempted free. The first section tackles the meat of the headwall in a 50 metre pitch. There is then an anchor at a good kneebar rest before a bouldery ten metre section of 13b. We quickly realised that this top section on its own was not likely to be a problem and that it was the main lower crack pitch, especially the final 7 or 8 meters before the anchors that would decide the style of our ascent. On day 4 on Long Ledge, day 7 overall, Caff sent the pitch. I knew I hadn’t made enough progress working the pitch to make a lead attempt so I resorted to give it my best effort following Caff up. Off the belay it’s techy 13a and I got numb hands, tore a tip, fell off and then an RP ripped and hit me in the face drawing blood. For me, this was the lowest point of the climb. I lowered down, took a rest, and had another go. This went a lot better, I got into the final 7 or 8 metre hard section of the crack before coming off. Then, after approximately another 50-60 rests on the rope I made it to back to Long Ledge. 

Long ledge bivi
Being baked in the sun on Long Ledge

The Long Ledge days were some good days, involving no hauling and only small amounts of climbing. This was what I’d hoped big walling would be like; wine, cards, reading, sunbathing interspersed with a little bit of tope roping. We had plenty of food and water and could recover from our big days hauling. We even had a batch of protein cookies, thanks Freeman ;), for optimal recovery. In the middle of our time living on Long Ledge, Hazel appeared from the sky somewhere with red wine and a cup cake to do some filming.

5.12 off Long Ledge
Summit :)

I was a little disappointed that I fell so far short of the mark on this pitch, thinking myself a reasonably well rounded climber. But, I clearly have a lot to learn about climbing in granite land. Once Caff had sent it I had had enough of the headwall and we were both keen to get down and start drinking beers in the meadow. This is what we’ve been doing the last two days and it’s been just as good as I had imagined. I doubt I’ll be back for a rematch with Salathe any time soon owing to its awkward location and there being so many other walls to look at. At the end of the day though, this was some of the best 7 days of climbing I’ve done and an amazing experience being on the wall so long.

Me on the boulder problem pitch taken by James Lucas

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