Monday, 2 June 2014

El Niño

After taking a rest day to prep and let our skin heal, we thought we were ready to "exchange pitons and hammers for chalk bags" on El Niño. We set off at first light on Tuesday after packing up at Camp 4, stashing our remaining food and hiking to the base. We had a bit of extra faff since our fixed ropes were hanging five metres from the ground and Caff had to make a mini haul to get the bags on. After hauling the bags to our high point above the Galapagos pitch the climbing isn’t too bad until you get to the Big Sur ledges, after about 6 pitches. I’d volunteered to take us to here and it all went according to plan, except for the heat! We were baked that day and given how much I was drinking I was getting worried that we’d be running out of water. We were disappointed by the Big Sur, our bivi for the night, and decided that for the topo to call the two small, smooth, outward sloping ledges a ‘good bivi for two’ was a stretch.

We’d arrived in good time so that, as we’d hoped, we could have a shot at doing and fixing the next couple of pitches after the Big Sur. These are some of the harder pitches on the route; the M&M (McHaffie and McManus?) flake and the Royal Arch, separated by the ‘Man Powered Rappel’. I was typically feeling fairly anxious about the climb, not knowing how I would fare on some of the trickier pitches. I was really psyched to be trying the route regardless of style, but of course, had my hopes set on a free ascent. I knew these pitches would be a good test of the standard of climbing higher on the route. We both did the M&M flake pretty quick, Caff managing an impressive flash and me following it second go. A wild ab leads to the Royal Arch, which is a short bouldery pitch up a vague arch feature, graded 13c. Caff went first and managed to make the scary clip of a bolt but needed to hang around to work out the next moves. It looked tough and with very sharp crimps Caff was seriously worried about opening up his partially healed split tip which would certainly make this pitch a hell of a lot harder. I gave it a shot when Caff came down for a breather and crimping as hard as I could, while making the most of my reach (I had been promised by Tobias that every move of this route - and any other route for that matter - is easier for the tall) and the German beta, managed to flash it! Caff then dispatched it and we used our static rope to get back to our sloping ledges for some mashed potatoes and chocolate after a brilliant first day that left me feeling more positive about the rest of the route.

Caff on the M&M
Making the man powered rappel
We had a ledge each for the night, one that sloped a bit and one that sloped a lot. I asked McHaffie which one he would prefer, he answered ‘I really don’t mind’, so I said ‘OK, I’ll take this one’ (the one that sloped a bit). I wish I’d taken the other one and not slept, because Caff managed to grumble about how crap his ledge was for the rest of the climb!

Caff starting the enduro-corner
Enduro-corner (Photo: Tom Evans)
Psyching up before the roof (Tom Evans)
Thankfully the next day was much cooler and, even in the sun, the climbing conditions were good. Caff did a block of good pitches the next day, a mix of 12a and 12c, which took us to the Black Roof. This huge system of roofs had been looming above us and dominating our view above for our time on the route so far, and is another tough pitch given 13b. Here, I took over for a first look at the roof pitch, which resulted in much swinging around on the rope. I got stuck once at the start until I found a way through via a double foot jam and then again on the crux moves before the belay. The hardest moves traverse the lip of the roof via small pockets and heel hooks and is totally wild! It took me a while to work out a sequence and by that time my forearms felt fried. I gave Caff some info and he scampered up for a flash attempt. He got through the first of the crux moves but hesitated too long on the next and powered out. Unbeknown to us, there was a crowd at the bridge watching this lead through the telescopes and cheering.

Royal Arch
Racking up below the Black Roof
On my next shot, I arrived at the hands-off rest before the crux sequence feeling pretty rubbish and had a rest that made my legs pumped before pulling out for a go at the crux. My arms were instantly pumped and I struggled to clip the peg. Feeling that I couldn’t do the moves I reversed back to the rest. On my next look, with the gear clipped, I got to the crux a lot faster and surprised myself by pulling off the moves with relative ease. Caff follows up and, second time around, makes short work of the pitch. It was a big relief to get through this pitch, in our minds this was the pitch that we thought had the potential to cause us problems.

Me on the Black Roof (Tom Evans)
Caff on the final moves.. (Tom Evans)
It wasn’t long before we got to our next bivi on a large system of very sloping ledges where Caff quickly shot-gunned the only small flat area. In the end this was the only place to sleep without sliding off so we had to share and I had to endure more grumblings about how bad Caff’s previous bivi had been. Another ‘good bivi for two’. This was the price of going ledge-less, that Tobias had informed us would save us approximately 9.7684 kilos in weight if you include the flysheet as well. We were glad of this because the hauling never felt too gruelling, even low down on the route. We enjoyed some mashed potatoes with parmesan and chilli flakes (obtained from the pizza deck in Curry Village), a brew, and a few games of shit-head.

12c face climbing on the 2nd day
Looking down from the Black Roof
Day 3 and, the climbing having gone well so far, we set our sights on the summit that day. We were up at 4:30 again and after packing up I did a block of 4 pitches that took us to a pitch named ‘Lucy is a Labrador’. This included some good pitches; one super-techy 12c and some very 3d 12b chimney climbing via ‘The Dolphin’. ‘Lucy is a Labrador’ seems to me like a stupid name for a pitch and we hated it. It’s a boulder 13a and, as it turns out, much more difficult when it’s wet. Caff took over here and went for a look. This was a tense time as we were both feeling very tired from previous days, both wanted to free climb the route and this was the final hard pitch. The left hand uses a crack that was running with water and for a while I think Caff was fairly concerned it might not be feasible, judging from the language used. He did eventually manage to work out some ingenious beta and slapped through on wet holds to complete the pitch. I had a similar experience following; getting close on my first go and then falling into space way below the pitch! Once I’d regained the rock again, my next tries were terrible, I only managed to get the dry holds wet. I was hugely relieved to get a good try on this before my arms burnt out and to free climb the pitch. From here it’s only a handful of much easier pitches to the top, where we arrived at about 7pm!

Caff finishing the Dolphin
Bouldery moves on Lucy (Tom Evans)
I am very pleased to have climbed this route as I had serious doubts about whether this would be possible for me. Once again, my idea of what it is possible to try and climb has been shifted. Although I thought the route was hard, it was not as hard as I had built it up to be in my mind.

My confidence had taken a knock on the Salathe headwall, but I managed to regain it on El Niño and I’m psyched to try more of these sorts of routes on El Cap. However, we don’t have any more time in the valley this trip. It’s been a brilliant trip and very good as well to climb a bit more with the Dark Lord. We’re also massively grateful to Tobias and Thomas who provided us with a deluge of info about the route, most of which we forgot, but what we didn’t was very helpful. Without their encouragement I might also have decided to give up after our first encounter with the initial pitches of the route!

Just after topping out!
Great clouds after stopping on the summit

Descending back to the valley


  1. Awesome effort and great write up and photos Dan. Looks like you are making good use of your year off work! Hopefully see you in the summer. Es