Monday, 9 November 2015

Finishing the Secret Passage

Pete on the Secret Passage pitch [© Paolo Sartori]

After the storms, which we enjoyed from a portaledge on Middle Cathedral, the weather in the valley was much cooler. We'd already been up on Secret Passage, but had bailed in the sweltering conditions. After having put this time into the route, we were keen that another effort would give us a reasonable chance of success. So, before embarking on another big wall adventure, we heading to the top of El Cap to ab in and have a look at the top of the route, the second 13c in particular. We had a fun couple of days up there also with our friend Paolo who came along to take some photos. We tried the 13c, which seemed not that bad, and also the next 12c R, 13a traverse and 13a secret passage pitch. I had a really hard time on the Secret Passage pitch, basically getting shut down. It is a thin seam with no footholds and very basic. This was quite worrying, but overall it was a success and very motivating as the climbing higher on the route is really good.

Although the weather was now cooler, it was also less settled and there were regular storms. We spent some time having a go on the Heart Blast before getting a weather window and packing for SP again. We hiked our gear to the base and minutes later it stormed and we got to see horsetail falls in action, at just the place we'd stashed our gear! This meant another delay waiting for things to dry. We finally set off on the route on Friday morning, with more storms due to pass through on Sunday/Monday. After our Middle Cathedral experience we felt more relaxed about sitting these out on the wall. Although we almost blew it when we realised halfway up the zodiac talus that we'd forgotten the cards! Pete lost rock paper scissor and hiked back down to retrieve them.

By Sunday evening we'd made it about half way up the wall, mainly on ground we'd been on before, had done the 'Eagle's bone trap' pitch and scoped out the next 12c. The 'Eagle's bone trap' gets 12+ and turned out to be desperate! You go horizontal to a mediocre hand jam and cut loose and swing across the wall hoping the jam doesn't rip. Possibly the hardest move on the route we thought. Then we waited for the storms, and waited. The only other team on the wall we could see, our storm buddies, managed to top out and left us. We had a good bivi under a roof and we went to sleep without bothering to pull the fly over us. A few drips woke me up in the night and I woke Pete to start getting the fly over us. "What is that noise?" I hadn't noticed the roaring noise of running water, and with a head torch we could see horsetail falls in full flow about 15 metres away, and we hadn't even bothered with the fly!

Falcon dihedral
Bivi before the storm
Chilling in the storm on Monday
Happy Pete

Monday was a total washout, very heavy rain and falling as snow on and off. I was grateful Pete went to get the cards! And we had music and some educational reading material. Pete continued to thrash me at a card game I wish I'd never taught him. Tuesday was better weather but there was a massive amount of water coming off the wall so we weren't going anywhere. Horsetail was running down the way we'd come up and there was another fall we hadn't expected coming off the Devil's Brow, the way up. By Wednesday it was climbable but damp and we managed the next 12c and up to the 13c which we'd tried from the top.

The 'Guillotine Parrano' pitch has a hideously loose guillotine shaped flake above the belay that you have to undercut. Will Stanhope said Nico had told him: "Will, if this flake breaks, for you, it is the end..." Great. Nico and Sean must have been high as kites on the flute music when they did this pitch. Fortunately I'd kicked half of this flake off when we'd abbed in the other week. It had gone with terrifying ease. There was half still there that I couldn't get off and Pete had to delicately and boldly climb past it, I belayed with my eyes closed. This pitch, 13c, has a boulder problem crux using a bad hold, this was the only hold on the pitch that was wet. We dogged to the next bivi not sure whether we'd be able to climb this pitch in its condition.

Wet crux hold on the second 13c

On Thursday, day 7 on the wall, most of the upper wall was wet. The crux pitch had a wet hold and the weather had turned horribly cold, down to -17 degrees C on the top of El Cap according to the forecast. We had both all but given up any hope of freeing the route. We descended to the Guillotine pitch for a last effort, chalking, taping and drying the crux hold on the way. Despite the conditions and to our surprise an hour or two later we'd done the pitch. I then lead the 12c R and the next 13a 'wild rise traverse' finishing with a fun dyno. There was now a glimmer of hope that it still might go free, the Secret Passage pitch was still wet however...

Pete thought the Secret Passage pitch would dry enough to climb during the middle of the day, but I was doubtful. At 11am, under the power of the sun as it reached its zenith, the pitch was indeed climbable. Pete got it done in about an hour, I got on it with a feeling of dread knowing how hard I'd found it previously. Using a boot I'd modified with a knife to give a sharper heel this pitch was so much easier and I was so incredibly chuffed when I did it second attempt. I had to climb through the water at the end of the pitch because the waterfall had already returned and within 20 minutes the pitch was unclimbable again!

The cold after the storm
More scary jugging

Dyno on the Wild Ride Traverse [© Paolo Sartori]
With only an 11R and a 5.10 left we made a sprint for the top, but the next pitch was pouring with water, and we were dismayed when we realised we were going to have to spend another night on the wall. Water wasn't a problem because we could collect the runoff, but we only had a cereal bar for dinner. Our hope for the next day was that, like the Secret Passage pitch, the upper pitches would dry enough during the middle of the next day for us the climb them. If not, then we'd already been in touch with James Lucas about a possible rescue! We went up again at about ten am on Saturday, day nine on the wall. We still thought the route might not happen for us, everything had gone against us it seemed, but for a few hours again during the day the rock was dry enough to climb and we made it out.

It has been another amazing trip to Yosemite. I'm grateful to Pete for being a super solid easygoing climbing partner and unflappable zen master. We had traveled out with a long list of objectives, the first being the Secret Passage. But we had underestimated just how tough this route would be, combined with the tricky weather and conditions, I feel very lucky to have succeeded on this route. Nine days on a route is also a new record for us both. The climbing isn't very hard, but it's bold, loose, sometimes dirty, and logistically difficult to work some pitches, making it feel like a serious undertaking overall.

Thanks a lot to Voltaic Systems for solar chargers and Ocun for jamming gloves.