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Failure on The Nose on El Capitian

Prepping for The Nose: sorting gear
There it is — the secret of our failure — our tiny rack.  Clearly we didn’t bring enough cams, nuts, ropes, frisbees, shoes and other junk up with us! Seriously though, while this isn’t actually the rack we climbed with, it seems like we did bring way too much — or at least we caried way too much of the rack while free climbing up the pitches we did get through.

Let’s set the stage at least with the original plan.

  • Day 1 (Sun 5/24): Climb to Sickle (P4) or above (P6), fix to ground, haul up the rap route, and get a good nights sleep on the ground
  • Day 2 (Mon 5/25): Early start, jug to high point, climb to El Cap Tower (P14)
  • Day 3 (Tue 5/26): ECT to Camp 4 or Camp 5 if we’re fast
  • Day 4 (Wed 5/27): C4 or C5 to the top
Derek even put together a great spreadsheet with pitch by pitch and day by day details (yeah, we’re geeks) in the weeks before our attempt.  This seemed like it was a good plan, that would get us to the top easily.

Day 1: Ground to Sickle

Day one started out well, but we slowed down as the day progressed.  We made it to Sickle ledge (P4) by 1pm, climbing 5 pitches starting on Pine Line around 6:30 am.  Derek led Pine Line, Matt got P1, I got P2, Derek got P3, and Matt got P4, setting me up for the linked pitches off of Sickle Ledge the next morning.
My pitch (P2) went slow because I broke into full-on aid mode at the top of the good hands section.  Next time I think I could definitely free or french-free all the way to the pendulum without too much trouble.  Derek had some trouble while cleaning P4 because the ropes got tangled and jammed as he came up onto Sickle ledge.  Otherwise we didn’t have any problems.  Everything seemed to go much more smoothly than last time.
We fixed lines to the ground and touched down around 2:20 pm.  From there, we hiked back to the bear lockers at El Cap Bridge and packed the pigs which were tied in and ready to haul by 4:45pm.
The pigs ready to haul
Hauling to Sickle took quite a while.  We had the small bag on top of the big one, and both bags were about equally weighted.  We had 8 gallons of water (4 in each bag), clothes and food for the day in the top bag, and sleeping gear, dinner, and breakfast in the bottom bag.  Hauling — ugh.  This was hard.  The bags did not haul easily what-so-ever.  We did body hauling where the rope goes through the protraxion, into a gri-gri on a harness, and the tail hooks through a carabiner placed high on the anchor (makes pulling down on the slack side easier) as you stand up.  It was almost impossible for one person to get the bags moving, so a second added his weight by standing on an ascender clipped between the protraxion and the gri-gri.  This worked pretty well once we got into a good rhythm, but it was still a lot of effort.  I was the primary on the first haul, while Derek chilled at the anchor above and Matt helped me haul.  Matt took the primary position on the next two hauls and  finally Derek and I did the last (and most brutal due to the lip on the edge of the ledge) haul up onto Sickle Ledge, with the last of us touching down at about 9:30pm.
So climbing took about 7 hours  hauling took about 4:30, with a few hours spent in the middle hiking, packing the pigs, and refueling.  Not an auspicious start for our four day goal…

Day 2: Attempt #1

Things really start going downhill here — We didn’t get an early enough start, so we were just leaving El Cap Bridge around 6am — It had been light for about 45 minutes to an hour at this point.  Our goal for today was El Cap Tower, 10 pitches above our high point from the day before, and we hadn’t even hiked to the base and jugged to Sickle ledge yet.  That meant we wouldn’t be making new upward progress without wasting about three hours of daylight (hiking then jugging 4 pitches and racking to lead takes some time).  We decided that we would be best served by taking this as a rest day instead, so rest we did.  We replanned our haul strategy to lighten the load, deciding to leave one gallon of water on Sickle Ledge, and filling our camelbaks from the remaining seven gallons of water, leaving 5.5 gallons in the bag.  At three liters per person per day, that left us two days of water in the bags, plus the day of water we would each be carrying on our backs.  This lightened the bags by about 20 pounds.

In addition, we decided to move the bigger haulbag on top of the smaller one, and put more weight in the bigger.  It turns out that some combination of this made the bags go from difficult for two to haul to easy for one to body haul, as we found out the next day.

I hit the sack around 8pm, because we were shooting for a super-alpine-start of 2am.

Day 2: Attempt #2

I slept in the C4 parking lot, even though I had a valid permit for the campsite — because I knew it would be noisy and it wasn’t dark yet.  I got a reasonably good sleep, and didn’t have any trouble waking up when my alarm went off.  We left El Cap bridge by about 3am and Matt started jugging by 3:20am.  I started leading P5 about 5:15am and was at the anchors on top of P6 by 5:36 AM.  Since we didn’t bring a tag line, Matt jugged the haul line after Derek lowered him out with the 2nd lead line.  We then lowered the haul line back down with the 2nd lead rope on the end of the haul line.  Derek retied the pig into the haul line and lowered it out with the 2nd lead line.  Matt started hauling by about 6:30am.  After lowering out the bag, Derek  jugged and and cleaned the two pitches I lead.  Total elapsed time was at least two hours.  I think we finished hauling by 7am, and Matt was leading the next pitch by 7:15.

Matt’s lead on P7 didn’t take hardly any time at all.  It started with a lowerout / pendulum off of a bolt just above the anchor, followed by some easy climbing up to just below the Dolt Hole.  All three of us were at that anchor by about 8:30am, but Derek didn’t start climbing until about 8:50am, due to some clusterage issues at the belay.

The next pitch took a while — Derek continued climbing past the regular belay (a bolt + piton anchor on the top of P8 the 1st pitch of the stovelegs), because the piton was missing.  This took a while to correct because he was out of gear to build a good anchor with, so he had to downclimb to the bolt.  All in all, this pitch took about 1.5 or two hours to lead, prior to even fixing the lead line or starting the haul.  In the meantime, a fast party of three came up behind us with their systems dialed.  They were a really efficient team, and it showed.  Initially we didn’t want them to pass, but as it was becoming clear that we were moving too slow to make our goal for the day (and thus for the climb), Matt and I decided to bail, so we let them pass.

Phew, they were flying up the route.  They skipped the Dolt Hole belay, linking P7 and P8 as one long lead.  Aspiring Nose climbers take note — you too can skip the Dolt Hole belay with 60M ropes and save boatloads of time.  You just need a lowerout line.  Their leader caught up with Derek within a few minutes of him establishing the belay after the downclimb.  They blasted past us.  (As an aside, as reported in Tom Evans El Cap Report, they spent one night on the wall!  Climbing from El Cap Tower to the top the following day, topping out well before dark!  That’s the kind of speed I aspire to!)

At this point we started the bail.  I moved over to the intermediate anchor at the base of the Stovelegs and brought the bags over and set them up to ride during the rappel.  Derek single line rapped down to me, cleaning as he went, and the third in the party of three above us dropped his rope once he was anchored in.  Matt came over on the tail of Derek’s lead rope, with an additional belay from me on the 2nd lead line.  He lowered himself out on Derek’s line, and untied from it.  Derek pulled the rope up out of the pendulum point as I lowered Matt to the next rappel anchor down then dropped his rope once he was anchored in.  The plan from this point was that Matt would single line rap one anchor ahead of us, and as we reached his anchor we would drop his rope.  This way there would only ever be two people at the hanging belays instead of three, and it would minimize the descent time.

The wind was picking up something fierce and nasty looking clouds were moving in over the top of El Cap.  The first rappel didn’t go so well.  When it came time to pull the ropes, they wouldn’t budge!  I ended up having to jug back up to the top anchor and clear the jam.  It turned out to be my mistake anyway — I left a backup draw because I didn’t 100% trust the anchor, and I apparently clipped it through both strands!  The knot couldn’t pass through it, and it clearly wasn’t needed while I rappelled with the pig so I cleaned it and rapped back down.  The ropes easily pulled this time.

The remaining raps went fairly uneventfully, with only one or two bad rope tangles because of the wind and a light sprinkling of rain for a few minutes.  We were down and hiking out by about 4pm.

Luckily we’re all still friends — even though I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around on the way down.  I was in a bad mood and was very snappy toward Derek as we came down.  Luckily Matt was always one rappel ahead of us otherwise he would have shared of my grumpiness, and all three of us would no doubt have fed on each other.

Cold beers at the bridge afterward, and the remaining week spent climbing together went a long way toward lightening my spirit and getting rid of any lingering bad feelings, even if we did get rained on a few times.

Many lessons learned.  Foremost amongst them is that we’re still too slow for a four day ascent.  We need to get the systems dialed and the pitches down to an hour or less (total elapsed time for climbing, hauling and launching the leader onto the next pitch).  This will take practice.  Climbing as a party of three was supposed to make things go faster, but it doesn’t seem to have worked for us.  We were still moving slower than a competent party of two.

That then, is the story of our failed attempt on The Nose.

Until next time!

Followup note:  Turns out we would have been rained on every day if we had continued up.  Some days worse than others, but no doubt that would have slowed us down too.  As it was, we got rained on every subsequent day while cragging, from Wednesday through Saturday.

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