In September of 2011 I embarked on the biggest climb of my life, The Nose of El Capitan. Despite months of training and preparation, my three member team failed miserably resulting in a 23 hour push to reach Dolt Tower on Day 1. We bailed the next morning, receiving the coveted “Bail of the Day” Award from Tom Evans. I spent the next 12 months thinking about our mistakes and how things could have gone so wrong. One year later I returned and summited El Cap for my first time. After experiencing both failure and success, I’ve compiled a few suggestions so that other beginners can learn and hopefully reach their goal of summiting El Capitan.
1. Commit to the route
On our failed attempt, we planned for every possible thing that could have gone wrong. We brought two portaledges in case we couldn’t reach Dolt or Camp V, a portaledge fly for bad weather, a Jetboil stove for dinners, etc. El Cap requires a commitment level that is hard to understand until you’ve experienced it. Instead of focusing on reaching the summit, we planned for the worst… and failed miserably.
2. Climb in a team of two your first time
At first, a team of three seems to make sense; spread the work around and have a buddy to talk to at the belays. Wrong. An experienced team of three can climb El Cap fast. For a beginner it’s another rope to get tangled, another 3 gallons of water to haul, another body that has to fit onto a tiny ledge to sleep. And If you’re light like me (140 lbs), you can only haul so much. Less people = less problems on a route that is already crowded as it is. On the Nose, this matters.
3. When in doubt, go light
The more you bring, the slower you go. Question every piece of gear. Do you need a sleeping bag or a bivy sack? Do you need that stove or can you survive on cold dinners? If the bags are light you can haul 1:1 on a Pro or Mini-Traxion. Your goal, as the leader, should be to haul the bag to the belay before your partner reaches you. If not, your bag is probably too heavy. Aim for a haulbag(s) that weighs <= 85 lbs. You can practice in your garage with some old rope and a pulley from the hardware store.
4. Eat and drink as you go
There is nothing worse than bonking high on El Cap. Try to eat and drink a little at almost every belay. Half a bar and a few ounces of water is enough. If you get too far behind the curve, it will take hours for your body to bounce back. Be wary of high glycemic index foods (i.e. high sugar content). I made the mistake of drinking a lot of Gatorade on Day 2. It gave me an energy boost to lead us to Camp V, but I bonked that night and didn’t recover until morning. Peeing orange on El Cap is not ideal.
5. Don’t be afraid of the climbing or the gear
The climbing on the Nose is not really all that hard. It’s just long. I never felt close to falling in any aid situations (and I wasn’t that experienced). I only placed a handful of nuts. Micro-cams and a few small offset cams (Changing Corners Pitch) were enough. There’s no single pitch that’s going to shut you down. It’s more likely that you’ll fail due to many factors compounding on one another.
6. The key to the Nose is Day 2
If you can get to Camp V on Day 2, the route is in the bag for a three-day-ascent. This leaves you with only 6 pitches to climb on Day 3 and enough time to descend the East Ledges in daylight. Camp IV may seem like an option, but it’s a lousy place to spend the night. If you’re speedy you may even get to Camp VI on Day 2, which is plush compared to Camps IV & V. Day 1 Hint: If using the Jardine Traverse, you can fix through the end of the Traverse pitch and rappel back to Dolt Tower with a single 60m rope (barely). In the morning you can jug directly up the fixed rope and you’ve already knocked off 3 pitches on Day 2.
Pictures from our 2012 ascent of The Nose, El Capitan: