“ IT’S THE CAPTAIN AFTER ALL’’

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

This is an article by invitation. Delhi based-climbers Mohit Oberoi and Kumar Gaurav were in California’s Yosemite Valley over April 24-May 19, 2019, to attempt The Nose route on El Capitan. In all, The Nose is 3000 feet (5.9 C1) and 32 pitches of climbing. Due to a combination of factors, after about 800 feet climbed, the Indian duo had to bail out. For Mohit, a pioneer in the field of rock climbing in India and now into his fifth decade of life on planet, El Capitan has been a longstanding dream. This is his account:   

“ So, how many more pitches to the Dolt Tower?’’

I posed the question to the figure laden with gear, extra rope and pack, coming down towards my right.

What started as a small dot had become a figure.

“ I think you have a few more to go,’’ came the reply, most words getting lost in the high wind.

My mind woke up to a shout from above: Taakkeeeee…..

I pulled in the rope hard and held on; Kumar on the sharp end.

Things were looking bleak.

The wind was blowing hard…the windbreaker fluttered hard. It felt like I was sitting on a motorcycle. It was 6.30 PM. It will be pitch dark in another 90 minutes. A 35 kilo-haul bag aka ` pig’ was hanging heavy on the rope. What the hell should we do?  The only way now seemed to be down. The wind had picked up, left us cold; climbing further appeared hard. We would need headlamps to climb in the dark. Not to mention, blood sugar was hitting super low levels. The valley floor was 800 feet below.

Okay Kumar let’s head down: I shout up to him. A reluctant Kumar started lowering himself down on the slope. The look said it all. But we have to `bail out’ in our best interest.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

It had been a dream since teenage years. Persistent dreams become itches. The itch started 35 years ago with articles from Mountain magazine, UK showing stunning  photos of El Capitan (El Cap) and the Mecca of rock climbing – Yosemite valley. Names like Jim Bridwell, Randy Leavitt, John Bachar, Ron Kauk, Mark Hudon and Max Jones – they were my childhood super heroes possessing the power to ascend blank cliffs 3000 feet high. The seed was born and I knew which side to face for my Mecca. Much Time passed. Fiftieth birthdays are magical; the number can turn a few screws around for a lot of people. I was looking at a postcard from Kiran (nine years) and Sachin (six years) – they were the children of my friends, Luca and Priya. The postcard with a photo of El Cap sent from Yosemite a few years ago and stuck on the fridge was daily reminder that El Cap was waiting. I needed to make my pilgrimage before I died. A date was set and a partnership deal sealed with Kumar Gaurav.

“ Hey do you want to go America?’’

I am not sure what Kumar, a 24 year-old Delhi based-climber thought about the offer from the blue. A shrug of the shoulder and a smile said it all. Few weeks later, we were in the queue in front of the American Embassy for our visa interview. We are climbers and we want to climb in the Yosemite Valley – that was what we told the young visa officer, who thought this was certainly a very valid reason to go to USA. A 10 year multiple entry-visa approved, we walked out.

I had to lose the many rolls of fat accumulated around the waist. The training to climb again the last few decades was spent running, swimming, doing triathlons and hiking. There hadn’t been much climbing. It was going to take some effort getting back into shape for climbing. I would have to do regular laps on the climbing wall / running, to build general strength plus trips to the rocks. Amid this, one thing was clear – it had to be a month-long visit. We had to give proper time for this climb; taking four weeks off felt very intimidating, both from the perspective of work and family.

Delhi-Singapore-San Francisco flight followed by a pick-up from dear friend Ishu and we landed in `Camp 4’ in Yosemite Valley. The idea was to spend maximum time in the valley. We had no other agenda. I was very clear about the objective of this trip: spend time in the valley…climb; run, hike, bike, dream, drink beer all, of it in the valley only.

At the campsite in Yosemite (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

The valley granite was very unique and for sure it was unforgiving. As mentioned in every guide book, article and blog, if you think you can come and crush at the same grades as your home crag you would be surprised, true to every word written. The first week was spent on climbing classics around Camp 4, reaching crags wherever we could on cycle; climbing routes ranging from single pitch to 5 pitches. I struggled on the 5.6-5.8s and Kumar on 5.9 /10 (he being a 5.14 sport climber I am sure this must have come as a surprise..!) Valley granite is mainly crack climbs of varying sizes, fingers to wide chimneys  – a lot of it is very slick due to ancient glacier polish or just because some routes were climbed so many times that they became really slick. Trusting the feet on such rock was a whole new dimension. I took a fall of 15 feet and realized that for this type of climbing we needed more time to get used to.

As with most climbers, we spent beautiful sunny days climbing the classics. The normal routine was to start at 9 AM and end at 7 PM every day. But The Nose route of El Cap, sometimes referred to as the “ greatest rock climb on Earth’’ was always at the back of our mind. We had to get on the Captain. If Yosemite Valley was the Mecca of rock climbing, then Camp 4 was the center of it all; it has been there as climbers’ campground since the 1950’s. Camp 4 has hosted the who’s who of the climbing world. At six dollars a night per person this was the cheapest place to be in the valley. However one could spend only 30 days in a year there and out of it only seven days could be had in the period from 1st May to 30th September, that being peak season. We got a permit for 14 days since we arrived on the 24th of April.

It was great to meet climbers from all over the world. A big Spanish team was in camp. We started to get information about The Nose route on El Cap from two young Americans, Kip and Joe who had bailed out from the “sickle ledge’’ just two days ago. They said they were too slow and carried too much weight, a phrase we heard a lot in the next couple of weeks. After a week of climbing, our thoughts moved to giving The Nose (it is 3000 feet high, 32 pitches) a go. Ideally everyone first climbs the first four pitches to Sickle Ledge, fixes a few ropes down to the ground for hauling the `pig’ up to the ledge and then carry on in a single push with an average time of three days to the top.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

We followed the same strategy. We decided to climb the first four pitches to the Sickle and then fix three 60 meter-ropes down to the ground. The German duo, Peter and Mark, start before us. There were also other parties at various stages on the route. Kumar led the first pitch and I was surprised to find him struggling. They say that the climbing on the Nose can be unique, weird and hard to describe. One has to experience it to understand what it is like. The plan was to “ French free’’ – it means to climb whatever can be freed and otherwise pull on fixed gear or fix own gear and pull on it. The idea being to maintain a quick pace, get to the belay stance and fix the rope for the second to “ jug up’’ (jumar) the rope. The leader can then haul the bag up or in our case the bag was very heavy for a very light Kumar to haul alone; either we would haul it together or I would use my body weight to haul. Hauling involved fixing a system on the anchors with a pulley / grab device, through which the rope passed and then, hand over hand, the climbers pulled the bag. The traversing nature of the first four pitches needed short pendulums on fixed gear, tension traverses and very interesting climbing on pin scars. While Kumar led I carried the pack with the spare rope and a haul line trailing from the harness. It was a beautiful sunny day with great views across the valley.

The wind generally picks up around 11 AM. It can be very unnerving as the gusts can take you unawares. The rope starts to go all over the place. We reached Sickle Ledge to find that the Germans had fixed ropes to descend to the ground, haul their bag up and sleep the night on the ledge. Kumar and I planned to fix ropes and descend to the ground. We didn’t have a haul bag, we needed to acquire / buy one. Satisfied with the day’s target achieved, we headed back to Camp 4. Our bicycles were locked near the base of El Cap. While most drive up to near the base we didn’t have a car. So we biked everywhere.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

We bought the haul bag from the mountain shop in the valley. It looked huge. It will contain eventually 22 liters of water in duct taped bottles and jerry cans, food for four days, sleeping bags, mats, stove and cookware, poop bags (it is mandatory to collect poop in poop bags and then carry them out in a poop tube back to the camp); this was apart from the climbing gear and ropes which would be easily another 20 kilos. The `pig’ once packed, weighed around 35 kilos, the majority of the weight being water as there was no water on the wall.  We planned to jug our fixed ropes to the Sickle and also haul the bag to it and leave it there. All this movement was to get our systems in place. I hadn’t really jugged ropes before. A quick reference to a how-to guide got me going. It actually felt easy and fun after a while.

The exposure on the wall can be debilitating. The more we moved up and down, the more we got used to it. We met Alex and Nani the two strong, ever smiling Spaniards who had climbed the rest of the Nose except the first four pitches. They had jugged up someone else’s rope to the Sickle and done the rest of the climb. They were now down to climb the first four pitches; not the most conventional way to climb the route. Our haul bag was eventually anchored to the fixed bolts on Sickle Ledge. Three bolt anchors generally marked the end of every pitch on the Nose. It saved climbers the trouble of making anchors and rigging a complicated haul system.

It was now a rest day. Moving camp from Camp 4 as our 14 day-permit got over, we shifted to another place in the valley. Thanks to the generosity of a valley local, we managed to camp in his backyard for the rest of the trip. This was divine intervention saving us the hassle of getting a car and driving out of the park every day or getting an expensive campground which was no less than 100 dollars a night.

At 7 AM we pedaled fast to get to the base to start our climb. We were already late as organizing the gear and breakfast took more time than usual. We reached the base to where our ropes were hanging to find two Spanish teams ready to climb and haul on our ropes! We were disappointed to see this. We told them that we planned to climb our ropes and then drop one of the ropes to the ground (a normal practice; the rope stays at the base till the team comes back to retrieve it).  Seeing the disappointment on their faces, Kumar asked one of them to climb our ropes fast and fix theirs. As we got ready, they finally fixed their ropes and we ascended ours to Sickle Ledge. It was already 9 AM and we are at least two hours behind schedule (this delay proved to be very expensive). The pitch above Sickle looked very broken up and hard to haul. Kumar climbed the initial easy section and then a hard move round the corner took him to a fixed bolt station. Advice from a fast and experienced party which overtook us suggested that we push the haul bag off the side and haul from the start of the next pitch. That turned out to be good advice. The Nose was certainly a very complex route. The first four to five pitches were not straightforward and knowledge of what to do and where played a critical role in efficiency and speed. This is a major factor to make quick progress on the route.

Kumar Gaurav (left) with two of the Spanish climbers – Alex and Nani – on Sickle Ledge (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

A short pendulum and tension traverse took us to a three bolt-belay station. Now the exposure seemed significant. The initial forays on the rock had made us immune to the exposure at least up to this height. Kumar led a pitch and we had now got into the start of the “ stove legs’’ which is a significant land mark on the climb. The stove legs are hand / fist / off width size-cracks which go up four pitches to the ` Dolt Tower.’ Our aim was to get to Dolt Tower as, after Sickle Ledge, this was the only ledge we could sleep on. Since we did not have a portaledge (portable foldable ledge made of aluminum tubes and nylon fabric to sleep on, which can be set up almost anywhere as long as anchors are available), we had to try and hit the Dolt or we had to hang all night on the bolt anchors as last option.

The stove legs can slow down parties like us who don’t have very good crack climbing experience. The cracks were the same size all through and needed a lot of cams and wires of the same size. Thus double and triple of each size required to be carried or have to be “ back cleaned” by the leader. Even the 5.8 pitches seemed hard with the added weight of gear (5-7 kilos); two ropes (lead rope and haul line), wind gusting away, fatigue from hauling, slick rock and exposure. The 5.8 started feeling like 5.10/11. We met many climbers blasting away to Dolt Tower 10 pitches up, without any haul bags and then coming down the same day; a good way to get used to climbing on the route and get familiar with climbing / route complication.  NIAD (Nose in a Day) climbers find themselves climbing with first timers like us who take 3-5 days and then slowly work on the route to eventually do it in 24 hours. Or like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, climbing it in two hours (!!) which is crazy (!!!) and totally insane.

It was now 6.30 PM and Kumar was leading on pitch eight. We were still two pitches away from the Dolt. Maybe an early start and not losing time to the Spanish team (who climbed behind us and slept on Sickle Ledge) would have helped. It seemed best to bail out as most parties do at the stove legs; a series of 60 meter-rappel anchors straight down lead to the ground. We started to head down, first lowering the haul bag to the anchor and then I lowering off. This took a lot of time. Then I took the haul bag on my tie-in loop of the harness, crushing my hips. But then it was better than the haul bag being lowered off. Tempers ran high as the low sugar level and dehydration hit us. We had not eaten anything and had less than two liters of water between the two of us the whole day. In such conditions, it’s easy to make a mistake. We started descending on head lamp lights with no ledges and finding the bolt anchors on a blank granite wall at night. One error could be fatal. We managed three rappels and then one error – the 70 meter-rope got jammed in the anchor above us. We couldn’t retrieve it. We continued with one 60 meter-rope, unsure if the rappel anchors were also at 30 meter-intervals. A guessing game began and we started to head down on a single 60 meter-rope. Luckily or perhaps I must say, sensibly, the climbers had equipped this route also for a 60 meter-rope (for idiots like us who managed to snag our rope!). We reached the ground at 11.30 PM, safe at last.

Mohit Oberoi (Photo: courtesy Mohit)

We opened the haul bag. While Kumar gorged on bars and trail mix and basically anything he could lay his hands on, I pulled out the sleeping bags and put some food in the stomach after nearly 16 hours. Then we both lay down under the tree at the base for a good night’s sleep. We woke up next morning and couldn’t see the rope which had got stuck; it must have been 400 feet up. We have to see if someone coming down is able to retrieve it.

Back at Camp 4 we met Peter and Mark (the German team which was ahead of us by a few days). They had exhausted themselves and bailed just above Sickle Ledge. Mark said he got really exhausted and did not find himself comfortable, climbing on such ground. His words resounded in my years:  it’s the Captain after all; it doesn’t go down easily. He laughed. The bail out rate is 50 per cent on The Nose; 500-600 parties attempt it every year, out of which 50 per cent bail out.

I was happy that we had got on to The Nose / EL Cap. Maybe I was under-prepared, not skilled enough or fit. But I think it was important for me personally to attempt to climb, instead of dreaming of it, endlessly and forever.

A VERY BIG THANKS TO: Annie; the ‘ROCK’ in my life. Abhi and Ikki, guys we have to climb this together one day. Thanks to Kush / Ishu Khandelwal; brother in San Francisco, who hosted us, climbed with us and inspires me to push myself out of the comfort zone. Sanjay Suri (brother from another mother!!) man you make it look so easy; you drove in this huge SUV from San Francisco and just drove us out of the valley…a VERY BIG THANK YOU. Curtis thanks for seeing us in Camp 4 and the hot shower and BBQ after two weeks was very welcome. Alisha, thanks for the logistics. Singapore Airlines was the way to go. Alex Cox dude thanks for hosting us and I hope you are using those bikes.

(The author, Mohit Oberoi, is a longstanding climber and businessman based in Delhi. He owns gear retailer, Adventure 18. For more on Kumar Gaurav please try these two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/01/31/the-kumar-gaurav-story/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/11/24/samsara-is-nirvana-the-many-sides-of-a-climb/ For further insight into some of the workings of Yosemite National Park, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/04/04/regulation-should-make-adventure-safe-not-restrict-it-talking-to-steve-swenson/)