Saturday, August 01, 1998

El Cap Girdle Traverse

by Chris McNamara

"The only thing more abstract than climbing up a wall is to traverse it from one side to the other." – Greg Child

August, 1998
Running the rope through a biner connected to a #2 copperhead, I shout to Mark, "Lower me!" and I slowly descend the slightly overhanging granite wall. I grab the rope with my right hand and, using my left for balance, press my feet hard against the wall and begin sprinting back and forth across the golden face. A small sloping edge emerges and I thrust my body forward, left hand extended, and latch on. Sweat begins to ooze from my fingertips as I fumble with the rack, remove a Talon hook, place it on a tiny granule of granite and just watch. The hook holds for five seconds before PING! The hook explodes off the placement and I lurch backwards, skidding across wall in a helpless rag doll arc. I try to regain control on the backswing, feet clawing desperately, but lactic acid in my legs is too much and I give up, gradually coming to rest below my last piece. I look across the 200-foot blank expanse of rock to the next feature and then I look at Mark. He stares at me with mixed expression of impatience and empathy. Maybe traversing El Cap is as dumb as it sounds?

Girdle traverses have enjoyed modest popularity in the Britain but have only a brief history in the America. Paul Ross pioneered the first U.S. girdles, beginning in 1972 with a traverse of White Horse Cliff, New Hampshire and he went on to make the first girdles of Cathedral and Cannon Cliffs. In the mid 1970's Ross may have been the first person to consider an El Cap traverse, but it wasn't until the 1980's that Bill Price led the first serious Girdle attempt. Price started from the East Buttress with the intent of not only traversing El Cap but climbing many unclimbed features in the process. He made it to a spot near El Cap Tree before abandoning the attempt. After Price, numerous people drew up in their minds potential Girdle lines but no more recorded attempts were made.

For me the Girdle was born out of a desire to do a new route on El Cap. Years of reading books like "Yosemite Climber" and "Vertical World of Yosemite" left me aching to make my own addition to Yosemite's climbing lore. And if you spend enough time in El Cap Meadow with a high powered spotting scope, eventually you find a way to link micro features that nobody has climbed before.

In 1997 I had a new route pieced together. I armed myself with hundreds of copperheads and a vast collection of thin pitons and hooks and marched to the base. Yet as I looked up the nearly-invisible line and unloaded my mass of steel and aluminum I was struck by the blasphemy of my act. Unlike the Nose or Salathé, this route would not sustain many ascents after mine. Fragile features would fall off, rivets would be added, hook moves broken then enhanced and copperhead placements blown then re-trenched. The route would become a line of fixed copper, steel and enhanced hooks: what most modern routes will become after 50 ascents. I didn't want to be a part of this movement in aid climbing and walked away. By default, the Girdle became my last chance to put a new line up on El Cap.

When first contemplating a Girdle Traverse, I briefly considered continuing Price's vision of a line that climbed many new features in a proud diagonal across the face. Yet the more I looked at such a line the more daunting the project became. The logistics required would be unprecedented and the ascent might easily take 20 days. And who would ever repeat such an ordeal? I decided that the solution to the Girdle's logistics lay in attempting the traverse as a speed climb. Instead of hauling hundreds of pounds of supplies sideways, I would leave the gear behind and climb in "single push" style. We would travel as light and fast as possible to make sure our tune was spent climbing, and not moving gear around. Mark was game for this. Neither of us likes expedition-type climbing whether it’s on rock or snow. We wanted to cut out as many logistics as possible, It would just be us and the rock.

Going single push style means taking a few gambles. If you bring too much food and water you might go so slow that you end up not making a ledge and have to spend the night hanging in a harness. But bring too little food and water and you could end up mentally and physically crashing somewhere in the middle of the wall, which can take the fun out of the climb. But those little gambles are what make light and fast climbing worthwhile.

After two months of scoping both from the ground and from the wall, the Girdle line came together in July, 1998. Most of the terrain was familiar; I had climbed every established route that the Girdle would share. The challenge would be negotiating the few blank spots between established routes where new climbing would be required. These unknown sections cast just enough uncertainty over the project to ensure a steady infusion of adventure throughout the climb.

Marketing the Girdle as "A grand tour of El Cap’s finer ledges and pitches," I began searching for someone who had the two requisite skills for such a long traverse: speed and creativity. Mark Melvin fit the description perfectly. When Mark led me up my first big wall, the West Face of El Cap, he forgot his rock shoes I assumed the climb was off. Yet Mark didn't see the fact that there were four feet and two shoes as a problem. At the end of each pitch he zipped the shoes down to me, except on the easier pitches where he would leave them with me and lead barefoot. Novel situations clearly don't faze Mark, but when I explained my idea for the Girdle, he harbored some skepticism. Nonetheless,he agreed to give it a shot in early August.

Previous climbers dreamed of a perfectly diagonal girdle line. Our line was far from that; following the biggest, friendliest features on the face. When pieced together the jagged ups and downs of the line resembled the readout of a heart monitor. We began on August 4 on East Buttress and traveled across easy free climbing and a few rappels until we reached the first pitch of Eagle's Way. From there we began an upward diagonal that took us as high as the Zodiac’s Black Tower before we began a series of rappels back down toward Tangerine Trip.

As we reached the second belay on Lost in America, about five hours into the first day, Mark prepared to rappel by clipping the rope to a bolt and calling for tension. No sooner had Mark leaned back than he took a sudden five-foot static fall directly onto my Gri Gri. Shocked, we looked at each other and then the anchor. The bolt Mark was lowering off had sheared, leaving a rusted and pathetic steel stud. I had replaced hundreds of bad bolts with The American Safe Climbing Association.over previous months and was aware of just how feeble many of them were. Still, I was not prepared for ease with which this one broke. It was a sober reminder of how, as safe as you try to be, things still "happen" when you least expect them to. We rappelled one more pitch,and then climbed three more easy free pitches. Twenty pitches and 12 hours from our starting point we reached El Cap Tree and rapped down to the ground, the all-you-can-eat restaurant and beers.

Returning to the ground between pushes posed an ethical dilemma at first. The purest way to Girdle El Cap would be to haul all gear from start to finish, but this was logistically out of the question. Another approach would be to climb up various routes and leave food and water stashes, but this would have required "preparing" the route in advance, which was more contrived than resupplying between pushes. The drawback to rappelling to the ground was the mental inertia that had to be conquered. On the wall the climbing moved fast and painlessly but as soon we touched the ground the momentum was lost and had to be regained with the start of each new push.

The Valley is always expected to be hot in August,but we managed to pick the three hottest days of the year to start the second and most difficult push on the Girdle. As temperatures climbed into the 100's we couldn't ignore the other climbers who had bailed off the El Cap and now lay under the shade of trees on the banks of the Merced River. Neither Mark nor I were enthusiastic about continuing the traverse. We went about the morning rituals at half speed hoping the other would make up a decent excuse to bail. Not wanting to be the one suggesting we bail, I tried to get it out of Mark.

“Wow, it’s hot. There’s almost nobody on the wall. Are you still psyched?” I asked him.
“Yeah, it is hot. I guess I am psyched. What do you think?” he answered.
“Ben and Jerry’s sounds good right now. But It’s hard for me to just bail.”
“Yeah, I guess we should finish this.”
“Yeah, I guess.”

So we unenthusiastically continued the ascent.

The second push of the Girdle would take us from El Cap Tree,to Calaveras Ledge, across the Continental Shelf to El Cap Tower and eventually down and across to Heart Ledges. Our first plan was to try this leg in a single push but we quickly changed our minds as we imagined spending a night hanging in harnesses in the middle of the steep and ledgeless Dawn Wall. We opted to bring a small haulbag with water and ultra-light sleeping bags. The day began on the Atlantic Ocean Wall and after two quick A4 pitches we were faced with 300-foot stretch of new climbing to join the next established route. I began on what would be the crux pitch by hooking for 30 feet up and left to a copperhead. From there I began penduluming, face climbing and hooking for 90 feet left across diorite to the base of a large rotten flake. I put a cam behind the flake and began testing when, to my horror, the 1000 pounds of rotten and sharp rock began to separate from the wall. I quickly removed the cam and looked back 10 feet to my last piece of pro, a #2 knifeblade. From there it was another 40 feet to a small stopper and then another 40 feet to a copperhead. I was in a fix. I stared at the flake for a few minutes in terror. Was this fear just blocking me from making a move well within my ability? Or was this fear the self preserving kind that tells when you are about to get killed? Finally a wave of confidence (or stupidity) washed over me and I called for Mark to give me 15 feet of slack (to eliminate rope drag) and began delicately lie backing the flake for the most exciting 15 seconds of my life.

At the top of the death flake I teetered left across more loose diorite to decent horizontal flake in which I frantically began sinking pins for a belay. I equalized three angles and gave one last hit to the last pin when the whole flake began to move. My anchor was separating from the wall. Enough already! I drilled an anchor bolt.

Another seven pitches of easy free climbing and rappelling brought us to the top of the Continental Shelf and our bivy. By eight o'clock the sun had set but temperatures remained in the 80's and in an effort to keep cool Mark and I slept with no sleeping bags in nothing but our shorts. I had just gotten comfortable when I noticed the pitter patter of small objects against my body. I quickly sat up to discover hundreds of little brown bird turds covering my bare skin. A family of swallows lived right above our bivy and there was nothing I could do about it. I lay back down with the hope that as night fell the birds would let up and catch few Z's. We had no such luck. Every hour I would wake up, issue a few terse words and brush the turds off.

We got an early start the next morning, eagerly abandoning our vulnerable position for the flawlessly vertical Dawn Wall. Mark led across South Seas and Mescalito's Molar Traverse to The Wall of Early Morning Light. Here we cruised across a classic Warren Harding full pitch of dowels to the last major unknown section of the Girdle line.

From the start Mark had been concerned about this stretch. I had assured him I had it all worked out. Now as we sat at the belay, peering across the 300 feet of blank granite separating us from El Cap Tower, I realized that I had miscalculated. Mark mentioned bailing, but I convinced him to let me have a shot at swinging over to the Tower. Thus began my rag doll pendulum performance. Five hours, one rivet, two anchor bolts and four hundred feet of pendulums later we connected with New Dawn. Sighs of relief attended our belief that the main difficulties of the climb were over. We reached El Cap
Tower by 4 p.m. and opted to bivy rather push through the night. Usually my friends cringe that I only drink two liters of water a day on a big wall. On this wall, with the anticipated heat wave, we brought five liters per day and luckily found more water on the wall. However, so intense was the heat that we were nearly out of water by the morning with another 100- degree day ahead. The fourth day began with Mark climbing the Texas Flake and Boot Flake. We continued up the Nose to Camp 4 where we reversed the Triple Direct to the Muir Wall and rappelled down to Heart Ledges and the ground. We were tired but any real pain was dulled by the heat.

Sitting in the shade Mark said, “It’s unfortunate that we are 75 percent done, because now we have to finish. Otherwise I could sit here and eat ice cream for the next two days.” “Yeah, it’s too bad we didn’t bail earlier, when we might have had a better excuse with the heat. Now it’s clear that we can climb though the heat… or at least suffer through it.” I replied.

We swam in the Merced River and refueled with all-you-can-eat salad and beer to prepare for the last leg. At 4 am on the next day, (August 8) we began jugging up to Heart Ledges and moved quickly up the Salathé Wall. By 1 p.m. we reached the roof and I began moving left over the last 200 feet of rock before Thanksgiving Ledge. I had led part of this pitch before and was convinced that it was one of the uglier pitches on El Cap. The first 40 feet was easy free climbing with poor pro that led to a large roof. Cams led across the rotten, moss-filled, horizontal roof cracks to a small ledge beneath the roof that formed a loose-block-ridden belly crawl. Mark then received the honor of re-leading most of the pitch to clean the gear.

Thanksgiving Ledge, a quarter -mile long and eight-foot wide weakness in El Cap, was clearly the key to the Girdle. With only a few hours of daylight left we quickly moved across the ledge through a 200-foot section of "5.8 bushes" to the West Face finish. By 7 p.m. we had finished the final easy fifth class sections and stood on the summit. After 75 pitches and 14,000 feet of movement (climbing, rappelling, walking) we had triumphantly conquered the illogical. The Girdle is not El Cap's best route but it does climb many of El Caps finest pitches. That said, it is also not the worst route, although there are a few stinker sections. In the end the Girdle was just what we expected it to be: long, obscure and, most of all, adventurous.

El Cap Girdle Traverse (VI 5.10a A4)
FA: Chris McNamara, Mark Melvin 7/98
Holes: 3 anchor bolts, 1 lead rivet
Rack:
1 rurp
2 beaks
3 KB’s: 1 ea. #3- 5
8 LA’s: 1 ea. #1
3 ea. #2, #3
1ea. #4
angles: 2 ea. 1/2”, 5/8”,
sawed angles: 1 ea. 3/4”, 1”
2 sets nuts (offsets useful)
1 sets RP’s
cams: 3-4 ea. .4- 1.5”
2-3 ea. 2- 3.5”
1-2 ea. 4.5”
1 ea. 7”
hooks: 2 ea.
cam hooks
10 heads, 2 circle heads
10 rivet hangers


Notes:
1st ascent required three consecutive pushes over five days:
Push 1: East Buttress to El Cap Tree (10 hours)
Push 2: El Cap Tree to Heart Ledges (2.5 days)
Push 3: Heart Ledges to Summit (17 hours)

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