Friday, January 28, 2011

Zenyatta Mondatta, El Capitan - Winter Ascent

5.7 A4, Grade VI



Bad weather, icy, wet, cold... many more words could describe why we shouldn't be climbing. Arriving in yosemite with a fresh 8 inches of snow, I'm psyched as hell. 
28 hours of driving led to a 3 minute installation of a four season mountain hardware tent in camp 4 at midnight. You can read here why it took us an extra 8 hours. 

Conditions worsened, it got colder, and I got more psyched. Colin's parents treated me to breakfast at the buffet in curry village the next morning. Chains on Colin's old civic allowed me to drive as quickly as I could to el cap meadow. 
I could barely make out the outline of the granite monolith. It was snowing too hard to even see el capitan. I put my mountaineering boots and gaiters on to go check out the condition of our route. 

I hiked up the trail starting at the nose, passing mescalito, and briefly stopping at the alcove swing area. This was the only rock that I had seen so far that wasn't actively running with water. My rain shell was completely saturated, I was soaked. Things started looking better as I got to the base of tangerine trip. Shiny rivets marked the base of ZM. Dry. The first glimmer of hope. "Wow, we might actually be able to climb this thing," I thought to myself.

I knew before we even left on our trip that it was a crazy idea... doing a hard route on the captain, in winter. What was funny was that we even knew that the weather had been bad for a few weeks, and didn't look like it was going to be getting any better. I didn't care, I was too psyched. 
Our strategy was to fix our ropes as high as we could from the ground. Inaccurate weather forecasts and the insane amount of ice fall surrounding us at the base of el cap urged us to spend as little time as possible on the wall.

We were also going to be climbing as a team of 3. It ends up being more efficient so we could climb faster. The description in supertopo says that most parties fix to pitch 2, and then spend 5-6 nights on the wall. We wanted to fix to pitch 5 or 6, and spend 2 nights on the wall.




First sun in days. Day 1 of fixing. 


Pitch 1. Just getting warmed up on one of the 'easier' pitches of A3 on the route.

After a heavy snow storm, perfect blue skies and beautiful weather welcomed us.. it wasn't as glorious as I hoped it would be. The ice and snow that had accumulated over the past week quickly thawed. Insane amounts of ice would shower down every few minutes only 100 feet to our right at the base of zodiac. It sounded like bombs were going off. We were targets in a war zone, maybe el cap was trying to spit us off...  

I got my first taste of nailing, clipping multiple fixed copper heads in a row, and what more difficult aid climbing is like (even though the first pitch is one of the easiest on the route). Pitches 8,14,16 are the only pitches that aren't A3 or harder. Pitch 16 is the only C1 pitch. 


Another day of fixing. Jugging up to our high point at the top of pitch 2. Words cannot describe how much I love jugging :)


Leading pitch 3. I was psyched that I kept a good lead head the whole time as I hooked and hooked and hooked. 


Colin getting on his first lead of the route on pitch 4. The 3 pieces that are clipped in the picture are all shitty copper heads. None of which would have held a fall. He didn't get a good solid piece of gear for another 10-15 feet. You know the climbing is hard/scary when you get scared belaying, he would have fallen straight onto the anchor if the heads popped. 


Just as the light began to fade on our second and last day of fixing, for some reason I got psyched to lead another pitch. I don't know if it was the 'A3R hooks' off of the small 4x2 ledge that got me excited, or the '5.8 hands'.

This was by far the scariest pitch I had ever climbed. It started with simple C1 aiding, into the real business. Hook, after hook, after hook, I traversed farther out to my right. A fall would almost certainly result in injury. There is absolutely no doubt that any mistake would have a consequence...

I had to keep moving, trust that my hooks would hold, and that the wet edges of rock, that were sometimes only a few millimeters thick, wouldn't break away. I got high enough above my last piece of protection that I might as well not be on belay anymore. Hell, I didn't even need to be roped in, I would just slam into the ledge below me anyways. 

I finished the pitch, disappointed by the god awful chossy '5.8 hands', I yelled down "OFF BE-FUCKING-LAY!"
That is a term that Colin and I coined.. after a hard or scary pitch that you are unbelievably happy to be done with. 

Psyched, 5 pitches done. I fixed the rope, cleaned the pitch, and rapped back to the ground. We decided that we had fixed high enough to start climbing the route in full force.  


We utilized the laundry room in the house keeping camp where we packed our haul bags, and dried out all of our gear. No, we couldn't just rack up our gear in el cap meadow in t-shirts. 

Too psyched to remember the correct date, 1/3-1/6. 

We hiked up the night before to bivy at the base to blast off at 4am. Just as it got dark we got to the base of t-trip, made a fire and cooked dinner. I could feel the energy from all of us being so psyched. We knew it was going to be a total adventure.

ZM is sheltered from water and ice projectiles because of how overhanging it is. It bulges out around pitch 5 and we were exposed. This was the only place that we thought we might be in range of ice fall until the very end of the route. Our alpine start would let us get to our high point with all of our gear (portaledges, haul bags, and all) and get out of the danger zone.

We were ready. I got all of my worries and 'what ifs' out of my head before I got on the wall. 
I could then be free from the thoughts of: What if this is the last climb I ever do? What if we get caught in a really bad storm? What if I die on an A4 pitch? Why do I even do this shit?

I couldn't help but think about those things. I left all of that on the ground, and kicked ass on the wall. 


Colin killing it! The lightning bolt roofs, pitch 7. We had all of el cap all to ourselves. We were the only people (idiots) crazy enough to climb at this time of year with the current conditions.


Asa cleaning. Sometimes it took up to an hour. The traversing nature of the route and cleaning pins is time consuming. 



Me leading up to the 9 o'clock roof

The first night ended in frustration. As I lead my first A4 pitch (9 o'clock roof), finishing in the dark, I was disappointed to see that the topo was wrong. Instead of passing the roof, and ending with what looked like it would be a small ledge with 3 bolts, there were 3 old (2 old, 1 ancient) bolts and no ledge. I thought I was either off route, or wasn't completely finished with the pitch. Brain fried, I called it good, fixed the haul and lead line and rapped back down to the belay below.  It was not sufficient to sleep 3 with all of our gear.  

We spent at least an hour trying to set up our portaledges. It was a complete clusterfuck. I had set up each ledge once, and trying to do so at an overhanging belay hanging in our harnesses was very difficult (remember it is also dark out). 


Me leading pitch 11. 


Colin cleaning

I apologize, not many pictures turned out on day 2. We still climbed though, I promise.



Chillin on the double portaledge, loving life on our second night. Bivies on the wall are some of the best times. At the end of a very long, hard day of climbing you finally get to relax. Stuff your face with food and then pass out as soon as you zip up your sleeping bag. 


Day 3 on the wall, push for the summit. Colin getting ready to send! 


Colin leading up pitch 12. Killed it. 


As I get higher and higher on a route I feel like the scary exposure loosens it's grip. It seems to peak out, and get easier on your head. 









The second person who would speed jug up the haul line would have to lower out themselves from the belay into space. Every damn pitch was overhanging.


Loving life, laying and belaying on the ledge as Colin got worked on his last pitch of the day. 
Then it was my turn to take over. 

I jugged up the haul line as fast as I could, the sun was setting. I knew that every second of light would help me move faster to finish up the last 3 pitches of the route. It doesn't get less safe when it's dark, you just move slower, and it's hard to see small edges and features by headlamp. Out of the 8 pitches I led, 3 ended in the dark, and the other 2 were completely void of sunlight.

My last lead was a significant mental crux. It totaled out to be around 4 hours long. We were all so ready to get off the wall. The route's sustained overhanging characteristic tilted back, and let the melting snow covering el cap saturate the climbing. Because of how wet the last pitches were I couldn't get through the easier terrain by free climbing. Instead I had to nail because the dirty wet cracks started to freeze and cams in perfect placements would pop out under body weight. 
I got to take us to the summit, that's always cool. I don't really care about 'getting to the top'. I get psyched that I get to finish what we all had worked so hard for. 

Our summit bivy in a few feet of snow. Glory. 


The post-holing begins!! Sometimes even up to our chests in snow. The descent took around 5 hours. It normally takes about 2 with all of your gear when conditions are normal.

This climb felt like a full on expedition. 

Day 1: organize rack, hike gear and 300 meters of rope to the base
Day 2: fix to top of pitch 2
Day 3: fix to top of pitch 5
Day 4: Dry out all clothes, boots, and sleeping bags. Pack the haul bags. Hike to the base of t-trip
Day 5: Blast off, 4am. Bivy at pitch 7, pitch 8 fixed. 
Day 6: Bivy at pitch 11
Day 7: Summit push! Top out 12am. Bivy on summit.
Day 8:  Slowly, painfully wake up. Hike down, sometimes post-holing up to our waists. Party. 

I would like to give a huge thank you to a few people for literally making this possible for us to climb. Most of them loaned us gear, and I am so grateful for how encouraging they all were.
Scott Bennett, Shawn Mitchell, Greg Howland, Eric Sloan, David Stalman and his girlfriend Annaliese. Mom and Dad I also can't thank enough for being so supportive with my passion.

It was so awesome climbing with my partners, Asa Firestone and Colin Simon. It wasn't just climbing another big wall, it was an experience that I'll remember forever. You get really close with the people you climb with. Relying on them so much to get you psyched, and literally letting them hold your life in their hands. 

For every one of us, this was the hardest big wall route we had ever climbed. Every pitch took nearly 3 hours to lead. All of us are fairly quick and competent aid climbers, but it was seriously hard. To put it in perspective, the Nose speed record is 2 hours and 36 minutes. The ZM speed record is 22 hours and 56 minutes. Even though the nose gets WAY more ascents, that is still a significant time gap. 
No, Colin and I will not be doing ZM in a day. Ever. 
It was definitely a sweet route, but I don't think I'll ever climb it again. 

Before this route, the hardest aid I had done was only C2. Jumping from clean aid C2 to nailing aid A4 was definitely intimidating. Because of my previous big wall ascents, I knew I would be able to do it. Not because of their technical difficulty, but because of how much I had to step up to be able to do it. For those of you that have read my other trip reports you have read how I have learned that being psyched is much more important than anything. 
I wasn't ready for the nose when I got on it, but determination got us to the top in 4 days.  
Colin and I weren't totally ready for climbing the nose in a day, but we were so psyched that we climbed it in only 15 hours.
I wasn't ready for this route either... 

I had to climb ZM with the mindset of "I have no idea what the hell I'm doing, but I know I'll figure it out."


I'm trying something new to show the technical side of the climbing that I didn't include in the trip report. 
Look HERE to check out what gear, clothing, food, etc... we used 

19 comments:

  1. Sweet! You guys are BADASS!!!!!!

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  2. Cheyne,

    I've been following your trip reports every now and then. I'm looking to climb El Cap with my partner when we graduate uni in 2012. Your posts help me get psyched!

    Joe

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  3. Great TR and thanks for sharing, but you might leave out the part about having a fire at the base of El Cap next time....A lot of people look at Supertopo.com and some of them wear green and gray.

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  4. Skully's stoke loves you guys.
    Right on.

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  5. Psyches me up for a spring 11 ascent of ZM in June. YOW! How scary was it getting to the East Ledges raps in the snow?

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  6. Thanks to everyone who has read my story. I'm so happy that it's inspiring people. If it weren't for others who had done so to me, I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today.

    John, the raps weren't that bad. Nothing was nearly as scary as the climbing. We were able to pull ropes out of the snow. If it hadn't been so warm, that may have been another story. If they had been stuck to the ground by ice (a realistic possibility), we would have had to use our own ropes to rap.

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  7. dude i met you soloing south face on the column as your second wall didnt i? good on ya man!

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  8. Nice send of Zenyatta Choss-a-lotta! That route almost killed me back in '97.

    If you get the itch, Shortest Straw next door is a great route. "Harder, and a bit more loose than ZM" was how it was described to me, but I found the Straw to only have a few really loose sections, and mostly solid "hooks and heads for days."

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  9. Kerch said:
    You guys are great/safe role models to the hundreds of students who take my Adventure Education classes at Grandview High School. Thank You for sharing. Keep on keepin on with striveing for bigger/safer/scary goals. What is next?

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  10. Cheyne. You are out of your damn mind. But, you are extremely brave and entirely inspiring. It's lovely.

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  11. Didn't that Collin kid leave a bag of trash at the base of Zodiac last year?

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  12. Not sure if he did or not. If he did, it was most likely an accident. Either way, both of us have picked up tons of trash (including tossed crap bags) while we were there this spring/summer.

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  13. Yah guys, this one is BadAss for the ages. Keep sending, see ya in the ditch!

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  14. Bad ass! I whipped on the A3R hooking section, the bottom of a drilled hook placement dropped out. A blind brassy behind a thin flake off left stopped me upside down a few feet over the ledge. Climbed it over five days Oct 2001. Nice work keep styling the cap!

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  15. I was one of the guys who was helping you with the frozen parking brake in the lodge parking lot. Glad to see you guys made it up ZM.

    I thought it was a little crazy given the weather... pretty sweet that you guys did it.

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  16. Good job fellas. Sounds like you had some fun! Youve done the scary hard aid shit in the winter. Now its time to free it! See ya up there May 2012. -crazyjohn from tassie

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  17. Wow brings back great memories for me. I climbed zm in winter when I was 20! Great time in your life to do something like this. Might do L in A in winter for my mid life crisis haha

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  18. Great job!
    Nice to know you went from C2 to ZM.
    I am thinking about a return trip, perhaps another midlife crisis and your take is inspiring.

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