Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Zodiac, El Capitan - Solo

On my trip to the valley last spring, local Boulder badass Scott Bennett set out to try to climb The Zodiac by himself in a single push. He sent the route with only one bivy, three pitches from the top on Peanut Ledge. 

"Wow.. that's SO cool," I thought to myself.. "I want to do that."

My regular climbing and suffering partner Colin Simon and I set out to push ourselves a bit further this season, sending a few El Cap routes in less than half a day. We then proceeded to tag on the Regular Route on Half Dome after climbing The Nose, climbing both grade VI routes in a continuous 26 hour push. 

All of the climbing we were doing on the trip served as training for my solo. Over and over, I pictured myself on the climb. I envisioned how I was going to react to every situation I could imagine. I was prepared for not if I was going to bonk, but when. I had my systems so dialed that when I got too exhausted to think I could run on autopilot and still be safe. 

Climbing El Capitan not only solo, but in a day was something that truly inspired me. For the past 6 months, I have been not only training physically to climb El Cap fast, but also mentally. I fine tuned my solo system and got comfortable with my only partner being a gri gri.   

I thought of every advantage I could give myself. I cut corners by bringing a smaller rack, one rope, no bivy gear, minimal water, and no hammer.  

I blasted my ipod to distract me from how unbelievably nervous I was. As soon as my alarm went off at 3:40AM, I got that horrible feeling in my chest that I always get before I start climbing something big.

I cinched up my sport harness, took a deep breath, and completely committed. 

I took the A3 direct start variation instead of the original. All of the drilled hooks, copper heads, and bolts made it the faster but more dangerous option. I watched a rescue take place a few days prior when a Japanese climber decked on the first pitch. I guess it was reasonable to be a little nervous..  

A bit slower than I had hoped, I linked the first two pitches, rapped, cleaned, and jugged in an hour and fifty minutes. "Yikes," I thought, "this is going to be really hard.." To climb the route in one day, I needed to climb each pitch in an hour and a half. I didn't realize that I actually was climbing faster than I thought.. 

I synchronized myself with the climbing, and felt completely in control.   

Starting to pass The Team Extreme Ryders on the black tower pitch at 9am.

I successfully passed the 4 Koreans, rapped, cleaned, and I am now jugging the pitch. You can see that the leader made approximately 5 feet of progress in the time it took me to climb the Black Tower pitch in its entirety.

The Black Tower pitch is notorious for being one of the scariest on the climb. One person I talked to said "oh it's not that bad, I nailed like 6 beaks and it was totally easy.." Well, thanks a ton for the beta.. 
You are definitely in the do not fall zone for about 20 feet until you get your first solid piece of fixed gear, an old rusty angle. I made use of hand placing and leapfrogging sawed off angles and beaks. They were mostly solid placements, but seriously.. don't fall. 

I was feeling unbelievably good. Every chance I got, I was out of my aiders free climbing, back cleaning, and running it out. Armed with a shiny double set of offset cams, along with a bullet proof psyche, I felt unstoppable.   

Leading into the grey circle.

Tricky reach, taking advantage of a dynamic style of aid climbing.

I only a few hundred feet to my left were some guys on Tangerine Trip. I yelled over to them a couple of times, saying what's up. "Yo dude! I'm C3ing the shit out of this pitch!!" I hollered over.

After sitting in the meadow countless hours, staring at the nipple.. I finally got to experience its glory. It was pretty wild. I leap frogged cam hooks for an eternity, finished the pitch, and then had a difficult time cleaning.

A normal wall style soloist would easily be able to rap down their haul line back to the belay. Having only one rope, I would have to unclip a piece of gear along the 30 foot traverse and wildly swing out into space.

Gravity sent me flying sideways as if El Cap was trying to spit me off. The rope connecting me to the anchor whipped and spun me around, causing me to look out over the valley. My whole world was silenced.

I thought to myself "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the entire world right now..."
It's a feeling that I don't too often get, when something inside of me knows that I am supposed to be doing exactly what I am doing.

The climbing slightly eased up, but exhaustion set in. Only one more C3 crux to go on pitch 11. I just kept moving. Place a piece, step up in aiders, clip anchor, fix rope, rap, clean, jug, go! go! go! 

Talking to Neal the night before, he said that he had left a gallon of gatorade on peanut ledge. I didn't count on it, but I sure was happy to see the neon orange liquid! I drank as much as I could and ate the rest of my carefully rationed food. It was time for the final summit push, I had less than two rope lengths to get to the top. 

I leapfrogged my #5 camalots forever up the offwidth and reached the top of pitch 14 as it got dark. The bright moon partnered with my headlamp on full blast illuminated my way to the summit. 

I finally bonked. Linking the last two pitches took me two hours. I moved as fast as I possibly could. Reaching any tricky gear placement would stop me in my tracks. It took all of my mental effort to figure out how to move past them.

Only one more short section of C2 stood in the way of the summit. Top stepping off of a hand placed angle, I froze. Not wanting to clip an ancient copper head, I was stuck for an honest 10 minutes before I figured out how the hell to get past a seemingly blank section of rock. It was something that would have taken me two seconds if I hadn't just climbed 15.9 pitches. I finally reached over the edge to clip the bolts at the very last anchor. I hurled my rack on to the top of El Cap, and rapped back down to clean the pitch.

All of the muscles in my body screamed as I jugged as fast as I physically could. "COME ON CHEYNE!!!! YOU GOT IT, YOU'RE FUCKIN' SENDING!!!!!" I yelled out loud. I threw myself on the summit 19 hours and 7 minutes after I started. I did it.   

This was one of the funnest things I have done in my entire life. I felt completely in my element. Other than dropping a cam (which I later found), it was a completely flawless ascent.

Before I made a serious commitment to do this climb, I had to be completely honest with myself. I realized that the only possible way for me to be successful, was to be only driven internally. I was forced to look at myself and see exactly what my motivating factors were. 
I became aware that trying to make myself badass, add another 'tick' to my list of climbs, or trying to one-up every one else... would result in failure. 
I pictured myself way up in the grey circle being terrified, epicing, and imagining myself thinking "why the hell am I up here, I totally regret doing this." 

I did it for myself. I trained, I learned, and I tried fucking hard. I sent The Zodiac.

The Rack and other notes.


  1. Excellent! That's the way I do it.

  2. I was looking forward to hearing the full story. What a great accomplishment!

  3. Great send! What do you use for your solo device?

  4. I used an unmodified (recalled!!) grigri 2.

  5. I'll think of you next time a little old lady asks me if I scared up there on a 24 foot ladder. HHHhhaaaa. You're awesome!

  6. Great climbing! I'm looking to solo the zoo and wondered which pitches link together. Did you use a 60 or a 70? thanks

  7. This is very cool Cheyne. I was researching sit climbing ascents of El Cap and ran across this post. Very well written. I will follow your blog now for sure