The Salathé Wall
I headed back to the Valley in May 2017 to meet up with Jeff and to try my first El Cap route, the Salathé Wall. The route is 35 pitches long, and takes about 5 days to complete, making it more than twice as long as any technical rock climb I have done. I also met a guy at the Gunks a few days before I flew out who told me the Salathé was the hardest thing he ever did in his life. Sounded like an adventure!
We got started the morning after I arrived, climbing the first 11 pitches "French-free", leaving the jugs and most of the aid gear behind. The goal was to get these pitches done quickly and in a day, then rap to the ground from Heart Ledge. We would then spend the night, and haul up the next day. This is the normal way to climb this route, because it was the way it was originally done by Royal Robbins and co, and it would be a real jerk move to block up the entire Free Blast for a day while you hauled!
Ran into Alex Honnold as he was rapping from the top of the Freeblast. He free soloed the entire Freerider a week later!
Jeff led the first block, and I took the second. Mine began with a 5.10 slab pitch. I had the intention of freeing as much as possibly, but began pulling on gear right away. Here I am, standing on a bolt!
Took my first whip of the wall on the Half Dollar pitch. Even fell upside down! Here I am holding a piece that I ripped out of a flared pin scar. Turns out it needed one size bigger!
Once back on the ground, we racked up for the rest of the route. We brought a triple rack of cams including a single set of offsets, a full range of nuts, hooks and cam hooks, about 30 draws/runners, a dozen or so lockers, along with all the normal aid gear including a 2-to-1 pre-rigged hauling system. We also brought a portaledge, sleeping bags, 12 gallons of water, food for 6 days, along with beer, whisky, and tons of snacks. About half of the pitches were led in climbing shoes, even some of the aid ones because of the mandatory free climbing.
Heading back up the wall meant hauling and pig wrestling! For the first day, we used a 2-to-1, which was still a challenge, so we ended up space hauling most pitches. This meant that the follower would jug, then switch lines, be lowered as a counterweight, then jug again. A great workout!
Once we were on Heart Ledges, the climbing started again. I had the first block, which started with a fun and wandering 11c pitch, which I aided parts of making it more like 5.9 C1. This pitch included the first time I placed a cam hook on a route!
Jeff's block started with the infamous Hollow Flake, a nearly unprotectable 5.9 offwidth. Here he is posing outside of the crack before getting back inside. This was one of the easiest pitches to follow, since there was only one piece of gear to take out!
Big wall anchors can get complicated fast! We managed to avoid any major clusters for the most part.
Following the Hollow Flake involved a fun lowerout, then a clean jug where the only piece was a #6 cam.
Jeff fixed one pitch above the ledge on top of the Hollow Flake, so we could get a fast start in the morning. This spot made for a great bivy, with plenty of room to relax and to reorganize our gear.
We slept on the portaledge, and got a great view of BASE jumpers right after dawn. Then, it was time to keep moving!
Most follows on this route were pretty straightforward, except for the Ear pitch. This infamous "5.7" (seemed more like 5.11 to me) pitch included going straight up into a bomb-bay chimney, which became a squeeze to the point where you need to take your helmet off to fit. If felt like hours wrestling in there to get the last piece out. Tom Evans got some great pictures of us on the route taken from down in the meadow, including one where I am hidden within the ear. Glad I won't have to do that pitch again anytime soon!
A few pitches higher and we were at El Cap Spire. It was my lead to get us to the top of the spire itself, and this was the point where I really started to feel the exhaustion of wall climbing. The pitch was a beautiful hands to fists 5.10a crack, but about 5 moves in I had to switch to aiding since I felt like I was running on fumes. Turns out that 2,000 feet of climbing wears you out a bit! This final move of this pitch was a "step" across to the spire. It ended up being more of a lunge off of my aiders to a mantle! Belly flopping on top, and having my chalk dump out and swirl around, was one of the most memorable parts of the climb!
After fixing the pitches above, we rapped back down to the Alcove to spend the night. We cracked open a King Cobra, organized the gear, and fell asleep right as it got dark.
The next day was only 4 pitches. I led the Boulder Problem pitch, which for free climbers is one of the main cruxes of the route. As an aid climber, its only C1, but I still managed a daisy fall! No injuries though, and we kept moving.
Jeff led the Sewer, which was far less wet than I expected. Even thought it is supposed to be the worst pitch of the route, it would probably be a 3 star climb at most Northeast crags!
The wildest bivy of the route was on the Sous Le Toit ledge. This ledge is only the size of a large coffee table, with about 2,500 feet of exposure below us. It definitely took some getting used to before I could move around comfortably! We hung the portaledge off to the side, and enjoyed dinner with our feet hanging off the edge. Huge thanks to Jeff for choosing such an awesome spot!
We woke up to great views of the shadow of El Cap, but the wear and tear of wall climbing was getting to both of us. I couldn't fully open or close my hands, my hips were getting worn down from belays and hauling, and basically every muscle in my body was aching severely. But there is no turning back now!
The most overhung pitch of the wall was The Roof. Jeff took this lead, and after some airy leading, hauled completely in free space!
After the Roof was the Headwall, a 200' 95 degree overhanging crack. This brought us to Long Ledge, where we had planned to spend the night. Since the day was only half over, and the ledge was less comfortable than we thought, we decided to keep on moving for the top!
The top of the route included a few more airy pitches, and one final blocky 5.6 section before the top. We topped out right before the sun set!
Summit! After 5 days of climbing we were treated to amazing views and a great bivy spot. It felt great to take the harnesses off and knock back the rest of our beers and whisky. No point lugging any extra weight down!
The decision to finish the climb a day early turned out to be a great one. Every day was "30% chance of showers" and the weather finally broke on our way off the top. About 4 hours of hiking and a few rappels brought us back to El Cap Meadows. We were completely exhausted, unable to fully move our fingers, and in need of showers and solid drinks! Luckily Ryan, one of the bartenders at Curry Village, makes an amazing whisky drink he calls The Salathé. I definitely recommend having many after your next big wall.
Both of us were incredibly banged up by the wall, so needed some time off of climbing. The next four days included hanging out in the meadow (and the bar), making friends with some amazing adventerous people, taking swings at the Alcove, and practicing self rescue.
After several days rest we started to get anxious, and decided to climb Nutcracker one evening, a classic 5 pitch 5.8. To make it interesting, we led it entirely on nuts. Of course, I nearly ran out of gear on the fourth pitch, and had to make an anchor out of the only 4 pieces I had left. That slowed us down a bit, but we still made it down before dark!
We thought about giving the Northwest Face of Half Dome a shot on one of our last days, but between our exhaustion, the beta we got about rockfall and sketchy approaches up snow, and a slight hangovers combined with a little bit of laziness, we decided Snake Dike would be a much more fun way to the top of the most iconic rock in the world. Ryan joined us on this one, which included a lot more hiking than climbing, but was a total blast! Runout climbing, snowball fights on top, and some really great views made for a great end to the trip.
Since we were out of campsites, and I was flying out the next day, we spent our last evening at a fancy hotel bar before ditch camping nearby. The Salathe Wall was one of the hardest and most amazing things I'v ever done, but the trip was even more memorable for the awesome people I got to hang out with. Can't wait to get back to the valley!