Climbing El Cap by Paul Doherty


One guidebook said

This is one of the most enjoyable grade IV's in the valley

Steve Roper's guide gave us details of the climb


El Capitan &emdash; East Buttress

first ascent 5.7 A2 Allen Steck, Willi Unsoeld June 1953
or 5.10 Frank Sacherer Wally Reed August 1964

This is the beautiful, sweeping buttress at the far right end of the escarpment of El Cap.It should take about 45 minutes to reach the rope up spot which is 1000 feet above the valley floor and just short of a dropoff.


As Martin and I puffed up the talus slope to the base of the face of El Capitan, our breath flashed white when it rose through the beams of our headlamps. In contrast, the blackness of the giant cliff blotted out a large chunk of the starry sky. Amazing to relate, the cliff itself sported a few stars. These were the lights of climbers who had slept on the wall of El Cap. Some of those climbers had been on the wall for a week. We hoped to get to the top in one day, but we would carry our headlamps on the climb, just in case.

Martin and I wanted to climb the East Buttress route. The East Buttress is the easiest route on El Cap, and yet, it is harder than any climb we had ever done before.

There are dozens of routes on El Cap but only two climbs, the East and West Buttress routes, are free climbs (in 1990). The rest are aid climbs. On an aid climb, climbers attach rope ladders, called etriers, to the cliff and then climb the ladders. Martin and I are free climbers. We climb the rock. For protection, the leader trails a rope which is belayed by the second. Our feelings toward aid climbers were those quoted in the old guidebook to El Cap.


It should be understood that these men (El Cap climbers) were not climbing any more than a stenographer going up an elevator is climbing. They were hoisting themselves up on a series of crude pulleys. The skill required is that required to drive a nail. Their courage is beyond question. It is exactly that of the bull in the arena. Confused and tormented by something far beyond their understanding, they react to the sight of a cliff as the bull to the cape. Not knowing why, they charge.

Thomas Davies 1970


In contrast, we viewed free climbing as a vertical dance over stone.

Half way up the 1000 foot high talus slope, we climbed out of the cold air that lay in the bottom of Yosemite valley like a lake and into air that was warm and humid. Martin and I laughed at "the arrival of the monsoon," but our laughter was tempered by the knowledge that this was the "monsoon" of the American west, a storm system coming at us from Arizona. The humid air carried with it the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm. Sierra climbing folk wisdom says that if cumulus clouds started to build before noon we would get rain before the day was over. If a storm caught us both on a ledge we would wait it out or retreat with only moderate danger, but if a storm caught one of us leading a pitch, a hundred feet up on tough piece of rock, we would both be in trouble.

We decided to have a go at the climb even with the threat of a storm hanging in the air. Today was the last day of our vacation. We had been waiting all week for better weather which had not come. Just the day before a storm had caught three of us on Goodrich pinnacle, almost a thousand feet up on Glacier point apron. Martin, Morresa, and I used our ropes to rappel down to the ground. We got wet even though we were wearing rain suits, as water flowed down the ropes and along our arms.

On El Cap we were carrying two ropes an 11 mm diameter climbing rope and a 7 mm rope which we planned to use in case of rapells. As we climbed, we planned to check to make sure that there were belay anchors at the end of each 100+ foot pitch of the climb. If we found a pitch with no retreat we would have to look once again at the sky and decide whether to go on or to retreat.

Morresa wasn't with us on this climb. She was hiking up the backside of El Cap carrying dinner and a tent. We planned to join up on the summit.

As we continued hiking, Martin asked an embarrassing question. "Paul, have you ever retreated from any rock climb once you've started?" I answered that I had. But we both knew that the only times I retreated I had been forced down by storms or beginners.

As we approached the base of the wall we put on our helmets. Even a small rock falling several thousand feet can be lethal. Our helmets also provided some protection from the paper bags of shit jettisoned by climbers on the wall above us.

Just a few hours ago we had dined with John Dill, the head of YOSAR, Yosemite Search and Rescue. We talked about the climb. John said that he had never done the East Buttress route. We immediately invited him to join us &emdash; nothing like having the head of search and rescue along just in case we ran into trouble&emdash; but he declined. Martin commented that if John hadn't done the climb, he probably hadn't done any rescues there. Martin's hopes were short lived, John mentioned that he had carried a body out from the bottom of the East Buttress once, the only person in Yosemite who had ever been killed on a climb while wearing a helmet.

When we arrived at the base of our climb we were stunned to find two people starting up ahead of us. It wasn't dawn yet. As we put on shoes and equipment we became climbers and fear retreated. We decided that anyone who beat us to the wall deserved to go first. While we waited for them we pondered the classic question,"The mountain will be here tomorrow, will you?" We didn't know the answer to that question, but we decided to have a go at the climb anyway.


A narrow chimney leads up the right hand side of a steep indented wall. This chimney after 70 feet widens and soon involves either 5.10 or A2


"I want the first pitch", Martin said.

I was surprised. Martin doesn't like chimneys. It took me a moment to realize that he was very clever. Martin's choice meant that I would get to lead the second pitch, the hardest one on the climb. The new guide said that the chimney was broken into two pitches, the first was hard and involved a 5.9 stem, the second was harder at 5.10. However, if Martin wanted the chimney he could have it.

Martin flew up the first fifty feet, then slowed a little as the difficulties increased. For a while he looked like the wishbone from a turkey. His legs split wide apart. One foot on each wall of the chimney in a classic stemming pose. Then he called "falling." I tightened my hold on the belay rope as Martin's right foot began to slide down the wall. But the fall never happened. As he split apart, Martin must have made a wish for a better foothold, for his right foot slid onto rough spot on the wall where it stopped. Whew. Martin paused a moment to catch his breath and then climbed the last few feet to a tiny belay spot. Then it was my turn. The pack containing our water, warm clothes and food dragged me back, then it jammed in the chimney. I was having such a hard time with the pack the chimney seemed OK. The place where Martin fell stymied me for a moment until I found the hard-to-see rough spot. Then I joined him at the belay.

Climbing has been compared to playing a musical composition. The first person to climb a route is the composer. The East Buttress was first climbed in 1953 by two of the great composers of climbs, Allen Steck and Willi Unsoeld. The next parties to climb the route play the composition with their bodies. Some put in variations, in 1964 Frank Sacherer and Wally Reed eliminated all of the aid pitches and made this into a free climb. Now it was my turn to face the music.

Ten feet to my right a steep crack waited for me. Unfortunately, those ten feet crossed a nearly blank wall. Thankfully, in the middle of that wall was a piton with a cord dangling from it. I reached over and clipped my rope though that cord. Now at least I wouldn't fall very far. I had given Martin the heavy pack, but I still carried a personal pack with a raincoat and some water. All my climbing gear felt heavy as I inched right. My fingers slid into two small pockets, old piton scars. My foot found the top of a thin flake. The crack looked a long way away and the move just didn't feel right. Up higher it looked better.Yet, I had watched the climbers ahead of me go this way. After three failed tries, I went for it. Half way across I started to fall, I grabbed the sling and swung over to the crack. The crack had a rounded edge. I had reached it by cheating, free climbers don't pull on slings. But I didn't consider ethics for long, the hand I had in the crack was sliding off the rounded edge. I struggled up, getting both hands on the rounded edge then a foot in the crack. I kept moving up. At last I could stop and protect myself. The worst was over. Of course, I was going to have to come back and climb the route again and not cheat, but that wasn't an option for today. We were already falling behind schedule. I asked myself,"How did the climber ahead of me make it across the blank wall?" and answered,"He was better than I am." ( The next day we met him at a laundromat, and although he was better than we were, he too had pulled on the sling.)

The remainder of the pitch was hard. The guide said

work up and right into a trough which leads to a tree.

The trough was a smooth round groove. I used an arm bar to climb it. I hadn't used an arm bar in years, but it worked just fine and only cost me a little skin off my elbow. Martin followed me and said the words that a leader loves to hear,"nice lead." Which translates to either,"I am glad I didn't have to do that," or to "I wish that was my lead."

A short class 4 section leads to the base of a steep knobby wall, which is climbed on the far left (5.4)

Martin lead the class 4. Then I attacked the steep wall. The holds were surprisingly smooth and rounded. I remembered reading that this was a waterfall in the spring. A few thousand years of falling water had polished the rock. One woman climber had told us this was the scariest lead of the climb, it was the only pitch that was poorly protected. She was right too. I was pleased when I manage to place a couple of poor pieces of protection. I convinced myself that they might stop a fall.

To both of our surprise, as Martin was traversing across the smooth wall, he fell. Martin had never fallen on 5.4, I couldn't even remember him falling on a 5.9. He stepped onto a sloping slippery foothold and grabbed for a handhold that was also slick. He slid off, pendulumed across the face, pulled two of the pieces of protection I thought would hold, and came to rest slightly battered, twenty feet down the cliff. When he climbed up to join me it was obvious that Martin wasn't having fun anymore.

Scramble up a class 3 area then climb 150 ft (5.7) up a shallow gully to a good belay ledge on the left.

I let Martin take the lead on the next pitch. We were a third of the way up, cumulus clouds were building before noon, and high above us was an offwidth pitch that worried me. On the plus side, so far there had been good rappel anchors at every belay, we could reach the ground in an emergency. Even better, Martin cruised the 5.7 pitch.

Next move right and climb a 5.8 jamcrack and loose rock to ledges above the nose, a conspicuous ledge directly on the prow of the buttress.

My turn. The crack seemed easier than 5.8 &emdash; until I hit the ceiling. The guidebook didn't mention a ceiling. But there it was with a red sling dangling from a piton at the lip. I was sure that the overhang would be easy, instead, it was hard. I moved awkwardly up beneath the ceiling. The red sling tempted me to grab it. It said that I had already cheated once, so why not again? But I didn't cheat, I clipped my own protection into the piton. As I did so I looked at the sling. It was worn almost all the way through and hung by a thread. It was a good thing I hadn't grabbed it, it would have broken easily under my weight. I reached over the overhang and touched a horrible surprise, a smooth steep slab topped the overhang. I searched around for quite a while and eventually found a knob to grab. Pulling on the knob I made it over the top and onto the prow of the nose. I was in a spectacular place in the middle of the face of El Cap.

I wouldn't want to climb the overhang wearing a heavy pack. So I called down to Martin and convinced him to let me haul the backpack up the climb on the 7mm rope. Once he reached the overhang he agreed that hauling the pack was a good idea.

We had to make a decision. There was only one bad piton for a rapell anchor on our ledge, so if we continued to climb retreat would be difficult. The sky was completely covered by clouds. Even though it was midday, it was getting colder and we were putting on our warm clothes. Worst of all, the next two pitches were tough 5.9's. The guidebook simply said:

Angle up and left following an obvious crack system for 2 pitches (some aid is necessary)

Those few words disguised a lot of difficulty, particularly since I didn't plan to use aid. I worried a lot about leading the offwidth crack. Such a crack gets its name because it is too large to jam a fist or foot into but too small to jam an entire body. I could see the offwidth hanging out into space above me. One climber told us he had fallen out of the offwidth crack. We ate some cookies and decided to continue climbing.

I lead up a rock knife-edge until a crack split off across a steep-overhanging wall to my left. I got my hands into the crack and it felt good, so I launched my body into space. I worked my hands up and left along the crack my body dangling below. I could feel the energy draining out of my arms as I hung for a while to put in a piece of protection. Before my arms gave out I swung my foot up behind me and got a toe into the crack. That felt better. Like the rest of this climb the crack required spectacular exposed moves, yet was well protected. I felt great when it was over. One more 5.9 down, one offwidth to go.

Martin swung around me and lead up to the base of a horrible looking overhanging outward flaring offwidth crack.

My turn again. I worked up into the base of the crack, I felt the inside of the crack and it felt bad. But there was an outside chance that this crack would yield to one of the most spectacular and dangerous techniques in climbing, a layback. Of all my friends, only Hal likes to layback. I do too &emdash; over short distances. I slotted in one last piece of protection then I grabbed the edge of the crack, and replacing the pull of gravity with the pull of my arms, I started to walk up the wall next to the crack. I was betting that I would find a resting place before my arms gave out. The off width kept going up, and so did I. It turned a corner and became vertical, I followed it, getting worried. Then I saw a flaw in the granite. Inside the big crack was a smaller crack. I reached in and stuffed my fingers into the smaller crack. I twisted them and locked them into place. I was safe now and let out a yell. There was no way my fingers were going to come out of that little crack. I slammed in protection and breathed. I was over the crux of the climb.

We celebrated with a long overdue lunch at the next ledge until the temperature dropped sharply and a few hailstones started to bounce down around us.We began to worry again, we were high enough that getting down would be hard. So we climbed fast.

The guide said

Ascend a steep, knobby pitch which leads up and left for 110 feet to a series of small ledges. (on which the first ascent party spent their second night) Above lies a discouraging wall.

After 7 years and twelve ascents climbers found this route.

Traverse right 25 feet to a white flake. Cross it and go around a corner then climb a 100 foot knobby wall 5.7 on rounded solution holds

This leads to a talus ledge.


Martin ran up and left then I traversed right 25 feet and went up a smooth wall dotted with pitons. It was as steep and high as I have ever been on a mountain. But when the rope ran out, I had not found the talus covered ledge. Things were starting to go bad. We were off route. To make matters even worse, I dropped my 8 ring. It made wonderful ringing tones as it plunged down the face of El Cap. Climbers don't drop gear. I hadn't dropped an 8 ring in over a decade. I was cold and tired and starting to make mistakes, you aren't allowed too many mistakes on a rock wall thousands of feet in the air. As Martin joined me, a 50 mph blast of wind blew us around on our little ledge. I wasn't worried about the wind itself, I was worried about what happened next. It started to rain rocks. The wind was blowing rocks off the top of El Cap and they were bouncing around us, tapping on our helmets. Little rocks, but one softball sized one could severely damage us.

Martin however was singing. He didn't have to worry about the climb or the weather getting bad anymore. The hard parts of the climb were over and the weather was already bad. So he took off in search of the route and in a few minutes found the talus covered ledge. He also found an overhang which was a shield against falling rocks. It didn't take long for me to join him under the shelter of that overhang.


Climb straight up 125 feet to a small pedestal just beneath an overhanging right facing arch. Climb to the rim via the convoluted face just right of the arch.

As the wind died down and the sky began to clear I finished up the last easy pitch to the top. The climbing was fun. Nothing like warm California sun to make a climb feel good.

At last we were sitting on the top edge of El Cap. We had done it. We were tired and happy. It was a great climb. The hardest climb I've ever done but it was so rewarding and so spectacular that I'd like to do it again.

We pushed on in the failing light. On this, the day of the autumnal equinox, we had climbed for eleven hours. We hiked one more hour to reach the summit at dark. We put on all our warm clothes and searched for Morresa and dinner. As we approached it, a strange rock next to the trail turned into our tent. Inside waiting for us with dinner was Morresa. We shared stories and ate until the tent flashed with light. A glance outside showed that a huge thunderstorm was headed our way. The summit of El Cap is not a good place to be in a lightning storm, so we finished dinner, packed our tent and gear, and started the long hike out.

Before long we remembered we were tired so we set up the tent in the woods near a stream and collapsed to sleep. Morresa had her sleeping bag, but Martin and I just put on all our clothes and shivered the night away. In the morning we were astounded to find several plastic bags full of sleeping bags within twenty feet of our tent. Some other El Cap climbers were better prepared than we were and had cached their gear. I laughed to think that we had shivered all night within shouting distance of several sleeping bags.

The sun warmed our bodies as we ate cooky crumbs for breakfast and continued the long hike out to the car.


Six years later I returned to El Cap again with Paul Morgan.

The easiest route on El Capitan is the East Butress, 5.10+, 17 pitches, my friend Paul Morgan wanted to climb i. So, we made plans on how to get in shape by climbing all summer then to tune up our bodies with a couple of weeks of climbing, and finally, on one fall day to climb El Cap. Our attempt to climb El Cap it didn't work out as we had planned.

It was a busy summer at work, so that neither Paul nor I could get in enough climbing to get in top shape, then in the fall our pre-climb tune-up kept getting shortened by added work. When fall rolled around we had only a couple of days to get ready for the big climb.

With little time, I took Paul up the Nutcracker, using the 5.9 start. He worked hard and got up it. We even made good time to the top. Perhaps there was a chance we could climb El Cap after all.

So one fall evening, after dinner, we shouldered heavy packs full of sleeping and climbing gear and worked our way up the loose talus top the base of the wall beneath the east buttress of El Cap. Carrying metal in a backpack up steep loose rock is tough work, and we sweated a lot. We were both glad to get to the base of the steep rock. Above us several teams of climbers were suspended from the wall on their multi-day ascents of El Cap. We wanted to make it in a single day. We turned right and followed the wall until we came to the thousand foot drop-off that signalled the base of our climb. No one else was there. We dropped our packs and sagged to the ground. After recovering a little energy we sorted our gear so we could get going before dawn, then had a little desert.

It was not a restful night. There was of course the fear involved in facing a long tough climb. The critters however kept us awake. I awoke to a rustling in the leaves. Please, I thought, make it not a skunk. It wasn't a skunk it was a cute ringtail cat, that rare, nocturnal, funloving, mountain-climbing relative of the racoon. In fact there were two of them and they were playing chase around our sleeping bags. They were looking for our food. Luckily we had tucked our food between our two helmets. It looked like a giant fluoresent yellow walnut, and the ringtail cats were unable to get into it. Score one for us.

A little later there was more noise, I sat up in my sleeping bag and stared into the face of a skunk... oh oh! I eased back down so as not to disturb our night time visitor, but the ringtail cats had other plans, they began to play with and annoy the skunk. (Don't do that, please! I thought) But the ringtail cats kept running circles around the skunk as it slowly waddled away. It took a while for the adrenalin to drain away this time. But I finally settled back to sleep.

The scream was disconcerting when it came. I noticed it wasn't me. I looked over at Paul. He was sitting up in bed flapping his sleeping bag violently. A silvery glow seemed to twinkle over him in the moonlight. He was covered by silverfish. After a while he managed to sweep them off. I zipped up the anti-bug cover on my sleeping bag cover and fell back asleep. When dawn came however I didn't feel like I had slept much.

We ate cinamon rolls for breakfast then put on our climbing gear. It is always soothing to put on climbing gear, it is as if the clothing helps along the transformation from teacher to climber. That must be the way superman feels when he puts on that cape. It was still before dawn when we set out up the first chimney. I lead up the poorly protected chimney as my body slowly warmed up. Then I reached the longer harder chimney, one of the hard parts of the climb.

I slowly lead up the deep slot, searching for holds, twisting around, placing potection. When i reached the top I knew we were in trouble. I needed to be lightning fast in order for us to make it up El Capitan in a day, and I was not fast. It was taking me too long to find the holds and to figure out what to do. Then a second problem arose, i had brought two 9 millimeter ropes to climb on, the two ropes would let us get down out of trouble quickly and also allow Paul to climb on one rope whie I hauled the pack on aother. But that was wrong. The ropes both ran through the protection pieces so that I could not haul the pack, and neither of us could climb 5.9 with a pack. We should have brought a 10 mm rope to climb with and a 7 mm rope to haul the pack with.. Oh well live and learn.

Paul too struggled with the 5.9 moves in the chimney. At the top of this pitch we looked at the hardest moves on the climb, the 5.10+ traverse folowed by a rounded 5.9 crack and we both didn't think we could do them fast enough. So with plenty of daylight left we put our tails between our legs and headed down.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 1999

21 Feb 99