(Back to Feature Articles, AAJ 2011)
In today’s Yosemite, a good half-day is an ascent of Half Dome and El Cap, both solo. But climbing three El Cap routes still takes a full day.
By Alex Honnold
Every year in Yosemite seems to bring fresh challenges, starting five years ago with my first long trad climbs and continuing year after year into longer and harder routes. This summer in the Valley was my season of aid climbing. And since I have not yet learned how to nail or haul, aid climbing for me means speed climbing. The whole season can be summed up in two glorious days.
Both days stemmed from the same idea. Sean Leary had proposed doing the Triple: three El Cap routes in one day. We’d done something similar the year before, so we had a pretty good idea what it entailed and how long it would take. But while we were planning the Triple, I stumbled across the idea of doing a solo Half Dome–El Cap link up. It had always flittered around in my mind, though I never really believed I could do it. But I’d already done several laps up the Nose that season and I knew it pretty well. All the pieces were in place for both ascents—a fortuitous timing in terms of psyche, fitness, and opportunity.
These link ups offered the opportunity to break speed records. The one that I cared about most was the record on Half Dome, which stood at about 1:50 for a pair simul-climbing. I hoped to break it solo, largely as a matter of style. I would just climb like normal, without checking a watch or hurrying my pace. But I hoped that normal soloing would be faster than paired speed climbing. Hans Florine’s solo speed record for the Nose of 11 hours also seemed like a reasonable goal, but simply getting to the top was much more important to me. Having never soloed El Cap and, for that matter, having hardly rope-soloed at all, it seemed like a very big undertaking. Climbing the Nose alone would be a great adventure; climbing it quickly would be a bonus.
Our goal for the Triple was simply to climb all three routes in a day. We weren’t worried about records or style or any of the subtleties, we just wanted to do a ton of climbing. The year before, we’d attempted to climb the Salathe, Nose, and Half Dome in a day, but stopped after just the two El Cap routes. There had been enough time left in the day that we knew it was possible to climb more; it was just a matter of doing it.
Sean and I planned to climb the Triple on a Thursday. This would be the culmination of my season, so I figured I should do the solo link-up first. I hoped to squeeze it in on Tuesday and then have a rest day before climbing with Sean. I hiked up to the base of Half Dome on Monday afternoon and bivied at the base so that I’d be less tired for Thursday’s climb on El Cap. This was “cheating,” since Dean Potter and Hans Florine had each done this link up Valley to Valley, but I wasn’t too troubled. The important part to me was just being able to do the climbing.
My plan was simple: I would free solo all the easy stuff—anything up to about mid 5.10—and pull on gear for the rest. I had a double set of thin gear for the upper dihedrals, but no hand-sized gear. I would also carry a backpack with my shoes, food, water, and a 30-foot piece of cord, just in case I needed it for the Robbins Traverse or anything else unexpected.
I was awake before the sun, waiting impatiently below the route for enough light to begin climbing. A massive snow cone still covered the base of the route, so I didn’t start my timer—or even put on my climbing shoes—until midway up the first pitch, where I crouched on a small ledge and prepared for the rest of the adventure. From there I climbed almost without stopping all the way to the summit. I had no aiders, but I used daisies to pull on bolts and clip into gear during the hard sections. (I’ve since been informed by a friend at Black Diamond that this is an entirely unsafe practice, since daisy chains aren’t designed to hold a fall. Thankfully, I never fell on them.)
Having already free soloed the route a few years before, rope soloing it felt like a vacation. I use rope soloing as the general term for my style on both Half Dome’s Regular Route and on the Nose, even though I almost never used a rope. To me, rope soloing includes all styles of soloing that involve gear. Being ropeless on Half Dome reminded me of the fun and the freedom of movement that comes from free soloing, but the gear made it much less committing. I could relax and enjoy the climbing, knowing that at any point I could choose to place gear or put myself on belay. In many ways, it combined the best of both styles: I could be up on a big wall by myself yet still feel safe.
The descent from Half Dome felt pleasantly short and cool. The climb had taken about two hours, so I hiked in the early morning shade while I thought about the next route of the day. The Nose would require somewhat more complicated tactics, since the climbing is a little more difficult and I was getting tired. I still planned on the same overall strategy—free soloing the easy pitches and improvising on the rest—but since there is much less easy terrain on the Nose, I decided to take a full-length rope and a standard double rack. I borrowed a skinny half-rope from a friend because it would be much lighter, but hopefully still sufficient in case of a fall. Unfortunately, the rack proved to be a burden. I hadn’t realized that with soloing—especially daisy soloing—you never leave any gear behind. So I wound up carrying the whole rack, rope, and pack up every pitch, which added up to a lot of weight.
I mostly free soloed to the Great Roof, though I tied into the rope so that I could use it on the pendulums on the lower pitches of the route. I also rope soloed the short aid climbing section to the Boot Flake, though as soon as I made it to the hand crack on the Boot I took off my belay and went back to free climbing. The line kept tangling, and loops of slack would catch on things, so it was simpler to just do without the rope as much as possible. But when I reached the Great Roof, I didn’t even think about free soloing or using daisies. Instead, I rope soloed the pitch in a traditional style. I’ve always found the Great Roof, with all its thin gear, very intimidating. So I aided it, then rapped down and jugged back up to clean it. By the time I’d finished jugging the pitch my fatigue was starting to catch up with me. I decided that all the jugging that traditional rope soloing requires was too tiring, so I put the rope away for good and daisy soloed the rest of the route.
As I climbed higher and began feeling more tired, I clipped into gear more often. I would climb a hand crack pushing a #1 Camalot in front of me. Or I would pull on the cam with one hand and jam with the other. It was a very fluid style, constantly changing as I went. Basically, I did whatever I could to make the climbing easy while also feeling secure.
When I topped out I was surprised to find that only six hours had passed since starting the route. I felt vaguely foolish for having brought extra food, water, clothes, and a headlamp, only to finish climbing in mid afternoon. My worries of spending the night on the route were now replaced by a more pleasant concern: where to go for dinner that evening. My overall time on the link-up was about 11 hours, which was a very satisfying half-day of climbing.
Following the solo link up, I had a hard time feeling motivated to climb another link up two days later with Sean. My feet hurt and my legs were tired. But mostly my appetite for climbing was sated. I’d had a large helping of big walls and wasn’t sure if I could handle any more so soon. So I left the Valley for a few days to see my girlfriend and let the batteries recharge.
When Sean and I met in El Cap Meadow the next week, it felt like the season had changed. It was officially summer. It was blazing hot and there were almost no climbers on any of the walls. We planned on starting in the dark and climbing the Nose first, since we both knew it well. We would then climb the Salathe, since it gets morning shade. And finally we would suffer up Lurking Fear in the crushing afternoon sun. We knew it would be brutal to do our last route in the worst heat of the day, but we rightly assumed that by that point in the Triple we would be suffering anyway, so a little more wouldn’t matter.
We started climbing around 8:30 p.m., as soon as the sun left the wall. Sean led the first half of the route with me simul-climbing behind him. After the King Swing I took over the lead and short fixed the rest of the way to the top. We woke up a party on Camp 6, but otherwise had the route to ourselves. It was pleasant how smoothly everything went, taking us only four hours even though it was dark. Our descent was also quite fast, taking only a little more than an hour to get back to the bear boxes where we’d left food and water.
The details of the Salathe aren’t very important. We climbed the route. We felt more tired. We descended. We felt even more tired. By lunch time we were at our bear box in El Cap Meadow again, trying to cram as much food down as possible. There were a bunch of “monkeys” around—wall climbers and dirtbags living in the Valley. It was good to have some people to talk to, just to keep us motivated. That’s always a problem with link ups: the down time in between routes, when it feels so good to relax that it’s hard to start again. At one point I looked over to see Sean wading in the river and I feared he wouldn’t want to get back out.
One of the highlights of our lunch break was talking to Steve Schneider, who climbed El Cap three times in a day with Hans Florine back in the day (1994). They climbed slightly different routes and used fixed lines to get back down, which must have saved some energy. But either way, climbing El Cap three times in a day is a ton of climbing. Steve gave us some last-minute beta for Lurking Fear before we started hiking, which we really appreciated. By that time, with the stifling afternoon heat settling over the Valley, we were both feeling a sluggish. We hiked a lot slower, heads down, concentrating on just grinding out one more route.
The Nose had been good fun, the Salathe a little more tiring, but Lurking Fear was simply hard work. Just like all the popular sayings about alpinism being more suffering than climbing, I felt that climbing a third grade VI in a day was definitely more work than fun. I short-fixed the majority of the route and then Sean lead us simul-climbing to the summit. The most memorable thing about the route was the pain in my feet, which was so bad at one point that I popped off the heels of my shoes mid-lead and finished the pitch with only my toes.
The final descent felt completely surreal. As we hiked past the top of the Nose on the way to the East Ledges, the physical and mental fatigue was immense. I felt like we’d climbed the Nose a week ago, not that morning. Sixteen hours of simul-climbing/short fixing and seven hours of hiking reduced the world to a blur.
The solo link up was perhaps a greater mental challenge, since I wasn’t sure I could do it and there was a bit more risk involved. But the Triple was a far greater physical challenge, pushing both Sean and me far past any of our previous levels of fatigue. And while neither of these days were truly ground breaking, they both broadened my own relationship with climbing and expanded my future possibilities. Solo El Cap two or more times in a day? Possible. Solo even bigger walls someday, using the same kind of improvised style? Probably. Climbing with Sean for so many pitches proved that we could go longer than we might have thought, that even when my whole body was crying out to stop and rest, I could still climb for hours.
Honestly though, the Triple wasn’t much of an adventure, since the outcome was almost certain from the start. We knew how long the routes would take and we knew we had enough time in the day. Actually executing it was just a matter of hard work. The solo link up was much more of an adventure, since I didn’t know if I could do it. It’s that kind of adventure that draws me to soloing. I like a challenge that pushes me past my previous limits, but hopefully not so far past as to be dangerous. It’s walking that fine line of “just enough challenge but not too much” that makes soloing such an exhilarating mental game. Not everyone feels the need to push all the time, and I think that’s partly why so many people disapprove of soloing. I tried to be safe and to enjoy the climbing without rushing; all my hurry was reserved for the Triple, where we hustled as fast as we could all day. We didn’t break any records with that link up, but we set a new example for how much climbing can be done in a day using normal Yosemite speed tactics.
Many other climbers have already done similar kinds of link ups: Dean Potter, Timmy O’Neill, Hans Florine, and Steve Schneider are but a few from recent Yosemite history. But even if nothing about our link ups was truly ground breaking, they were two of my best days of climbing. In both cases there was a slight improvement in style over past ascents, and a definite increase in pace, but what’s more important for me is that I did my best, that we did our best. Someone will improve upon our ascents soon enough, but they were a pleasure for us.
Area: Yosemite National Park, California.
Ascents: Half Dome’s Regular Route and El Capitan’s The Nose. On June 22, Alex Honnold combined a solo link-up of Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face (2,200′, 2:09) and the Nose on El Capitan (2,900′, 5:59), which halved the solo speed records for both routes. El Capitan Triple: In 23 hours between June 30 and July 1, 2010, Alex Honnold and Sean Leary climbed the Nose (2,900′), Salathe Wall (2,900′), and Lurking Fear (2,000′), including hiking down between ascents.
About the author:
Alex Honnold (25) was born and raised in Sacramento, California. He looks forward to climbing elsewhere in the world, but so far he’s been happy in Yosemite and excursions to Zion, where he free soloed the Moonlight Buttress (1,200′, 5.12+). He onsights 5.13+ sport climbs in addition to his many hard free solos. Alex says that “When I’m in the Valley, I like making it down in time for the pizza deck. That’s when you know you’ve really done it in a day. Very civilized.” But he also says, “When I get older I’ll become an alpinist. Seems like the only way you can continue to climb bigger and bigger routes is to go to the real mountains. But for now Yosemite is big enough.”