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“El Niño”… my first climbing experience on El Cap


When you think about big wall climbing and huge granite walls, the first place that comes to mind is “Yosemite” National Park. It’s the place where everything began and it is the mecca for all those want to explore and practice the art of climbing. Since I started climbing, I’ve dreamed of visiting this place and this year it finally happened! After the successful #CommonGround expedition to Siberia in July, I finally felt ready and motivated to make my first visit to this iconic valley.Along with Babsi, we left Europe with the goal of climbing a route on El Capitan, a wall where decades of climbing history has been written. We spent our first week trying to escape the heat and the crowds of the valley, and doing some classic routes on some shorter walls, before focusing on our main goal of the trip: El Cap!


The “Galapagos” pitch, El Nino (Yosemite )- Copyright: François Lebeau

We first planned to try a route on the west face, but as it seemed to be more quiet on the other side, we shifted our attention more east: “El Niño” (5.13c, A0, 800m – 30 pitches) became our new goal.

We carried our heavy haul bags to the start of the route and we tried the first 5 pitches, as 3 of them were supposed to be some of the hardest of the entire route The rain from the previous days had washed away all traces of chalk from previous attempts so it took some time to figure out the moves. The heat also made it a bit difficult to pull on the sharp crimps and to stand on the tiny footholds. It soon became clear that we would need to have an early start the day of our attempt, so we could get as much hard climbing done before the sun would hit the wall.

Once we were sure we could send this part, we were ready to give the entire route a try. The plan was to free climb all the pitches with a swinging lead at every belay. We packed enough supplies for 5 days, thinking this would be enough for our planned ascent.When that day came we started before sunrise, climbing the first hard pitches without falls. The climbing felt much easier in the morning shade, but the hauling was exhausting. I had never hauled such a heavy bag before and couldn’t really perfect the technique. That really slowed things down and we realized immediately that we were a little ambitious with our plans to finish the route in 5 days. We really hoped to have enough food.After 4 days on the wall of tough climbing and constant struggling with the heavy bags, we reached the second last hard pitch, a big roof called “The Black Cave”. It was supposed to rain that night, so we decided to set up our portaledge there.

We woke up the next morning surrounded by clouds and the sound of pouring rain. The right side of the wall quickly became a waterfall, and we started to worry about the situation. We didn’t want to rappel down after all of our effort during the previous day so we spent the day chilling and eating the remaining food in our portaledge. Luckily when we woke up the next morning, the sun was bearing down once again: yes!

The rock dried pretty fast and we worked quickly through the roof above us. The wall above was steeper but the bags were lighter, which made the hauling process easier and faster. We decided to set up camp on a big natural ledge, just a few pitches before the last hard section. We were now really running out of food so our plan was to top out on the following day.

With our motivation as high as ever to complete our “mission” and finally get our first proper meal in almost a week, we made our way up to the last hard pitches with the greatest of speed, only to find that they were completely wet! The last 100 meters are supposed to be relatively easy compared to the rest of the route, but this final, soaking wet, 10 meter section of rock was all that was stood between us and success.

At the beginning it seemed impossible to pull or stand on the wet holds, but after many attempts, we figured out a better way through the moves. I quickly managed to send the pitch, but Babsi had a really hard time with it, as my solution involved making a reachy move, which was way harder if you are shorter. We tried to dry out the holds with a T Shirt after each try, but the pitch didn’t seem to dry. After some hours of tries Babsi finally had a breakthrough and managed to make the move. What a huge relief. We really wanted to both free climb every pitch and it would have been really hard to accept failure after having spent so many days on the wall.

We were still a little way from the top and although we knew that it wouldn’t have been a problem to climb the last pitches it was getting too late to carry on. We would have had to sleep at the top anyway, so we decided to camp one more night on the wall, planning to do the last pitches early in the morning.

We ate the little remaining food and set aside one ration of powdered soup for the next day. The growling of our stomachs woke us up the next morning and pushed us to take an early start.

Around noon we finally stood on the top and our dream to climb El Cap had been realised! We celebrated with a hot cup of soup before setting off on our hike down to the valley and the grocery store.

I could not had wished for a better partner and end for my first experience on El Cap! It was so much nicer to share all that with Babsi :-)


Yosemite: the never never land


El Cap: THE wall

When you think about huge granite rock faces, the first that 99% of climbers think of is undoubtedly “Yosemite”! It is there that big wall climbing was developed, making “THE Valley” one of the premier destinations for this type of climbing worldwide. Everyone, sooner or later, visits the valley; those who climb its long granite cracks, those who play on the many boulders scattered across the forest, those who come here to trek, those who simply come to enjoy the splendor of El Capitan from the meadows below. In short, Yosemite is a magical place, shrouded in history, a huge playground for all outdoor enthusiasts!

Although I’d always postponed my visit to a later date, I always knew that one day I myself would play on these immense rock faces. All I was waiting for was just the right moment… Babsi had already been there once before, with Hansjörg (Auer) 5 years ago, and she was itching to go back. Convincing her wasn’t difficult :-)

Despite having climbed for more than 15 years, and having dedicated the last few years to long multi-pitch routes and crack climbing, I still felt quite intimidated by the routes on El Capitan. The stories I’d heard from those who’d been before me, the complicated logistics on the wall and the dreaded off-width cracks me scared me somewhat! So I left Europe without too many expectations; I simply wanted to have fun and gain some big walling experience.

After entering the valley and after having driven through kilometers of forests, Half Dome and the profile of The Nose finally came into view the first thing that sprung to mind was: WOAH !!! -D I was expecting a reaction of this sort, but I hadn’t imagined it all to be quite so impressive! The hundreds of other rock faces, and the thousands of boulders scattered across the forest floor, made it even more inviting. For a moment I felt like a child entering Disneyland for the first time! I immediately understood why this park is so famous. Its nature, rocks, animals, the vast outdoors, its history… are all factors that make this place so magical.

Unfortunately I also discovered that we weren’t the only ones in this never never land: thousands of tourists visit the park every day, making it far less wild than I had initially expected. You can be certain you’ll have to wait your turn in the queue, whether it’s for a cup of coffee, going to the toilet, camping … or even climbing a route! It took me a while to adapt to this situation but at the end of the day, given the beauty of the valley, it’s not surprising.

The first climbing we did was pretty traumatic. The easier routes, especially the crack climbs, were always a challenge, and the wider they became, the more difficult things got! No matter how strong you are on bolted routes, here it seems as if you’re playing a completely different sport :-) You have to start from square one and accept the fact that you’re dealing with a completely different reality. Often you find yourself repeating some historic routes (considered easy by most), wondering how on earth the first ascentionists managed to climb them, so many years ago and without friends, seeing that they hadn’t been invented at the time. In the end we worried more about the 5.9/5.10 chimney and offwidth pitches than 5.13 slabs!

We soon realised that big wall logistics are much more complicated than what we had expected; hauling bags, establishing the portaledge, working out how many supplies you need and dealing with primary “needs”… it’s not that simple and getting the hang of things takes a bit of time and humility.

But when you find yourself resting on a portaledge, with almost 800 meters of void below you, or when you finally reach the top of El Cap … all the hardship is forgotten about and this gives way to pure joy. And the desire to start all over again!