Product Testing - Getting Soaked on El Cap
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Field Report: Climbing El Cap, Yosemite Valley, early October 2010
Conditions: Kinda like rock climbing, kinda like paddling whitewater.
Products Tested: Nano Storm, M10 Jacket, R1 Hoody, Rain Shadow Jacket
Tested By: Dave Campbell, Patagonia Pro Sales
There’s a saying in China: If you’re ‘one in a million’, then there are more than 1,300 people just like you here. Climbing El Capitan in the 21st century is a similar scenario; during peak season, handfuls of climbers top out on various routes each day. Things have changed greatly since 1965 when TM Herbert and Yvon Chouinard did El Cap’s first ever ground-up first-ascent via the Muir Wall.
Nevertheless, El Capitan will always be there to offer super-surreal experiences to those who wish to paddle out onto its vast sea of granite. Earlier this month we were caught high on the wall in one of the worst storms I’ve seen roll through Yosemite Valley. Below is a report about how our Patagonia clothing - and spirits - handled the abuse.
[Caleb enjoying the views from Salathé Wall. Photo:©Dave N. Campbell]
[El Capitan 10/3/2010 – 7:55 AM. Photo ©Dave N. Campbell]
The Salathé Wall follows a series of meandering splitter cracks up a 3000 ft vertical face and was referred to as “the best rock climb in the world” by Royal Robbins. It only took a few phone calls to get a team motivated for the mission. First on board was Caleb, a close friend who I’d previously completed Mescalito with. The third member of our team, Mark, is a 19 year-old with an extremely promising future as a climber.
[Caleb having a blast on the 4th pitch of Salathé Wall. Photo ©Dave N. Campbell]
The weather was fine when we started, with low chance of precipitation. The climbing was smooth and we were in good spirits. Some rain sprinkled down while we were on the Half Dollar pitch (low on the route) though nothing in the sky seemed threatening. While bivouacking on Heart Ledge, 10 pitches up, the rain came again and we didn’t sleep as well as we would have liked. Though technology has changed since John Muir roamed the Sierra with pockets full of tea leaves and bread, I still try to respect the minimalist tradition of Yosemite by not bringing my cell phone on climbs. Therefore, without an updated forecast, we had little idea that a major storm was brewing over the Pacific.
[Mark leading the Hollow Flake pitch with a tipped out cam. Photo: ©Dave N. Campbell]
Suspended in the middle of the wall is one of Yosemite’s more notorious and feared rock features: The Hollow Flake. When it comes time to lead this section, you must lower down from a crack to the right, pendulum across the wall until you can squeeze part of your body into the foot-wide “Hollow Flake” and then from there you must squirm your way upwards through it’s jaws, trying desperately to maintain body friction, with little or no hardware in place to arrest a fall if you slip out (because the crack is too wide for standard sized rock protection). A buddy I worked with in Hong Kong, named Yao Wing Hong, managed to fall out of it during his first attempt at the Salathé Wall. He woke up dangling from the end of the lead rope with a cracked helmet and blood trickling from the corners of his mouth. Mark took this lead and he was the calmest and most focused that I’ve ever seen him.
[Mark doin’ the squirm up the Hollow Flake pitch. Photo: ©Dave N. Campbell]
And so we continued on our quest to steal cheese from the giant trap. We were moving slowly and the bags kept getting stuck. Then dark clouds rolled in, bringing heavy rain.
Rappelling from 16 pitches down a big wall – with huge bags, in a downpour – can have its challenges. The whole situation gets problematic when the line of rappels traverses (because you’re no longer just going down; you’re also going to the side). Out came our Patagonia rainwear: Caleb wore a waterproof/insulated Nano Storm Jacket, Mark sported a Rain Shadow and I busted out the M10.
[Caleb and Mark during the downpour. Photo: ©Dave N. Campbell]
Apparently, the Hollow Flake wasn’t done with us quite yet. While rappelling with one of the large haul bags, the ends of the rappel ropes managed to get stuck in a crack up to the far right and well out of reach. Instead of running straight down the wall, the ropes I was rappelling now made a big “U” shape. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until it was too late - the ropes turned from a “U” to a “V” and I could no longer get slack to continue my descent toward the next rappel station. What makes this situation noteworthy is that the Hollow Flake area acts as a giant funnel during a storm. The 15 minutes that followed – as I tugged in vain on the stuck rope – reminded me of whitewater kayaking. However, I wasn’t stuck in a huge rapid, I was pinned in a waterfall with 1000 feet of air underneath me, with water gushing into the hood and cuff openings of my rain jacket. Normally a climber in this position would simply use prussic cords to ascend the double rope rappel lines. However, this doesn’t really work when you’re weighted down with a heavy haul bag. Numb hands, chattering teeth, lightning crashing on the adjacent wall. It’s times like these when we have to balance thinking very objectively with pondering, “What would Indiana Jones do?”
[Caleb and Mark during the downpour. Photo: ©Dave N. Campbell]
Maybe it was our magical tin of bottom-shelf sardines – which TM Herbert had sponsored us with – that changed our luck. Or maybe El Cap simply decided to be nice. The high volume of water rushing down the wall suddenly freed our stuck rope (ironic isn’t it?) and moments later I was on Lung Ledge.
[Mark and the sheer madness of rappelling down waterfalls. Photo: ©Dave N. Campbell]
Though chilled to the bone, I managed to warm up and kill the ice cream headache by putting on an R1 Hoody (underneath the M10 jacket), with its Polartech hood cinched tightly underneath my climbing helmet. The Primaloft insulation inside Caleb’s Nano Storm Jacket was still dry, even though he’d also been doused. Mark’s Rainshadow Jacket was keeping him dry and warm as well. After 6 more waterfall rappels, we were back on the ground and headed to Scott Deputy’s birthday party at the YOSAR camp.
[The (soaking wet) author and TM Herbert’s sardines.]
El Capitan may never revert to being the beast that it was in ’65 when YC and TM blasted off into the unknown with handmade gear and two 50lb bags. However, even though a majority of the monolith has in fact been explored, there will always be room for self-discovery (not to mention free climbing) on The Big Stone. The Chinese have another expression: Qi Hu Nan Xia - When you’re riding the tiger it is hard to dismount. I have a feeling we’ll be back on El Cap before too long; maybe TM will sport us another can of sardines for the venture.