It’s Monday, May 10th and as of this moment Ben Ditto and I sit snugly in the little wooden cabin while a lite drizzle hits the shingled roof. We are supposed to be on El Cap right now – traversing the Golden Gate with Hayden Kennedy. But, the merciless weather on the wall forced us down to the ground.
Some months ago when Ben and I were first talking about going free climbing on El Cap some of the original idea was to figure the free variations to The Nose as well as the Salathe. The winter weather had been stormy with frequent systems delivering both rain and snow. I was personally suffering from low morale and was looking forward to the glory days of late spring Valley climbing.It was decided that Ben would come to Yosemite and we would climb as much of what we wanted to do as conditions would allow.
A couple of weeks ago we started to check out the free variations on The Nose. But conditions were wet and storms kept coming in. We soon came to understand that freeing the Great Roof pitch would be out of the question as well as several other pitches. We considered going up there anyway but the idea of aid climbing was unappealing.
Hayden had been talking about this route, Golden Gate. A line that the Huber brothers freed which cuts off right of the Salathe Wall. He felt like much of it would be drier than the Nose as well as many other lines on El Cap. After a few conversations and some glances at a topo it was decided that we would go check it out. We had a small weather window of great conditions backed up to a small system of possible rain and snow. We were going to check it out no matter and would plan for both the best situation and for the worst.
We would free climb up to our bags on Heart Ledge then move everything over to Hollow Flake where we would bivy one night and then move up a few pitches the next day to the Alcove. From there we would see what the weather had in store for us and which way we would proceed. If things were looking good we would go on to Golden Gate. If things were looking bad we would bail.
Day 1 we started up Freeblast. Hayden and I swapping leads and tagging a second line for Ben to minitraxion up. By noon all three of us had reached our bags on Heart Ledge. We needed to move over to Hollow Flake ledge and haul our bags over. What proceeded was more free climbing followed by what can really only be compared to wrestling pigs. Once the bags were with us we set up camp – putting together the port-a-ledge, adding more clothes, cooking food and enjoying the beauty. We had about two hours of light to enjoy looking down at the meadow and across to Middle Cathedral before the sun dipped behind the canyon walls.
Night descended. And as I laid in the ledge looking at the star filled sky I could hear the frogs down in the meadow making their nightly chant for the water – for the rain. A few satellites orbited by and we caught the glimpse of headlamps coming down the Catwalk gully. They seemed so far away and I was relieved to not be them as I tucked into my sleeping bag and drifted off into the dreams of the universe.
Day 2 morning arrived and with it a chill that had us shivering in our bags. As the sun rose higher swifts and swallows and ravens were flying about, catching the wind currents and hanging on the breeze. Middle Cathedral was aglow with the light of a new day and we sat enjoying our breakfast of pop-tarts and tea. Clouds started to move in and we discussed the best options for moving forward. We decided to take down camp and get things ready to haul. We would either go for a day mission up a few more pitches and then bail to the ground or we would go up to the Alcove and bring our bags with us.
After we were packed I led us up the next pitch. As I was nearing the anchors it started to snow. It was a little taste of some alpine conditions. But it tapered off and I belayed Ben up. Hayden followed on the minitrax and Ben and I launched off on the next pitch. Halfway up the pitch it started to dump on us. Hail was stinging our faces and we were at a standstill for a while until the weather slacked off and we could proceed forward. Things were getting pretty wet and cold. I climbed up to meet Ben while Hayden rapped down to our bags. It was decided for us that we would bail off the wall. We never really needed to talk about it, we all just sort of understood that was the thing to do.
As the weather continued and we got increasingly wet water was pouring down the slabs onto Hollow Flake ledge. What had been a comfortable, ideal, dry bivy had quickly turned into a large puddle. One in which our poop tube was floating! We were getting a beating from El Cap and were happy to be retreating. As I dealt with stuck ropes and sketchy rocks and water pouring down and around us I came into contact with two of the smallest most beautiful Monkey Flowers I have ever seen. There they were nestled into a crack in the sea of granite with its cascading water, vibrant with life! What seemed so fragile and small was completely at home and capable of dealing with such harsh conditions. I was humbled by my own fragile humanness and and marveled at how ironic life can be sometimes.
After some more rappelling down into space we arrived at the ground and were greeted by our friends with hot tea, whiskey, smiles, and empty packs to carry our stuff in. We were happy to be feet on dirt and in the company of comrades. Even though we were forced down the wall we had succeeded in getting up and down alive and healthy. It turned out to be a great trip anyway.