Mescalito | El Capitan | Yosemite National Park

June 11th - 19th, 2011

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Gumby according to Wikipedia:

Gumby is a green clay humanoid figure who was the subject of a 233-episode series of American television which spanned over a 35-year period.[4] He was animated using stop motion clay animation.

Gumby according to climbers’ slang:

A Gumby is a novice climber, a greenhorn who is in over his head, under-prepared and likely to need a rescue.

Wally and I trained hard for this climb. We worked endurance and practiced hauling. We did a dress rehearsal of sorts including a night on the portaledge in Boulder Canyon. We stopped free climbing in May to focus all our attention on getting our clean aid sequence dialed. We added rope-solo block leading to the toolkit. We figured we knew what we were getting into. Some notable big wall climbers fly a flag, Ammon flies the Jolly Roger, Pete’s got his Maple leaf (eh?). We needed a symbol to let the folks watching from the telescope at the bridge know just what we were all about. I chose a life-sized gumby costume filled with balloons. That’s us up there with the Macy’s Day parade float: Team Gumby on Mescalito.
Bags fly free on Southwest, but not if two travelers have 250 lbs of baggage they’d like to check. We couldn’t get it down to 4 bags on the way to California and had to cough up an extra $50. The logistics got more complicated from there.
Bears know that haulbags taste good. They’ll shred anything left out that has even a residue of food on it. Back in 2009 we saw a stash of someone else’s water bottles at the base of the Heart Ledges fixed ropes that were chewed up while we spent the morning above them hauling pigs. We knew we couldn’t carry all our water, fixed ropes, and full bags in one trip from the car. We would either have to leave a guard at the base or hang stuff out of reach (which isn’t easy since bears can climb at about 5.9 when motivated.) Our plan looked a little like the fox, goose, and bag of beans puzzle.

  • Hike in with 50 lbs of rope on Saturday and leave it at the base.
  • Hike in Sunday with the portaledge and the entire rack to lead 5 or 6 pitches and fix 4 or 5 ropes to get back to the ground. Leave the rack and ledge at the high point.
  • Hike in Monday with full pigs (128 lbs of water and Gatorade along with all our food and other gear). Heavy, but just barely manageable with all the other gear already on the wall. We would drop the fixed ropes that we didn’t need as we ascended, and our buddy, Dave, would hike in to retrieve them.

We dropped off the ropes and saw that a solo aid climber was already on the route at the 5th pitch. We figured we would pass him at some point during the climb. Soloing a wall involves about 3 times as much work as climbing with a partner.

The first pitch had me nervous. The rating, C3, means that you are stringing together enough tenuous placements that a fall could rip several of them and let you down 50’ or so. The good news is that Mescalito is so vertical-to-overhanging that there aren’t many ledges to hit. The middle of the pitch was aided by clipping half a dozen hardware store nails that had been driven into holes in the otherwise blank rock. I was just clipping existing gear or looking for tiny edges to hook, so that pitch went relatively quickly. By ‘relatively quickly’ I mean it took 58 minutes to go 130 feet. You see, aid climbing isn’t much of a spectator sport. We moved slower than tree sloths. When we were ‘fast’, we were moving at a dizzying pace of approximately 1 foot per minute. Some pitches took 3 hours or more. Unlike free climbing where your fingers and toes tick away the seconds remaining before you fall off the rock or find a new hold, we were hanging on tiny, patient pieces of metal. You might be attached to the rock by a 4 millimeter wide nubbin of brass, but you can hang out there all day while you sort through your 30 lbs of gear for another nubbin that might fit the next hairline crack above you. It takes a certain neurotic personality to enjoy this kind of creative suffering. To the belayer it lasts forever. To the climber, it seems like the pitch took 45 minutes or so.

Wally led pitches 2, 3, and 4 as a block. He got a wake-up call about 20 feet up his first pitch when a rusty cable on a copperhead broke. It was a small fall. 10 feet later he was testing a decent-looking one when the smaller one below it popped. The upper one caught the fall with the daisy chain. We both used a new system of adjustable daisy chains inspired by Big Wall Kate that use 8 mm dynamic rope and small toothless ascenders. Aside from an easy to adjust tether, the idea is that a dynamic rope will put much less stress on the gear when you fall and the daisy goes tight before the climbing rope does. It worked well. We had several daisy falls, but none that popped any placements.

The East Face has a 400’ alcove in the middle that forms a natural amphitheater. Someone has attached a rope to the top of the arch, and park employees call it ‘the porch swing’. I watched a group of kids taking turns attaching themselves to the rope and getting a running start off the ledge to swing out 100 feet or more above the trees and away from the rock.

Wally was leading the 3rd when a hook fell off his harness and bounced down to the ledge at the base. It landed near his tee shirt. From 300 feet away I could see that the water knot in the slick new sling had come untied. A tricky section at the beginning of the 4th involved a tension traverse and a zig-zag path. The porch swing kids had finished and there was a group below us lying on their backs watching us. One of them walked over and picked up the hook with the bright red sling.

-Could you please leave that on the tee shirt for us? We’re coming back down soon.

He walked to the tee shirt and placed a large rock on it to keep it from blowing away. At the top of 4 we were running out of daylight. We hauled up our stuff and rapped down. The hook wasn’t on the tee shirt.

We went back to camp exhausted. Instead of getting up at 4:00 am again, we slept in and packed at a leisurely pace the next morning. Tom Evans was at the bridge with his camera and telescope. He said there was a Korean team of 3 that wanted to start Mescalito the day before while we were climbing. He had told them to take a rest day and wait. He told us that YoSAR was about to pick off an injured climber high on Muir. He had broken an ankle in a fall. We heard the chopper as we trudged up the trail with heavy pigs and a Gumby doll in tow. We had 128 lbs of water and Gatorade.

As we set down our gear at the base, the Korean team arrived. They laughed at Gumby and posed for photos. We tried to communicate our schedule and figure out whether or not they would be fixing pitches or blasting up right behind us. They were going to fix a few pitches and sleep on the ground. I attempted to make small talk and mentioned how the porch swing kids had pocketed my dropped hook.

-Oh! Hook? Red sling?

He went over to his backpack and brought out the hook with a freshly tied water knot. I thanked him and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe he had misunderstood me and thought I didn’t want my dropped gear.

We blasted off and hauled our heavy bags in the midday heat. The 2:1 pulley system still required a counterweight to lift it all. Wally hung on the opposite strand and shot some video of the drudgery. By the time we got all the stuff organized at the top of the 4th, there was just enough time for one pitch. There were 21 pitches waiting after that. Setting up the ledge took too long, but the food tasted great and we slept well.

We hoped to keep this a ‘hammerless’ ascent. We had pitons and copperheads in the haulbag, but we didn’t want to use them. (Clean aid doesn’t damage the rock, while whanging in pins certainly does.) At 5:30am on Tuesday, the hammer came out. We used it to crush a stubborn protein drink bottle. We put it back in the bag for the remainder of the trip. [I guess a true ‘hammerless’ ascent would avoid using existing pitons and copperheads in addition to not adding more. We did our best.]

The Seagull pitch is named for a double arch of rock that looks like a child’s crayon drawing of a bird. Getting to it from our ledge involves a 90-foot rightward traverse. To haul the bags I would have to lower them sideways a long distance until they hung plumb. Our lower-out line was less than 50’ long so we devised a half-baked plan to use that line attached to the tail of the climbing rope for the long lower-out. When Wally pulled the haul line tight, I had a feeling something would go wrong. I thought that the lower-out line would get the bags close enough to plumb that they would no longer be pulling me sideways with too much force to handle. I would disconnect my belay device and the second rope would be pre-loaded with a Munter hitch for the remainder of the lower. Did I mention that the bags were really heavy? Or that the pitch goes 90 feet to the right? The knot joining the skinny 6 mm line and the fat 11 mm rope got closer to the device and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pass the knot using hand tension. It locked up. My predicament was obvious to anyone watching from below. I thought to myself, ‘Hope you’re getting this on film, Tom.’ [He did.]

-Wally! I’m in a bit of a pickle here. I’ve got to try to pass the knot.

I got out my prusik, but a 6 mm prusik won’t hold a 6 mm line, even with 6 wraps instead of the typical 3. I felt like a total Gumby. Last option: the Simon Yates ‘off belay’ method. I got out my knife.

-Wally! I’ve got to cut them loose. Literally. Here goes nothin’!

The blade lightly touched the loaded 6 mm strand and the nylon exploded with a pop! The bags careened to the right and smacked the wall at an oblique angle. No damage done other than 11 inches of accessory cord and slightly bruised pride.

We led on as the afternoon slid by. The weather was perfect all week despite one of the worst Springtime climbing seasons on record. It had snowed the week before. We got a week of 72° days and 50° nights. The East side of El Cap gets early morning sunshine. Strong updraft winds make an attempt to scrub the climbers off the face from 10:00am until 2:00pm. During the windy part of the day, I cut Gumby loose on to do some 50' static line bungee jumping. He flew around and above me just like a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon. By 3:00 each day we were in the shade while the West side baked. Above us the soloist took a long fall while cleaning the Molar traverse pitch. Wally called up to check on him.

-You OK?
-Yeah. I’m fine. Hey, what IS that big green thing you guys are hauling.
-That’s GUMBY!

We weren’t going to pass him yet. As Wally set up the ledge I led a self-belayed pitch that ended after dark.

We were moving slowly but surely up the face. 3 or 4 pitches per day is a snail’s pace to most free climbers (and many aid climbers.) We weren’t going to break any speed records. We looked down to check on the Korean team from time to time and it seemed that they had stalled. The showed up at noon on Tuesday to lead the 4th pitch and the leader spent about 6 hours working out that tricky section at the start. We didn’t feel so bad for moving slow.

Many non-climbers sheepishly ask this question when we aren’t among polite company:

-How do you go to the bathroom up there?

Monkeys fling poo. Back in the day, wall monkeys flung poo, too. Early morning El Cap bird watchers would see the mud falcons diving into the trees at the base. The modern, more civilized wall monkey does not do this. We brought Restop wag bags which are high-tech mylar pouches with special enzyme kitty litter stuff inside. Positioning yourself to make a deposit in one of these bags means facing the wall and leaning back on your daisy chain with your rear end hanging off the portaledge. It looks silly and feels silly, too. Peeing is a different story. It’s often windy enough to need a pee bottle since the updraft can make for an unpleasant result. This brings us to an unfortunate event or two on the climb:

-Wally, is that rain?
-Oh no! NO!
-AAGH! This SUCKS! Nooo!

Although I know now that Mike, the soloist above us, is a nice guy my first reaction to him was visceral and negative. It isn’t his fault. He didn’t know at the time that he had just emptied a pint of stale urine on us and our portaledge from 150 above (not that freshness would have made a difference.) He scored a direct hit with that one. 5 minutes later we would have had the rain fly up and we wouldn’t have cared as much.

Wally took a couple of pitches that involved a little free climbing and enjoyed himself thoroughly. In the middle of the route there was a pitch that we thought might be the scariest of the 8 C3 pitches. It was labelled ‘reachy’ in the beta, so it had my name on it. Much of the fixed pieces were short aluminum dowels that had been hammered into shallow holes. If you pulled one out, the one below probably wouldn’t catch you. I moved up on half a dozen of those and started doing hook moves. I tested a blind hook that started to pop. I grabbed the flake it had been on with my hand and pulled up, then had to re-position the previous hook while hanging off my hand to regain a foothold. The gear got tricky. I strung together a bunch of crappy gear and got near the anchor. The final two moves were the scariest: I had a rusty #1 copperhead on the left and a rusty RURP piton on the right with a broken wire that had been replaced by another wire with many broken strands. I would need to top step off that mank to get to a hook ledge that was just out of reach. I equalized the two pieces and added extension limiting knots (I really expected one of them to blow.) I stepped up and placed the favorite hook (Pika Ibex) on a diagonal crystal about 2mm wide. I don’t know how it held, but I stepped up high on that and just barely caught the anchor.

To the non-climber that last section was all gibberish. What makes someone like me want to experience this? Is it adrenaline? Excitement? Well, not exactly. Unlike downhill skiing or other sports where you move fast and only have time to react to the speed with reflex and instinct, you get plenty of time to think when you are aid climbing. It feels like walking out on a frozen lake. You listen intently to the cracking sounds. You focus. Your breathing slows down. You notice what the rock smells like (on this route you’ve probably already guessed: urine.) Do you feel fear? Sure, there is some instinctive fear in the back of your mind; but the logical engineering part of your mind holds the reins. You enter a Zen-like meditative state where you relax as much as possible and congratulate yourself on how calm you are. I know, it’s a little twisted. Plenty of climbers that think aid climbing is stupid will agree with you. The whole endeavor is artificial. Think of it as extreme camping: you spend a week outdoors carrying all your food and water and shelter with you. Oh, by the way- there’s no trail to walk on.

We caught up with Mike at the perfect location: the Bismark ledge. It’s the one spot on the climb where you can take several steps on solid rock. Mike had brought so much food and water thinking that the weather would take another dive that he was loaded down. He felt bad about peeing on us, and he made us both a double helping of pasta with fresh zucchini. We gave him Gatorade and toilet paper - big wall currency.

Wally led the big wide Bismark crack and said it felt like cheating to use the 9” ‘Greggalot’ cam I made. Wally wanted the pitch above that as well because it had a 5.9 handcrack variation and he was jonesing to bust a free move or two. He was working the moves and loving every minute of it until near the top. I heard a sharp cry of pain and felt him downclimb quickly. He had stemmed into a drop-knee move when his knee made a loud ‘POP!’ He explained what had happened, and from the belay it sounded like he was in a lot of pain. We thought he had a torn ACL. We were still 5 ½ pitches from the top. I thought to myself:

-Greg, do you really think you can rope gun the rest of this route and clean each pitch while hauling both the bags and Wally? What then? Carry him and our 200+ lbs of gear down 3000’ of trail?

I replied to myself:

-Helicopter rides are FUN! Let’s call YoSAR! They’re RIGHT THERE! Wheeee!

Wally pulled it together and finished the pitch by aiding mostly on the left leg. He was hurting, but thought we could go on.

The 21st pitch was one of my favorites. Near the start I stepped up on a hand-placed Tomahawk that was only in 1/16th of an inch or so. I hooked my way to an expando flake which was shaped like a giant canine tooth. It was more than 20 feet long and 8 feet wide and it tapered to a point. If you thumped it with the heel of your hand it vibrated like a bass drum. Placing any gear behind the flake that creates a large outward force will move the whole thing or break off parts of the edge. It’s very fragile. I cam hooked my way up and looked for nut placements. Fun pitch.

Two more pitches and we were on a ledge shaped like the bow of a ship. It was late in the evening and we were very tired, but the finish line was close enough to taste it. The view from that bivy was spectacular: Full moon. Clear sky. Half Dome. Sculpted curving headwall above. Light fog in the morning. - I’ll never forget it.

The last few pitches flew by. I put Gumby on my back and tucked his legs into my leg loops for a tandem lead. I lowered out the bags correctly from the Bow without having to get out the knife. The view of the valley below had gotten more and more interesting the higher we went. There’s just so much more to see. I saw a pair of Falcons hunting. They both dove from near the top all the way down. One of them missed the bird, but the other one made a sharp turn before they both disappeared in the trees. I assume they got him. Meanwhile White-throated Swifts whizzed by us like bullets doing acrobatics that fighter pilots only dream of.

At the top we ate all the food we had left and packed up the bags. We had about 4 hours of daylight left. We took the East Ledges descent. Even if Wally’s knee hadn’t been injured, we still should have camped on top. 11 grueling hours later we arrived at a campsite that our friend, Tori, had reserved for us before she left the valley. We were beyond exhausted. The note in the dust on the back windshield read, “Congrats Team Gumby!”

- Greg German