11 Jan

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America and the ascent of the El Capitan

The idea of ​​ travelling to the United States of America, and climbing in the famous Yosemite Valley had been on my mind for many years. And perhaps it would have remained just an idea, had I not ran into Petar Berilazić, on a July afternoon while we were exercising in Kalemegdan Park. Petar was born in Belgrade but for the last twenty years he had lived and worked abroad where he became interested in and began to practice climbing. I went on a climbing trip with Petar ten years before when he stopped by in Belgrade, but I had had no contact with him since then. We talked for a short while trying to catch on and then, naturally, the inevitable topic of climbing came up. It did not take him long to persuade me to start collecting the paperwork for the visa and to begin to plan the action. As we say in Serbia, it takes no time to convince the willing to go!

I started the journey in early September, on a flight from Budapest to San Francisco via Paris. From there our ride was a hippie van that Petar had bought a few years earlier in Yosemite Valley from some climbers for $ 600. Half-rusted roof displayed the message “Save the Earth” and the headlights were plastered with, naturally, Duct tape. Oil had to be checked regularly and oil can with the cheapest oil was always at hand. The van did not once let us down, and Petar encountered no problems driving the van all the way from New York, a few days before my arrival.

Since the climbing season in Yosemite Valley starts on 15 September, we first went to The Needles, CA located in the heart of Sequoia National Forest. Many climbers who I spoke to during the journey said it was the best granite in California. I entirely share their opinion and I even think the granite there is even better than the one in Yosemite Valley. Giant sequoia trees over 70m tall and over 2000 years old leave an incredibly strong impression. After a week of preparatory warm-up climbing and short acclimatization at about 2300m we finally headed for Yosemite Valley.

When I first saw Yosemite Valley and the rock of El Capitan I felt as if stepping back 10 years into the past; the moment brought back the memory of the days when I first became interested in climbing. We all were nuts about the idea of going to Yosemite Valley and climbing El Capitan one day. Then it seemed to me to be very remote and obscure future and now the opportunity to be a part of the story that I dreamed so much about lay before me. We slowly drove into the valley and I was like a child going to the seaside for the first time, sitting on pins and needles, impatient to see the moment when the famous rock finally emerged into our sight, but Petar came up with great trick for me to see El Capitan. Before we entered a long tunnel, he told me to close my eyes and not to look until he told me to open my eyes. He parked the car and told me to continue to look at the ground and slowly follow him. Petar prepared a camera to take a picture of my reaction, and finally told me to open my eyes. Above me stood 1000m high rock of El Capitan! What to say, I was as overwhelmed as a child seeing the presents under the Christmas tree!!!
First I felt very enthusiastic and then the feeling was gradually, as always, replaced by that strange emotion and contemplation that always set in when I stand at the base of an impressive rock. Hmm, we need to climb this rock, the eternal moment of questioning my abilities and skills. It is probably also what makes us climb, that everlasting journey into the unknown. Slowly I became acquainted with the “Valley” as the climbers call it and I began to recognize rocks and cracks I saw in the climbing films. The climbing in the Valley is completely different from what I had ever climbed before, and generally cracks that initially made major problems for me are used as holds. Yet after three weeks of preparatory and warm-up climbing I was slowly getting in shape and Petar and I decided that we were finally ready to try the famous route, The Nose.

Now, that the decision was made and that there was no more uncertainty about the route, I can say that the most difficult part of the ascent is its beginning. The major problem with the Nose route is the fact that there are always a lot of climbers. The idea that you might come up with such as making an early start and being ahead of everyone simply does not work there! Yosemite is an international climbing area and many people line up for a climb, among them Japanese and Koreans. And being ahead of them is a mission impossible. Weather caused additional problems; it cleared up after four days of rain and snow and one morning the temperature was even below zero. Just a few days before we had a swim in the river, and those are typical weather conditions for Yosemite Valley.

The first four pitches, which are slippery, technically very demanding and difficult to secure can be full of people. It takes just one slow party to send all others back to camp. Rope fixing , if practiced, is usually done after the fourth pitch from where the next day “the pig” is hauled up and the climbers move on. There the groups of climbers who fix the ropes meet with those who do not, and the route is easily blocked ahead. The result is that many who do not carry a portaledge and who have to sleep on a rock ledge and thus have to reach a certain point that day simply bail on the climb. How did we manage to push through?

Petar suggested that first day we bring 6 ropes, climb up the first 8 pitches and fix the ropes along the rappel route. Making an early start the next day would provide us with enough time to izimarimo and haul the bag up to the top of the eight pitch and get there before those who started their climb from the fourth pitch. The idea did not really appeal to me because I wanted to climb The Nose without fixing the ropes but it turned out to be very effective. We even managed to pass a Japanese climber!

Day 1

Our plan was to climb eight pitches, which we managed to do. I led the first four pitches and Petar did the remaining four. We climbed by blocks because it is faster though speed was not of significance in this particular case because in front of us was a party of climbers who hauled a bag and they were quite slow. Although we started early and arrived at the beginning of the route before the day break the two of them had already been climbing the first pitch. We waited a good two hours before we could start the ascent. After we came, two more parties of climbers arrived, the Germans and Italians. After four pitches the team ahead of us gave up and there was no one else ahead (about 70% of parties decide to quit the climb at the beginning). We reached the top of the eighth pitch while the team of Germans who started to climb after us were at the top of the third pitch and were ready to paljbu (to bail on the climb?) What a bummer, that’s the Nose, always crowded at the beginning! The next day we decided to rest and pack the haul bag without haste. (Haul bag, “pig”, is a huge bag in which things, food and water are carried)

Day 2

We got up early, put the equipment into the van and we headed towards the rock. We approached the rock, the headlamps flashing like crazy, four teams already climbing. It took us three hours to reach the top of the eighth pitch. We arrived at the stand a minute before the Japanese did! We came first, we left them standing! The Japanese arrived at the stand and had that “Darn it’ smile on his face. His name was Hiroki Ide. Frankly, I felt a bit sorry for the guy, but …. Later we really chummed up and eventually celebrated together at the top.

The climb itself later that day went without any problems. There was no one ahead of us except a team that had a portaledge and did not depend on reaching the place to sleep.

We arrived at El Cap Tower ledges, left the haul bag and since there was time left we climbed and fixed another pitch to the top of Texas Flake (a large block of granite that has a shape similar to that of the state of Texas). Hiroki and Kurt arrived an hour later, we talked with them, had a grub and went to sleep. There was enough place and we had a good night sleep.

Day 3

Again, we got up early. This time it was not a problem because we went to bed early and the ledge was spacious. We climbed two pitches to the top of Boot Flake, a boot-shaped flake, with cracks on all sides, which is just barely attached to the rock mass. Nobody knows what holds it in place and no one wants to know what will happen if it decides to fall! At the top of the Boot Flake, one of the most interesting moments of the ascent, King Swing, awaited us. One of the greatest tension traverse at the El Cap. Petar and I agreed that I should do it and I was happy as a child! He lowered me a good 25-30m and the action began. I felt a little uncomfortable because you run back and forth like a maniac 300m above the ground while the rope harrows against the edge of the granite, but it was unforgettable fun. We climbed the next pitch without a problem and then ……. then it started to get cloudy …… and then it started to pour ….. and then the pig got stuck …. and then …..

Naturally the pig will never get stuck in nice weather, Murphy, Murphy! Petar climbed the remaining pitch in the rain and somehow we arrived at Camp 4. Description for Camp 4 is “Poor bivy for 2”.

They did not tell a lie. The plan was to reach Camp 5 but we were aware that at that moment it was impossible. We went into the bivouac sack (Sisike thanks for the info TeraNova sack saved us) and we crouched there for 6 hours until it finally stopped raining. We were completely wet and it was terribly cold, nothing new. Those are rare moments when you ask yourself a question ‘Does it all make any sense’, but as soon as the sun comes out, you simply forget about it, and later it all seems very funny. That day the statistics was not on our side because the forecasts said there was just 10% possibility of rain.

Day 4

It is possible to get to the top of the Camp 4 in one day but we decided to do the climb in two days as the weather was nice and there was no point in rushing. We let Hiroki and Kurt pass us because they started really early and we decided to dry out a little in the sun. Petar passed Great Roof, Pancake Flake and we arrived at Camp 5. Great place for a bivouac, superb exposure with a great view and just enough room for sleeping and finally we slept well (in harness, 700m above the ground, with legs slightly protruding over the edge of the ledge, but what can I do when I was made this tall).

Day 5

I know I repeat things but again we made an early start because this time we highballed to the top and did not intend to spend another day on the rock. We climbed slowly and with no particular haste.

We already felt fatigued, but the haul bag was much lighter so that it amounted to the same thing. We passed the ‘Changing Corners’ the last major obstacle to the top. Rock turns into an over-hanging wall so that the whole route remained under us. The view is indescribable and as I am not very good at giving descriptions, I do not wish to spoil the image formed in your head (there are pictures below).

We came to the last pitch. The over-hanging wall is packed with bolts. Warren Harding placed numerous expansion bolts by hand during his overnight first ascent to the top of El Cap. Fortunately the bolts he placed have been replaced with new ones, but while I was pulling myself up against them, I was thinking how much effort it would take to place all these bolts using ACCU drill on the way down.

Drilling by hand while standing in the ladder in the dark on the over-hanging wall at 900m above the ground! We can argue about ethics, but Warren Harding is the king!
We hauled up the bag to the famous Belay Tree and we were finally on official top of the route. Some lamps came out from the dark, there arrived Kurt and Hiroki. They congratulated us, took pictures and showed us a quite nice place to bivouac. Together we made dinner. We had the specialty of the house prepared by putting all the food left in the pot and simply heating it up. Hiroki and Kurt had brought wine in the style of Warren Harding. We drank it from improvised wine glasses (some take wine and some milk on their routes). We had a great time and laughed recalling the race for Stoveleg Crack between Hiroki and myself.

Day 6

Although there is a trail down to the Valley, we opted for the East Ledge descent which is shorter but more complicated. Despite it all, there was a lot of bursting down the hard but indescribably beautiful area, then four absails together with the haul bag and then bursting again. The descent lasted for a few hours and we finally reached the parking area. And then!!! Then the store, bananas, cold orange juice and some local ice-cream sold in indistinctive poor wraping, costs a dollar, which explains it all. The ice-cream is called quite simply “It’s It”!

So, it’s it…

Milos Ivačković
Extreme Summit Team

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