Alone on El Capitan

by Miranda Oakley

At times I find myself despising the comfort of my own bed. Deep into the night my warm body lays pocketed between layers of smooth sheets and down comforters. My alarm goes off at 3:30 am, just a couple of hours after falling asleep. I laid awake for most of the night unable to calm my mind and stop obsessively thinking about the climb I was about to start.

A climb that had once taken me three and a half days with two partners I would attempt to do in one day by myself. I first climbed The Nose of El Capitan in 2011 with my ex-boyfriend from high school and his friend. It was a tumultuous ascent but we battled our way to the top. I realized then that The Nose is the best rock climb in the world. A vertical obstacle course that follows a natural line straight up one of the proudest seas of granite. It’s got splitter cracks that literally go on for days, a 100’ pendulum, a massive flake shaped like Texas, a great roof that makes you feel like an ant.

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The Nose of El Capitan goes up the prow where the sun meets the shade. Photo by Miranda Oakley

I love big days. I like having epics on long routes, climbing through the night and getting passed by swifts and bats as they dive in and out of the cracks during twilight hours. I started climbing long routes in pushes and linking routes together. My objectives kept getting bigger in order to satisfy my urge to suffer. Just like all my favorite climbs of the area I climbed The Nose many times. What was once a multi-day epic turned into a 10 and a half hour burn. To move quickly my partners and I would short-fix, forcing the leader to self-belay. Before long I realized that a belay from a partner is not a necessity but a luxury.

I had heard of people soloing The Nose in a push and some suggested that I try it. I brushed them off figuring they were crazy. But the idea still lingered in the back of my mind. In fall of 2015, I decided to try it. It was my first solo ascent of any wall. I made it to the top in just under 27 hours. I got to try a lot of new things. Some went well and some failed miserably. I learned a lot about solo climbing. Not long after I had forgotten how painful it was, I decided I should try it again.

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Topping out after almost 27 hours on my first SNIAD in 2015. Photo and cover shot by Taylor Sincich.

The following spring I returned to Yosemite with vague plans of soloing The Nose. I started to obsess over ways to move faster. On my first solo ascent I kept my plans a secret, not wanting to commit to anything, let anyone down or feel any external pressure. I didn’t ask for advice or solicit beta. The following year I asked a few people for tips. Hearing other people’s strategies and comparing their methods was incredibly helpful. Some climbers had bold techniques. Using rope tricks, running it out and free soloing many sections. Others said that they roped up and belayed themselves the whole way. Using this more standard aid solo strategy is by far the safest option but is also the slowest. It requires climbing, rappelling and jumaring all 30 pitches. I decided to rely on my quick climbing abilities and rope up for every pitch. The security of having a rope and protection would make it less scary and allow me to climb faster. It also made it easier for me to get out of bed that morning before starting the climb.

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I chose to do the climb on August 5th, the middle of a hot and sweaty Yosemite summer. Tourists walked around in bathing suits as the temps climbed towards the triple digits. Every climber in their right mind knew to stay away from Yosemite Valley for fear of heat stroke and traffic jams. I was surprised to see headlamps above when I got to the base of the routes. Who is crazy enough to climb this route in this heat? I wondered. The giant monolith loomed above me like a tidal wave and I wondered if I too was crazy. At 5:30am I started climbing. I convinced myself that the wall would seem smaller as the day went on.

I quickly caught up to the party above. A team of three Koreans spread out between Sickle ledge and the pitch above. They stopped to let me pass, making me pose for a dozen or so photos with them. I complied, trying to smile for pictures as I re-stacked the rope and racked the gear. Before long, the Korean team became a distant memory as I kept chugging along through The Stove Leg Cracks up towards Dolt Tower.

View from the Stove Leg Cracks. Photo by Miranda Oakley
View from the Stove Leg Cracks. Photo by Miranda Oakley

The only way I can commit to such a long climb by myself is by not committing. My first goal of the day was to make it to Dolt Tower, from there I would decide if I wanted to keep going to the top. I got to Dolt in under five hours and found almost a dozen bottles full of water. Things were going too well to bail. The early morning sun was already hot. I took the abandoned water as a sign to keep going. I emptied one bottle into my bladder, crunched it up and threw it into the bottom of my pack. I drank as much as I could from another bottle until I almost needed to vomit. And on I went.

Before long I realized there was yet another party up ahead. What were people doing up here? Didn’t they realized that it would probably get to over 100 degrees today? The sun blazed in the sky and the wind failed to blow. I tried to ignore the mild pain in the back of my head. Behind the Texas flake I was relieved to find cool air untouched by sunlight. Over a thousand feet up on a wall, this sliver of shade was as refreshing as jumping into the Merced River. The other party was just above me now. They saw me advancing quickly and told me they would stop at the top of the Boot Flake and wait for me to pass. Great!

Me on top of the Texas Flake during my 2012 ascent. Photo by Josh McClure
Me on top of the Texas Flake during my 2012 ascent. Photo by Josh McClure

The dull ache in my head was turning into a pounding throb. I was dehydrated despite all the water I drank on Dolt. The team waited patiently on top of the Boot Flake. I could tell that the sun was taking a toll on them as well. They politely asked if I could take their rope and fix it to Eagle Ledge. “You don’t want to do the King Swing?” I asked, very confused. They were so nice to wait for me to pass I figured it was the least that I could do. There seemed to be some confusion on their end about how they would get over to Eagle Ledge once their rope was fixed. I tried explaining that they could use a jumar. My explanation was met with blank stares on sunburnt faces. Our brains were frying in our helmets under the scalding sun, our thoughts swimming in stagnant air. I decided to let them figure it out on their own. I rapped down below the giant boot and started swinging around 2000’ above the ground. I pulled over the lip to Eagle Ledge and heard hoots and monkey calls from the meadow. Knowing my friends were watching from the meadow pushed me upward. I fixed the other party’s rope and labored on.

View from the top of the Boot Flake. Photo by Josh McCLure
View from the top of the Boot Flake. Photo by Josh McCLure

The sun was relentless. It was so hot that I had to drink more water than usual. One week earlier I climbed the route with my friend Lauren. There was water at camp 5 and 6. It didn’t seem like anyone had been up there since then so I assumed that it was safe for me to drink up.

The Great Roof marks the halfway point of the route. The climbing from there gets steeper and slower. It takes most parties the same amount of time to get there as it does to get to the top. I was thrilled to arrive at the base of this massive overhang in just over 10 hours. The sun ducked behind the west end of the wall providing shady relief. The sun had taken a toll on me. I maintained a good attitude remembering that I could chug water and eat a sandwich at Camp 5. But when I arrived at Camp 5 there was no water. I rapped back down to my bag and found a few sips left in my bladder. I wanted to cry. Just when I thought I would be suffering less, I realized that I would be suffering much more.

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Selfie of me just below the Great Roof, climbing with a partner. View of the Nose in the background. Photo by Miranda Oakley

I had 7 more pitches to the top. I decided to ration one sip of water per pitch and not eat any food (the salami and cheese sandwiches I had brought would only make me thirstier). I prayed to the monkey gods that there was still old stinky water at Camp 6. The past couple of times I was on the route there was the same two water jugs, each a quarter full. Both times I smelled the water and put it back in the crack it was stashed in, deciding to risk running out of my own water over drinking someone else’s abandoned funky water stash. I was thankful for my past decisions, cursing my decision this morning to only bring up three liters.

It got dark, the wall steepened and I embraced the aid climbing. My hands and feet were swollen but felt good compared to how they felt the year before. I was glad to have worn comfortable shoes and tape gloves. Despite my thirst and fatigue, I was feeling pretty good. I arrived at Camp 6 and was overjoyed to find the same water still stashed there. I chugged water and ate a sandwich. It turns out that even funky, back-wash-infested water that’s been steeping in a plastic jug in the sun for months is better than no water at all. I felt like a new woman. I finished off the water and clipped the empty jugs to the outside of my pack.

El Cap at night
El Cap at night

Like an inchworm I continued up the last fourth of the climb; extending and retracting, two steps up, one step back down until I reached the last 100 feet of scrambling to the top. I was too tired to trust myself without a rope so I threaded one end through the last anchor and clipped it back to myself. Often referred to as the Pakistani Death Loop, this rope trick would give me just enough protection to get to the top. As the climbing turned into walking I untied the rope and attempted to pull it through. Of course, the rope got stuck. I pulled as hard as I could and it wouldn’t budge. I knew that I wasn’t done until I was at the top with all my gear so I fixed the rope to the summit tree and rappelled down to retrieve the rest of the rope. I untangled the rope made it back to the tree and checked the time. 3:17 am, 21 hours and 47 minutes after I started. I managed to shave roughly five hours off of my last time. I took one selfie after checking the time just before my phone battery died.

Selfie of me just after topping out on the SNIAD in 21:50. Photo by Miranda Oakley
Selfie of me just after topping out on the SNIAD in 21:50. Photo by Miranda Oakley

After that, I curled up and slept for a couple of hours by the summit tree and made my way down to the Valley floor at first light. I knew my parents would be worried if they didn’t hear from me so as soon as I got back and told them the good news. Shortly afterward I found myself back in my cozy cocoon, between soft sheets and down comforters.

Soloing the Nose was the most intimidating project I’ve ever had and one of the most satisfying to complete. Overall the experience was way more enjoyable and less painful and lonely than I was expecting. I spent a long time on El Cap by myself that day but I never felt completely alone. I knew my small community was rooting for me from the Valley floor. I was able to approach each pitch with knowledge, wisdom and beta that had been passed on to me by various members of the local badass community. My parents and friends expressed surprisingly little concern over the whole thing, convinced that I could do it despite the fact that I had been unsure. Partner or no partner I will never climb truly solo in the Valley.

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