El Capitan East Buttress Solo

I found myself stranded on the ground on a splendid and radiant day in Yosemite not long ago . A victim of a number of partners of vacillating interest and competing obligations. I have no quarrel with those who insist on doing "responsible" things with their time, I only object if they realize it two hours after we are supposed to have left for climbing already. I resolved to take the matter into my own hands and not let another magic day in Yosemite pass without my having experienced it ascending some magnificent rock or peak.

Reaching into my bag of foolish acts that I reckoned I could get away with again, I visualized that a free/rope solo of the East Buttress of El Cap would be endowed with the right mix of adventure, splendor, and exertion that I was hankering after. By rope-soloing the three hardest sections and free soloing the rest of the route, I could sleep like a man of leisure and still climb the fine route in swift time with only serious, rationalized risk rather than nut-case, delusional risk.

The day dawned clear and promising. I took the slightly longer but spectacular approach tour along the base of the SouthEast face of El Cap. A long gauntlet of wall rats dangling and trashing from numerous thin and overhanging routes distracted me from the toil of the talus. I remembered how much worse it had been to carry a monstrous haul bag up that trail. Today, the luxury of not carrying any luxuries was appreciated and I began climbing around 10:30 am.

The first thing in my mind, after I gave up greedily tinkering with a fixed cam was whether the notorious new bolt protecting the crux was still there. Since Al Steck had approved of its placement, I didn't see a moral difference in aiding through the crux using the new bolt rather than the old fixed pin I used to cheat with. Thoughts of actually free-climbing the move diminished with the awkward reality of the climbing and cumbersome rope-soloing setup. I know of few folks who claim to easily free climb that move; I think of them as liars. I will go on record as saying the move has got to be 10d and anyone who says otherwise has either worked it or had it explained step by step to them. Thankfully the bolt was shiny and well placed and I shamelessly yarded past it.

I atoned for my lack of heroism at the crux by free soloing the next several pitches to the top of the pedestal. Some nice English guys let me pass immediately and even belayed me as I climbed my second roped section that combines the two 5.9 pitches in the center of the route. I rapped back to the pedestal and cleaned the pitches, bidding my route-mates farewell and scrambled up to the base of the last obstacle: the steep, greasy, exposed 5.7 knobs. The idea behind this kind of soloing for me is an ecstatic excursion in nature and movement, and not a game with uptight rules. When it doesn't inconvenience anyone, I enjoy meeting other folks on the routes. Tom Frost and his partner once gave me a belay when I was passing them on the NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral solo. We had a short but profound exchange of ideas, and it highlighted the climb.

Clouds were getting thicker and moving west from the high country and Half Dome. It was getting so everything East of me was clouds and everything West of me was clear. The sun was in the clear area and it seduced me into feeling like I was a member of the noncloudy region. Still, I was tempted to free solo the 5.7 knobs and assure myself reaching the top of the route in one dry piece. Clear memories of how oily those wild knobs felt and how sequentially they demanded to be climbed prompted me to forgo the terror and rope up for this last challenging bit.

It was near the top of the knobs that I felt the first smattering of rain on my head. Instantly my attention shifted to assessment and crisis management mode. What were my resources? (no rain-gear or warmer clothes) Were there face climbing sections above that couldn't be aided? (Yes, but not so long or hard that absolute care, patience, and relentlessness couldn't overcome) How long could I function in a soaked condition? (It was about 3:30 or 4 PM and I wasn't feeling dramatically cold yet, but getting off before dark seemed imperative.)

I began to say a little "No Rain" mantra. I was mindful that at Woodstock, millions praying had failed to stop the rain that drenched the festival. Still, I didn't want to stray far from the Spirit in a critical situation.

My senses sharpened and I resolved to methodically aid the intermittent cracks as far as possible and then evaluate if the connecting face moves were possible when wet. My t-shirt and shorts were getting fairly soaked as I ignored everything but the next few feet of climbing. It wasn't more than a couple of placements before I was staring at an unwelcome face move. I went through a quick progression of avoidance, denial, consideration, rationalization and acceptance. Once I put myself right on top of it, and determined that jug central was only one or two moves away, I imagined the best sequence and worst consequences involved in those two moves: it was safe and it worked.

As I solved one stumbling block after another, the weather began to ease and hope began to dawn. By the time I had fixed my next anchor and rapped back to clean the pitch there was a bit of sun shining through the clouds. I basked in the grace of the saving radiance! I changed my mantra to "Thanks for the Sun!". I began singing it as a fun way to keep the situation light, but after a moment my heart was swelling, a tear was welling, and I welcomed the healing rays with great joy. It was a good day again with the rain adding an adventurous dimension that reminded and instructed as well.

The rock dried, I free soloed to the top with a smile and made for the East Ledges. The affair would have ended with a obligatory dip in the Merced river but It happened that some friends were having a special party that night with live music, dancing and friends. It was a perfect opportunity to parlay the feeling of being pleasantly tired into a bigger celebration of a bigger life. I danced into the night, enjoying my scholarship from the universe

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I thought I would throw in this distracting picture of El Cap. The East Buttress is way off to the right and looks infinately mellower than anything in the photo!