It’s around this time of year that I start to get a bunch of inquires about doing big wall courses, primarily by people with their eye set on the Nose. Unfortunately this year I’ve had too much on to do any, so I thought I’d scribble down a few random thoughts and tips for those bound for the valley.
Getting into Camp 4
This is a big one, as the ‘Camp Full’ sign never comes down! To get a place you need to be in the queue at 6am (bring a book, coffee and a chair/bouldering mat to sit on). The queue will quickly build but there are always people leaving, so you should get a spot as long as you get near the front of the line. In the good old days you could arrive late and bivy next to the booth, but there’s a sign there now saying not to. In this case you have to either camp outside the valley (there are lots of cheap motels that make a good stop off to sleep of the flight) and come in at the crack of dawn, or you can can illegally for one night and get in the queue first thing.
Strategies of semi illegal camping include:
Sleep next to booth and risk a bust by a Ranger (don’t bivy until it’s very late, or else you’ll get caught on the rangers evening round). If you have no transport out of the valley then you may just be let off.
Sleep in someone else site in your sleeping bag (same as above).
Sleep in the boulders. For this you need to climb a long way up, as rangers do petrol this area (with night vision goggles!), so you need a good hiddy hole. You will also have to contend with insects, bears and general jungle noise. Also all food will have to be stowed in a bear box.
Bivy on a wall! This is a legal way to camp, and entails coming into the valley ready to rock and getting straight on a route. You can get busted bivying at the bottom of a wall unless you’re off the ground (so sleeping in a ledge you should be OK). On my last trip I spent a lot of time at the base of El Cap bivying (I had to start climbing at midnight so it was the best option). Bivying at the base has its own problems, including being awoken by other parties (speed climbers), animals (some small some very large), and a lack of emendates.
The bottom line is you need a good base camp in Yosemite, meaning staying in Camp 4, or outside the valley and drive in.
Watch out for bears!
The bears in Yosemite can be a big problem, and last year I had two close encounters with bears (in daylight), and in the last two visits I’ve had gear trashed. Bottom line is all gear (with or with out food inside) beyond ropes and hardwear needs to be either in a bear box on the ground, or way up on the rock out of their reach. A bear will trash an empty rucksack or haulbag if they find it, or bite water bottles to see if there’s gator aid inside. If leaving food and gear haul it up at least 10 feet of the deck.
Don’t get benighted
Camp 4 is full of people staggering back in the dark, and quite a few who don’t make it back until daybreak! Although you may not intend to take all day, and some of the night, climbing super long routes can take longer than expected. Throw in slow parties, dehydration, route finding hick ups, and you can find the sun setting on your grand ambitions.
Always take along a headtorch (Petzl Tikta plus is ideal), as this will allow you to either climb up, or rap down, safety.
Get a bladder pack
Get a bladder pack and learn to ration it for the climb, only drinking at belays. Mix in gatorade of some other sports drink to add taste and restore electrolights.
Stick a watch on your bladder
Put a watch on the shoulder strap of your bladder (you can’t jam with it on your wrist) and make a note of your pitch speed, belay set up speed and general progress. Having a clock ticking will help you understand your speed, and help move things along - crucial as you do longer and longer routes. Get a bladder that will allow you to carry some extra kit.
Carry a minimalist bivy kit
If you’re tackling a super long route and are unsure if you can get all the way up - and all the way down - in a day then take some bits of kit as insurance. Very often you will get to the top of a long route, but then be faced with a dangerous nightime descent. Being able to sit it out on the top and come down in the morning may be a better option.
The following items should go in your bladder:
Headtorch (with new batteries)
Lighter in a plastic bag (for making a fire)
Lightweight shelter (either a foil bag or blanket, or something like an Alpkit bivy bag folded to fit the back panel of your bladder pack).
Warm top (thin synthetic tops are best as they are also windproof)
You could also add a shell jacket, a pair of socks.
Watch out for the sun
In Yosemite the sun is your enemy and it’s worth thinking of its rays as being toxic. This means having full sun protection on long routes, meaning long trousers, top and sun hat. Light colours are best, and get a system thats adaptable, meaning trousers that can be rolled up to form long shorts and a base layer top with sleeves that can be pushed up. Don’t go for cotton, because if you get wet you’ll suffer much more, and lightweight breathable fabrics are best.
Go for comfy boots
Unless you’re climbing at your limit, a lot of climbing will involve making good time on terrain that’s within your grade, so having comfy boots works best, plus you will be wearing them for a long long time, and for days and days and days (unlike the UK you should have few bad weather days off). Get a good pair of approach shoes or trainers for approaches and descents, clipping them to your harness when leading (make sure they have a strong clip loop, and always use a small screwgate, as twisting shoes can come unclipped!).
Don’t go to the states without insurance, as you will get fucked! A friend of mine lost a finger in a climbing accident and ended up without a finger and a bill for $19,000. Go for proper climbing insurance (BMC is the best) as you can be charged for a rescue if you’re judged to be negligent.
Don’t get burnt out
Climbing in Yosemite can be very intense due to the great weather, endless climbing, heat, long routes and long evenings of fireside bullshitting. Try and take rest days, and avoid just getting burnt out and jaded. Take trips out of the valley to recharge your batteries, and avoid being sucked into a spiral of sitting in the cafeteria all morning. When you get there take it slowly and build up towards your objective to avoid getting boiled on the rock, benighted or intimidated by the routes (granite takes some getting used to).
10.5 Have fun
In part 2 I’ll cover some more big wall specific tips
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram