Fourteen Days on El Capitan

A solo adventure I won’t soon forget

By Scott “Plaid” Peterson

“Where did you get that furred hat, it matches your face perfectly,” my wife asked about my Facebook profile picture– a turn of the last century picture of Admiral Peary, the famed North Pole explorer. A friend sent the picture as a joke; the resemblance is uncanny, and his tough determination to reach the North Pole served as my inspiration. I’m a determined individual also. I don’t give up easily and work hard to reach my objectives. Skill, determination, and hard work have taken me far. Being a mere mortal and not a super athlete I need all the help I can get.

I chose El Capitan as my goal when I was still learning to climb at 42 years old. I wanted to climb this granite monster by the time I was 50 and on the eve of my 50th birthday I crested, aka belly flopped, onto the top of the final pitch of the Zodiac route.  There I was on the lip of the cliff edge, with 2000 feet of nothing under me, crying like a baby.

I lost weight and trained hard. Before I began the climb, I hiked up the walk off, the East Ledges, so I would know how to get down once I finished my climb. I wisely packed 4 extra liters of water and stashed them at the top of the route. Another thing I did was I took a mental picture of the top out—the cliff edge where I would exit Zodiac. I stood there and focused and burned the image on my mind. I used this image to pull me up the climb. At night I would close my eyes and see that place.

I climbed slowly and dealt with all the problems associated with rope soloing but that’s what big wall climbing is: problem solving and activating skills, practices, and methods. All the pre-planning, preparation, and visualization became the difference between success and failure once I started the climb.

I had the route mostly to myself. On the first day, I let these guys pass me on the first pitch. Thus began my two-week adventure on El Capitan. The planned eight days turned into fourteen days due to a two day snow storm that laid down four inches on the Valley floor, route finding errors and back tracking, stuck haul lines, and exhaustion from leading, descending, cleaning, jugging and hauling every pitch. I really climbed Zodiac two and a half times due to rope soloing and fixing mistakes.

Over the fourteen days I experienced some highs and lows I will never forget. I went through every human emotion:  joy, anger, bliss, fear and more fear. Doubt was there too. But the joy was the best! The peacefulness. The quiet time gazing over Yosemite Valley from my camping perch. Lower on the route I tore my wrist open with a piton during a fall. I tended to the wound with gorilla tape and continued on. I rode my portaledge like a bucking bronco in a 30-minute wind burst and then watched snowflakes gently fall from above as they descended the 1000 feet to the ground. I really think it is the uncertainty and corresponding highs and lows that draw me to adventure climbing.

Photo of El Capitan in Yosemite

El Capitan. Photo by Fred Pompermayer

At eight pounds a gallon, the amount of water to haul up a big wall is a science and my calculus was off. I was running out of water on pitch twelve so I was forced to climb after the sun went down. Already tired from a long day of climbing, I saw that the topo map called for a “C2+ expanding” flake, meaning that the climbing would be tricky at some point on the pitch. This rocked my psyche and caught in my throat. Can you imagine climbing by yourself in the dark, dealing with scary terrain you have never seen? With little choice I went up and eventually found the flake that leaned right. I was so scared my stomach was in knots and I wanted to puke. I stopped and performed a little mind game. I started asking myself questions. “How many people have died on this pitch?” As far as I knew the answer was zero. So I believed my babble and moved up on my aiders, placing the next piece, and the next, and the next. My gear seemed solid. Nothing shifted. I gained confidence and moved along. It turns out that the expanding flakes on El Capitan, after a series of ascents, either fall off or settle down and stop expanding. So I was never going to die but the trauma of the experience is still etched in my mind.

Down to a liter of water following my night climbing episode, I texted a friend. He agreed to bring me more water at a price: $300. This was not too much to pay considering my predicament. After he lowered the water to me on ropes, I took another day to recover on Peanut Ledge, a flat place near the top of the route that is about the size of a couch. I enjoyed the view of the distant Merced River wishing I could take a swim. Fear gets pretty ripe after a while. Frogs peaked out from cracks while birds circled above and below me. All other reality faded away.

The next day one of the climbing rangers yelled down to me from the pitch above and left me snacks and more water at the anchor above Peanut Ledge. The chocolate bars were incredible and energized me to make my final push. On the last pitch I felt something tear in my groin. It was a hernia but I didn’t know that until after I arrived home weeks later. I trudged on and got my gear off the summit. It took weeks for me to mentally and physically recover. These days I reminisce often about my fourteen days on El Capitan. These memories that I have burned deep into my soul are my most valuable treasures.

It’s the length of the exposure that creates the best adventure, at least in my mind. The juxtaposition of pure terror with absolute bliss is the personal aspect not listed on the topo maps during a big wall adventure. Overall, I just enjoyed the ride. Good, bad, or indifferent, the adventure I had is all mine.