The Salathé

The faint taste of peanut butter, the warmth of the early morning sun, the feeling of callused hands against my back as my partner Harrison kissed me goodbye on the 3rd of April, 2021. I had only been in Las Vegas for three weeks, a short stay by my usual travel patterns, but after six months in the desert I had reached my limit. My heart had been jammed in some desperate granite crack hundreds of miles away for a while now, and we both knew it. As we embraced, I couldn’t stop grinning with excitement that it was finally time to head back west.

How long had it been since I had felt a calling? That all consuming passion of chasing an impossible dream? I had just watched Harrison send Dreefee, an incredibly stacked 5.13+ multipitch and a multi-year dream of his, and couldn’t help but envy the passion with which he had climbed. When it came to climbing it felt like my heart had been hibernating, blocked off and dormant for the past six months as I had half-heartedly tried to convince myself that it was okay to fall into this ebb. That it was natural, and that the flow would come again.

The passion had been trickling back though, like a melting winter snow turning dry creek beds back to babbling spring brooks. My soul ached for a new challenge, maybe even bigger than I’d ever tackled before. I yearned to be entrenched in a project, to be inspired by history and beauty and movement, while pushed to my limit and able to be my best self. I knew there was only one place I was going to find it: The Proving Grounds. The Center of the Universe. Yosemite Valley.

A scene from Valley Uprising had been playing in my head on repeat those last few weeks in Red Rocks: Lynn Hill reciting inspiring lines with palpable affection: “People come [to Yosemite] to make a statement about what’s possible with passion, and vision, and heart,” followed by John Long: “Yosemite will always be there for people that have a free spirit and plenty of raw energy. For the ones amongst us who want an adventure on a huge scale.” I wanted to see if I could embody all of these things; to see if not only my body was strong enough, but my mind and spirit. I then thought about Lynn again, saying “You had to climb like it was your last day on Earth,” as a rite of passage to enter the ranks of the esteemed Stone Masters, some of my greatest idols. In another life maybe I could have been one of them. Could I possibly stand in the shoes of so many legends that had come before me, those that had crafted the sport of climbing into what I have dedicated my life to? I knew exactly where to find the answer.

There was one pair of footprints I cared about standing in more than any of the rest, and they could only belong to one person: Todd Skinner. Ever since City Park I’d had a strong interest in his role in climbing history, and it was only a few months later that I first read the story of his and Paul Piana’s first free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in the book Hangdog Days, by Jeff Smoot. Upon hearing the tale, I immediately knew if I was ever going to climb a big wall, that would be the one (though at the time it was a pretty big and hypothetical IF). Not only was the Salathé the first route up El Cap to ever go free in 1988, it was done in a death-defying adventure of passion, effort, and pure survival when rockfall nearly ended the lives of both climbers. As if that alone weren’t enough, Royal Robbins himself called the route the best rock climb in the world when he established it as the second free route up the mountain in 1961 with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt as yet another grand move on the Yosemite chessboard battle between Robbins and Warren Harding.

I had been to Yosemite once before the previous year, but only for a few days before the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic had chased me away. Before then, navigating the logistics of the Valley had always intimidated me enough that I had yet to make my pilgrimage. It had always remained one of those things that seemed too unknown; too big, and so I kept it on the back burner for some unknown time in the future when I might eventually be more ready somehow.

Over the winter however things had been changing. After I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams of climbing 5.14 on gear with my early January ascent of East Coast Fist Bump in Sedona, AZ, I was faced with the same question that appears after the completion of any major milestone in one’s life: what’s next? When you somehow manage to accomplish the things you barely even dared to dream, how do you go even bigger? What is the next step to continue to grow and level up? Right as I was asking myself these questions, my path serendipitously crossed with Harrison’s.

[Harrison and I on Dickel’s Delight, photo by Dan Petty]

I had been climbing with my friend Dirtbag Kevin, as he is known in the vagabond travelling climbing community. One day in Sedona, Harrison had recruited Kevin to assist in an adventurous mission to fix ropes on a wild 5.13 multipitch called Dickel’s Delight in the remote reaches of Mormon Canyon, so for lack of another partner I invited myself along. This world of hard multipitch climbing was entirely foreign to me, and I watched in amazement over the next few weeks as Harrison projected and eventually dispatched the route, becoming the first person to redpoint all the pitches in a single push. I had tried it with him a few times along the way, but quickly became overwhelmed with the magnitude of trying to redpoint so many pitches of 5.13 in a single day. The idea of going to Yosemite had crept into my mind at that point already and was part of why I was there, but my poor performance on Dickel’s made the dream feel impossibly far away. On one particularly rough day, the locking carabiner on my microtraxion jammed, and as I struggled to detach myself from the rope I felt my eyes brim with tears of frustration at having to be such a beginner again despite my nearly two decades of climbing experience. As Harrison helped me rescue it, I confided my doubts that I would even be capable of hiking a haul bag to the base of El Cap, let alone everything else it was going to take. He reassured me that I was doing my best to prepare just by being there, but I wasn’t totally convinced; a doubt that would remain in the back of my mind all the way up until the morning of my second-to-last day on the wall as I was sending the Salathé.

I charged forward nonetheless, telling myself over and over again that if I wanted something I’d never had before, I’d have to be willing to do things I’d never done. There were a hell of a lot of them. I’d never redpointed a 5.13 more than one pitch off the ground (until late February). I’d never hauled. I’d never slept on a wall. I had only even backpacked twice in my life, both of which were miserable experiences. I rarely hiked more than thirty minutes to go climbing, and even on short Creek approaches I always made sure I didn’t carry both a rope and a rack because my pack would be too heavy. I barely knew how to jumar, I didn’t know how to tie a munter knot, and I almost always got the rope tangled no matter how nicely I stacked it at multipitch belays. Despite a relatively impressive climbing resume, I was about as technically unprepared for Yosemite as could be really be possible. Still, I kept working at it, following Harrison around for the next few months as he rampaged through one hard multipitch after another, patiently helping me learn from him along the way. We started dating, and made official plans to go to the Valley together. I was in it now.

I arrived in El Portal just outside of Yosemite on a Saturday, rendezvousing with my friend Scott from Washington who had recently retired and started his own van life tour. Harrison was going to meet me in a few weeks but had some things to take care of first, so for now I was on my own. I hadn’t been planning to do anything too big right away, but when Scott told me he was planning on hiking up the East Ledges descent the following day to check on the condition of the fixed lines and see how much snow was on top of El Cap, I agreed to go along with the intention of carrying 600 ft of rope to the summit; the amount needed to rappel in to the Salathé Headwall.

Driving into the Valley the next day felt like seeing El Capitan for the very first time, because this time I was hell bent on climbing it. I had spent so many weeks and months building the anticipation, letting my longing for rivers, trees, and granite consume my imagination until it all came bursting out of me upon laying eyes on the mountain, Dawn Wall illuminated in the early morning sun. I burst into tears, though which emotion they were connected to would be hard to say. Above all else it was the joy of knowing that my passion for climbing was back, and that perhaps it was about to grow in new ways to possibly become greater than it ever had before.

Scott and I started casually late in the morning, and immediately took the wrong trail. After hiking straight uphill with backpacks full of ropes for half an hour, we realized our mistake when we were separated from where we were supposed to be by an impassible sea of Manzanita bushes. By the time we descended all the way to the parking lot and started over, it was mid-day and the heat of the direct sun beat down us with all of the intensity of California spring day. Scott and I got separated on the fixed lines as I jumared ahead and started charging up the slabs. Despite my legs shaking under the weight of my pack, I was propelled forward with the psyche of finally having a purpose; a goal I was actively working towards, that thing that had been missing for so long. I made it to about 1000 ft of the summit when my phone rang: an incoming call from Scott. He had stalled out back at the top of the rappels, beat down by the heat of the day and not feeling well. He had helped me so much by getting one of my ropes this far that I quickly volunteered to run back to his position and take the load. We parted ways there, and I carried on alone. By the time I got back to where I had ditched my pack, I had probably added an extra hour of hiking with the second detour. I strapped the third rope on, but the added weight turned what had been a manageable burden into a soul crushing load. It took me ages to summit the final push, and it was all I could do to stash the ropes and descend back to the valley floor. Fixing them would have to happen later.

I had casually mentioned my arrival in Yosemite on social media that first day, and not long after was contacted by my friend SJ about partnering up. We had met several years ago in Washington when she sent City Park around the same time as me, and had crossed paths various times in the years that had followed. Her goal was to send the Freerider, and she was hoping to team up to rappel down and try some of the crux pitches soon. I had always admired SJ after she climbed City Park. That route had been so important to me and shaped my life in such a big way, that I knew it took a special kind of person to climb it. I eagerly agreed, and a week later we made plans to meet up on top of the mountain.

I hiked up the East Ledges for the second time alone, intent on trying the Salathé Headwall before SJ arrived that evening. The hike had taken me six hours before with all my detours and the intense weight of my pack, so the intimidation of such as monstrous approach made my heart race almost as much as my heavy dose of early morning caffeine. As I stopped for a breather a few minutes in, I received a message from the late Todd Skinner’s wife, Amy. She knew about my climbing and was glad to hear I was on my own “Stay Hungry Tour” (what Todd would call his travels and subsequent slideshows about them). She shared with me how special their time in Yosemite had been when Todd was working on the Salathé, and that maybe I could pay them a visit in Wyoming sometime. I was unbelievably touched, and the hike never felt quite so bad after that, because I knew it was what had been done by all my predecessors in order to make this dream a reality.

I located the anchors of the route with some helpful beta from SJ, and tied my first rope to the chains. As I neared the edge of the cliff my mind spun with fear and doubt. It felt like I was rappelling off the edge of the world, and despite knowing I was completely safe a small voice in the back of my head still said I should at least wait until SJ was there, if not abandon this foolish idea entirely. Once over the edge however, there was only one direction to move, and that was down. Rappel after rappel, until I was anchored at the base of the massive headwall splitter crack, the most exposed position I’d possibly ever been in before. After triple checking my rope soloing setup, I started up the wall.

I had brought two liters of water down with me for the day, and left one of them at the anchors at the base of the splitter. As I rappelled back down for a second attempt, I discovered that my water bottle had broken and fallen off the mountain, hopefully landing clear of any tourists wherever it was thousands of feet below. My first of many, many lessons about big walling. Without the water I was not only exhausted, but extremely dehydrated by the time I jumared the remaining 400 feet to return to the summit. SJ was waiting for me on top as I stumbled over the edge, offering much needed sustenance and beta on where to harvest more from a nearby spring. After a quick dinner I set off with all the empty jugs to replenish the water supply, but in my fatigued state I didn’t get too far before becoming frustrated and overwhelmed. It had already been a 12-hour day, and I had hardly enough energy left to even walk back to camp. I never located the spring, giving up as the sun started to set and instead scraping a meagre amount of stale snow into the jug with the widest mouth before stumbling back towards where I thought the bivvy cave was, though I had to yell for SJ to come help me find it. I barely had the energy to inflate my sleeping pad, as I laid down for what was only the fourth night of what could be considered backpacking that I’d ever done.

The following day, SJ and I rappelled down the entirety of El Cap, working first the Enduro Corners, then the Boulder Problem, and finally the downclimb traverse into the Monster Offwidth. The Enduro Corners felt surprisingly easy, catering to many of my greatest strengths by combining crack climbing with laybacking and knee barring. The Boulder Problem went less well, with neither of us succeeding that day.

[ SJ and I on the Enduro]

That day was also Harrison’s first day in Yosemite, and he had hiked to the top of the wall as well to check out the Headwall. We could see him on the ropes far above us, but we were too far apart to communicate. In hindsight it almost foreshadowed how my obsession with the project would come to limit our ability to climb together, because the route didn’t end up inspiring him the same way it did for me. After climbing together all winter, it was a big change to suddenly be limited to hanging out on the ground on our rest days, as he started projecting Father Time on the shadier side of the Valley. SJ and I would team up when she was in town, but her career as a high-level orthopedic surgeon in Reno kept her busy most of the time. Thus, almost immediately the route became entirely my own journey. 

I spent many a day by myself on Long Ledge, the natural boardwalk that marks the end of the headwall crux pitches. The occasional party on Freerider would provide brief company as they passed through the Enduro Corners below, but most of my time on the Salathé headwall was spent alone. I would solve crossword puzzles, write, and watch the cars far below on the valley floor, but mostly I would just let the sun warm my face as I ran through beta in my mind over and over and over again. The ledge is somehow protected from El Cap’s relentless barrage of wind, and the contours of the rock seemed to fit my body perfectly for relaxing between attempts. It felt like this place belonged just to me sometimes, and in others I imagined sharing my airy perch with the party of Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt, or Skinner and Piana, or any of the other legendary climbing pioneers that had come before me, such as Alex Huber, the first person to free every pitch, Steph Davis, the first female ascent, Hidetaka Suzuki, the first person to link the headwall into one 5.13d megapitch, Mark Hudon and Max Jones, who advanced Valley free climbing with their “as free as can be” ascent, or even that I could hear the ring of John Salathé’s hammer echoing across the valley from the Sentinel, as he nailed his way up some heinous ten hour lead with Allen Steck on belay. I often felt like my heroes were watching over me up there, three thousand feet off the ground, and in those moments I didn’t feel alone at all.

[at home on Long Ledge (photo by Max Buschini)]

On my first completely solo trip to the top, my second day on the headwall, I was able to climb the entirety of the main splitter without falling, though the awkwardly flaring and micro pin-scarred initial boulder problem still remained a mystery. It was still early April, and as such the route remained quite cold until mid-day when the sun finally graces the headwall, so the following day I had a good chunk of the morning to kill. I stood at the top of the route for quite some time, completely lost in awe at the beauty of watching Yosemite Valley come alive as the day broke. I stretched my sore limbs, the rush of endorphins flooding through my body almost making me dizzy. In that moment I was consciously aware that I was experiencing something truly special. I started crying from the simple joy of how vividly alive I felt. It had been a long time. That day I climbed the second crux pitch clean, a feat I would not actually repeat until the day I sent.

My next trip to the headwall would not go quite as well, having not rested sufficiently beforehand. I blew out my shoes and fell off the last move of the splitter twice, unable to stand on the small edges needed to navigate the final moves. Such a performance was unacceptable to me. I needed those moves to be dialed to the point that I could climb them with complete confidence, because otherwise I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure of a crux at the very end of such a long and physical pitch. I lay awake for some time that night, ruminating over how I could rework the sequence to feel less insecure. My original beta involved a complicated sequence of footwork, but I thought maybe I could just tackle the crack straight on, perhaps facing the other way and relying more on jamming than face climbing. It paid off, because my idea panned out remarkably well the next day as I worked out a sequence that no longer felt low percentage at all. I was able to climb it every time, even though my shoes now had holes the size of pencil erasers in the toes.

I made a total of five two-night trips to the top to work the headwall (plus the initial rope haul). After reworking the final sequence I was able to complete the splitter every time, though getting through the beginning still remained a challenge. By that point I had been in Yosemite long enough to have wormed my way into the scene of Valley climbers, and everyone knew what I was up to. It was exciting to share my progress and feed off the psyche of others, but it also increased the pressure to know that everyone was paying attention. One day the route was being discussed by a group and someone mentioned that when Steph Davis had climbed it, she had been shocked at how different the route felt on lead than toprope because of the added weight of the cord. While I hadn’t fallen off the crack in a while, the comment got in my head and suddenly I felt a lot less ready. On my next trip up I brought some extra rope down to check out the roof pitch, and in order to get it back up the wall I decided to trail the entire 60m 10.5mm rope up the headwall. It probably added 10-15lbs, but despite how much it triggered my tendonitis I was still able to climb the pitch. With my confidence back from that, I gave the route a lead go the next day, supported by my friend Amity who had come up to check out the headwall for fun with another friend Will. I couldn’t climb the first part with the shoes I had on at the time, but I was able to send the entire pitch from a few moves in on my first lead attempt. All of a sudden what had once seemed like yet another impossible dream felt like an inevitability. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

I rehearsed the headwall many times, but many of the other cruxes of the route got a lot less of my attention. I climbed the Freeblast twice, failing to send the hardest slab pitch either time, and I rehearsed the Monster Offwidth only once. I went down to the Boulder Problem with SJ a second time towards the end of April. We had stayed in touch about the route after our first mission together, and somewhere along the way decided to climb the whole wall together. Technically we were doing separate routes, but most of their terrain was shared up until the end of the Enduro Corners. That’s where the Freerider ventures left onto the Round Table, and the Salathé continues upwards through the roof. We would have separate partners rappel in and meet us at that point, her friend Steph for her and Harrison for me.

SJ had asked for two blocks of time off from work, one at the beginning of May and one at the end as a backup, but I didn’t know if I would have it in me to try a second time if I failed. So it was that we set the dates for the push: May 1st-10th. Once it was official, it became hard to keep the intimidation away. I had gotten by thus far by focusing on smaller things I could do to get ready, rather than thinking about the magnitude of the objective as a whole. I wrote down a list of things I needed to so, such as working certain pitches, collecting water, buying food, etc. but eventually there weren’t very many things left to do except try to keep the panic at bay.

One week before we were scheduled to leave the ground SJ and I returned to the boulder problem, stashing water along the route on our way down. Having not sent that pitch, it remained the final piece of the puzzle I needed to solve and there wasn’t much time left in which to do so. Her partner Mikey came with us, fixing a separate rope on the Teflon Corner for fun while we worked the boulder. I had always heard that the Teflon required some kind of black magic to climb, and had written it off as a possibility without ever even trying it. That was, up until a fated conversation not long before, in which I had run into my friend Alix on my way down from the summit one day. She had climbed the Teflon, and suggested I give it a try. It held the advantage of not costing skin nor power like the boulder did, so with a fixed rope on it and no success on the alternative, I lowered down the blank open book dihedral to check it out. To my surprise, in the span of about fifteen minutes I was at the top of it, having climbed it clean on top rope in just a few quick rapid-fire tries. I tried the boulder one more time after that and succeeded on it too, now finding myself uncertain about which I should plan to climb. The Teflon seemed like a more certain bet, but the boulder was just too cool not to also try. I would have to decide on the fly.

With the final piece in place, there was nothing left to do but stew in anticipation. Part of me still thought this whole thing was ludicrous. Who was I kidding to think I could climb a big wall? So many stars would have to align—weather, logistics, navigating other parties, not to mention I still didn’t have the replacements for my blown-out shoes, a critical element to success. I wouldn’t even be able to send the Freeblast on day 1 without them, but despite everyone at La Sportiva’s best efforts, mysterious shipping roadblocks had held things up. I would end up getting my shoes a mere 11 hours before departing on the morning of May 3rd in a complicated scheme involving overnight shipping, many handoffs, middlemen, wrong phone numbers, and extreme stress.

We planned to prehaul our big wall gear to the first bivvy on Hollow Flake ledge on May 1st, so all we would need on the first day would be our climbing shoes and a bit of water. After that we would rest for a day, and then it would finally be time for the adventure to start. The last day of April brought with it an endlessly restless mind, as I bounced from one activity to the next in feeble attempts to distract myself. The day seemed to crawl by agonizingly slow, yet simultaneously I felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time; though for what I didn’t know. I continually reminded myself of a quote I like that says, “if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life.” It was time to take the leap and embrace that falling, failing, and learning was half the fun.

We arrived at the base of the Heart Lines to haul our gear to find another party already there, Tate and Evan, slowly getting their stuff together. Not wanting to get stuck behind them in the large cloud of mosquitos at the base of the wall, SJ quickly jumped on the rope and started jumaring. The hauling went painfully slow at first, as she was using a 2-to-1 system to counter the heavy weight of the bag. I took over after another pitch, discovering that my larger frame enabled me to use a much quicker 1-to-1 haul off just my body weight. It was my first time hauling, and as I pulled up the bag I simultaneously tried to load a Google search on how to tie a munter-mule, the knot most commonly used to dock the bags. The spotty cell reception on El Cap failed me however, and I had to ask SJ for help when she caught up to find me struggling. I don’t think I succeeded in tying a munter on the first try until the last day on the wall, with my usual attempt count involving around 3-6 tries.

Despite my inexperience, the hauling went as flawlessly as could be hoped for, with an onsight of the notorious Hollow Flake haul. After hearing numerous horror stories of bags stuck in the Flake for hours, I was filled with pride at our ability to get the bag through the pitch without issue. That simple fact, more than anything else, made me feel like I was finally ready.

On our way down we encountered another party prehauling: Dean and Greg who were scheduled to start climbing the same day as us, though they were only planning to get to Heart Ledge slightly lower on the wall that evening. We knew we would want to get ahead of them in the climbing, since they would have to navigate the Hollow Flake on their first day climbing whereas we had already passed that obstacle. We were less concerned about Tate and Evan, since in theory they should be out of our way by starting a day earlier.

Aiming to get ahead of Dean and Greg and also hoping to move through the Freeblast before the sun hit, SJ and I met in El Cap meadow at 5:45am on the morning of Monday, May 3rd. Max, one of the two friends filming us, joined for the dawn patrol departure. Standing at the base of the wall, it was hard to believe it was finally about to begin, and that I wouldn’t stand on solid ground again or be inside for an unknown number of days. The plan was for SJ and I to climb together for the first four days, and then diverge on the fifth. After that I was prepared to spend as long as it took to redpoint the headwall, up to nine days in the worst-case scenario involving multiple rest days and entire days devoted to sending each pitch. In the end it only took five, a situation I couldn’t have predicted in even my best-case scenario despite the numerous half-baked schemes on how to get ahead of schedule I was constantly concocting.

I lead the first block of the Freeblast, taking us through the first five pitches (with the first four linked into two). By the time we approached the slab crux we saw Greg and Dean below us, and they were moving fast. We needed not only to stay ahead of them for our sake, but also for theirs. On my final lead, the one pitch I had yet to redpoint, I cruised up through easy 5.10 pin-scarred crack terrain to the beginning of the bolted slab. I hung a draw on the bolt, before taking a moment to make the decision that I was not clipping from a very secure stance. Not wanting to take a fall with an armload of slack out while trying to clip the draw, I decided to readjust my stance. In doing so, I slipped off unexpectedly and found myself suddenly plunging downward, ripping out a poorly placed offset cam and smashing into the low angled terrain below. My wrists both suffered abrasions and my knee hit the wall pretty hard, minor bang-ups that would present mild aches and pains for the rest of the wall. I started the pitch over, and managed not to fall this time. SJ and I traded leads after that, as she gunned us up the rest of the Freeblast. As SJ lead up easy terrain, Max jugged off on his fixed rope, and I waited for the rope to run out so I could start simulclimbing, I looked down at my harness to realize that one of my gear loops had become frayed in the chimney of the Half Dollar. Not good. While it didn’t threaten the safety of the equipment itself, if it failed completely whatever gear was clipped to it would fall off, a potentially game ending scenario were I to drop all our cams. I knew I could fix it with a bit of duct tape later, but in my frazzled state I accidentally left behind a quickdraw on the block where I had been sitting once it came time for me to climb. Once twenty feet up the pitch I realized my mistake, but at that point there was no way to go back for it. I would have to hope that Greg and Dean would grab it and give it back when they eventually caught up. Fortunately, I knew SJ would understand.

The sun was fully on us by the time we reached Mammoth Terraces, and it felt like ten million degrees. The rock was hot and slippery, but the climbing for the day was far from over. We were almost level with Hollow Flake ledge, but the path to get there was anything but short, since the route involves multiple long pitches of downclimbing to get around blank sections of the wall. Over on Hollow Flake we could see Evan and Tate still on the ledge. They had been there for hours, and we were starting to grow concerned about their lack of upward progress. A traffic jam could prove problematic for everyone, especially as Greg and Dean continued to nip at our heels. If all six of us ended up sleeping on the same ledge, none of us were likely to get much rest at all, and we would inevitably have a nightmare on the Monster Offwidth the following day.

Dean and Greg finally caught us on the Heart Ledges, but that was when they had to start hauling so their speed slowed down as we charged on ahead. The 5.11c slab pitch off Heart gave me some trouble, as the hot rock offered zero friction. After sliding down the crux move many times, I finally latched the jug with a mighty power scream. SJ coasted through it first try. The Hollow Flake was our last pitch for the day, though by that point we had been climbing for at least ten hours. SJ had agreed to take the lead, which is disadvantageous on that pitch because you have to stay inside the chimney to bump a large cam up a long stretch of offwidth. When following I had the option to quickly layback sections, saving some much-needed energy. I had led the pitch when we went to try the Monster before, so this time we were switching roles. The Monster Offwidth was all mine, as long as SJ would get us up the Hollow Flake. The Flake had felt easy before, but in our state of fatigue it required a surprising amount of oomph at the end of the day. SJ crawled up it as I hung in my harness at a painfully poor belay stance for what felt like ages. I offered what words of encouragement I could, as we both did our best to keep spirits high. Following the pitch involved complicated rope logistics that had to be communicated on the fly due to my misunderstanding of what needed to happen to protect the downclimb and traverse, and prevent a dangerous pendulum were I to fall (which I definitely almost did).

On Hollow Flake Ledge we were psyched to find that Tate and Evan had finally continued moving upwards, though they ended up bivving only two pitches above us; still below the Monster. Greg and Dean stayed on Lung Ledge before the Hollow Flake, so SJ and I were granted the camp to ourselves. We knew we had to move fast the next day in order to hopefully pass Tate and Evan if they didn’t wake up early. It was supposed to be nearly eighty degrees that day, and the Monster would prove exponentially more difficult if we were forced to climb it in the sun. With alarms set for 4:45am, we collapsed onto our portaledges, chatting for a brief moment before letting the night take over our tired minds and bodies.

I slept surprisingly well for my first night on a wall, which came as a great relief. I’ve been something of an insomniac since I was a child, and sleeping in new places often proves especially challenging and can often be a source of great anxiety to me. It was one of the things I worried about the most in the weeks leading up to the climb, because not recovering at night would greatly hinder my ability to climb hard, especially if it was compounded over several days of tossing and turning. My only complaint was the constant chittering of bats, which I solved by playing a white noise track on my ipod to silence the critters.

I woke shortly before my alarm as did SJ, and we quietly broke camp in the dark. There was no sign of movement from the party up above just yet, but in the end they started moving not long after us. We were climbing shortly after six, successfully avoiding the hidden roofs we knew to hinder hauling in that section of the wall and quickly blasting up easy 5.10 terrain. Soon we were within earshot of Tate and Evan, and I called out a cheerful good morning as SJ followed the pitch I had just led. I asked if they were planning on climbing the Monster, to which they replied that they were instead going to aid the crack to its right and graciously let us pass. When SJ arrived at the belay she commented that my decreased stress was obvious.

The original Salathé route follows the crack that Tate and Evan aided, a 5.13 pitch instead of climbing the Monster Offwidth. When Skinner and Piana freed the route they opted for this path because gear did not exist that could protect a crack of that size back then, and the pair had gotten so spooked on the Hollow Flake below (nowadays protectable by a #7 or equivalent) that they did not want to climb another runout wide crack so soon after. Most people that free the Salathé these days climb the Monster, and while the historic route was important to me I chose that path as well. There were various reasons, but the main one was that I simply wanted to climb the Monster. It’s one of the most badass features on El Cap, a gaping chasm visible from the ground that looks like it just goes on forever. I couldn’t justify having a stick and poke ass tattoo from Vedauwoo, land of the wide and flared, without feeling compelled to climb such a crack.

We had done our best, but by the time we got the belay for the Monster it was already creeping into the sun. We had told Max and Garrett that we aimed to be climbing the offwidth at 10, yet it was already 11am and the filmmakers were nowhere to be seen. They were late, and we were late, and there was no time to wait. I needed to get up the crack quickly not just for myself, but so as not to hose SJ since she would have worse conditions the longer it took me to climb. The downclimb traverse into the crack in particular was a concern, for while my long arms could easily reach through the crux move, her wingspan was probably about a foot less than mine and the move proved a much greater challenge.

I was surprised at how difficult the downclimb felt that day. When I had climbed it once before it had felt casual, but just like the Hollow Flake, everything felt harder when you were linking it into an entire big wall. Who could have guessed? I moved up the Monster as fast as I could, following beta my friend Prith had sent me from his impressive ground up Freerider attempt, in which only the Monster shut him down. “Three no hands rests, sprint to them,” it said. I remembered there being a number of small crimps inside the crack that had proved useful in my practice run, but in the heat they proved all but useless, and after dry firing off one of them I committed to just embracing the pure grovel. As I was about halfway up, a rope came snaking down the face to my right. Max and Garret had arrived just in time, having rappelled all the way from the summit that morning.

[The Monster (photo by Max Buschini)]

“You guys better hustle!” I yelled, “I’m going for it!” upon hearing my voice they were called to action, and a moment later Max appeared over the edge, camera already rolling. I shuffled higher in the crack, joking with him about how a good friend had recently said I never looked like I was having any fun while climbing, but I definitely was right now. Before long however, fatigue from the long and strenuous pitch started to set in, and there was no more energy for playing around. My chatter turned to grunts and screams as I struggled up the last section of sustained offwidth. I no longer had the strength to grab holds, small muscles now completely useless. The only option was to rely on the large muscle groups and embrace a full physical battle as I forced the final section. Then it was over, as I joined Tate at the belay above, completely spent. He was in high spirits, having not just climbed an offwidth marathon, and helped me navigate his well-organized maze of ropes and haul bags.

In my state of fatigue, it took me about as long to haul the pitch as it took SJ to climb it, as she crushed the traverse and then the Monster with apparent ease. On top we shared a moment of great relief that the second crux was over. That pitch was really the only one you don’t get a second try on if you mess up, because there’s no way we would have been able to do it another time if the first was a failure.

I complained my way up the next super short pitch of more offwidth and we were finally at the Alcove, our home for the next two nights. One of our commonly used strategies was that we would get to our bivvy and then go ahead and climb the next pitch that night, fixing the rope to it so that in the morning we could move quicker towards that day’s objective by simply jumaring up. It took hours to muster the energy to keep going after the Monster, but eventually the next section of the wall went into the shade and we drug ourselves up two more pitches of blue collar 5.10 crack climbing. That distance got us nearly to the base of the Boulder Problem, our next big crux. When we arrived at the end of the day’s climbing, we encountered Tate and Evan, who had continued upwards whilst we rested through the sun. They planned to continue, so it was the last we would see of the friendly duo.

SJ and I returned to camp, last reserves of energy totally spent. Greg and Dean had arrived at the alcove, and another climber Kevin had rappelled down from a projecting day on the Boulder as well. With the filmmakers joining us, we had a total of seven people in the alcove that night. It would have been a nightmare at any other bivvy ledge, but there was plenty of space to be shared amongst friends new and old, and we enjoyed the company as we shared stories of our adventures.

[slumber party in the alcove!]

Greg and Dean voyaged towards the sky the following morning, as SJ, Garret, Max and I hunkered down for a rest day that was only true to name in a physical sense. That day was probably the most difficult one I spent on the route, for while my tired body appreciated the chance to recover, my anxious mind would not stay silent.

I have always held a sort of reverence for filling my time with meaningful moments, loathe to ever feel like I’m “killing time,” because I think life is far too short for such a mentality. That day however, it would have been hard to claim that I was doing anything else. Time slowed to a crawl. I would look at my phone expecting an hour to have passed, only to find that it had barely been twenty minutes. I played cards with Max, ate food, stretched, wrote, ate food, made some art, ate food, and then cycled through all the activities again. No matter what I did however, I could not stop thinking about the Boulder Problem. It loomed over me like a shadow even greater than the one cast by El Cap Spire, which kept us in the shade for most of the eighty-degree day.

The Boulder Problem was what it all came down to. I knew if I got through that I could do the headwall, but if I couldn’t, all of my hard work over the past month, plus all of the passion and labor from the photographers documenting my adventure, would be… not for nothing, but certainly not for what I wanted. SJ had told me once that she had been given the advice that it wasn’t worth going for the route unless you were sure you would send. It was just too much work otherwise. I was sure I could send everything else, even if it took a few tries, or even a few days. I just needed to get there. I must have run through the sequence fifty times in my head that afternoon, missing obvious plays in our card game in my distraction. Unable to shake my nerves, I grew careless and let first a page of crossword puzzles, then my bowl, and then my jumaring ladders all blow away in the wind. Up until that day I had been able to stay present in the moment, avoiding this fear and overwhelming intimidation by simply focusing on whatever was my current objective, but with nothing important to do now I was completely falling apart.

At long last, night fell. We caught a glimpse of Starlink passing overhead, a train of endless blinking satellites marching across the sky. We talked in hushed voices about how it might mean a future where cell service doesn’t suck in Yosemite, and when the conversation reached its natural end a new one was not started. I was left alone with my restless mind.

I must have been more tired than my hatred of resting had been willing to admit, because sleep came surprisingly fast, even for me. Kevin had reported poor conditions the previous day on the boulder, so we had another 5am start to try and beat the heat. With the overnight lows barely dipping below fifty however, all it really did was buy us extra time in the shade to grease off the holds that had never gotten a chance to actually cool down.

Getting to the boulder was quick, because we decided to leave our bags in the Alcove and haul that afternoon to give us the maximum amount of time and energy for the upcoming crux. It was hardly worth it though, because when we arrived at the Boulder Problem the air felt heavy with humidity and heat. My skin had never really recovered from trying it a week before, so I knew I only had a few tries at best. SJ and I each gave it one go, slipping and sliding off the small crimps and rounded foot smears. It felt impossible, and I lost half my skin on the warmup attempt. We bemoaned to each other that this was no good, that it just wouldn’t go in these conditions for either of us. There needed to be some wind at the very least to clear the mugginess out of the air, a condition that rarely seems in short supply on El Cap.

My nerves were out of control, as I panicked about how to best overcome this obstacle that threatened to end our dreams here and now. I decided to try the Teflon Corner instead, an option that I knew had a higher chance of success because I could try it endlessly without destroying my delicate fingertips. SJ belayed me on a slimy traverse across the face and then pendulumed over for a patient belay. I didn’t remember any of my beta from before, only that I needed to get through about ten feet of pure granite wizardry before the first real hold would appear and theoretically mark the end of the difficulties.

I climbed up, clipped the two permadraws, and fell off, landing right back at the beginning. Without resting for more than a few seconds I pulled back on, stemmed up, and fell off again. And again. And again, and again, and again. Each time I remembered a bit more of what had gotten me through it the previous week, until finally I pulled through to the good hold where it should have been over… and then fell off yet again. Several more tries had me falling down low some more, never with more than a minute of rest before I was pressing my feet against the blank walls once more. My legs were starting to get tired from the stemming, as I had been rapid-firing for probably almost half an hour now, but I was so close I just needed one more try, one more, just one more and it would surely go. I needed to just do it, so that I could support SJ back on the Boulder Problem. It would be a huge pain to keep switching between the two.

Things were getting simultaneously more dialed and more sloppy, as SJ encouraged me to rest. “After this go,” I assured her, not knowing if I really meant it or not. It was probably my tenth try, as I danced back up the corner. This time I finally remembered what to do, when to stem and when to bridge, until I was back at my high point. I felt my right foot slip, the same mistake that had cost me the send before.

“No!” SJ growled in denial, almost a command, and I couldn’t help but agree. Not again. This time I kept it together, and a few more moves and I was finally standing on real footholds. I went to clip a piton, only to discover I had no draws on my harness. No matter, I would just use the carabiner off a cam. Whoops, dropped the cam. I didn’t even care; I charged to the top of the pitch with relief. A grin split my face as I clipped the chains, knowing that I now held the key to actually getting a shot at redpointing the Headwall. Getting through this crux had been my moment of sink or swim, and after feeling like I was drowning for the past 24 hours, I finally remembered how to doggie paddle (and now God damnit I was going to doggie paddle with all my heart up the rest of this route).

[the Teflon corner (photo by Garret Bleir)]

We returned to the Boulder Problem for SJ to give it some more effort, but my nerves must have been contagious. High levels of stress and continuing bad conditions (although the wind eventually picked up) held her back. By 11am the sun hit, but I reassured her I would belay her all night if that was what it took to get her up the pitch. We returned to the alcove to begin the arduous hauls, and I took the lead on the Sewer pitch, a perpetually wet 5.10 chimney/roof that guards the third bivvy on the Block.

Once at camp, we discussed how best to proceed. I still felt good and was optimistic that I could fire the Enduro Corners that evening, but SJ still needed to return to the boulder problem. We had plenty of time for both, but not enough rope to fix both up and down. Pushing the high point had the potential to dramatically accelerate my timeline on the route. It would mean I would have only the short roof pitch to climb the following day before tackling the Headwall, instead of having to also climb two pumpy and difficult pitches beforehand. Still, there was no way I would ever want to proceed if it meant sacrificing SJ’s chance at success.

In the end we decided that we would proceed, climbing the 5.10 flake pitch and then I would get my shot at the Enduro. We would then fix the lead line back to the Block, and SJ would fix the haul line back down to the Boulder, where she would micro traxion it once it cooled down in the evening. I waited until the evening, hoping for cooler temperatures, but there was no way around the fact that the rock had been baking in the sun for most of the day. There was little friction to speak of, but I didn’t care. After sending the Teflon Corner I felt unstoppable. I felt a confidence come over me that afternoon that couldn’t have been a starker contrast to my mindset just a few hours earlier.  I quickly dispatched both pitches, celebrating the fact that I was now done with the climbing shared by Freerider. I was finally ready to begin climbing on the Salathé itself.

We rappelled back to the Block where I stopped for dinner and SJ returned to the Boulder Problem. Not long after, I heard a commotion from below. Peering over the edge, I saw SJ perched at the anchors.

“How’s it going?” I called down.

“I did it!” she replied, her voice audibly choked by tears.

A few minutes later she returned to the Block and we embraced, my own eyes watering as she cried in relief and excitement. We were both taking this thing to the top now, whatever it took.

It was a beautiful evening as we set up camp, yet it was tinged with bittersweetness as we lamented that our shared portion of the journey was at its end. Tomorrow we would go our separate ways, but at least we could enjoy each other’s company for one last night. The Valley could not have been more spectacular from our vantage point, a mere eleven pitches from the summit of El Cap. I had only to climb eight of them still. I never would have guessed it at the time, but that night would be my last on El Capitan.

[SJ setting up for the night]

Steph joined us on the Block on the morning of our fifth day, but SJ decided that it would be best if she took another rest day. Feeling good myself, I packed my bags and said goodbye. I met Harrison at the base of the Roof a few hours later, well behind schedule thanks to a stuck bag and the hassle of having to fix a rope for him to get down to my position under the steep overhang. Max dangled on a fixed line out in space, ready for me to begin. This remained the only hard pitch that I had never sent. I had only ever tried it once, so it remained something of a question mark, but I knew it would go.

[the roof (photo by Max Buschini)]

Go it did, first try despite the chill of a day that was finally not a scorching hot sufferfest. I now dangled at the base of the headwall, plenty of time left in the day for a few tries and with energy to spare having only climbed one pitch so far. How long had I been waiting for this moment? How many times had I been here by myself, alone yet surrounded by the ghosts of my heroes, dreaming of even simply having the opportunity to try to send? It was hard to believe it was finally time.

I racked up, mostly remembering my gear beta but knowing I would have to at least partially rely on the colored tick marks I had used to mark where certain cams went. Sun crept onto the wall, as it was around noon by now. Perfect, for the wind had picked up and there was a distinct chill in the air. I laced up my Miuras, rubber still fresh from only a few pitches’ wear. They felt unbelievably sticky, gluing my feet to the tiny edges I had slipped off so many times in rehearsal in more weathered kicks. I did the initial boulder problem first try, a feat I would not have expected in my wildest dreams. There was nothing for it now but to climb as hard as I could, for as long as I could, and hope that it was enough to get me to the anchors.

[the first boulder problem on the headwall (photo by Garret Bleir)]

I was overly cautious at first, gripping holds too tightly and letting pump build in terrain that should have been easy, but I could not afford to slip off from a careless mistake; not when I knew this might be the best chance I was ever going to get at accomplishing my dream. Soon enough though I found some semblance of flow, as I entered the body of the main splitter. I knew how to climb this crack.

It felt like I was on that pitch for hours, but those spectating said that I climbed it relatively fast. In the moment it was impossible to tell when the entirety of my focus was dialed on each foot placement, each jam, making sure everything was perfect.

When I clipped into the anchors it felt like I was dreaming. I had to wait there for quite some time for Garret to get me an end of the rope so I could jug up to Long Ledge where I would rest before trying the second pitch. While I was waiting I caressed the crack repeatedly, whispering a quiet ‘Thank you,’ to it for everything it had given. My eyes watered each time that I looked at the crack up close, one of the most beautiful pitches I will probably ever climb. They would dry as I broadened my focus to the goings on around me, as Max jumared through space and Harrison packed up the belay, and then water again the moment I returned my gaze to the rock.

Arriving at Long Ledge felt surreal. I still had one more hard pitch, but it felt inevitable despite my increasing fatigue. I had been here so many times, had so many special moments in this place, yet never one like this. Having just sent surrounded by people who wanted to support me and believed in me, the sun warm but not hot, and a large cache of food and water waiting for me… it was nothing short of magical.

After an hour or two of rest, I could wait no longer. I had never expected I would be this close to completing the climb so soon, but I had long since decided that I was just going to keep climbing and see how far I got that day. I hung draws on the fixed nuts in the thin boulder problem crux, and lowered down with Harrison to the anchor for the final crux. The pitch is short, with two cruxes separated by a no hands rest, but the incredible movement and wild exposure make it my favorite part of the entire route.

With photographers in position, I launched off. I only got a few moves up before realizing I had mixed up my sequence, thanks to a tick mark that had been added by someone else since last I had climbed this section almost two weeks ago. I jumped off and immediately started over, this time making no mistakes until I was screaming as my fingers closed over the juggy left side of Long Ledge.

[the final crux (photo by Garret Bleir)]

Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I celebrated. It only took a few minutes before the three others joined me on the ledge, filming my reaction as I tried to wrap my head around what I had just done. I had just sent the Salathé Headwall. There were only four pitches between me and the summit: one 5.11+ I had never tried, two 5.10s, and a final 5.6.

I could never really explain in words nor writing the true scale of how much the route meant to me. As I embraced Harrison I tried to vocalize to my team how deep the passion ran in that moment. I had poured all of my heart into this, chasing that special feeling of inspiration that captures my imagination so rarely, yet changes my life so grandly when it does. I knew it would probably be a long time before I found it on this scale again, so I tried to soak up every second of the immense and vivid joy I felt.

It was only 4:00pm, so I made the easy decision to continue climbing to the summit. As much as I loved this place, I had spent plenty of time here already and I simply wanted to fit a bit more climbing into my day. I was having too much fun to call it a day.

I had told Harrison to bring enough supplies for four days, but he would later tell me he only brought enough for one. Even at the beginning of the day, somehow he knew it was all I would need. Meanwhile I had been prepared to try this 100 foot section of the wall forever if I had to.

I had been eager to try the 5.11+ pitch for ages, after staring at those golden knobs traversing into the unknown so many times. It did not disappoint, though exhaustion had started to set in and the many sidepulls and underclings brought with them a quick build of lactic acid. At the belay, Garret and Max played a comical tug-of-war with their fixed lines as they tried to haul them out.

[The second to last pitch of 5.10. doesn’t get much better than this. (Photo by Garret Bleir)

Three pitches left. A glorious 5.10 hand crack. Two pitches left. The final 5.10, and I spectacularly fell off it. I tried again, this time succeeding and squeezing into the last 5.9 squeeze chimney. The Salathé is notorious for its high volume of wide climbing, so of course it had to end this way. I made a calculated decision to enter the slot left side in, which proved to be a mistake. I had to reverse the entire thing, slithering down the short chasm, flipping around, and worming back up. I almost fell trying to escape the squeeze, heel hooking desperately until I could somehow navigate into a layback. It turned to a hand crack after that, and finally I was only one 5.6 scramble from the top.

The ultimate summit joy was overshadowed by a weary final haul, where the friction from twisted ropes running over low angle slab required all four of us to get the bags over the lip. Then it was done.

My first time on top with SJ, I had told her that one day we would stand on top having climbed there instead of hiking. Back then they were just words, barely connected to a reality I thought I would ever experience. I set out to climb the Salathé Wall not knowing if I had any real chance of success, or if it was just a pipe dream. I had no idea what it would take, but I knew I would never find out unless I tried.

Currently I am twenty-eight years old. In the beginning I thought perhaps if I started now, I could aim to accomplish this goal by the time I was thirty. It seemed reasonable enough, considering how ridiculously much I had to learn. Two years turned into one month, and then my nine-day ascent plan turned into five. My timelines were conservative because I was pretty intimidated every step of the way, and wanted to be realistic. The dream seemed so overwhelmingly massive that it was all I could do to focus on each baby step to get me there. SJ and I would often discuss how the mountain seemed so huge when we first started climbing on it, but that over time it started to feel slightly smaller as we got to know each pitch, ledge, and occasional clump of grass.

In the end though, everything really is bigger in Yosemite. Big days on big walls requiring big imaginations, big characters with big stories, and most importantly bigger dreams than just about anywhere else I could ever imagine. Having spent a bit of time here this spring trying my absolute best to grow, I’m proud to say my comfort zone is a bit bigger now too.

Epilogue: A Heinous Descent

After a quick repacking of bags and sorting of gear, the team decided to descend the mountain the night I topped out. Sleeping in my own bed sounded nice, and drinking a cold beer even moreso. I had cut out the alcohol a few weeks before, since it was having a pretty negative effect on my ability to recover on rest days. I gingerly tested the weight of my haul bag with each new item, feeling it get heavier and heavier as it filled. My legs were the strongest they’ve probably ever been, after hoofing myself up the East Ledges so many times recently, but unless I take up crossfit again I don’t think they’ll ever actually be all that good at the walking stuff.

The bag seemed manageable at first, though only because we were walking downhill. I slowly picked my way down the slabs, surviving through the distraction of the majestic sight of Half Dome in the glow of the setting sun.  By the time slab turned to trail however, it was quickly becoming a sufferfest. As we neared the top of the rappels, I lost my footing on a steep piece of slickrock. I immediately sat down to prevent myself from tumbling down the hillside, but upon doing so found that I was somewhat stuck in that position. The angle was too steep for me to lean backwards, and too slippery for me to stand back up.

Harrison held my feet in place as I tried to stand, but the weight of the bag was too much for my tired muscles, so instead I tipped over sideways, the bag pulling me onto my back like a turtle. It was all I could do to laugh at the situation, as I helplessly let Harrison hoist the haul bag off the ground for long enough that I could regain my footing.

Before long however I lost my ability to see the humor in my tiredness. By the time we reached the rappels darkness had fallen and I was running on empty.

“Have you ever rapped with a heavy load before?” Harrison asked me, and I assured him that I had. I thought I knew how to ‘ride the pig,’ but as he disappeared into the darkness I quickly realized I was in over my head. I wrestled the bag onto the grigri and started down, but I had wildly underestimated its weight and my own exhaustion. Every minor ledge it caught on required me to manhandle the bag, and after just one rope length I had sunk into a state of delirious despair. Halfway down the second rap, I abandoned my pride and just started crying. I couldn’t pick up the bag anymore at all, even though it couldn’t have weighed more than a few dozen pounds.

“Are you doing okay?” I heard a voice from the darkness below.

“No, not really,” I choked out, as I struggled to pass a knot around a core shot section of the rope.

Harrison had waited for me at the next anchor, and offered to trade bags. I stared at the wall in silence, warring with my own stubbornness. Of course I wanted help. I needed help. I also took a lot of pride in how little help I had had this entire time, when so often I really could have used it. I had hiked these ropes up myself. I had hauled the route. I had rigged the fixed lines, I had collected the water, I had done it all without ever asking for more than was absolutely necessary. A part of me wanted to see this final task through on my own too, as if it were a rite of passage to be able to truly call myself a big wall climber. Another part of me knew that it was time to check my ego and just get off the damn mountain.

“Are you sure?” I asked in a shaky voice, hating the bitter taste of the words as they came out of my mouth.

We swapped packs, and while Harrison’s bag was probably a third of the weight of mine, it still contained two ropes and plenty of other gear. I could barely carry even that, as I continued to struggle my way down the fixed lines. Harrison easily kept pace with me the rest of the way down, carrying the haul bag as if it were a light day pack while I fought to keep putting one foot in front of the other every step of the way.

A kind stranger picked us up as we hitch hiked the last mile back to El Cap Meadow. It was the first time I’d ever done so; yet another new thing the wall was teaching me to do. The driver offered us some whiskey, and what’s normally my least favorite drink never tasted so good.

Looking up at El Capitan from the meadow a few minutes later felt surreal. Had I really just been up there a few hours ago? I’d spent so much time staring at it from down here that it almost felt like any ordinary night, just gazing up at the monolith with stars in my eyes and fantasizing about one day climbing the thing. It almost felt like I’d dreamt the whole crazy adventure, and a part of me couldn’t help but wish I was still on the mountain. At least then I’d be sure it was really real. As soon as I crawled into my ultra-comfortable bed however, I was more than glad that I was back on the ground. I knew I’d be on the wall again soon enough anyway.

One thought on “The Salathé

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