EL CAPITAN- FLIGHT OF THE ALBATROSS

Location: El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, CA (text by John Middendorf)

Difficulty: 5.10, A3+/A4, 7 days spent of the first ascent.

Will Oxx and I climbed a new route to the left of the Shield in the spring of 1993. I had pieced this route together over years of scoping out sections. In the mid 1980's, I had seen the middle part, 450 feet of good cracks rising from Grey ledges well into the Shield Headwall, to where it blanks out for 220 feet. Several pitches below Chickenhead ledge, (500 feet below the summit), a huge canoe shaped flake which seemed to defy gravity was attached to the headwall , and from there, a clearly visible crack went to Chickenhead ledge. When I climbed the Salathe for the second time just prior to this ascent, I saw a 500 foot crack system which was not part of any other route splitting the center of the 100 foot wide dihedral which forms the bottom part of the famous Heart formation on El Cap. Final scoping with a telescope revealed a flake system spitting the blank section on the Shield headwall. All in all, it turned out to be 180 feet of blank rock (requiring rivet ladders) in 1400 feet of new climbing.

El Capitan, with over 60 routes and variations, is so crisscrossed with routes that it is hard to imagine squeezing more in without extensive drilling, but since the last really good lines were bagged in the late 1980's, new routes have required more and more drilling through large blank sections to link natural features. Many new routes on El Capitan have required over 100 holes to complete, though many have required fewer (the Atlantic Ocean Wall, for example, required 58 new holes--bolts and rivets--to complete). I estimated that we could do this new route with less than 75 holes total, so my philosophic reservations about ethical matters was resolved.

We began in fine weather, fixing up to Heart Ledges and hauling gear up. Like most big wall routes, this one had its most difficult moments getting started the first few days. Will dropped my Swiss army knife the first night from Heart Ledge, and I went into a foul mood. The pitches from Heart to Grey were largely filled with dirt and mud, making for some unpleasant A1 climbing. At Grey Ledges, we were hit by a raging storm for about 18 hours, and we got soaked in our low angle, ledgeless location at the top of Greys. We still had enough ropes to fix down to the Mammoth Terrace, where we suspected we would still find some other party's fixed ropes to the ground. Luckily we had a small expresso maker and stove to allow us a diversion from the cold, soaked conditions, otherwise, we may have bailed. While we were getting hammered by the storm, huddled in our portaledge, we envied the team above us on the Shield Headwall who were not even using their portaledge rainfly, due to the overhanging wall above.

Above Grey, the climbing got steeper and more difficult. One of the pitches was a superb Wheat Thin type flake, which is mostly invisible from the ground because of its thin profile. Will then led a hard and steep pitch (A3+) which took us onto the Shield Headwall proper. The pitch, which we named the "Whipper Will" pitch, overhung about 50 feet in all. From there an A2 lost arrow crack led to the sea of blankness on the headwall. We drilled for 100 feet, climbed a 40 foot flake, and drilled for 80 more feet to the Canoe flake, and huge detached flake resting on a sloping stance up there. This was a perfect bivouac: flat, 2 feet wide, and 40 feet long, though I made the mistake of hammering a pin behind it as part of the belay. After a few hits, the entire block (which must have weighed 15 tons), shifted a bit. We left the pin without cleaning it. Above the Canoe, a thin A3+ or A4 seam continued up, requiring many beaks and #1 and #2 copperheads. The dangerous ledge fall on this pitch precludes this route from becoming any immediate moderate classic, but besides this and the Whipper Will pitch, all the climbing was of moderate difficulty.

In unsettled weather, we finished from Chickenhead on the Shield, regretting later that we did not do an obvious direct finish to the right. The direct finish is recommended for subsequent ascents of this fine route up El Cap, which is likely to become a classic.

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