by Jim Bridwell
On June 21, 1975, Billy Westbay, John Long, and myself, strode toward the great, sweeping south buttress of El Capitan, commonly called "The Nose." In the pre-dawn hours the full moon illuminated all its colossal splendor. Could we climb it in a day? We thought so.
But to tell the complete story of this fleeting moment of glory I must shackle past memories and go back to a time before John or Billy had even seen El Cap, let alone climbed its glacier-buffed stone. The historic first ascent, with its tenacious heroics and creative ingenuity, is well documented. So too, is the first continuous ascent from the ground up. But few people— perhaps no one other than myself— is familiar with the original seeds that gave rise to the idea of a one-day ascent.
There was a man, but more so, there was a spirit in the form of Frank Sacherer. Had anyone but Sacherer said "I want to do the Nose in a day" the response from any Camp Four regular would have been incredulous laughter. But Frank frequently accomplished what others thought impossible. He had free climbed routes that the best climbers of the day said couldn't be done free. He had day climbed routes they said couldn't be climbed in a day. In a word, Frank Sacherer was visionary. The driving force of climbing in the 1960's, he did more to advance free climbing as we know it today than any other single person in America at that time.
During the summer of 1965, Frank and I made a reconnaissance of the Stoveleg Cracks on the Nose to see if they could be climbed free. These wide cracks were so named from the homemade pitons, fashioned from the legs of old stoves, used to aid these cracks on the first ascent. Frank thought that if this section went free, then the Nose might go in a single day. Preposterous: but Frank hated camping on the walls and for him the Stoveleg Cracks were the key. But in 1966, work on his physics thesis pre-empted all climbing activity. And by 1967 his research work had taken him to Geneva, Switzerland, where he could no longer pursue his attempts on the Nose.
This left me to accept the challenge and carry the torch. In pursuit of that goal, I set out in June of 1967 with my friend and trusty belayer, Jim Stanton, hoping to climb the Nose and at the same time free climb the Stovelegs. With ropes fixed as far as Sickle Ledge we charged the wall in classic Yosemite fashion after a leisurely breakfast. A casual approach, yes, but at the time I was primarily concerned with freeing Stoveleg Cracks, not setting speed records.
Stanton, a gnome-like person, had never climbed a grade six, let alone El Capitan, but at that point I had yet to climb the 'Big Stone' myself. By 1:30 p.m. I'd freed the Stovelegs and we were on our way down. A water bottle cap had broken as the result of the haulbag swing into the corner above Dolt Tower. Everything in the bag was soaked, and we were a gallon of water short. The mishap occurred because the bottle had been packed sideways in the bag, making it more vulnerable. Returning to El Cap the next afternoon, we completed the route in two days.
Eight years passed. Other climbs, mostly first ascents, took precedence over climbing the Nose in a day. But in the spring of 1975, I had some new thoughts and feelings about climbing; alpinism beckoned me to new adventures. Speed was, I felt, the key to safe alpine climbing. Climbing the Nose in a day offered a good test of speed-climbing abilities, so I started rounding up suitable personnel.
The bar was a good place to stimulate interest and to polish the luster of the Nose project, and a few climbers had blossomed into likely candidates. Of those, I had selected two the previous year and sewn seeds to motivate them. I refreshed their enthusiasm in the bar before going south for two weeks to give a climbing demonstration for Navy S.E.A.L.s. I knew I wouldn't have time to get in good condition before returning, so I wanted to be sure that they were. I hoped they would make up for any deficiencies I might have.
Just as I'd expected, climbing with the S.E.A.L.s proved to be no cakewalk. I had to set up topropes, give demonstrations of technique, and deliver lectures. After all that, the boys wanted to take me out on the town until three in the morning. America's best had unusual training habits. I deduced that they were getting in shape to stay up long hours with little sleep, then mobilize with hangovers. Maybe they were training for high altitude climbing.
The Valley of Light provided a welcome sight when I returned. Though the S.E.A.L.s were durable, could they climb the Nose in a day? I wondered now if I could. The longest day of the year, less than a week away, coincided with a full moon, making this the perfect opportunity. I had little time to get in shape. We did manage one ten-pitch training climb, then spent a day rehearsing each of our individual pitches as far up as Sickle Ledge.
Our logistical plan was my responsibility and, I hoped, well thought out. We would take three nine-millimeter ropes of questionable vintage but the best I had. In addition, we carried: 25 nuts, 25 pitons, (camming devices didn't then exist) and one and a half gallons of water. I would lead two of the four pitches below Sickle Ledge with John and Billy taking one each. Above Sickle, John would lead as far as Boot Flake as his big hands were most appropriate for the predominately large cracks through this section. Billy drew the middle part of the route which was mostly mixed aid and free climbing. An excellent free climber from Colorado, he was used to switching from aid to free and vice versa. I had the anchor leg from Camp Five to the top. We would all be tired by then, so aid climbing would probably the technique of choice.
Because years of practice had honed my nailing skills, I was the natural candidate for that position. I had worked out a system where the person leading trailed one free rope and led on one which he clipped through the gear. Once the rope was anchored, the second man removed the gear, while the third man ascended the leader's trail rope on jumars, as fast as he could, towing the remaining rope. When the third person reached the belay he exchanged the ends of the ropes with the leader, who then charged off on the next pitch. Theoretically this procedure left time for the leader to have a cigarette and to light another for the belayer when he arrived. With 34 pitches to climb, we required a pack and a half of cigarettes each because we all smoked.
The night before the climb, we feasted in the restaurant, then went to the bar for a beer to calm our over-active nerves. At 9 p.m. we retired to my girlfriend's dormitory room where we set the alarm for 2 a.m. before settling down for an all-too-brief sleep. I blinked and the alarm went off. In unison we sprang out of bed, whipped up a giant batch of omelets, wolfed them down and marched to the car while taping our hands for climbing. At 4 a.m. the moon was bright enough to read by, so we didn't need our headlamps.
As we had already rehearsed the first four pitches we galloped off, having memorized every move and every nut and pin placement. As the night waned, we reached Sickle Ledge where John and I changed places on the ropes. Away he went. Pitches rolled by like dollars on a New York taxi meter. John flew up the Stoveleg Cracks with the certainty of the Yosemite veteran that he was.
We reached the top of Dolt Tower by 6:15. Here, our clamor roused two bivouacked climbers from their slumber. Bleary-eyed, one of them asked where our haul bag was. I responded by pointing to a small rucksack on my back. His expression became more quizzical as he looked at our bizarre style of dress. In our purple and pink double-knit pants, worn with paisley and African print shirts, we presented a questionable apparition to any eyes— sleep-filled or otherwise. Our inspiration for this colorful display was a magazine cover photo displaying several British climbers dressed in traditional, conservative guide's sweaters and knickers, all of the same color and style. The group formally posed with the Eiger looming in the background. As a joke we decided to represent the non-traditional Yosemite avant garde.
Due to the popularity of the Nose route, we had anticipated many obstacles on a one-day ascent: passing other parties on the climb. We were lucky to pass the only party on the route with ease.
John efficiently lowered off the corner of Dolt ledge and ran the rope to the next belay, clipping a solitary old expansion bolt en route. Free climbing the Stovelegs had become commonplace, but John's disregard for protection departed from normal form to meet the demands of speed. He'd been training for this climb and displayed a well-oiled performance. I was less honed, and my arms were beginning to cramp with the torrid pace. So far our time schedule hadn't been affected by me, but I was concerned that my performance might be a factor later in the day. It seemed only minutes before John was clipping the bolts toward Boot Flake, four pitches higher. This was his thirteenth lead, not including the fourth-class pitch up the Sickle.
Without hesitation, he launched straight into a committing lieback from the final bolt of the ladder. As Billy and I watched from Texas Flake, we hadn't a clue that his arms too were cramping. In silent despair, he hung from a failing hand jam. with the last of his strength, he wedged a hexcentric nut into the crack, clipping into it just in time and averting an 80-foot airball. Between great, heaving gasps, he explained his near-circus performance.
The game plan dictated a change of leaders at this stage anyway, apparently none too soon. Billy jumared the free rope, trailing the third as I cleaned Boot Flake. Without going to the top of the Boot, Billy began the spectacular pendulum known as the King Swing. He was successful on his first attempt, with John and me in hot pursuit. The climbing changed at this point from the straightforward cracks, so typical of Yosemite, to less obvious, circuitous climbing, reminiscent of his home turf in Colorado. Billy proved to be the right man for the job as he flowed up the pitches with fluid ease. Reminiscent of the Flower Tower, the Great Roof grew rapidly closer as pitches scrolled by successively.
Our haste was not unchecked, however. The trail rope jammed in a crack without our noticing until it came tight on the still-leading Billy. A lost rope would be disastrous. Murphy's Law was in effect, as always, and we should have been paying closer attention. We managed to clear the snag within a couple of minutes, and Billy continued. At 1:30, we reached Camp Four, where we enjoyed a welcome five-minute break. To qualify as a one-day ascent, we had to complete the route within 24 hours, a feat which now seem assured. Failing a natural disaster, like the axis of the earth shifting, we would be well within the required time frame.
At the Great Roof, I lowered John out and across the void until the rope ran straight up to Billy, stationed at the belay some 50 feet to the right. I waited for him to gain some altitude and then let go of the rope. True to form, the unexpected occurred. The rope whipped across and made a perfect hitch around horn of rock as though its malicious intelligence was just waiting for an unwitting mistake like this. John roared like a wounded buffalo when the rope halted his progress. It stretched like a tuned guitar string between his waist and the horn of rock. As he pulled on the rope with his Herculean arms, the horn shuddered, then lifted off, a launched missile headed for space. The afterburners misfired and the projectile fell toward two unsuspecting climbers below. I screamed, "Rock! rock!" then prayed for the best and continued cleaning the pitch.
By 3:00 p.m., we had reached Camp Five, and I took over the home stretch. It was obvious that someone had recently taken the time and effort to remove all the fixed pitons from the route. I'd been on a rescue in these upper dihedrals the previous year, and they had been festooned with fixed gear. Stripped of hardware, these corners would now be slow going.
Speed in aid climbing is a product of efficient movement, the avoidance of errors, and not falling. With these things in mind I went as fast as I could. Some of the pitches were predominately aid while others I climbed partly free. John spurred me on: "Hurry man, we gotta make it down before the bar closes." Inspired by such encouragement, I combined two pitches into one. A rope got stuck in a crack but John freed it. Then, without warning, I dropped an aid sling. As it plummeted through space, I yelled out instinctively. Billy, as though it was routine, reached out and grabbed it in mid-flight.
The summit overhangs suddenly appeared as I turned a slanting corner and I remember wanting to just keep climbing but I knew we would have to belay once more. I waited impatiently for perhaps a whole five minutes for John to reach my side then started the final bolt ladder to the summit. I couldn't help but notice how much the bolts had deteriorated in the seven years since my last passage here, and I wondered how much longer this silent monument to Warren Harding's tenacity would endure.
All things must pass and so did this day. We stood on top at 7:00 p.m. Allowing little time for elation, the three of us took off at a run down the East ledges. My shoes, already killing my feet, soon filled with sand and small stones to add to the torment. Just as my feet hit the pavement of the road the evening turned to night, and the moon shone the great stone as we strode to the car. It was a long way to go in a day.
Friends greeted us outside the Mountain Room Bar with a heroes welcome. Soon, I had more drinks in hand than I could juggle. My fondest memory occurred the following day when Warren Harding, the man who had pioneered the Nose and El Capitan, gave me his warm congratulations. I thanked him and hobbled toward the cafeteria for some stolen coffee.