by ERIK ORTON
El Capitan is 3,000 feet tall, the largest single monolith of granite on the planet. Climbers come from around the world to attempt an ascent. It rises straight up from the Yosemite Valley Floor and dominates everything else. The most prominent line runs straight up what’s called The Nose, the corner where the East and West walls meet. This is what I wanted to climb.
A year and a half ago, November 2016, I walked up to the base of El Cap for the first time and set my hand against the granite. My daughter, Alison, took this picture and I made it my profile pic. Babysteps.
Six months later, April 2018, I came back. It was part of a plot twist as my family and I made our way to Hawaii. Floods kept us out of the park and forced all the climbers to leave. Once the floods subsided, we returned and I found two potential climbing partners. The first one was game to do the Nose, but within 24 hours, changed his mind. He wanted to practice more on something smaller. The other guy was stoked, but our calendars didn’t line up. We’d decided to do a cool but less ambitious climb in another part of the Valley, but even that got washed out by weather.
It was raining a lot—it was spring after all. Not ideal climbing conditions. My family didn’t have campsite reservations past the rainy days. We were on our way to pick up Alison from the Fresno airport when I turned to Emily and said, “I think I just need to give up my big wall ambitions for this trip. We gave it a good try. Things just aren’t working out.” We’d made good decisions along the way, but things just weren’t lining up in our favor. I proposed we pick up Alison, finish out our camping reservations, head to the coast and drive Route 1/Big Sur until it was time for our flights to Hawaii. Emily thought that was a good plan.
We were in Fresno, waiting for our daughter’s flight, when the text came in. “Hi Erik, are you still around? Saw your note about climbing. I might be up for the Nose...Josh” That was Sunday afternoon.
Tuesday morning Josh and I met to climb something small. A get-to-know-you climb. While leading the third pitch, I got into a spot that was wet and directly over a ledge. "I'm slipping," I called down to him. I was roped in, but worried I was going to fall and hit the ledge on my way down. "Just keep breathing," he called back up. It was good advice. I kept breathing, calmed down and pulled through the moves and got to safer ground. I liked this guy.
That afternoon--once I'd plied him with brownies--we decided to go for The Nose. We sorted gear that evening, packed our food and water the next morning and ferried our first loads up to Sickle Ledge (~500’ up) that afternoon. It was Wednesday. We sat out some rain on Thursday, but Friday at 4am we were up and at it. We had a ton of fun. The pace was steady and we worked hard, but we laughed a lot. It was nice to climb with someone who knew how to enjoy the climb and not just grind. The first day we climbed 10 pitches above Sickle Ledge and made it to El Cap Tower in time to enjoy the evening, heat up some soup and watch the sunset. The next day we climbed Texas Flake, The Boot Flake, Josh did the King Swing, and we pushed on through the night up to Camp V where we slept on scattered ledges. The last day I led The Great Roof, a pitch called Changing Corners and then Josh led us through the last large overhang, and from there I led the easy face climbing to the top. We climbed for three days and two nights, stuck to our plan and topped out with enough daylight to eat our leftover food and walk down in the dark. This was his eleventh ascent of El Cap. It was my first.
As Steve Jobs says, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
As I look back, I see how little things add up. I first went to El Cap just to see it and touch it. I made it real to me. Then I came back with my family and climbed a big wall. An important baby step. Then I tried the Nose but failed. But I learned how to start. Then I came back and succeeded. I was in the right place at the right time to climb with the great partner with great weather. Looking back, the dots connected.