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Almost Three Miles of Climbing...

El Capitan's Girdle Traverse

By: Chris McNamera

I can't believe it's a Girdle!Running the rope through a biner connected to a #2 copperhead, I shout to Mark, "Lower me!" and I slowly descend the slightly overhanging granite wall. I grab the rope with my right hand and using my left for balance press my feet hard against the wall and begin sprinting back and forth across the golden face. A small sloping edge emerges and I thrust my body forward, left hand extended, and latch on. Sweat begins to ooze from my fingertips as I fumble with the rack, remove a Talon hook, place it on a tiny granite granule and begin to pray. The hook holds for five seconds before PING! I lurch backwards skidding back across wall in a helpless rag doll arc. I attempt to regain control on the back-swing, feet clawing desperately, but lactic acid in my legs is too much and I give up, gradually coming to rest below my last piece. I look across the 200-foot blank expanse of rock to the next feature and then I look at Mark. He stares at me with mixed expression of impatience and empathy. I begin to curse. Is the Girdle of El Capitan an impossible task?

Girdle traverses have enjoyed modest popularity in the Britain but have only a brief history in the America. Paul Ross pioneered the first U.S. Girdles beginning in 1972 with a traverse of White Horse Cliff, New Hampshire and went on to make the first girdles of Cathedral and Cannon Cliffs. In the mid 1970's Ross may have been the first person to consider an El Cap traverse, but it wasn't until the 1980's that Bill Price led the first serious Girdle attempt. Price started from the East Buttress with the intent of not only traversing El Cap but climbing many unclimbed features in the process. He made it to a spot near El Cap Tree before abandoning the attempt. After Price, numerous people drew up in their minds potential Girdle lines but no more recorded attempts were made.

For me the Girdle was born out of a desire to do a new route on El Cap. Years of reading books like "Yosemite Climber" and "Vertical World of Yosemite" left me aching to make my own addition to Yosemite's climbing lore. I scoured the face with binoculars locating and connecting virgin micro-features until in 1997 I had a new route pieced together.I armed myself with hundreds of copperheads and a vast collection of thin pitons and hooks and marched to the base. Yet as looked up the nearly-invisible line and unloaded my mass of steel and aluminum I was struck by the blasphemy of my act. Unlike the Nose or Salathe, this route would not sustain many ascents after mine. Fragile features would fall off, rivets would be added, hook moves re-enhanced and copperhead placements re-trenched. The route would become another bland line of fixed copper, steel and enhanced hooks. I didn't want to be a part of this movement in aid climbing and decided to leave the squeeze-job for someone else. By default the Girdle became my last chance at putting a new line up on El Cap.

When first contemplating a Girdle Traverse I briefly considered continuing Price's vision of a line that climbed many new features in a proud diagonal across the face. Yet, the more I looked at such a line the more daunting the project became. The logistics required would be unprecedented and the ascent might easily take twenty days. And who would ever repeat such an ordeal? I decided that the solution to the Girdle's logistics lay in attempting the traverse as a speed climb. Instead of hauling hundreds of pounds of supplies sideways, I would leave the gear behind and climb in "single push" style. After two months of scoping both from the ground and from the wall the Girdleline came together in July 1998. Most of the terrain was familiar; I had climbed every established route that the Girdle would share. The challenge would be negotiating the few blank spots between established routes where new climbing would be required. These unknown sections cast just enough uncertainty over the project to ensure a steady infusion of adventure throughout the climb. Marketing the Girdle as "A grand tour of El Caps finer ledges and pitches" I began searching for someone who had the two requisite skills for such a long traverse: speed and the ability to improvise with rope techniques. Mark Melvin fit the description perfectly. When Mark led me up my first big wall, the West Face of El Cap, he forgot his rock shoes I assumed the climb was off. Yet Mark didn't see the fact that there were four feet and two shoes as a problem. At the end of each pitch he zipped the shoes down to me, except on the easier pitches where he would leave them with me and lead barefoot. Novel situations clearly don't faze Mark but when I explained my idea for the Girdle, he harbored some skepticism. However, he agreed to give it a shot in early August.

Previous climbers dreamed of a perfectly diagonal girdle line. Our line was far from that; following the biggest, friendliest features on the face. When pieced together the jagged ups and downs of the line resembled the readout of a heart monitor. We began on August 4 on East Buttress and traveled across easy free climbing and a few rappels until we reached the first pitch of Eagle's Way. From here we began an upward diagonal that took us as high as the Black Tower before we began a series of rappels back down toward Tangerine Trip. Lunging through space for fixed heads and bolts to guide us to anchors it became clear that we had a distinct advantage over earlier Girdle attempts in the 1980's. In the last fifteen years numerous new routes had been squeezed in, making it impossible to move 50 feet in any direction without running into an anchor or a piece of fixed gear. As we reached the second belay on Lost in America Mark prepared to rappel by clipping the rope to a bolt and calling for tension. No sooner had Mark leaned back than he took a sudden five-foot static fall directly onto my Gri Gri. With shocked expressions we looked at each other and then the anchor. The bolt Mark was lowering off had sheared, leaving a rusted and pathetic steel stud. I had replaced hundreds of bad bolts with The American Safe Climbing Assn. over previous months and was aware of just how feeble many of them were. Still, I was not prepared for ease with which this one broke. It was a sober reminder of how, as safe as you try to be, things still "happen" when you least expect them to. Twenty pitches and twelve hours from our starting point we reached El Cap Tree and rapped down to the ground, the all-you-can-eat restaurant and beers.

Returning to the ground between pushes at first posed an ethical dilemma. The purest way to Girdle El Cap would be to haul all gear from start to finish, but this was logistically out of the question. Another approach would be to climb up various routes and leave food and water stashes, but this would have required "preparing" the route in advance which was more contrived than resupplying between pushes. The drawback to rappelling to the ground was the mental inertia that had to be conquered. On the wall the climbing moved fast and painlessly but as soon we touched the ground the momentum was lost and had to be regained with the start of each push.

The Valley is always expected to be hot in August, but we managed to pick the three hottest days of the year to start the second and most difficult push on the Girdle. As temperatures climbed into the 100's we couldn't ignore the other climbers who had bailed off the El Cap and now lay under the shade of trees on the banks of the Merced River. Neither Mark nor I were enthusiastic about continuing the traverse and we both went about the morning rituals at half speed. We were both hoping that the other would make up a decent excuse to bail and we could then get some Ben and Jerry's. Yet by nine o'clock we had only come up with a few half-ass excuses that didn't warrant retreat. We unenthusiastically continued the ascent.

The second push of the Girdle would take us from El Cap Tree, to Calaveras Ledge, across the Continental Shelf to El Cap Tower and eventually down and across to Heart Ledges. Chris in the midst of El Cap's Girdle TraverseOur first plan was to try this leg in a single push but we quickly changed our minds as we imagined spending a night hanging in harnesses in the middle of the Dawn Wall. We opted to bring a small haulbag with water and 60 degree sleeping bags. The day began on the Atlantic Ocean Wall and after two quick A4 pitches we were faced with 300-foot stretch of new climbing to join the next established route. I began on what would be the crux pitch by hooking for thirty feet up and left to a copperhead. From there I began penduluming, face climbing and hooking for 90 feet left across diorite to the base of large rotten flake. I put a cam behind the flake and began testing when to my horror the 1000 pounds of rotten and sharp rock began to separate from the wall. I quickly removed the cam and looked back ten feet to my last piece of pro, a #2 knifeblade. >From there it was another 40 feet to a small stopper and then another 40 feet to a copperhead. I was in a fix. I stared at the flake for a few minutes, trying to decide: Was my fear the irrational variety or was it the self preserving kind that tells when you are about to get killed? Finally a wave of confidence (or stupidity) washed over me and I called for Mark to give me fifteen feet of slack (to eliminate rope drag) and began delicately lie backing the flake for the most exciting 15 seconds of my life. At the top I teetered left across loose flakes to decent horizontal flake in which I frantically began sinking pins for a belay. I equalized three angles and gave one last hit to the last pin when the whole flake began to move. I decided enough was enough and drilled an anchor bolt. Another seven pitches of easy free climbing and rappelling brought us to the top of the Continental Shelf and our bivy. By eight o'clock the sun had set but temperatures remained in the 80's and in an effort to keep cool Mark and I slept in nothing but our shorts. I had just gotten comfortable when I noticed the pitter patter of small objects against my body. I quickly sat up to discover hundreds of little brown bird turds covering my bare skin. I grimaced, began brushing them off and looked up to locate source of the brown pellets. But the attackers remained hidden, hundreds of feet above. There was no way to move so I lay back down with the hope that as night fell the birds would let up and catch few Z's. We had no such luck. Every hour I would wake up, issue a few terse words and brush the little presents off. We got an early start the next morning, eagerly abandoning our vulnerable position for the flawlessly vertical Dawn Wall. Mark led across South Seas and Mescalito's Molar Traverse to The Wall of Early Morning Light. Here we cruised across a classic Warren Harding full pitch of dowels to the last major unknown section of the Girdle line.

From the start Mark had been concerned with this stretch. I had assured him I had it all worked out. Now as we sat at the belay, peering across the 300 feet of blank granite separating us from El Cap Tower, I realized that I had miscalculated. Mark mentioned bailing, but I convinced him to let me have a shot at swinging over to the Tower. Thus began my rag doll pendulum performance. Five hours, one rivet, two anchor bolts and four hundred feet of pendulums later we connected with New Dawn. Sighs of relief attended our belief that the main difficulties of the climb were over. We reached El Cap Tower by 4 p.m. and opted to bivy rather push through the night. Even with the rations of a five quarts of water per person per day, so intense was the heat that we were nearly dry by the morning. The fourth day began with Mark climbing the Texas Flake and Boot Flake. We continued up the Nose to Camp 4 where we reversed the Triple Direct to the Muir Wall and rappelled down to Heart Ledges and the ground. We were tired, our thoughts dulled by the heat, but were glad that only one last push remained.

We swam in the Merced River and refueled with all-you-can-eat salad and beer to prepare for the last leg. At 4 am on August 8 we began jugging up to Heart Ledges and moved quickly up the Salathe Wall. By 1 p.m. we reached the roof and I began moving left over the last 200 feet of rock before Thanksgiving Ledge. I had led part of this pitch before and was convinced that it was one of the uglier pitches on El Cap. The first forty feet was easy free climbing with poor pro that led to a large roof. Cams led across the rotten, mossfilled, horizontal roof cracks to a small ledge beneath the roof that formed a loose-block-ridden belly crawl. Mark then received the honor of re-leading most of the pitch to clean the gear.

Thanksgiving Ledge, a quarter mile long and 8 foot wide weakness in El Cap, was clearly the key to the Girdle. With only a few hours of daylight left we quickly moved across the ledge through a 200-foot section of "5.8 bushes" to the West Face finish. By 7 p.m. we had finished the final easy fifth class sections and stood on the summit. After 75 pitches and 14,000 feet of movement (climbing, rappelling, walking) we had triumphantly conquered the illogical. The Girdle is not El Cap's best route but it climbs many of El Caps finest pitches. It is also not the worst route, although there are a few stinker sections. In the end the Girdle was just what we expected it to be: long, obscure and most of all adventurous.

Mark and I shook hands and once again turned our attention to beer and the salad bar.


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