Nose in a Day
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 fob 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.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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