Revealing Routes on El Cap
While this wall is generally only two-thirds as high as the southwest face, its incredible steepness makes it an equally forbidding wall. The dead-vertical (and sometimes overhanging) cliff contains numerous sections of black diorite, often fractured and loose. One gigantic patch of diorite is shaped remarkably like the North American continent, and several routes have names associated with this feature.
Mescalito VI, 5.9, A4
C. Porter, S. Sutton, H. Burton, and C. Nelson, 1973
This popular route, one of the longest routes on the face, takes a line not far right of the Nose. The route is noted for its many fixed copperheads and its "tied-off" placements.
Pacific Ocean Wall VI, 5.9, A4
J. Bridwell, B. Westbay, J. Fiske, and F. East, 1975
The most intimidating El Cap route of the 1970s, the P.O. Wall involves intricate nailing, copperheading, and hooking. With nine pitches of A4 and 15 sling belays, this is hardly a route for the neophyte big-wall climber. In addition, many fixed placements have badly frayed cables, creating a potential for long leader falls.
Sea of Dreams VI, 5.9, A5
J. Bridwell, D. Bard, and D. Diegelman, 1978
This route, Bridwell's masterpiece, involves seven pendulums, four A5 pitches, and much desperate hooking. The recommended equipment list is revealing: 75 pitons, 35 Friends, hooks of all sizes and shapes, and 100 copperheads.
North America Wall VI, 5.8, A3
R. Robbins, C. Pratt, Y. Chouinard, and T. Frost, 1964
Characterized by awkward nailing, loose rock, and complex pendulums, this route is included here more for its history than its superb climbing. The four first-ascenders, the best big-wall climbers of the 1960s, believed the route to be the world's most difficult technical climb. Robbins wrote, "the best way to sum it up is to say that there were at least a dozen pitches which on almost any other climb would be the crux pitch."
Wyoming Sheep Ranch VI, A5+
R. Slater and J. Barbella, 1984
This line, which slices upward through the center of the North American "continent," is presently the only El Cap route rated A5+. As such, it ranks with the hardest artificial climbs yet done.
Gulf Stream, VI, 5.9, A4
S. Gerberding, J. Harpole, and J. Smith, 1993
Climbers are still finding ways up El Cap's face; this recent route is one of the hardest, involving 200 hook placements. Gerberding notched his 58th ascent of El Cap with this route and called it the best wall route he'd ever done.
Tangerine Trip VI, 5.9, A3+
C. Porter and J. de St. Croix, 1973
One of Porter's early routes attacks the overhanging wall to the right of the North America Wall. Few ledges mar this featureless climb; 15 sling belays in a row are required. Although the difficulty is hardly extreme, the fact that two climbers have died low on the route lends a somber aura to the climb.
Lost in America VI, 5.9, A5
G. Child and R. Leavitt, 1985
This difficult 15-pitch route took the first ascenders ten days. Greg Child wrote a splendid article about the route for Climbing, and here's an excerpt: "As [Leavitt] drills through the headwall bulge toward these corners I hear a strangled shriek, feel a tug on the rope and look up to see him dangling. A snapped rivet hanger floats to the ground. Back up again he inches up the bottomless corner on rurps, blade-tips, and copperheads. 'If this pops,' he says shaky voiced, 'it's fly or die.' "
Zodiac VI, 5.11, A3+
C. Porter (solo), 1972
Charlie Porter's El Cap career was relatively shortfour seasons in the early 1970s. But what a record! His eight new routes on El Cap are testaments to his skill and commitmentand four are included in this list of noteworthy routes. Zodiac is perhaps his most oft-repeated route, for the artificial climbing is straightforward. Honed climbers can do the route in a long day with headlampsthe record is 15 hoursbut most parties will bivouac at least once.
East Buttress IV, 5.10b
A. Steck, W. Siri, W. Long, and W. Unsoeld, 1953
This route on the far-right margin of the southeast face is the easiest way up El Cap's escarpment. Although it's never been considered a big-wall route, the line is a true classic and has been a popular one-day outing since the early 1960s. The gold-colored rock is wonderfully solid, and at times the cliff abounds with "chickenheads," remarkable erosional knobs that allow easy free climbing on steep sections. Because of a seasonal waterfall just to the west, this climb doesn't come into condition until July most years.
Article © Steve Roper, 2000.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication