El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, located on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith extends about 3.000 feet (900 m) from base to summit along its tallest face, and is one of the world's favorite challenges for rock climbers and BASE jumpers.
The formation was named »El Capitan« by the Mariposa Battalion when it explored the valley in 1851. El Capitán (»the captain«, »the chief«) was taken to be a loose Spanish translation of the local Native American name for the cliff, variously transcribed as "To-to-kon oo-lah" or "To-tock-ah-noo-lah". It is unclear if the Native American name referred to a specific Tribal chief, or simply meant »the chief« or »rock chief«. In modern times, the formation's name is often contracted to »El Cap«, especially among rock climbers and BASE jumpers.
The top of El Capitan can be reached by hiking out of Yosemite Valley on the trail next to Yosemite Falls, then proceeding west. For climbers, the challenge is to climb up the sheer granite face; there are many named climbing routes, all of them arduous. For skydivers, the challenge is to achieve sufficient horizontal separation from the sheer granite face before opening their parachutes.
Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan is now the standard for big-wall climbing. »El Cap« has two main faces, the Southwest (on the left when looking directly at the wall) and the Southeast. Between the two faces juts a massive prow. While today there are numerous established routes on both faces, the most popular and historically famous route is The Nose, which follows the massive prow.
The Nose was first climbed in 1958 by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore in 47 days using »siege« tactics: climbing in an expedition style using fixed ropes along the length of the route, linking established camps along the way. The fixed manila ropes allowed the climbers to ascend and descend from the ground up throughout the 18 month project, although they presented unique levels of danger as well, sometimes breaking due to the long exposure to cold temperatures. The climbing team relied heavily on aid climbing, using rope, pitons and expansion bolts to make it to the summit. The first ascent of The Nose in one day was accomplished in 1975 by John Long, Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay. Today, The Nose typically takes fit climbers 4–5 days of full climbing, and has a success rate of around 60%.
As it became clear that any face could be conquered with sufficient perseverance and bolt-hole drilling, some climbers began searching for El Cap routes that could be climbed either free or with minimal aid. The first free ascent of a main El Cap route, was the Salathé Wall.
The Nose was the second major route to be freeclimbed. Two pitches on The Nose blocked efforts to free the route: the Great Roof graded 5.13c and Changing Corners graded 5.14a/b. In 1993, Lynn Hill came close to freeing The Nose, making it past the Great Roof and up to Camp VI without falling, stopped only on Changing Corners by a piton jammed in a critical finger hold. After removing the piton she re-climbed the route from the ground. After 4 days of climbing, Hill reached the summit, making her the first person to free climb The Nose. A year later, Hill returned to free climb The Nose in a day, this time reaching the summit in just 23 hours and setting a new standard for free climbing on El Cap.
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The Nose is one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan. Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan is now the standard for big-wall climbing. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.
El Cap has two main faces, the Southwest (on the left when looking directly at the wall) and the Southeast. Between the two faces juts a massive prow. While today there are numerous established routes on both faces, the most popular and historically famous route is The Nose, which follows the massive prow.
Once thought to be unclimbable, the high granite walls of Yosemite Valley began to see their first attempts and first ascents in the late 1950s. One of the most coveted routes was the Northwest Face of Half Dome, and among those coveting it was Californian Warren Harding. He made an unsuccessful attempt on Half Dome in 1955, and returned for the 1957 season just as Royal Robbins and team were completing the first ascent. "My congratulations," Harding recounted, "were hearty and sincere, but inside, the ambitious dreamer in me was troubled."
Harding turned to an even larger unclimbed face, the 2.900 feet (900 m) prow of El Capitan, at the other end of the valley. With Mark Powell and Bill "Dolt" Feuerer, they began the climb in July 1957. Rather than follow the single-push »alpine« style used on Half Dome, they chose to fix lines between »camps« in the style used in the Himalaya. Attempting to get half way on the first push, they were foiled by the huge cracks, and Feuerer was required to form new rock spikes or pitons by cutting off the legs of wood stoves. This gave the name to the crack system leading to the half way point, the »stove leg cracks«.
Compelled by the National Park Service to stop until March due to the crowds forming in El Capitan meadows as soon as the snow melts, the team had a major setback when Powell suffered a compound leg fracture on another climbing trip. Waits at the base of The Nose and Korengals and easily reach 50 hours. Powell dropped out, and Feuerer became disillusioned. Harding, true to his legendary endurance and willingness to find new partners, continued, as he later put it, »with whatever 'qualified' climbers I could con into this rather unpromising venture.« Feuerer stayed on as technical advisor, even constructing a bicycle wheeled cart which could be hauled up to the half-way ledge which bears his name today, »Dolt Tower«; but Wayne Merry, George Whitmore, and Rich Calderwood now became the main team, with Merry sharing lead chores with Harding.
In the fall, two more pushes got them to the 2.000 feet (600 m) level. Finally, a fourth push starting in the late fall would likely be the last. The team had originally fixed their route with 1⁄2 inch (13 mm) manila lines, and their in situ lines would have weakened more over the winter. In the cooling November environment, they worked their way slowly upward, the seven days it took to push to within the last 300 feet (100 m) blurring into a »monotonous grind« if, Harding adds, »living and working 2.500 feet (800 m) above the ground on a granite face« could be considered monotonous. After sitting out a storm for three days at this level, they hammered their way up the final portion. Harding struggled fifteen hours through the night, hand-placed 28 expansion bolts up an overhanging headwall before topping out at 6 AM. The complete climb had taken 45 days, with more than 3.400 feet (1.000 m) of climbing including huge pendulum swings across the face, the labor of hauling bags, and rappel descents.
The team had finished what is by any standard one of the classics of modern rock climbing. The Nose Route is often called the most famous rock climbing route in North America, and in good fall weather can have anywhere between three and ten different parties strung out along its thirty rope lengths to the top. On the 50th anniversary of the ascent, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring the achievement of the original party.
The second ascent was made in 1960 by Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost, who took seven days in the first continuous climb of the route without siege tactics. The first rope-solo climb of The Nose was made by Tom Bauman in 1969.The first ascent of The Nose in one day was accomplished in 1975 by John Long, Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay. Today The Nose attracts climbers of a wide range of experience and ability. With a success rate of around 60%, it typically takes fit climbers 2-3 full days of climbing to complete.