Caught in a Storm on the Salathe Headwall

9/18 - 9/22/2017

It was a warm morning in the Valley, even for 5am, when Cooper and I woke up from a nice night sleeping in the boulders. We had planned to leave the prior morning but by the time we had showered, gotten coffee, and arrived at the base of the wall at 9am, there were some 10 parties up on Freeblast(The first 10 pitches of the Salathe), and a line of climbers waiting at the base. We woke up, picked up our third partner, Mike, from Curry Village, and headed to the base to begin what we planned on being a 2-3 night trip up the wall. The weather looked amazing, a weeks worth of sunshine and perfect climbing temps in the forecast. Thanks to Cooper and Mike we already had 8 gallons of water and three days worth of food in a bag up on the Heart Ledges(Top of Freeblast) where we would pick them up and continue with the supplies to the top.

Ilana, the morning before heading back to Seattle, helping us pack to haul.

I only had 3 weeks and I was set on doing as much climbing as possible. In the first week I did a ton of free climbing, ticking off many longer free routes I’d not done before. Both Mike and I had climbed El Cap once before and it was Cooper’s first wall. I’d never climbed outdoors with Mike and had done a fair bit of stuff around Washington with Cooper. We all met at UW Rock on the UW campus a few years ago and whats pretty cool is that we had all learned how to climb there. For a big mission up the Salathe we needed a team name and the obvious choice was Team UW Rock because UW Rock for life.

Day 1 - Team UW Rock sets out

We arrived at the base around 6:30am and there were already a few parties on the wall, with a few waiting in line at the base. There was no way we were going to get here any earlier the next day and our time in the Valley was starting to run out so we decided to just wait our turn and go for it. A couple hours later it was our turn to go and I was standing at the base of the first pitch, racked up, and ready to send.

Cooper taking the first few leads.

The first 10 or so pitches of the Salathe Wall follow a route called Freeblast, the hardest sections go at a solid 5.11 grade. I lead the first pitch which was an awesome 5.10 section following two cracks up to below a roof. Cooper took over from there leading the 5.11c roof crux, struggling, and falling on a .1 that held. Laughing through it he got back up, went for it again, and stuck the moves. We were having a blast.. A member in the party above us who were heading up to climb the Triple Direct got spooked so they bailed around pitch 4 leaving us with no parties above us for a few pitches. As they were heading down, Felipe, one of the guys that was bailing told us he had a bunch of water and food up on the heart ledges and that we were welcome to use whatever we wanted. A super kind offer that ended up helping out quite a bit later on.

A few pitches off the ground now.

Around pitch 5 I was belaying Cooper, with Mike sitting right next to me on a ledge. “ROCKKKK” echoes across the wall, Mike and I look up to see an object about 1000ft up and far left of us falling through the air. In that moment I made out what looked like the large wooden belay seat we’d seen a British team heading up The Shield, earlier that day. The seat looked far over but as it fell we watched the wind carry it in our direction. BAMMM. The seat struck the ledge about 3 feet from where Mike was sitting and sailed off into the trees below. It took us both a few seconds to even process what had happened. We spent a good 15 minutes in awe at the size of the object that had just nearly taken us out then pushed it aside and continued up. Things are different on the wall. You are likely to get pissed on, the sun will be HOT, the ledges will smell like crap, you shit in a bag and carry it with you, and the wind will be WILD. When your on the wall, you don’t think twice about any of it. Falling objects are terrifying, but rare, and even rarer to get hit. Driving from Seattle to Yosemite was probably riskier. Either way nearly getting hit by that seat definitely was frightening.

A few pitches later we were at the Half Dollar pitch, a right facing corner, with extremely glassy smears. I lead this pitch which felt quite difficult, especially first entering the corner as the rock is super polished and there were not really any edges for feet.

From the top of the Half Dollar we climbed two easy 5- pitches and arrived at Mammoth which is a massive ledge 1000ft up El Cap, 200ft up and just to the right of the Heart. From here we rappelled down to the bottom of the heart, where there are a few ledges called the Heart Ledges. This is also where we were planning on spending the night.

Water bottle that hit Mike and partying with the crew for what would be the oscar winning film, Free Solo. Jimmy Chin was not psyched that one of the most popular el cap routes had a lot of people on it, not sure what he was expecting...

It was a total shit show at Heart. There were two groups of three also trying to do the Salathe, one on a ledge 30 ft above us, and another a few pitches up at Lung ledge. Then there was Jimmy Chin, a film crew of 5, and Alex Hon nold. As Honnold had just achieved the most epic feat of all time: free soloing the Freerider(a variation of the Salathe), they had to go back and get some post solo shots for the documentary which Nat Geo is coming out with. It was pretty wild to sit there on the ledge and watch Alex solo up and down all around us. It was interesting watching the filming process. “Nope didn’t get the shot, pose there for another few seconds Alex”, “Alex hang off that flake above for 5 seconds”, etc.. At one point he lowered into the Hollow Flake pitch(which we were all dreading because of the runout), took his harness off, and soloed up and down it. In reality it was probably one of the easiest pitches on the route for him, but pretty amazing to watch.

Day 2 - Offwidth is terrifying

We woke up a bit late and took our time making oatmeal and coffee as we had a two parties above us and there was not much we could do to move quick. The previous night someone on the ledge had dropped a Gatorade bottle which had hit Mike in his sleep and he said it definitely hurt quite a bit in the morning.

Mike lead the first pitch which looked really hard. I lead another short on which put us by the Hollow Flake. It was a pitch that we were all sort of dreading and had not yet decided who would take the sharp end on. The pitch starts about 30/40 ft to the right of a large flake. The leader clips a bolt next to the anchor, lowers about 40 feet and pendulums left into the flake. The leader brings one cam, a 6” piece, for this pitch. They walk it up until it no longer fits and they have to pull the cam because it is below the pendulum point(leaving no protection for the rest of the pitch). At this point the leader had to climb another 50-60 feet of 12 inch 5.8 offwidth, while 30 feet left of the bolt, risking a massive fall, and a pretty bad time. Lucky for Mike and I, Cooper stepped up to the plate. He’d prepared for this on Generator Crack a few days prior and according to him he felt ready to take it on. Cooper headed up and crushed the first half. He pulled the 6 leaving him way out there in his own world with mike and I watching quietly. From there he inched his way up as Mike and I gritted our teeth, just waiting for it to be over, and Cooper to be safe, and our rope to be fixed above this stupid thing. Cooper looked terrified but he pushed on. The team ahead of us had all their bags hanging in top of the flake so once Cooper got 15 feet below the anchor he asked them to throw a rope down to him so that he could safely reach the top. Definitely a good call as at this point he was facing the ride of a lifetime if something went wrong.

Cooper on the hollow flake pitch.

Watching Coop step it up made me want to go for it. The next pitch is a 70 foot chimney that looked looked totally unprotected, or so I thought. I later found out you solo half way up the chimney and then pull out onto the outside where it is easy 5.7 climbing with gear, but I did not know this at the time. 10 minutes later I found myself 40 feet up, no gear, smooth walls, smearing my feet against the two walls, slowly inching my way up. The chimney is behind a flake that is totally detached so when you look down you can actually see 1200 feet down to the floor below El Cap which added quite a bit of exposure to the already scary situation I had gotten myself in. Above me I had 20 feet left, the chimney was flaring more, and thinning, requiring me to wedge myself with my knees. “What am I doing? Why am I here?” I wondered. I slowly inched up, resting often, and thinking a lot about the amount of air between me and the ledge below. Worst case scenarios popped into my head every time I stopped for a second. For some reason, I’m not sure why, I just kept on going. 45ft, 50ft, 55ft, 60ft. Two feet above me the chimney narrowed to a squeeze, maybe 6-8 inches wide. I only had a 5 inch piece on me, I grabbed it unsure if it would fit. I threw it deep in the crack and to my surprise and delight, it was BOMBER. I breathed a sigh of relief, finished the pitch, and felt elation when I finally clipped the anchors.

Hollow flake for breakfast.

Two short free pitches later, we found ourselves at the base of The Ear. The sun was going down. Cooper and I had both had our adventure for the day so Mike stepped up for this last epic chimney of the day. The Ear is what they call a “bombay chimney” which means there is no bottom. It is very thin, a squeeze barely the width of your body, and if you look down, you can see 1500 feet of air below. Mike crushed the pitch, leading it in the dark. I cleaned which was both horrible and hilarious because I could barely fit my body in there, let alone jumar, and pull gear on a traverse. A lot of heaving and moaning later we were all standing atop the ear with a pitch left to our bivy for the night.

Cooper lookin good, and a good lookin sunset.

I lead this final pitch which was the first time I had to do any full on aid. It sucked, it was dark, the pitch was easy C1, long, and not that exciting. We finally arrived at the alcove. The group ahead of us was also staying there so sleeping space was tight. Cooper and I slept on a ledge that was the width of our sleeping pads and Mike slept in a more central area on a slightly leaning rock. There was a team of 3 from Tennessee sleeping a pitch up on the spire, and the team of 4 with us in the Alcove. The team of 4 was trying to free the Monster Offwidth(a variation of the previous pitch) the next day so the plan was to pass them and if possible the group above.

Day 3 - Storms a comin’

We woke up really early and skipped breakfast to try and pass the Chattanooga team. I lead the chimney pitch behind the spire which was AWESOME! The move getting onto the spire was really scary and I was run out on a bad piece and an old pin, so I passed Edward, one of the guys in the Chatt team a draw to clip me to the anchor above while I pulled the move. I hung out a bit and met the other team Edward, Cody, and Laban. The Chatt team had already started climbing so once we all got onto the spire we took our time and made some coffee. The spire is probably the coolest place I’ve ever been. Its a detached block that connects to the wall about 300 feet down and hangs off about a yard. I’d seen pictures of the Yosemite pioneers hanging out on this block, high up on El Capitan, in total peace, on an incredible feature… and I was finally here.

Waking up in the Alcove on day 3

Up until now, the weather forecast had been stellar. No rain for a week, warm temps, sending conditions. On the spire the Chatt team told me there was a 30% chance of rain with 1/10th inch forecast. Not bad, might rain a bit, but 1/10th inch is nothing. We yelled down to the party below to let them know, we ate breakfast, and once we had some space above began to climb.

Cooper cruised up the pitch off of the spire, Mike lead a cool free pitch, then I lead the sewer pitch, which unlike the name was actually really dry and quite fun. The sewer dropped us off at the block where we found the Chatt team hanging out a bit stuck on the next pitch after they spent all morning cruising. They were pretty frustrated to have lost their stride, the leader Edward was a bit confused about where the route went as the rock quality was apparently very poor. Sounded like he did some wild shenanigans on super hollow flakes. Eventually he made it to the top. As the weather seemed to be deteriorating we opted to skip this pitch which might have taken us a while and to get the Chatt team to fix us a line to the next belay. It was clear it might rain a bit, the Chatt team had 1 ledge and a makeshift rain fly for three people and we had nothing. We decided to work together and to help each other out however we could.

Mike on El Cap Spire

Together we decided it made the most sense for them to set up on the small ledge above the block and to let us pass and fix ropes for them as high as we could. At this point we did not really have a solid plan for the night. The wall was vertical and there would be no more ledges from here to Long Ledge which was a good 600 feet up. We knew Long Ledge would be exposed so if it did rain we would probably end up wet. We kept moving up hoping the weather would hold out, and that if it did rain, the precipitation would be minimal. It was starting to get cooler, the wind was howling, and the sun was a few hours from setting.

Heading up to the roof and headwall, where we spent the night.

Mike lead the Enduro-Corner up to below the Salathe Roof. I lead the roof which was EPIC as you basically aid over this massive roof on a bunch of old fixed gear and it is super exposed with 2500 feet of granite jetting out below you to the valley floor. You look down and see way over by The Nose where you started and it looks like miles away horizontally and a mile away vertically. I guess its a good thing that it felt like we had climbed a lot less than it looked like.

We all arrived at the belay above the roof and below the headwall just as dark had settled. As I had the most aid experience in our group I took the headwall pitch. We were told beaks(a type of metal hook used for aid climbing) were great for this pitch and it was my first time using them so I was quite excited. I left the belay and worked my way up. The weather was getting bad. It was now really cold, and I could feel the occasional light rain. Our source of warmth was gone for the night and I could tell that things were about to get real. The gear was tricky. There were lots of old copperhead and nuts with no wires left. I clipped a few decent fixed pieces and delicately placed a few beaks arriving at a solid bolt on the face. I clipped the bolt and continued onwards. It was difficult. There were some good beak placements but no gear for some 10 feet above the anchor. The placements got really bad and I was cold and trying to move quick so I kept going. About 20 feet above the bolt I was hanging on a 0.1 x4(a very very small cam). I saw a bomber two lobe totem placement high up, finally a piece of gear! I stood high in my ladder and pop. Next thing I knew I was back at the belay with Mike and Cooper looking in awe. It took a second for me to realized I’d pulled the piece andI started screaming with happiness. I’d just taken a 40 foot whipper in the dark, 2700 feet of the ground, in the rain. It was my first aid fall and maybe I’m crazy, but it felt pretty awesome…


I headed back up for round two, took a bit more time with my placements, and made it to an intermediate anchor 50 feet above the belay. The rain was starting to pick up a bit, it was getting cold, but we were dry so I continued up the next 150ft of the headwall which was much easier aid. It was overhung and slow going. I climbed 20 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet. Mike and Cooper looked really far away at this point. It had started raining more heavily at this point but we were mostly protected by the overhung headwall aside from the occasional jet of wind that would send a bunch of water right at us. I was scared I’d missed the anchor. I was in a cloud and could only see 10 feet of rock in each direction and was sure I was running out of rope. It was cold but I kept going slowly. I was super scared I was off route, this was not the time to be off route. Occasionally I’d see Cooper or Mike’s headlamp looking up at me. It looked super far away and faint through the thickness of the cloud. I finally reached the anchor, Cooper and Mike cheered, I hooted, stoked to be done. I fixed the line, and realized it was raining quite hard. I’d been protected by the headwall up to this point but at the anchors I was in a waterfall. There was no way we were going up. I made the choice to rap dow. I fixed the haul line, rappelled slowly on the wet rope(with a few backup knots), sliding all over the place, and arrived back at the anchor below the headwall.

It was cold, wet, windy. We were fucked. Rappelling at this point was not an option, the ropes were soaked. We’d have to go down over a roof. We were so cold. We were wet. Simply repelling down from the headwall I’d been slipping and sliding everywhere and it was clear to us that we were in too bad of a condition to go anywhere. It does seem dumb to bivy on the headwall, 2600ft off the ground, above a roof that could have protected us from the rain. But looking back I think we made the best decision we could. We were really far too cold to move, we needed to get warm immediately, it would have been more dangerous to head down below the roof then to hang above it. It was clear that staying dry was not in the books for us, but we had gear and we could at least make a ‘shelter’.

Hauling gear.

So there we were. Cooper, Mike, and I. Soaked through, cold, hanging at a belay with nothing to stand on), 2600 feet off the ground, in the dark, in the rain, with no rain gear or a portaledge…. I clipped my ladders into the anchors to have something to stand on. We got the sleeping bags(down :/) out of the haul bag and a sleeping pad which we built a makeshift roof with. Mike punched holes in the pad and clipped it to the anchors to “protect’ us from the rain. Cooper stood in the haul bag, Mike kind of laid on top of him, and I leaned on them while standing in my ladders. I put my head in the feet of the sleeping bag and zipped it down as far as it would go to my harness. We huddled, hugged, and did what we needed to do to stay warm. It was SO damn cold. I was hyperventilating in my sleeping bag as there was no air and would have to from time to time open it to let the cold fresh air in. We hung there adjusting now and then when our legs fell asleep. We hung there, awake and miserable, for 7 hours.

At around 4 am the Chatt team yelled up at us asking if we were ok. They offered for us to rap down to them and to share their dry sleeping bags and take turns in the portaledge. A heroic offer, but unfortunately we were far too cold to go anywhere. At around 5am they yelled up at us “50% CHANCE OF SNOW!!@#!@!”. Shit.. At noon the next day there was a 50% chance of snow with sub freezing temps. Last night there was only a 30% chance of rain, and look where that got us. We’ve got to get the fuck off this wall I thought to myself. Our ropes are going to freeze and we are going to die up here like that Japanese team I’d heard about who died a pitch from the top of The Nose when they ended up in a waterfall and their ropes froze.

Day 4 - Race to the top

As soon as the sun came up we stuffed everything into our haul bags and booked it to Long ledge. We jugged the line I’d fixed the previous night, I quickly lead the short pitch to Long, and then we were all there on the narrow exposed ledge above the headwall. Our hands and toes were numb, climbing and moving was difficult, but patches of sun were coming out from behind the clouds and although it was cold we were starting to thaw out. I took my soaked gloves off that I’d spent the night with and saw a horrifically wrinkled thing barely resembling a hand. We fixed Chatt’s line, two 70’s tied together, to the anchor on Long. It looked brutal but at least it would keep them warm! They started doing a massive 450 foot space jug to get up to us hanging 50 feet off the wall.

In the storm, high up on Long Ledge

We were still too cold to function properly and extremely sleep deprived. We made a lot of hot tea and coffee on long which warmed us up a bit. The wind was moving fast, we were constantly in and out of clouds. Fog was shooting up the walls. It was both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Our ropes had finally dried out and I could relax a bit. I figured now that our ropes were dry and couldn’t freeze, it was probably better to climb in snow than in the rain. Boy was I wrong…

The Chatt guys arrived to Long and we told them about the previous night while Mike climbed the next pitch. They had also gotten quite cold and wet. Laban lent me a layer to wear as he saw I was super cold which was amazing. I was still cold but it was manageable. If you read this thanks a lot man, seriously… that jacket made me suffer so much less than I would have.

Mike leading the C2 pitch off long - Photo by Tom Evans

Mike fixed the line, we jugged and hauled up to him, then Cooper free/aid linked the next two pitches placing him 80 feet from the summit. At this point it had begun to snow lightly. It was quite windy and the wind would hit the base of El Cap and shoot up causing it to snow up which was quite a trippy thing to see. I’d put my hand out, palm down, and feel cold droplets melting on my palm. The snow was light and nothing to worry about yet but we were still trying to get off quickly as we were so cold.

Cooper fixed lines to below the final pitch and 10 minutes later Mike, the bag, and I were standing just under the summit with one final short 5.6 pitch to go. Cooper started leading while the Chatt team jugged up to us and hauled their bags. It was an incredible teamwork. We were all moving as fast as we could, working efficiently, and doing what needed to be done. Everyone was doing their part and helping each other so that all six of us could get out if this horrible situation.

After a freezing cold and soaking wet night, had a chance to boil up some tea on long ledge.
Photo sent to us by the Chatt guys of their view in thee morning and of them space jugging two 70M ropes from their bivy up to long ledge. One heck of a way to start a day.

About a minute after Cooper set off to finish the route, the weather turned BAD. Thunder, loud Thunder. The light snow had turned to marble sized hail. It was dumping. In under 5 minutes it went from manageable to Cooper’s shoe that was hanging outside the pack being full of hail. The rock was no longer visible under a few-inch thick layer of this stuff. Cooper arrived to the final anchor and according to him he heard a big BOOOOOM and saw lighting strike 200 feet away from him. He fixed the lines, we all bolted for the summit. We fixed Chatt’s lines, they got up quickly as well. Cooper belayed Mike up the easy slabs(hiking terrain) that are on top. With all the snow it was too dangerous to just walk up. If you were to slip and be unroped you would slide right off the top of the wall.

The priority now was to find shelter and to find it fast. There was no way we would be hiking down today, not in this weather. We found a cave, dropped our gear, and huddled inside. There was a dry bag with 3 dry sleeping bags and another with another 3 in a close by cave. The cave was large enough for all of us to sleep. We put 6 pads down side by side and got into these warm and dry sleeping bags which someone left up there. Whoever left those there is a rock star…

Finally off the wall - such a cozy night :)

Edward got a large fire going even in the wet and cold conditions. The fire turned what would have been another cold miserable night into a cozy one. He taught us how to find dry wood in wet conditions and we all helped a bit with collecting enough wood to keep the fire going through the night. We sat there, ate food, and drank hot drinks. We were finally warm and dry, staring dazed into a beautiful fire. We finally got a chance to relax with this group we had just had such a wild journey with. We shared stories, laughed, and discussed the previous day. At around 8pm I passed out having not slept for well over 30 hours. One of the best night sleeps of my life, warmed by the fire, safe, and feeling accomplished.

Day 5 - Our sun is a magical star

The most beautiful views from on top of El Cap on this last morning.

THE SUN WAS UP!!! It was still chilly when we woke up but a beautiful day. We could see Half Dome now that we were no longer in a cloud and snow covered the high country behind it. The top of the Cathedrals were snow covered and so was a lot of the slab where we were. We waited for a few hours while the sun melted the snow and dried the rock. We headed down the east ledges of El Cap. It took maybe 3 hours and around 1pm we were standing under the wall in the meadows, warmed by the sun, and happy to be done. We shared our stories with people in the meadow, dried our gear, and went out for some pizza and beer.

Team UW Rock + The Chatt Guys

Since the climb I’ve tried to explain to people what happened up there. It seems like an impossible story to tell. Documenting it here doesn’t really do it justice. I saw an intensity up there from all of us that I’ve never really experienced before. I remember the wind tearing through my soaked layers as we hung off a few bolts 2500ft up this wall desperately trying to make a shelter. I remember how scary yet beautiful it was to watch the snow falling up the next morning as I shivered on Long ledge. I remember the hooting and hollering of the Chatt guys cheering me on while I lead the headwall, bringing me out of a dark mental space I’d fallen into. When the hail came, I remember how frantic we all were. Moving as quick as possible. At the rate we were going when the storm turned full force we probably could have climbed the Nose in sub 10 hours including the haul bag. We worked together as a team. I’m really glad we met the team from Chatt up there. It was nice to not be alone. That, and they were just awesome people to be around, hilarious, kind, and generous. It would have been much harder without them.

This is an experience I’m never going to forget. The Salathe is an incredible route with many amazing free pitches, insane exposure, and so much adventure. I definitely learned a lot about being prepared for the worst even if the weather looks really good. Now that I’m a UW student I can totally loan out the climbing club’s portaledge, fly down to the Valley, and get wild on some real real real big stone(and stay dry).

Until the next time, and many more :)