BD athlete Alex Honnold reports on his three El Cap routes in 24 hours with Sean Leary
Black Diamond athlete Alex Honnold teamed with Sean Leary on June 29 to tackle three Grade Vi El Cap routes in a day, a massive link-up of more than 90 pitches. The duo climbed the Nose, the Salathe Wall and Lurking Fear. Below is Honnold's report on their amazing effort, including a list of the gear they used (hint: not much!). Photos of Honnold and Leary are courtesy of ace photog Tom Evans, who dutifully manages the seasonal updates for the El Cap Report (www.elcapreport.com). Congratulations to both Honnold and Leary on their massive effort!
So this is my long and innvolved narrative about how Sean Leary and I climbed El Cap three times in a day. I'm not sure that I can really do the experience justice—the whole thing was pretty surreal. The combination of night climbing and fatigue made it all seem a little blurry, but I'll try my best.
My day began at 5am in Hollywood, where I was staying with my girlfriend. As she headed off to work I steered the van toward the Valley, making it to the meadow by noon-ish. I hung out with Tom Evans and scoped the Captain through his big lenses. The climbing scene was just about dead for the season; virtually no one was on the wall.
I had to film some interviews on and off throughout the afternoon for a different project, while Sean and I racked up and tried to sort out logistics. The heat in the meadow was crippling and we both decided we should tweak our plan a little to avoid the heat better.
I'd been hoping to nap a little bit in the evening and then blast off up the Nose with Sean at around midnight. Then we'd climb the Salathe next, which doesn't get sun until 11am or noon. So we could stay out of the sun for the first two routes and then just suffer up the third route, Lurking Fear, in the full heat of the day. But faced with just how hot it was, we decided to start as soon as the sun left the wall. By climbing in the dark we figured we'd stay better hydrated and less tired. The only real downside to night climbing is that it's harder to follow the routes and you move a little slower. But we figured we'd be ok since we have the routes pretty dialed.
By 8pm the sun passed off the wall and we wrapped up all the media stuff. Sean and I quickly donned our harnesses and headed towards the Nose. Some old friends of mine who just happened to be in the Valley wandered up to the base with us to shoot the shit and watch us climb to Sickle Ledge. Sean started leading us up the route at about 8:25. I simuled behind him on a GriGri with various amounts of rope between us. Some times we would be really close together if there were bolts or an anchor, but sometimes we'd be really far apart, like in the Stovelegs, when there was very little gear placed.
Sean led smoothly, except when he managed to miss the Stovelegs and wander up some other crack to the right. I noticed the error when he was about a pitch up the wrong corner. I wound up just leading a pitch past him so he could swing back to the correct crack and then he took over again, leading us all the way to the Boot. The whole thing probably only cost us about 15 minutes or so, though I think it hurt our psyche a little to get off route in the very first hour of a big link up.
We both did the King Swing and I took over the lead, short fixing all the way to the summit. I stopped to re-rack at Camp 6, I think, but we moved pretty quickly. We accidentally woke some folks up on Camp 6. I'd thought that we had the route to ourselves so we were yelling back and forth. But when I popped over the ledge there were two poor dudes trying to sleep. They didn't seem too bothered though.
We topped out to a near-full moon, which made the whole high country glow in beautiful light. The hike down felt pretty surreal. Moonlight reflecting on white granite. We were both pretty sleepy since it was about 1am, but we were also pretty wired from the excitement of getting up the Nose so fast in the dark.
We'd left a car stashed at the Manure Pile so we drove back to the meadow (saving our feet a mile walk or so) and grabbed some food out of our bear box. We quickly swapped out some gear, refilled our water bottles, and hiked up to the Salathe.
Sean set out leading again and we simuled all the way to the Heart. My sleepiest moment of the whole link up was waiting on the Heart while Sean lead the next pitch. It was about 4am and when I suddenly stopped climbing for a minute my fatigue caught up with me. But then I started simuling again, going all the way to the Alcove before our next stop.
We were climbing much slower than we had the year before when we did the speed record on the Salathe. This time it felt like we were crawling. The rock felt super greasy and we were dripping sweat. But we were still moving steadily upward. At dawn we passed a party on the Spire who were about to lead the next pitch. They were very friendly local folks from Foresta; they gave me a bar as I went by. My stomach had been churning horribly since we started the whole link up. I was hoping that by eating a different kind of bar it might help settle things down. No luck.
Sean finally stopped at the Sewer and again I took over, short fixing us to the summit. I felt massively pumped climbing the 5.12 pitches above Soit le Tois and I actually had to aid climb sections of the Headwall. I was just too tired to actually hang on for very long. I was a little embarrassed to be moving so much slower than we had last time. But either way we got up the route. On top the sun greeted us—the first time we'd seen it. We were immediately cooked on the hike down. Sean set out at a brisk pace and I never saw him again until I made it to the Manure Pile parking—where he was asleep on the ground next to the car.
Again, we resupplied at the bear box in the Meadow. Though this time there was a selection of Monkeys around to chat with while we reracked. We got some last minute beta on Lurking Fear from Steve Schneider, who happened to be in the Valley climbing. He and Hans did the original El Cap Triple back in the day, but they did Nose, Lurking Fear, West Face and they used lines that Steve had fixed on LF to rap back down (he was working on freeing the route, which is proud).
This time we were not quite as quick at the transition. It was nice to hang out and chat while eating some real food. But we still felt pretty good, considering. We set off towards Lurking Fear in full sun, hiking pretty slowly. It was remarkable how slowly we hiked up hill, though we still got there within 45 minutes. After chugging some water at the base we started up the last route of the day. This time I led and short fixed, allowing Sean to stay in his tennies as much as possible. Our feet were feeling totally worked, mine more so than his. Wearing tight climbing shoes for 90 pitches, many of them in crushing sun, is pretty damn painful.
I led fairly steadily up to Pitch 9 or so. I was too tired to French free the harder pitches, which meant we weren't moving super fast, but at that point in the day any kind of steady upwards progress was good enough. At Pitch 9 my feet hurt too much to continue wearing my shoes so I passed the lead over to Sean. He floundered for about 15 minutes, not trusting our thin gear enough to aid a short section of pin scars. At that point my feet felt better from the rest and I took over again, leading all the way to Thanksgiving Ledge. Once we were past all the 5.12 pitches we started simul climbing again. I think Sean was psyched to finally put the jugs away. It's amazing his arms hadn't given out from all the pitches of jumaring.
In one of the final 5.10 pitches I popped my shoes off my heels and lead the pitch with only my toes on. It felt much better, though I almost lost them a few times.
We were checking our watch on and off throughout the route to make sure we would be done within 24 hours. When it was clear that we were going to make it we slowed down a bit and relaxed a little.
Sean led us to the summit. After a whole day of simuling and short fixing with no belay it was a pleasure to be on a nice toprope for the final few hundred feet. We both sat down to enjoy a few minutes on the summit. Taking off my climbing shoes was an orgasmic pleasure, though my feet were so rocked that my comfy approach shoes hurt a lot, too.
The hike down was, again, surreal. It felt like we'd climbed the Nose the week before. We kept almost saying things like "the other day when we were on the Salathe,” only to realize that we'd topped out the Salathe 12 hours before. We’d summited at about 7:30, 23 hours after starting. We hoped we could get down in time for the Pizza Deck since we hadn't had any real food all day. We hustled down and made it just in time for a nice, hot meal.
Some of the memorable events of the day for me:
• I found a scorpion in one of the shoes that a friend has stashed on top for me the week before (so we wouldn't have to carry shoes up).
• I grabbed a frog while simuling the Freeblast (the first section of the Salathe).
• We flushed a deer on the way up to Lurking Fear. It was pretty.
• We bootied a ton of gear from all over the routes.
• I learned that sometimes C3s work better upside down in a pin scar. Facing down. Weird.
• I really liked seeing the lights of the Central Valley in the distance, as we got higher up the wall.
The day by numbers: [All approximate. We used a watch, but I can never remember very well.]
8:25 pm - Started the Nose
12:40 am - Topped out Nose. 4:17 on route, which we were pretty psyched about. Quick!
2 am roughly - Back at car and eating/drinking/reracking
3am roughly - Started the Salathe
9:30am - Topped out Salathe. Roughly 6:30 on the route (timer got stopped accidentally in a chimney)
11am roughly - Back in the meadow eating/reracking/taking Ibuprofen.
12:30 pm roughly - Started Lurking Fear
7:30 pm roughly - Topped out Lurking Fear. 23 hours total on the link up!!!
9:45 pm - made it to the Pizza Deck for our first real food of the day.
Single Purple C3 and Green C3
Doubles from Red C3 - Green C4
Single #1, #2, #4 Camalot
15 [??] draws and biners. We had a huge net gain of biners on the route. We booted like 5 or 6.
And we bootied a grey TCU which we gave to a party we passed that was bivied on Camp 6
Same as Nose but with a #6 instead of the #4. We climbed the Monster Offwidth.
Same as above but with the #4 and no #6
And we added a Grey C3, another Green C3, and some micro nuts for aiding.
We generally had one set of jugs between us and a single belay device, etc. We were super light on gear.
One liter of water per person on our harnesses. Bars in our pockets. Both wearing pants and synthetic t-shirts (no jackets or layers at all). And we both sweat our balls off for the entire 24 hours. So hot!!!
— Alex Honnold