THE LINK-UP: Climbing Half Dome and El Cap in a day
Black Diamond grassroots athlete Jesse Huey partnered with Shane Chelone for one of Yosemite’s most coveted big-wall ticks: Half Dome and El Cap in a day. Chelone sent us the following trip report and photos that details the duo’s race against the clock.
Like all great plans, my idea to link-up Half Dome and El Cap in a day with my good friend Jesse Huey was conceived over a few too many beers at the local bar. At the time he and I weren’t even capable of such a climb and were still falling off 5.9s at the crag and thinking 10-foot runouts were “sick.” The first time we even attempted El Cap’s Nose route was one for the books. Halfway through the Stove Leg pitches, I completely shut down and was hanging all over the route. Just before reaching Dolt Tower, Jesse watched as I dropped our only #4 Camalot, a piece that was very necessary for the pitch ahead. By the time we reached Dolt I was completely dehydrated, exhausted and suffering from mild heatstroke. We of course bailed and I completely forgot about the link-up for many years.
Those early days of rock climbing, however, started a friendship that would last years and both Jesse and I watched each other turn into competent and skilled rock climbers. Our love for Yosemite brought us both there many times and our big wall résumé’s slowly began to build. Soon, we both started to realize that perhaps this pipe dream, this impossible link-up, could very well become a reality.
Our training started in the fall of 2006 with an attempt of the Nose in a day. The only other time we had been on the route together was the failed attempt mentioned before, so we were unsure of how this debacle would even get off the ground. However, we both proved to be much better climbers and we sent the route in 15-plus hours. After working out a few glitches over the winter we returned in May of 2007 and brought our time down to 12 hours flat. This propelled us into an all summer obsession and we trained even harder. On Labor Day weekend 2007 we returned to the Valley once more with one climb in mind: the El Cap and Half Dome in a day link-up.
Pre 5 pm
After much speculation we decide to start Half Dome at 5 pm. We figure that simul-climbing will be much safer and faster in the light rather than a post sunset start time. The Death Slab approach went smoothly and we stood at the base of Half Dome in just 1½ hours after we had stashed our bikes at Mirror Lake. The plan was to fill our water bottles at the spring that was supposedly “still running,” but to our surprise the spring was about as dried up as Bridwell’s hands. We scoured the base for dropped or abandoned water bottles but didn’t find much. Luckily, an hour before blast off, Jesse found “the other” spring… if it was any closer it would have bit us in the face.
5:00 pm – Blast off
3…2….1….Go, go, go!! Jesse takes off up the first pitch and immediately the 135 feet of coiled pink and blue rope starts to decrease in size. What seems like only 30 seconds later Jesse places his first piece of gear and cranks through the 5.10c crux, almost finished with the pitch. The rope comes tight onto my harness, signaling my turn to start climbing. I climb slowly at first until I find a rhythm, and then increase my speed after each lock. Soon Jesse and I are thumping through hand jams in perfect sync, moving together… the climb is on.
6:30 pm – Better than we hoped
An hour and a half later we are pulling up to the Robbins Traverse. It is amazing how much time you save by simul-climbing, and Jesse and I as partners have mastered it. We both climb comfortably and fast without worrying if the other is going to fall—clutch for any speed climbing party. The first 10 pitches are literately a blur and we laugh like schoolgirls as we simul-aid the bolt ladder and glance at the watch. We figured that if we could climb Half Dome in 6-7 hours that would be fast enough for the 24-hour link-up. At the rate we were climbing we were on track for a sub 4-hour ascent of Half Dome! At pitch 10 we swap leads and it is now my block.
7:00 pm – 8:00 pm – Better than before
I had climbed Half Dome two years earlier and the airy chimneys had stopped me cold. I had cried pitifully to the party above to somehow help me out while I sat, wedged in the abyss, too scared to climb any higher and too proud to back down. Miraculously a hero loop of rope appeared before my eyes and I grabbed the umbilical chord, yarding my way up the rest of the pitch. When I arrived at the belay the climber that had so kindly lowered me a loop of rope was staring at me with disgust. I bowed my head like a beaten dog. After that, I vowed to become a solid chimney climber and visited crags like Arch Rock to hone my skills. This time Jesse and I cruise the chimneys, simul-climbing the whole way.
8:00 pm – 9:00 pm – An unfortunate event
Pulling up to pitch 16, my head is filled with emotion. I can’t believe that we have made it this far in less than 3 hours. A surge of adrenaline rocks my veins and I begin to climb faster. Just as I mantle onto the final ledge of the pitch, the rock I am standing on explodes, releasing a bowling-ball-sized block. The rock flips on top of my ankle and rests precariously on my foot. Pebbles skate down the pitch and Jesse yells up to see if everything is OK. “Yeah, I think so… wait, um… oh crap!” As I lift the block, a stream of my blood is already making its way down the pitch. I place the block on the ledge just above, then mantle up to the belay. Once there I take a good look at my foot and see a two inch deep gash exposing tendons, muscle and fatty tissue. I swallow my stomach back down to where it should be and belay Jesse up to the ledge, he greets me with an “Oh my God!”
9:00 pm – 9:45 pm – All is not lost
Even though he understands the situation and is ready to back me on any decision I make on whether to continue the climb or not, I can see that Jesse’s heart is broken. We have no tape to dress the wound and the only option of stopping the blood is to stuff the bottom of my pant leg into the hole. I think for a moment and decide that either way we have to get off this thing and tell Jesse we might as go as fast as we can regardless if we plan to continue with the bigger goal or not. He agrees and fires up the last pitch to Big Sandy Ledge. There, I again take over and start to French free through the first Zig-Zag pitch. My ankle is still bleeding but the pain is surprisingly almost non-existent. Still, I am worried about how this will affect our climb and visually it looks like I have taken a 100-foot whipper. I finish the first Zig-Zag pitch and short fix so I can keep climbing while Jesse jugs and cleans the pitch below. I switch from free to aid and then back to free again with a 50-foot loop of rope looming below. Luckily it’s gotten dark and I don’t have the exposure to deal with. Jesse yells up with sarcasm while jugging, “You can only fall as far as your headlamp can shine, buddy!” I half laugh and cry down to him, “You better hurry up and get me a belay or I’ll bleed on your face!”
9:45 pm – 10:15 pm – A second wind
I finish the second Zig-Zag pitch and fix the rope for Jesse to jug. We decide to switch the block here and soon Jesse is annihilating the third and final Zig-Zag pitch. He short fixes the rope and takes off running across Thank God Ledge with me not far behind. Once at the base of the final bolt ladder he throws me on belay and brings me across Thank God Ledge. He fixes the rope and takes off up the bolt ladder as I finish climbing the pitch below. Once at the belay I throw him on and take his weight so he can pendulum to the last bolts and the ledge of the last pitch. He short fixes and takes off on the final 5.7 as I clean below. Once I arrive at the final belay, I take off climbing since Jesse is now on easier ground. He waits for me just below the summit and we run to the top of Half Dome together, collapsing when we arrive. I look at the watch: 10:15 pm.
10:15 pm – 11:30 pm – One down, one to go
Our time of 5 hours and 15 minutes on Half Dome is astonishing. Neither of us had anticipated we would have climbed it that fast and our motivation returns. My ankle has finally stopped bleeding and there is no pain to speak of. I tear some duct tape from my water bottle and slap it on the gaper. There is no way we are giving up on the link-up and decide then and there we are going to give it our best shot. When we arrive back at the base of Half Dome, another party is there and they have a first aid kit. I bandage my foot with a few strips of medical tape, gauze and athletic wrap. We throw on our packs and begin the long descent down the Death Slabs.
11:30 pm – 1:00 am – Manzanita hell
For Jesse and I, the most daunting part of the link-up was the anticipation of having to descend the Death Slabs in the dark. This proved to be a worthy concern and no more than two minutes into the descent we are lost, swimming through Manzanita bushes. Trails look like creek drainages and creek drainages look like trails. Down is the only way we know to go and so we barrel into the labyrinth with reckless abandon, figuring the faster we move through the dense brush the less it will hurt. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and soon not only are we scraped, scratched, bruised and bloody, but also completely lost. The only thing we know for sure is that the gully that we want to be in is to our left. We look at each other, look left and again start to barrel into the dense brush. Moments later we erupt into the gully and nearly topple onto one another. Ten feet away a cairn marks the trail and we hoot with joy.
After this, the descent goes much more smoothly and soon we are rapping the final fixed ropes to the highway trail below. Here, our collective energy hits a climax and both Jesse and I start to sing familiar songs at the tops of our lungs and chat away about how this is going to be easier than we had thought. We jump on our bikes stashed at Mirror Lake and cruise down the road with pure joy. This was to be the last time we felt this way.
1:00 am – 2:30 am – Gathering strength
Once back at the car, we rehydrate, refuel and re-rack. The statement, “it all catches up to you once you slow down,” rings true as Jesse and I begin to feel the first signs of fatigue. We jump in the car and drive to El Cap Meadow where the Nose of El Capitan awaits.
2:30 am – 2:45 am – A looming shadow
As we approach the base of El Cap, we try and keep morale high by cracking jokes and talking about our perfect send of Half Dome. We avoid any talk of the climb ahead, fearing that we might start a landslide of emotion and the potential bail. We know what we have to do and so we do it. At the base of the first pitch we look at the clock... 2:45 am. “OK man, lets do this,” I say. Jesse looks up the pitch, chalks his hands and I give him the 3, 2, 1 countdown.
2:45 am – 4:30 am – Staying psyched
Jesse quickly moves from lock to lock. We are on familiar ground now and after a short time Jesse is at the belay and short fixes the first of many pitches to come.
4:30 am – 7:00 am – Feel the burn
By the time Jesse is finished with his block of climbing and I am swinging into the first pitch of the Stove Legs, it is just starting to get light. Our time from the ground to this point is slower than what it was in the spring, but that is to be expected considering we just got off Half Dome a few hours before. I climb 20 feet and short fix the rope for Jesse to jug. The view and feel from this point of the Nose is my favorite. Looking down I see the remaining 180 feet of rope dangling down the rock and Jesse swinging into the Stove Legs on his jugs, already ascending the rope. A fall from here would result in nearly a 400-foot screamer before the rope would catch me. However, the 5.8 hand jams in the Stove Legs are so bomber that it feels completely comfortable. This is what I love about big wall speed climbing, the feeling of total commitment yet being completely competent in your systems, techniques and abilities, creating ultimate happiness. This happiness is short lived however, and soon I am grunting my way up the 5.10b fists, shuffling my only #3 Camalot along with me. Two hundred feet below, Jesse is simul-climbing and he, too, is starting to tire. From here on, it is an all out battle to the top.
7:00 am – 8:00 am – Tapping into reserves
I stop at the belay 30 feet from the top of Dolt Tower. Looking up, I gaze into the bowels of the horrific 15-foot 5.10c offwidth crack that guards the massive ledge above, and vomit a little in my mouth. I have just run out the last Stove Leg pitch the full 200 feet, trying not place my only #3 Camalot, thinking I might need it above. However, this piece does me no good because the crack is too wide, which has everything to do with how difficult it is. I decide to wait for Jesse and let him tackle this pitch. At birth his hands were bigger than mine are now, and at 29 he has turned into a certified monster. His hands fit much better in the wide crack and he is off.
8:00 am – 10:00 am – Only 2000 feet of climbing to go
As we climb onto Dolt Tower, the familiar features of the route start to show. El Cap Tower, Texas Flake, Boot Flake and the infamous Great Roof all appear into view, features that we have obsessed about for way too many years. I lower Jesse off the top of Dolt Tower and he swings into the perfect 5.9 fists. He climbs the pitch and then fixes the rope so I can lower off Dolt. I jug to the anchors and then we simul-climb to El Cap Tower. Here we again switch leads and I take off up the Texas Flake. The plan was to not clip the single bolt on the pitch, that way I could flip the rope outside of the flake, making it incredibly easy for Jesse to jug. However, for me this would be equivalent to free-soloing 5.10 and I am way too fried both physically and mentally to try and hero this pitch. I clip the bolt. When I finish, I have Jesse lower me back down to the bolt so I can clean the draw and still flip the rope for him, and then batman back up.
As Jesse jugs, I aid the bolt ladder up to the base of the Boot Flake. Just then something happens to my arms that I have never felt before, and wish I never feel again. My bicep starts to cramp and feels as though it is ripping from my bone. As I am about to scream, I hear Jesse yell “My arms!” and realize we are experiencing this together. We both sit for a second in our aiders and stretch. This is not a good sign because not only do our arms hurt like hell but also the cramps mean we are both completely dehydrated. I take a sip from what little I have left of my two liters of water and start to climb the Boot Flake.
10:00 am – 11:00 am – Perfect planning
Jesse nails the King Swing on the first go and launches into his block of climbing. Our latest bit of speed climbing trickery is to have Jesse run out the next 180 feet of climbing to the first bolt of the Lynn Hill Traverse and link two pitches in one. This way he can short fix at the anchors and take off up to Camp IV while I lower off the Boot. This takes a tremendous amount of mental strength from Jesse, having to run out 180 feet of difficult rock, and leaves me sitting on top of the Boot with only 50 feet of 5 mm line to make a massive lower out. We are both a bit nervous about the next ten minutes. The plan works perfectly, however, and soon we are making our way to the base of the Great Roof.
11:00 am – 1:00 pm – A little extra
Jesse makes quick work of the Great Roof, one of the more difficult pitches of the climb, and is soon taking off on the Pancake Flake while I jug below. The climbing is steeper now, which allows for easier and faster jugging yet more difficult leads. At this point in the climb it seems that every pitch is endless 5.10d corners and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to climb them. Fitness is such a factor in speed climbing—if you can free most of the pitches from here than you can blitz the remainder of the route in an hour or two. However, if you are too tired to free climb and resort to aiding, it can take you half a day. Jesse bears down and frees as much as possible, pulling on the occasional piece of gear to get him through cruxes. I have never met someone with as much drive, focus and determination as this guy and it seems that he can go into a completely different world where pain doesn’t exist. He is the driving force.
1:00 pm – 2:00 pm – Who cares anymore
As we pull up to the base of the Changing Corners pitch I feel like I can’t jug another inch and am happy to again be on lead. However, this feeling is short lived and soon I am cruxing on run-out 5.10d crack. I have hit my physical limit and feel as though I can’t climb any further. Just when I feel like I am about to peel off, I hit a bomber hand jam and relax. I climb the rest of the easy crack quickly, clip the second bolt and ease into the technical crux of the route. A few HB offsets and small TCU’s later I am climbing the 5.9 fingers to the end of the pitch.
2:00 pm – 4:23 pm – 23 hours and 22 minutes later
Hallucination at this point is a reality and I swear we have been climbing for days. I give my body a quick pep talk and plead that it doesn’t shut down on me three pitches from the top. Jesse jugs up to the anchor and without saying a word, grabs that rack, hands me the belay device and starts freeing the next pitch. He is on a mission and a horizon is what he seeks. We root each other on and start to fear that two hours might not be enough time to finish these few hundred feet. In the near 24 hours that we have been climbing, we have evolved from motivated, psyched and competent climbers to broken down boys, humbled by over a vertical mile of rock. Jesse fires the last of the crack pitches and fixes the rope one last time. I finish jugging and soon we are both simul-aiding the final bolt ladder to level ground. As I clip the last bolt I feel the rope come tight on my waist and I know that Jesse has reached El Cap Tree and the top. He lets out a primordial scream of joy, pulls on the rope and cheers me on as I climb that last 50 feet of the day. I tag El Cap Tree and we look at the watch: 23 hours and 22 minutes.
Post 4:23 pm
Simultaneously, we collapse onto the ground and stare blankly into sky, soaking in what we have just accomplished. When we finally sit back up it is clear that we are both as happy as we have ever been. I extend my hand to Jesse and we shake. “It’s been a pleasure learning how to climb with you, my friend,” I say. “Yes it has, man,” Jesse replies. “Yes it has.”
We take our harnesses off without even untying and crawl straight into our sleeping bags that we had stashed along with some food and water a couple days before. Sipping on a gallon jug we spot Half Dome rising off in the distance 4000 feet above the valley floor. Jesse laughs, “Can you believe we just climbed that thing last night?”
As the sun dips below the last features of Yosemite Valley, Middle Cathedral Peak lights up in a pinkish flame. Jesse looks at me deviously and says, “Whoa, I got an idea… what do you think about a trifecta?”