The Nose of El Capitan is supposed to be the best rock-climbs in the world. It’s certainly one of the most written about, even making the Wall Street Journal and is a worthy ambition for any half-decent climber. Improvements in gear, short-fixing, and breaking psychological barriers have made The Nose in a Day (NIAD) an increasingly popular goal. From being the realm of elite, in-a-day or nearly-in-a-day ascents are now common. Tom 'El Cap pics' Evans estimates 25% of ascents are now made in this style. There is a good amount of information about NIAD tactics and numerous trip reports on the internet but most of this has an American slant or assumes a high standard of climbing. The NIAD is achievable by good but unexceptional British climbers. I've done it twice, in different styles (see Postscript). These are my thoughts on how mortals can improve their chances. It assumes a good standard of crack-climbing and experience of the basics of Yosemite-style big walling (see How good do you have to be?). Some of these tactics increase the not-trivial risk of climbing 28 pitches in one go. Mind how you go.
How good do you have to be?
The Nose in a Day is a mainly free-climbing challenge with some French-free and a few sections of continuous aid. A NIAD ascent is possible for an efficient team without climbing harder than easy 5.10, but would be much faster and more fun if they can comfortably free all the 5.10. At this standard around 80% of the route goes free.
[http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_(climbing)#Free_climbing_2 Grade conversion tables would have you believe 5.10 is about E2. However, you will be carrying more gear than usual and may be tired and sleep-deprived. Additionally, Yosemite grading is tough and the style of climbing - polished granite cracks with few face holds - takes time to acclimatise to. For most British climbers, being solid on E3/4 cracks on a variety of rock-types will be a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for a successful ascent. Having more in hand will be needed if the team are unfamiliar with US-style crack climbing or have little aiding experience or limited time in the valley. It is hard to give UK examples since we have so few continuous cracks but, as a very rough guide, candidates should be capable of routes like The Mau Mau (5.11) or Gates of Mordor (5.10+) with no great struggle. Since climbing efficiently is likely to involve considerable back-cleaning, running it out on easier ground, and short-fixing off the belay with a 'death-loop', the team should be comfortable soloing 5.8/HVS.
The most important single attribute is the ability to go for it all day long. Neither of us were very strong climbers at the time of our recent ascent but we both have considerable experience on long day routes and non-climbing endurance challenges and this was crucial to our success.
Climbing 'by any means necessary': snatching for fixed tat, yarding on gear, taking tension, switching rapidly from aid to free and back are all essential tactics. Purist British climbers sometimes lack the instinct for this. Practice it. The NIAD is best considered an alpine route, put yourself in the shoes of a French guide with a storm approaching. What Would Jean-Paul Do?
Don't aid! Ideally, pull out the aiders on the Great Roof pitch to Glowering Spot, and the Changing Corners only. On all other sections, free and French-free. Second time around, I failed to take my own advice because I wasn't fit enough or good enough and we were a lot slower as a result. At least one member of the team should be efficient on moderate clean aid. Both should know how to second aid traverses and tension-traverses/pendulums quickly and safely.
The popularisation of this tactic is one of the major reasons for the increase in number of NIAD ascents. It’s not essential for all, my first NIAD was done without, but on my second go we'd have failed to get under 24 hours without short-fixing. Short-fixing improved out time by 30% on practice runs to Dolt Tower.
When the leader reaches the end of her pitch, she clips the anchors with a daisy and is taken off belay. She guestimates how much of the next pitch she can climb as the second cleans and pulls through enough rope to lead this. She fixes the rope to the (bomber, multi-directional) anchors with two screwgates and a double figure of eight. The second cleans the pitch, jumaring "like a demented Kangaroo". Meanwhile, the leader starts the next pitch, self-belaying herself with a gri-gri or death loop. Once the second reaches the anchor and finishes cleaning, he puts the leader back on belay. She then continues climbing in more conventional fashion. Scott Bennett describes short-fixing and climbing together in more detail here.
The goal of short-fixing is to keep the leader moving at all times. The sections short-fixed don't have to be long - typically 10-15m - if the second is quick. Short-fixing works best when the route can be broken into short pitches with good fixed anchors, usually the case on The Nose.
Aid-soloing the S Face of Washington Column would be great practice for short-fixing.
An alternative is to climb The Nose as a 16 pitch route (with a 70m rope and some easy simul. climbing). Shenanigans like short-fixing are not essential if you’re good enough, John Middendorf’s mid-5.11 crack cruiser didn’t need to.
Record-setting usually involves considerable moving together. This is mostly unnecessary for more sedate ascents since the advent of short-fixing. Exceptions might include the 4th class (scrambling) above Sickle Ledge and the final bolt ladder.
Leading in blocks, handovers, gear exchange
Short-fixing entails climbing in blocks of several pitches with no contact between leader and second. Consequently, the leader can run out of gear. The usual solution is for the leader to trail a ‘tag line’, a thin rope of 15-20m length, to haul up the cleaned gear once the second arrives at the anchors. This takes time, so the leader must judge if she needs her rack topped up in this way to complete the pitch. If her rack is large enough and she has not placed much gear on the previous pitches, it may not be necessary to ‘tag up’ gear. Ultra-fast ascents of The Nose rely running it out between the (considerable) fixed gear with one or two gear exchanges on the entire route.
Even if not short-fixing, block leading is generally considered the most efficient way of climbing long routes. It keeps the leader ‘in the zone’ and, if not placing too much gear, handovers are speeded up. There are various ways to hand over gear efficiently, experiment with them, choose one, then stick to it. Take a few extra seconds and re-rack the gear as you clean. This saves time in the long run as the leader won’t have to deal with a mess on lead.
The second usually jumars, however be alert to the possibility that climbing, self-belaying with a gri-gri, may be faster and less tiring on easier ground.
The key to moving fast is not to rush but to minimise time when the leader is not moving. A key skill is anticipating and preventing clusterfucks. The second must be constantly alert to this possibility and actively managing the rope. A big HMS carabiner is useful to accommodate multiple tied-off loops as the second cleans, both as protection but also to keep the rope tidy.
Passing other parties
Be nice to people and most will want to help you. A slower party's main concern is likely to be the delay they suffer from letting you pass. Acknowledge and address this concern. Plan the passing to minimise their delay, offer to fix their rope up the next pitch. Consider a later afternoon start: climbing at night enables passing multi-day parties while they are bivying.
Feet and footwear
18+ hours in rock shoes, aiding and jugging, will slaughter your feet. The less pain you are in the faster you will move. Look after your feet like you'd look after your tips on a bouldering holiday. Comfortable, well worn-in footwear is essential. I used Mythos, rubbish for UK climbing but good in Yosemite cracks. Socks stop sweaty feet sliding around inside comfortably fitting shoes and offer some ankle protection in wider cracks.
Ideal preparation would be April in Indian Creek (or August in Squamish, Tuolumne, The Needles or high Sierras), getting really solid on cracks of all sizes followed by May (or September) in the valley dialling big wall systems and honing all day fitness. Time spent climbing in Yosemite is invaluable. Most people will need 2-3 days rest before an NIAD attempt, 2-3 days flexibility for delaying the start if the route is busy or weather bad. This leaves little time from a two week trip to do anything other than a couple of training routes, a big ask if you’re inexperienced in speed-climbing and wall tactics. A 3-4 weeks trip makes this goal much more achievable.
Training routes in Yosemite
- NE Buttress Higher Cathedral. A steep crack climb with a strenuous approach and several 5.9+ chimney and offwidth pitches. The Nose lacks the Salathe's notorious wide cracks but has several short wide sections which are disproportionately strenuous and time-consuming. Most British climbers need to practice this style.
- If your wide-crack skills are particularly lacking, you will benefit from the time-honoured practice of top-rope laps of Generator Crack, Chingando, Ahab and others from the Yosemite Offwidth Training Circuit.
- Moratorium to East Buttress of El Capitan Some 5.11 then moderate climbing. Allows reconnaissance of the East Ledges descent.
- The Nose to Dolt Tower Excellent preparation as it contains the main challenges of The Nose in small doses: mixed free and French-free (first 4 pitches), complex traversing, and strenuous crack climbing in The Stovelegs. Typically 25% of a NIAD time.
- South Face Washington Column and West Face Leaning Tower Popular short walls, good routes to practice easy aid climbing and short-fixing. Likely to take about 30% of a NIAD time.
- Astroman Magnificent, hard, crack climbing challenge. 50% of a NIAD time. Rostrum is similar, a little less sustained and goes a little faster.
- Regular Route NW Face Half Dome Mostly moderate free climbing. Typically 50% of NIAD time. A car-to-car IAD ascent would be a good training in keeping going all day.
West Face of El Capitan (free) Somewhat out of favour but a great classic, climbing somewhat like UK granite on a massive scale. 70% of an NIAD?
The Three East Buttresses. El Capitan, Middle and Lower Cathedrals A lot of moderate free climbing. Possibly longer than a NIAD, great training for going at it all day long. Swimming in the Merced between routes is like pre-placing water on The Nose.
These timings seem to work for up to 18 hour ascents. Many people report slowing down considerably after this time. "Everything is hard in the dark after 20 hours." Chris Bevins. 12-15 hours might be the sweet spot for most favourable type1 to type 2 fun ratio: all the climbing done in daylight but not rushing too much.
Training ideas in the UK and Europe
The main aim is to get used to high mileage days on rock. You may also need to practice your crack climbing, though little in the UK can prepare you for Yosemite.
The Curbar Wide Crack Circuit (with approximate US grades)
Good skills practice but the volume barely gets you to Dolt Tower.
- Flake Crack 5.6
- Keeper’s Crack 5.6
- Buckle’s Brother 5.7
- Buckle’s Crack 5.7
- Inch Crack 5.7
- Little Innominate 5.8
- Sorrel’s Sorrow 5.8
- Hercules 5.8 (no laybacking, obviously)
- Peapod 5.9 (also has some thin-hands jamming)
- Left Eliminate 5.9
- Elder Crack 5.9
- Right Eliminate 5.9+
- All the SW Hard Rock routes Not much height gain (~1200’) but logistics mean you’ll probably be taking >15 hours and have some climbing in the dark.
- The Staffordshire Nose Jacob Cook felt “Especially for a Brit. used to climbing on grit, the Staffs version is WAY easier”.
- All the starred HVSs-E2s at Millstone About 35 pitches, getting close to the mileage but probably a bit easier.
- All the Eastern Edges Brown-Whillans routes More than 100 of these, like a Nose-Freerider combination. If you’re contemplating this, you don’t need advice from me.
- Anything from the Long, Hard and Free thread on UKB. Chamonix, Verdon and Val di Mello are particularly appropriate since many routes include crack climbing.
- The Hasse-Brandler took us about 50% of our NIAD time and felt WAY easier.
Climbing The Nose is hard physical work. A solid foundation of aerobic endurance training is extremely useful unless you are already very fit. Training for the New Alpinism is good on this. The main thing is to build a big base of training volume, climbing and non-climbing. In my recent preparation I did the all right things but grievously underestimated the volume required. My partner for my second NIAD was light on climbing training but had a good fitness base from triathlons and ultra events which helped him considerably.
On my first NIAD I got cramp in my biceps jumaring on the steeper last third of the route. Second time, I prepared by doing biceps curls and my biceps were fine, however I trained 'palms-up' and got cramps in my brachioradialis instead. Do curls 'thumbs up' to be more specific. Assisted pull-ups on your jumars, with a weight to counterbalance or feet in aiders, are another good, specific exercise to prepare you for the jugging. The jumaring on the first 2000' of the route is off-vertical, so mostly a quads. exercise. I did 1000' of step-ups in 45 minutes three times a week. Mind-numbing but very helpful. I wish I had done far more, I jumared slower than I could have and my quads. were jelly on the descent.
When to go
The Nose has been climbed in a day every month of the year. May and October are the most popular and busiest times. In my view mid-late June is ideal. The are fewer teams on the route, more daylight, and, whilst temperatures are getting hot on the valley floor, they are usually fine up on the wall.
Food and drink
Training routes should give you a feel for how much you will need to drink for the time you are likely to take. We drank 3.5 litres each on a 23 hour ascent on a partially cloudy day with mid-80s temperatures. This felt perfectly adequate. Friends took 2.5 litres each on a 15 hour ascent in warmer weather and were thirsty. You might find water left by previous parties...but you might not.
You could burn 12000 calories on a NIAD. It's a good idea to replace some of this. Experienced endurance athletes know it is important to start eating before you get hungry and keep eating even when you don't feel like it. Know your own tastes, different people prefer different fuel. A mix of food including Clif bars, cheese biscuits and sesame snaps works better for me than just sweet stuff. Boiled sweets like Jolly Ranchers or mints are an antidote to a dry mouth.
I run out of gas after 15 hours continuous climbing. Libby Sauter's advice was succinct: "Caffeine!" We took caffeinated sport gels (tasted revolting, no discernible effect), coke (tasted like coke, helped a little), and double espresso coffee cans (tasted like coffee cake, definitely perked us up).
- Size 2-6 HB brass offset nuts.
- Six to eight medium offset wired nuts.
- Cams. A confident 5.11 crack climber with large hands could manage with doubles and single 3.5" and 4". We had Totem cams, emphatically the best for Yosemite granite, and felt no need for offset cams. Some like cam hooks on the extended aid pitches. We didn't use them.
- One 0.4" (blue Alien)
- Doubles of all sizes from 0.5" (green Alien) to 1.5" (green DMM/Black Diamond)
- Triples in 2" (red) and 2.5" (gold)
- Single 3" (blue)
- Double 4".
- 12-14 slings and quick draws.
- A few free carabiners including two sets of two locking carabiners for belays.
- One big HMS carabiner for the second to tie-in short and organise the dead rope.
- Two pairs of lightweight aiders.
- 2 grigris.
- 1 pair jumars.
- A single 70m rope helped short-fixing and lowering out but a 60m would be adequate. 9.5mm felt thick enough, 9.1mm too sketchy.
- A thin (6mm) 15m tag line.
- Good head torches with fresh batteries.
- 18 Litre rucksack
We didn't take a second rope so an abseil retreat would have been difficult. We were confident this was unlikely; the worst scenario was taking too long, getting very tired, biving en route, and enduring an 30 hour sufferfest.
The second carried food, water and spare clothing in an 18 litre rucksack, the leader carried just enough water to sustain him for his block. This worked well.
Pitch by pitch beta
Low angle free/French-free. Pitch 2: short tension traverse, leader back-cleans until well above tension point so second can swing across without lowering out. Pitch 4: leader tensions twice to Sickle, back-cleans second tension point so only one lower-out needed.
Gear Light rack, large wires and single cams to gold, quickdraws and slings for fixed junk.
Complex, potentially slow section with two tension traverses. Several options, low route A is quickest
Gear Mostly fixed. A few medium cams for the “wild 5.9”.
Stovelegs. All free, should go quickly. Layback the awkward flare on Pitch 8. Last section to Dolt is 4”. Fist jam + 4” cam or crack jumar on two 4” if you have small hands.
Gear All cams except small Aliens. No wires.
Pitch 10 (off Dolt)
Down climb-tension-lower then up the easy but burly 5.7 and 5.8.
Gear Do not place gear in the cam eating crack level with the top of Dolt. That lost red cam would have been very useful on the upper pitches.
5.9 fist to 5.7 offwidth.
Gear Two 4" comforting but not essential, the wide bit is off-vertical.
Two choices at this point. The Texas and Boot flakes and King Swing are classic elements to the route. The Jardine Traverse is an opportunity to pass slower teams. Jardine Traverse is quicker if you mostly free the 5.11c finger crack but slower if you aid it,
Pitch 12a (Jardine Traverse)
Leader back-cleans everything, lowering off the second bolt back to the ledge in order to back-clean the first bolt. This will make sense when you’re there
Gear Mostly fixed. Green Alien at the end of the bolts.
The following pitch can be easily linked. About 5.9
Gear Mostly fixed.
To Eagle Ledge. Shallow corner with 11c finger crack to pillar with wide cracks either side. Right side is easier
Gear Wires. Cams all sizes.
Texas Flake. The far west side of the chimney is easiest. Don't clip the bolt in the chimney, it forces your follower to jumar inside, flick the rope around the flake and the follower can jug outside. Belay half way up Boot Flake bolt ladder.
Boot Flake and King Swing. Leader cleans pitch whilst lowering to do King Swing. Various tactics then possible. Leader can continue climbing pitch 15, running it out up 5.9 without placing gear, second follows in the usual way, lowering out with lead line. Alternatively, leader stops at Eagle Ledge, second also does King Swing. Lots of beta on how to do this.
Gear 4" cam may help reaching Eagle Ledge.
Lynn Hill traverse. Good climbing, preferable to the pendulum.
Gear Light rack. Fixed.
To Camp 4. Some loose rock, awkward down-climbing for second, potential bad rope drag, rope catching flakes
Gear Light rack. Fixed junk.
Pitch 19 (The Great Roof)
Some use a narrow cam hook here. I found a blue Alien and the fixed junk were adequate. Back clean all the horizontal section so the second can do one big lower out from the left side of the roof to the anchors at the base of the Pancake Flake. There will be fixed gear and slings to enable this
Gear Brass nuts, wires, blue Alien to red cam.
Pancake Flake. Second frees the Pancake as it’s a little easier and a lot more fun than jugging. Jug the last 40’ 5.11 / C1 section
Gear All cams from yellow Alien to blue cam.
to the Glowering Spot. The C2 aid through the Glowering Spot is the thinnest on the route. Start left and move right into the corner as soon as possible
Gear Brass nuts
Can split this half way if short-fixing.
Changing corners. Up Huber bolt ladder (could belay on this if short fixing) as far as possible then right into corner
Gear Fixed junk, brass nuts, wires, Blue alien. Cams to 2".
Gear Green Aliens, all your 1-2.5".
Gear All your 1-2.5".
Can short fix from start of bolt ladder. Simul.-climb the bolt ladder.
Gear 1-2.5" for initial crack, purple cam in middle of bolt ladder, all your quick-draws and free carabiners.
Other people’s thoughts
- Billy Westbay’s essay ‘Team Machine’ about the first NIAD, pre-cams, originally appeared in Meyer’s Yosemite Climber. A big inspiration back in the 80s. He's the one on the left in the picture at the top of part 1.
- Jim Bridwell’s take on the first NIAD Fascinating history: Frank Sacherer proposed it in 1965!
- Hans Florine knows a bit about climbing The Nose. He will sell you his beta or his book on speed climbing which is worth a read. Very detailed account of his and Alex Honnold's tactics on their record-breaking ascent in 2012.
- John Middendorf wrote the first NIAD guide, before the widespread use of short-fixing. He’d have you solo NE Buttress of Higher as training. After you, John!
- Mark Hudon is good on training and tactics. Inspiration for other oldies although undermined by the knowledge that this is Hudon, he's a badass, and you're not.
- Cory McLean gives another mortal’s view, useful links, and a nice trip report.
- Jim Herson with his 14 year-old daughter (and some 70-somethings). You have no excuse now, get on it!
Many of these ideas are derived from material that Hans Florine, John Middendorf, Mark Hudon and Cory McLean have generously made publicly available. Thanks also to Hugo, Sean, Adam and Jacob for their comments on earlier drafts.
I've done the NIAD twice. First time was with a random guy who approached me in the Camp 4 parking lot. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea, we had never climbed together. We simul’ed the Stove Legs then pitched it, didn't short-fix, and took double 45m ropes. We hadn't trained specifically (but were both on extended climbing trips and solid 5.11+ crack-climbers at that time). Our sports nutrition consisted of three Danish pastries. We'd both done the route once before but otherwise had no beta on speed ascents. I wasn't trying for a time and was just happy to get down in the light. I have no photos as I couldn't afford the film. We took nine and a half hours, probably the fastest ascent at that time, although no one kept records or really cared.
Second time was with one of my best and oldest climbing friends, we've climbed hundreds of routes together. The ascent had been in our thoughts for four years and a firm project for two. We scoured the internet for beta and had some great advice from friends (thanks Melissa, J and Travis). We trained specifically for the route, on and off the rock, practiced short-fixing, and rehearsed the section to Dolt Tower. Every snack and drop of water was carefully considered. Success was defined as in-a-day, we’d have been gutted if we had climbed it in 24 hours and one minute. We managed 23 hours.
The consistent factor between both ascents was that I had a great partner. This is the most important thing of all.