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The Captain

by The MORRgear Team January 29, 2016

Let me tell you about El Capitan. This behemoth of stone, situated in California's  Yosemite National Park , soars 3,000 sheer feet above the valley floor. It dwarfs all other cliffs in the lower 48, and just about any in the world. There is no other escarpment of rock so accessible (less than a five minute stroll  from the road), and yet so imposing, and enormous. Some would call it audacious to consider climbing El Cap in a day. 

El Cap

The first ascent of the wall in 1957 took Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore 47 days of climbing spread out over 16 months of effort. No small feat, to be sure.

And yet, now one day ascents of El Capitan happen all the time. They're so common that there's even a website devoted to relevant climbs of the popular route, The Nose, in a day. So it wasn't completely off-kilter for me to think I'd just walk up to El Cap and climb it in a day my first time on the wall.

My partner, the late Cory Hall, was a climbing machine, and I was no slouch. We planned out our trip using guidebooks, and the advice of friends. As we crouched on the floor, painstakingly copying topographic maps, I felt a sudden pain come into my neck.

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Something was wrong. Just a day before our climb, I had suffered the worst crick in the neck I'd ever experienced. It was so bad I couldn't lift my head off the bed without pulling my skull up by the hair. I looked at Cory apologetically. It wasn't going to happen.

That night, I decided to drown my sorrows in a small glass of whiskey. All of a sudden, I felt the muscles relaxing in my neck. What magical elixir, and who'da thunk it?! I hurried to call Cory telling him to lace up his climbing boots; I was back! We agreed to get up early -- like 3:00 AM early. Did I mention it's a really big rock?


Beep, beep, beep. The alarm sounded and I sprung out of bed! Not exactly. All the pain had returned to my neck. So I did the only thing any sane climber would do: I poured whiskey in my water bottle, and drove over to El Cap meadows.

A quarter way up the wall, I was feeling spry. Sure, I got a tiny bit tipsy every time I took a slug off the water bottle -- but it's not like I was getting drunk. Cory and I moved together fluidly, simultaneously climbing hundreds of feet of rock in mere hours. About half way up the wall, we were poised to make excellent time. Then, everything unraveled.

First we got passed by professional climbers, Hans Florine, and Hazel Findlay. This slowed us down considerably, in spite of Hans having written the book on speed climbing -- literally. Then, we got stuck behind a team of slow Brits groveling their way up a narrow V-slot. I thought Cory was on the verge of tears as he burrowed dangerously close to their leader's posterior. Then, the lights went out.

As we went to grab our headlamps, I admonished Cory for his fading beam. He had forgotten to get new batteries. I, meanwhile, had charged my own batteries the night before.

Or so I thought. After just an hour, and a few pitches, my headlamp went dead. Cory's was diminished to a faint glow. Against the starry night sky, the wall was reduced to shadow.

Yosemite at night

We were forced to finish the climb in the dark, painstakingly inching our way up the wall. The minutes grew to hours as we drained all our energy reserves, and shivered in the cold air. Finally, we made it to the top. I looked at my watch: 23:30. We'd managed the climb in a day, but just barely!

Too beat and weary to make the descent that evening, we hunkered down for the night by a modest pine cone fire. The next day, we woke up blanketed in frost, and hiked back to the valley floor.

Although we did succeed in climbing El Cap in a day, I think it was the Captain that rather had our number. And I'll tell you this: each time I look up at it, I still get a crick in my neck.

Chris Kalman

Written by Chris Kalman

Chris Kalman is a climber and writer based in Vermont. Over the past five years he has developed new routes extensively at home and abroad, including 15 grade-III and -IV first ascents. His writing has been published in Alpinist, Climbing, Rock and Ice, and the UK-based Climb Magazines. He is also a regular contributor to the American Alpine Journal.

40 by 40

The MORRgear Team
The MORRgear Team

We like to get outdoors and “do.” Mountain biking is one of many passions. We are always looking for the next breakthrough that will help us do what we love for as long as we want to (i.e., the rest of our lives). Gear that protects prolongs.

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