Living the dream on a cliff edge

This blog is about my experience from my first night cliff camping on the vertical cliff of El Capitan in the USA.

In May 2014 my friend Ellis and I, headed to a place called Yosemite in the USA to attempt a big wall called El Capitan via a route called The Nose.  This wall is over 900 metres of vertical Granite growing straight off grassy meadows from the valley floor. It heads straight up the main prow of the cliff.  Our aim was to climb the route in 3 to 5 days of solid climbing.  It was 31 pitches at a rough climbing grade of  E 9 (UK climbing grade).  We were hoping to free as much as possible then use aid climbing tactics (placing protection in cracks, sitting on it to reach up and place the next item of protection) to climb the hard stuff.

El Capitan was first climbed in 1957/58 by Warren Harding plus a string of different belay partners and took 18 months to climb. The speed record now stands at 2 hrs and 22 mins.  Held by Hans Florine and Alex Honnold- crazy, very impressive and very dangerous.

For Ellis and I this would mean sleeping on the cliff face. At least 3 times. Whoop- our first cliff camping experience.

Setting up cliff camping

We had already fixed our ropes (and haul bag- this is our very large bag for all our food etc) from the ground to pitch 7, a few days before so all we had to do was to jug (climb up) our fixed ropes. We started this process at 2 am in the dark.  It is a weird feeling that your mate is off up climbing above you and I am waiting in the dark trees, knowing that bears had been sighted close in camp 4 the day before.  Perhaps weird is not the best description but slightly nervous of the dark with my mind and hearing playing tricks on me.

It was really satisfying to see our plan coming together at 4 am. We were already at our high point pitch 7 with our haul bag ready to go and seeing the other head touched walking along the track to the base of the route.  We were the first team on the route – BIG FAT BOOM.

After the classic stove leg pitch (with the old wood wedges still in place) we headed towards our first camping ledge at about 300m.  We reached our night ledge and chilled for an hour or so.  This edge was a metre wide and 5 metres long.  This was the largest ledge by far on the Route.  It was flat, no lumps with a few bolts in the rock above for protection.  We decided to fix the next 2 pitches so we would be out of the starting blocks first for the Awesome King Swing.  This is a massive pendulum swing to another vertical crack line to continue up the route.  We had to do this as our crack for climbing had ran out.  After fixing these 2 pitched headed back down to our ledge for dinner, music and bed.

How to get to sleep cliff camping

Our dinner was the best thing I had eaten in years.  Perhaps I was just hungry.  It consisted of a tin of cold stag bolognaise.  We decide to eat cold food as the stove was too heavy to haul up.  Some half melted cheese.   And a very chewy bagel.  For desert I had a small bar of chocolate.  Amazing.  No wine, no beer just helped ourselves to some of our 28 litres of water we have hauled up that day.

It was great sitting on the ledge.  The view was fantastic. We had some crazy Ellis tunes beating out.  The trees were starting to get small- the same sight as from a plane.  The air was warm with a slight breeze.  Knowing in a few mins we would be getting into our sleeping bag to heading off to sleep.  My body was starting to fade.  We were getting up at 4 am to start climbing again so we pulled our sleeping bags up over our harnesses (we were still clipped in) and got my head down on the solid rock.  I fell straight asleep.

I awoke to darkness, the stars and the moon shinning over the Valley.  This image will never leave me. I had survived by first cliff camping experience!

The Practicalities of Cliff Camping

So you may have been thinking that, how do you go to the toilet on a cliff edge. Well it is very simple.  Go to our home made poo tube this was a larger old school sweet tub- the old olds from a sweet shop.

Go and find a safe (ish) spot.  Take your harness off carefully, trousers and pants off. Remember not to fall off at this stage.  Have a pre placed DOUBLE vegetable bag.  The sides have to be turned over to aid any spillage.  And aim very carefully into the bag and hope that the wind would take the bag away and totally have miss fire! Once in the bag, burn the paper, get the most of the air out (we decided not to suck the air out) and put everything into the sweetie jar.  Done.  All this was done a small ledge 15ft below our main sleeping ledge.

Our breakfast was a tough bit of bread, some cheese and some of our 25.5 L of water. Still dark we now had to pack our kit back into the haul back, sleeping bags, water, spare clothes food, spare climbing kit.  Our poo tube was hanging under the haul bag.  We certainly didn’t want a leak in the haul bag.

Understanding that we had another 2 to 4 nights left to go we headed up the cliff already looking forward to our next bed time.

Seeing sun rise in the Yosemite valley while climbing on El Cap was inspiring.  Being in this environment, on the cliff and knowing some of the classic climbing stories that had gone before us.  This is a great respect builder to the climbing pioneers of the 60s and 70s.

Do a good deed for the day and pick up an item of litter on your way back from you climbing day.

Respect your playground.