Steep learning curves
It has been a couple of months since we committed to climbing El Capitan, with zero previous climbing experience and no understanding of the sheer depth of knowledge required to make this happen. Now is as good a time as any to update you on our progress towards The Captain so far.
We are aiming to summit El Cap in October 2019, a little over a year from now. Which as I am writing, seems incredibly daunting. I feel like this is one of those journeys, where the more we learn, the more we uncover, and bigger this project becomes. With the row, we were blessed with naivety all the way up until we departed the port in Gran Canaria (then came the barrage of fear and reality struck). However with this challenge, we don’t have the blessing of not knowing, in fact, the opposite has to be true, or we wont even get off the ground. We need to be skilled to the eyeballs in climbing, and more importantly roping / safety to make this thing possible. We need to know every intricacy and detail to make this thing happen, and the process of learning that in a short period of time is going to be tough.
I think our biggest learning so far, is just how different indoor and outdoor climbing really is. We have spent a huge amount of time at climbing gyms inside, with the plan of initially building our base level of technique and climbing specific strength up to a point that would allow us to operate on some level to learn the roping, lowering off, and anchors when we get outside.
Climbing is ranked using a confusing maze of grading, and we can safely say that the gap between indoor climbing grades (where routes are colour coded) and outdoor grades (where they are not) is absolutely huge. A solid “easy” climb indoors, becomes nerve racking and shaky outdoors. Everything about if just feels more raw. It might be knowing that if we fall, we’re either going to be caught by a bolt we have clipped to, which will often be some distance beneath, or we will be caught by a piece of metal that we have wedged into the rock as we climbed. As you can imagine, the latter doesn’t fill us with much confidence at all.
Climbing outdoors is a massive head game, and although far scarier with more real consequences (even placing the first piece of protection can be a few metres off the ground above dodgy looking, ominous rocks), it is thrilling from start to finish and is one of a few rare experiences that is all consuming. We have no other option but to be completely immersed in the route. Other than stopping briefly when we find a small ledge to catch our breath or let out a few relieving swear words, the whole route is incredibly demanding and requires all of our attention.
We have to this point, climbed outside twice. Once “trad” climbing (traditional), and once sport climbing. Trad climbing is the one mentioned earlier where you place your own protection on the way up, build an anchor at the top with temporary protection and then bring up the second climber who removes the protective gear placed earlier. This is known as “clean climbing”, so no damage is caused to rock and no trace is left that you have climbed the route. The second is Sport Climbing, where bolts have been drilled into the rock by a third party (usually an official climbing body like the BMC), climbers then clip rope to these bolts as they go and if they fall, are caught by the bolts. Seemingly much safer than Trad climbing, but not guaranteed in any way.
Both of our outdoor climbing trips have been to the Peak District thus far, and both were scary in their own ways. We found ourselves fumbling with ropes along Stanage Edge, and we began to realise the safety faff involved. It took us all day to climb 4 routes when we were Trad climbing (which would take 10 minutes indoors) and that was on incredibly easy routes. Learning to place protection in the rock is a huge part of the journey and pivotal to its success, as at some point, I’m sure those pieces are going to catch us and save us from a bad injury or worse.
The sport climbing we did took us to Horseshoe Quarry, and although technically safer as the routes are bolted, it didn’t feel this way. We pushed slightly harder routes with the backed up safety knowledge, and took a few whipper falls along the way for our arrogance. One fall resulted in TC bouncing his head off a ledge as he swung wide following a few tricky moves.
The journey so far has been humbling to say the least, and only highlights further the huge task we have ahead. The face of El Capitan is 100x that of those in the Peak District, so the exposure doesn’t compare and with far more technical climbing, much bigger run-outs as well as the huge task of carrying everything we require with us. We have barely scratched the surface, but we have started with serious intent, and that is the first step in getting this thing summited.
Onwards and upwards from here.