Roadtrip Part 3: Climbing Cracks in the Shadow of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley

October 30—Camp 4—Yosemite Valley, CA

What an incredible day of climbing! We got to the base of “Nutcracker” before the sun warmed the rock. I exhaled warm air onto chalky fingers, double checked my harness and climbed.

I had studied the guidebook for hours the night before. It said, “Only confident 5.8 lead climbers should attempt this route.” My confidence waned. I’ve led harder cracks before, but not in a long time and not in Yosemite, where the grades are notoriously tough. I wouldn’t have imagined attempting Nutcracker a week ago. I guess I’ve grown since then. Progress happens rapidly in hindsight.

We spent our first two days in Yosemite at a friend’s cabin in Wawona. Ted took us to his favorite swimming hole, a granite-strewn grotto with pools just deep enough for jumps. I bouldered on the water-polished stone. We drank beer and played games in the evenings, took hot showers and washed laundry in the afternoons. Our skin appreciated the time to regenerate.

Driving into Yosemite Valley the next day, we turned a corner and saw the big walls of legend. El Capitan and Half Dome made my jaw drop. I had to pull the car over. The streaked granite faces were unimaginably tall and steep. Waterfalls dropped from the top for thousands of feet, hardly touching the stone. Here was the proving ground of American rock climbing. Here were the towers that Bridwell and Robbins first climbed. Here was a challenge.

Camp 4. Ours is the biggest house on the block.
Half Dome at sunset.
El Capitan. Tommy Caldwell visible with magnifying glass on
right side of tallest face.
Alpine meadows one gorgeous afternoon.

Half way up Nutcracker I desperately jammed a yellow nut into the finger-sized crack and clipped it to the rope. My strength was deteriorating. My palms were sweating. My too-loose shoes were slipping off the crystal grit. Three other groups of climbers judged my progress from the ledge below. There were two options: move or fall. With a deep breath, I committed to the former. I grunted. I pulled. I nearly peeled off. Somehow I found sufficient friction to hold me. I reached for a hand-sized crack in a small bulge, jammed my palm inside and squeezed. The third pitch was taking it’s toll. I could hardly imagine climbing El Cap, 35 pitches of much harder terrain.

One afternoon, after climbing ourselves out, we were driving the one-way Yosemite roads when I noticed an entourage surrounding a lone cinematographer in a grassy clearing. The young man’s expensive video camera was pointed directly at the proudest lines on El Cap. Sensing something interesting, I pulled over and we walked into the field. The cinematographer was filming Tommy Caldwell, the world’s preeminent crack climber, attempting what would be the hardest free climb in history. We watched as Tommy, the tiny speck of green, moved gradually higher on a blank looking section of the massive face. As we gawked, a grey haired man and his wife sauntered over and began chatting. They told us the section that Tommy was climbing is rated conservatively at 5.14c and that this was Tommy’s third 5.14 pitch of the day. Before long, it became obvious that the grey haired man and his wife were Tommy’s parents. They glowed with pride. Tommy’s dad told us that he would be going up the wall himself in a few days in order to belay his son on the second half of the climb. In entirety, the climb will take about two weeks. Some pitches remove so much skin from Tommy’s body that he can only climb one per day. He will eat and sleep the rest of the time, splayed out on his portaledge, clipped into the wall.

Texture of Yosemite.
Vernal Falls.
Looking into the trees.
Granite apron on north end of valley.

Tommy Caldwell climbs harder than I probably ever will. He takes greater risks and attempts more difficult routes, but I imagine we get a similar feeling from completing a challenging climb. I moved methodically towards the crux mantle of Nutcracker, conserving my energy for the stressful moves that I knew lay ahead. Approaching the overhang, I placed a small nut in a seam to my left and clipped it to the rope. I reached high for a deep hold, matched my hands on either side of the hold and committed. My feet left the wall, dangling in mid air for a split second, before I brought them back to the rock and pushed up. I hooted joyously when I stood firmly on top. My body coursed with adrenaline. My mind was clear. I felt free, empty, whole, and full of life. I built an anchor, put Freya on belay, and exhaled.

By modern standards, Nutcracker is not a difficult climb—Tommy Caldwell could probably solo it in his sleep—but for me, it was challenging enough to provide a sense of accomplishment and adventure. It’s a memory that will not easily be forgotten, a moment that was painful, transformative, and fulfilling all at once.

It seems like almost every day of this trip has had a moment like this, when hours disappear without notice and spectacular beauty blossoms from the commonplace.

We’ve spent four days here in Yosemite, climbing in the shadow of the world’s best, and I imagine we’ll spend a few more. I’ve been thinking we should don costumes beneath our harnesses for Halloween. Maybe we’ll steal a shower from the bathrooms in Curry Village. Maybe we’ll eat quinoa and hot dogs for dinner tomorrow night. The weather forecast shows snow in the near future. Will Tommy stay on the wall through any weather? Will he climb the route free? What will he feel if he reaches the top? I can’t be sure, but I can certainly imagine.

Preparing to climb “The Grack” (5.6) on Halloween, dressed as Chef Trad.
I carried a plastic spatula and serving spoon up the entire route.
Inside-Out Woman on the second pitch of “The Grack.”
Halloween Yosemite style, at the rappel anchors.
Freya follows the splitter hand crack and thin slab.


  1. damn guys sounds like fun! nutcracker was fun wasn't it? next time you guys are in the valley climb central pillar of frenzy, it was the best route we climbed there! hope you're loving j-tree, i hope you guys are going to hit red rocks. climb crimson chrysalis, it's incredible!


  2. Thanks for the info Hannah! We didn't end up having time to hit Red Rocks because we spent so much time in J-Tree, but we are certainly excited to go there on another trip. Heading to Indian Creek for Thanksgiving. Hope we get a chance to climb together sometime soon!


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