El Capitan ~ Reticent Wall

trip report: Mark Hudon and Max Jones

It had been just about the perfect El Cap experience. Nothing had gone wrong, the weather had been perfect and the route was the perfect level of difficulty, interesting the whole way but never too scary or really dangerous. And it was quiet. It was really quiet.

Dump trucks weren't slamming into dumpsters, motorcycles weren't roaring down the roads, no horns were honking, and no sirens were blaring. No people were yelling. It was weird.
It was actually quite nice.

As Max led the last pitch of El Cap's Atlantic Ocean Wall...

I wondered how it was ultimately going to work out. Our government had shut down and the National Parks had "closed". The Merced River still flowed, the Valley was still as beautiful as it ever was but it was closed and everyone had to leave. Mark Hudon and Max Jones on top of El Capitan's Atlantic Ocean Wall We had porters coming up the next day to help us haul our gear down but I had planned to photograph a wedding and climb another El Cap route. That plan was down the drain. Max and I would have no celebratory dinner at the Mountain Room, nor spend the morning on the Bridge or in the Meadow looking back at the route and telling stories. "The Park is closed, get the fuck out" read the note on each and every car parked along the Meadow road.

We shook hands and Max got in his car to drive home to Carson City. I drove around the Valley a bit, collecting gear at YOSAR, mail from the PO, food from a locker at Manure Pile and then headed down to Fresno to hang out with Micronut for a week.

On top of the South Seas in '11, his first El Cap route in 32 years, Max had wanted to do Reticent as our next route. I knew neither one of us was ready for it; we needed to do a couple more routes together. The next year we did Lost in America and the year after that, the Atlantic Ocean Wall. On top of the AO, while drinking coffee and watching the sunrise, we put Reticent on our schedule for the next spring.

Reticent is rated DFU and A4+ and regardless of what you may have heard, Max and I are fully human and want to continue living. Both of us feel that "dying doing something you love" is a dumb idea. Dying doing what you love is still dying and you would no longer be able to do something you love, no longer be able to do anything you love, as a matter of fact. Still though, we've always thought that if a climb has been done, that we could also do it (we thought that more so in the past than now, but we were young then). We made plans, set a date and bought more beaks.

I left Hood River, my family and my business, Hood River Coffee Roasters on Thursday night and was driving into the Valley two days later with Max and all of our gear ready to go. Arriving at El Cap Meadow we hopped out of the van grabbed our packs and hiked to the base.

Mark Hudon's RV and Max Jones loading the bags.

Max and I are totally on the same page as far as wall climbing goes; we minimize the work and maximize the fun. We climbed two pitches; drug the gear back to the top and rapped off. At the sandlot outside El Portal we packed the final loads and went to bed early. Our plan was to wake up early, make two more trips to the base, jug the ropes, haul and climb as many more as felt comfortable, set up the ledge and enjoy our first night (hopefully of many) on El Cap.

Reticent starts out on the first 7 pitches of the New Dawn. These are pitches I had first climbed 38 years ago, and that Max had first climbed last spring in terrible heat. The weather was cool and the skies were clear as we casually moved up on cams, nuts and rivets, quite often with a running conversation going about life, climbing and walls. We climbed two pitches and I led and rapped off a third, leaving it to be cleaned the next day. We were well set up on the ledge by 5:30.

The next morning we had nowhere to go and all day to get there but we got up with the sun and were making coffee by 6:30AM. Our plan was to climb two more pitches to Lay Lady Ledge and maybe fix one or two off of it, onto Reticent. That morning we saw on our phones that a short storm was coming in. It didn't bother us a bit. We haul with a slick 2 to 1 system and always take enough food, water and warm clothes to survive most storms in comfort.

Max Jones climbs away from Lay Lady  Ledge onto the Reticent.

We hit Lay Lady at about one o'clock and Max racked up and headed off onto the first pitch of Reticent. I could tell that he was a bit concerned. Reticent is widely known as a "Big Boy" route with stout ratings. We had climbed "A3" and "A4" but on this route those ratings took on new meanings. Max moved up slowly and cautiously. Our mantra that we would yell back and forth to each other was "make your best placement, bounce the shit out of it, get on it, forget about it and repeat". Max spent a couple hours on the complex and fairly difficult pitch and was quite happy with his effort when he returned to the ledge. He felt he had done a good job on a difficult pitch. I had led the cruxes of our previous routes but on this route Max had the weight of the final crux pitch on his mind, the second to last pitch of the route. I had the first crux, the pitch leading off of the Wine Tower on mine. We tried to learn something from each and every placement, from every pitch along the way.

We were well set up when it started raining at 2 AM but by the time we got the fly down it had stopped. The day dawned cloudy and foreboding but every now and then the clouds would break, revealing blue sky. We spent the time talking business, workouts and nutrition, eating and taking naps. The next day, the Park Service was running helicopter training so we knew the weather would be good for as long as the chopper was around. We jugged the rope and I led out on a pitch marked A4 on the topo.

The pitch would have been A4 had it not been for all the welded copperheads with perfect wires. It would have been a fun and challenging pitch but, as it was, I'd have to honestly call it A2+. It was pretty much a clip up. There was a fun spot in the middle where there were some thin flakes but there was never the real possibility to fall and rip out more than a piece or two. Even still, it was a good, pitch and it was a fun pitch. My biggest mistake was to not take enough gear and slings. I ran out of biners near the end and had a full-on super human tug of war to get enough rope to tie up the anchor. Max cleaned the pitch and as we rapped back to Lay Lady it started to rain slightly. We got to the ledge, jumped into the portaledge and the rain stopped. The forecast was for clear skies in the morning so we made plans to get up early and get going.

Mark Hudon welcomes the morning on Lay for his portaledge on El Capitan

"Nothing could be finer, than to be an El Cap climber in the moooorrrrrning" was my usual morning call. In fact, I sang it whenever I was overcome with the psych of being on El Cap, which was quite often. "Let's go roooock cliiiiiimbing" was also my frequent morning call and it usually gets the other parties on the wall hooting and hollering. Not on this trip though, aside from Matan Solomon soloing the Zodiac, there was no one on the whole Southeast Face.

Max Jones starts up on the well spaced rivets on the Reticent.

Max and I jugged our fixed lines and he started up on our first 200' pitch. We had a cheater rivet hanger that has one 10" long leg that I've taped a thin wood dowel to make the long reaches between rivets easier. On Max's pitch he was barely able to find and reach a semi-drilled hook placement. Only when he was well up on his ladders was he able to judge the quality of the placement. Max is taller than me and I expected to have to hero step almost every move on my rivet pitches and use our full-on 30" cheat stick. We had joked with Tom Evans that I would be getting frequent "Stick of the Day" awards on El Cap Picks. I informed him that my goal was actually "Stick of the Hour" or even "Stick of the Minute". As it turned out, the shorter persons on the FA must have drilled my pitches since I never had to get into my hero steps or use the 30" stick.

Max's pitch intersected the original Wall of the Early Morning Light where all of a sudden the space between the rivets went from 6 feet to about 18 inches. The lack of space between the rivets must be partially due to the fact that the ladder traverses severely to the left and both Harding and Caldwell must have been right handed, making it very awkward to drill too far to the side. Still though, it was a funny dichotomy.

Max Hudon moments before pulling out a beak and falling 29 feet on the Reticent.

I started up the next pitch nailing nice beaks into a thin, arching crack. I had placed a #2 beak that didn't go in too far but had seemed solid and survived the bounce test so I got on it. I had just asked Max to send up some more small beaks and was hammering in the next one when, just as I thought the flake might be expanding, the beak I was on pulled and I fell 20 feet almost down to the anchor. Max looked up and calmly gave me the beaks he was digging out of the Gear Closet and said, "I was going to tie them on to the haul line, you didn't have to come down for them". We both laughed and I Batmaned back up the rope and continued nailing, this time, clipping my daisy into the piece I was hammering so that it might hold me if the piece I was on pulled. This pitch intersected Tommy Caldwell's "Free Dawn" route right where they do an 8' jump to the left. As I moved right on fixed heads I marveled at the audacious moves. I was even so bold as to step out of my aiders and hang from the launching hold, imagining myself as a modern day super climber.

Max and I were planning on a 7-day ascent and we had already used up our emergency food but we didn't feel compelled to climb any faster than our scheduled pace. Hanging bivy on the Reticent. We were happy to climb two long pitches a day and our bivy was well set up and comfortable by the time 5:30 rolled around. The climbing is important to us but simply being on El Cap is almost even more so. We both marvel that we are still able to climb El Cap and are intensely happy that we have such a good partner to do it with. Watching the shadow of El Cap cross the far side of the Valley, watching the color of the sky change from day to night, watching the bats come out, and the lights of other climbers on El Cap, the Cathedral area and Half Dome come on is an important part of our experience.

The time stamps on my photos for the next day show us packing the haul bags at 7, Max racking up at 7:30 and him leading off by 8. We had two 200' pitches to climb, Max's was A3 and mine was mostly rivets and A2. After that was a short 80' pitch to the Wine Tower.

Max Jones on rivets placed quite far apart

If we had thought the rivets were far apart on the pitches the day before, we were in for a surprise. The rivets on Max's pitch were a full 6 feet apart causing him no end of frustration. As I lay back in the belay lounge I silently laughed as he muttered and cursed his way up the pitch. A shorter member of the first ascent team, again, had drilled my pitch, and I had no problem reaching the rivets with our rivet extender from my top steps. The pitch ended a short distance away from the Dawn Wall's Wine Tower and below the Reticent's first A4+ pitch.

Max quickly led the pitch to the Wine Tower and although it was probably only around 3:30 I didn't want to start up on the A4+ pitch right then. The pitch was a 200 footer and I didn't know how long it would take me. I didn't want to rush it and I didn't want to be on it in the dark. It could wait till morning!

Morning with coffee from Hood River Coffee Roasters is the only way to start the day!

I was "concerned" about the pitch but I wasn't really too worried about it, I figured I was at least as good as the crappiest climber who ever led it. Besides, I have a secret weapon; I have a big advantage over probably 98% of the climbers who ever led the pitch. I don't weigh much. Not much at all and in fact right then I was just about the lightest I've ever been.

Aside from roasting coffee and climbing, working out is pretty much all I do. I work out three days a week on my climbing wall and with weights. I do programs like P90x, P90x2 and Insanity. I have a great wall in my garage that I boulder and do endurance laps on. I have weights, a pull-up bar, rings, medicine balls, a hangboard, a Campus board and all that. I use to say that I hated working out. It took me years to realize that I actually love it. Additionally I eat pretty healthy. Yeah, I love ice cream and I eat like a horse but I don't drink soft drinks or eat fast food. I watch the fat and carbs and try to do my best. Right then I was no more than 121 pounds and had maybe less than 10% body fat. So, add on another 20-25 pounds for the rack and the rope weight and I'm sure I'm one of the lightest people ever to hit that pitch.

I woke up and laying back on the portaledge, checked out the pitch and planned on being scared and being safe. I psyched up for it like it was a hard free climbing redpoint.

The pitch is a two hundred footer and I knew that I'd be able to tag up gear till I got to about half rope, about 115 feet. I planned to go as light as I could. I grabbed some heads, the head punch, beaks, a bunch of small nuts and cams, all the Screamers and hooks and started up.

Max Jones on rivets placed quite far apart.

The first few moves are easy free climbing right up to a few large hook placements on flakes. If the flakes blew you would hit the Wine Tower, but hell, what can you do? Not worrying about it and getting going was my approach.

The first moves right off the hooks were tiny heads and then small beaks after that. I set myself up well in my aiders and bounced the hell out of each piece before getting on it. My technique for placing peckers is to pick the size I think will work and then drag it down the crack till it hooks on a place that seems like it will fit well. I might try the next smaller or bigger size just to see. Eventually, I'll place it, give it a few taps and then clip my daisy into and add a little weight to it with each tap, hoping to seat it nicely into the crack.

Things were proceeding nicely when I got to a huge, detached flake sitting on a thin ledge in the middle of the pitch. I hammered it with my hand and it gave a nice resounding "gong". I laughed and figuring that if it hadn't fallen off on anyone else yet, it wasn't going to fall off on me, stuck a cam underneath it, top stepped off that to hang a hook on it's top and kept going.

Beak, head, head, beak, make the best placement I could, bounce the shit out of it, get on it and forget about it. I was having a great time.

At one point I yelled down to Max that things might be getting difficult when I thought I was going to have to place a beak behind the thinnest flake I'd ever seen. I was rather excited about the challenge but then found a rivet just beside the crack. The "loose" flakes were next but they were big and I could easily stuff cams up near their bases. Casual. I reached a head that seemed like it was a pendulum point but after looking around a bit I figured that it would be easier to free climb over to a small ledge. I grabbed the base of a loose block, pulled over and easily stood up on the ledge. I had very loose blocks right in my face but I was calm, relaxed and confident. I looped a horn to my left and then climbed over to the anchor.

Loose blocks at the end of Mark Hudon's A4+ pitch on Reticent

Yes!

It was all clear sailing for me from here on out! Yeah!

Max came up and we looked at the next pitch. We were sure the topo was wrong since it looked like at least 300/350 feet to where we knew the anchor was. Max racked up and got going and I got comfortable in the belay lounge. These long pitches usually took a couple of hours and this one was no different. It didn't matter to us though since we had planned on two pitches a day and had easily kept to our schedule. Our routine on this route was seemed to be "early to bed and early to rise". We were usually in our bags by 9 or 9:30 and up making coffee at 6. This was our fourth El Cap route in four years and we have our systems down pat. Setting up the ledge, bagging the ropes, unpacking the bags, making dinner in the evening and then making coffee in the morning, putting everything away and getting going on the first pitch of the day are all pretty routine for us. Max and I have always been an efficient team and most wall chores seem to get done when they need to happen without any discussion. It doesn't hurt that he and I have probably climbed more than a couple thousand pitches together either.

Max had placed a bomber nut but when he moved off it, it had rotated upwards and when the placement he was on pulled, he fell and went 30 feet. It was one of those run backwards down the wall kind of falls and he was batmaning back up the rope almost before he stopped falling. He tagged up a bit of gear and kept climbing, I kept feeding rope and watching the loop below me get smaller and smaller. I could see the anchor and figured he'd get there before he ran out of rope. At one point I took him off belay and started untying the anchor. I had the bags hanging on different pieces and with a few dozen pieces between us; not having the rope involved in the anchor was immaterial. A few minutes later when he called down that he was off belay I just laughed. Max Jones nears the end of 230 foot pitch on Reticent.

I cleaned the pitch and we had the ledge set up by 4:30 and were comfortably sitting against the wall, eating munchies, watching the day change into evening, listening to music and talking about the day's climbing soon after. Max's pitch had crossed the Gray Bands had climbed into the Taft Granite, the best granite on all of El Cap. The "Laser Cut" cracks were the next two pitches above us and Max's A4+ pitch was a short pitch right above those, it would be his breakfast pitch in two days. I could tell he was concerned about it, since we talked a lot about my pitch and he picked my brain for placement tips.

I had bivied at this very same spot years ago when I climbed an early ascent of the Dawn Wall. Actually, it was the second ascent of that route and we were the forth party ever to climb the upper Wall of the Early Morning Light pitches. We were not of that generation, not of the "Golden Age", but still, since it was an early ascent and Harding, Robbins and Porter were our hero's, we felt a connection. Sunset on Half Dome

We were treated to a beautiful sunset on Half Dome that evening and in the morning, a beautiful sunrise. As usual for this route, we were brewing coffee by 6 packing the ledge away by 8 and climbing by 8:30.

The Taft granite on El Cap is the best granite in the whole park and my first pitch of the day did not disappoint. I led up on the Dawn Wall section of the pitch, placing perfect cams and perfect nuts one after another. Where the Dawn Wall moves left, Reticent goes right on a rivet and a couple of hooks. From there on the crack is very closed and requires many #1 and 2 peckers. Some of the peckers go in only a half-inch or so but they seem bomber in the tight crack. The pitch goes over two roofs and at the first I thought I was going to have to hammer a pecker straight up under one of them. I ended up making a big bodily swing and stuffing a small cam at the lip. I couldn't see if it was any good or not so I just got on it. I placed another cam a few inches further and then saw that my next move had to be a small Cassin hook. I looked at the cams I had placed and at the peckers below that and just laughed. Everything seemed solid but everything was small, there was not a whole lot of metal holding anything.

Above the roof the laser cut crack continued up through beautiful, almost translucent, gray rock. The pitch ended on a small ledge strewn with Peregrine feathers. As I was pull up the rope to tie the anchor, Max yelled to hold on a second, that he had to untie his! The topo shows 190 and it was obviously longer than that!

Two hundred foot pitches are great. Take a bunch of long slings, tag up a bunch of gear mid pitch and climb and climb and climb seemingly forever. The belayer way, way down there starts to look like a speck on the wall; he looks like he's climbing with some other party. But then it comes to hauling. Hauling a 200-foot pitch is soul crushing. The bag is SO far down there, so far down there. You can pump for 20 minutes and look down and barely see it. Max Jones starting the sceond laser cut crack on Reticent

Max came up happy and psyched. Dave Allfrey and Ben Doyle had told us that these were the money pitches and Max was eager to get onto his. We could see only the next 25 feet and it looked nice, but not money. Max started up and after a few minutes got to the point where he could see the rest of the pitch. "Holy shit! Send up all the beaks and everything thin and small we have". A few hours later and again after using most of the rope, he called down that he was off belay. "That pitch was awesome" he also yelled down. When I had cleaned past the corner, looked up and saw the most perfect crack I've ever seen on El Cap I could see why he felt that way. It looked like what the Shield had looked like when Charlie Porter first climbed it.

Peckers

Later, Dave Allfrey told us that he had removed 18 pins from that pitch and that they had come out fairly easily. Who leaves 18 pins on a pitch? I don't care if its dark or raining, you aren't the only person in the world and you have to care about the experience of the climbers coming behind you. This isn't Baffin Island or Trango Tower where a route might never get climbed again. This is El Cap, the most popular big wall in the world! With routes on El Cap getting climbed in a day, in a few hours, free, solo in a day and full on big wall style the only "style" that matters on El Cap these days is how you leave the climb for future parties and that you don't screw up anyone else's ascent. Everyone else has just as much right to having a fun and challenging time on the cliff as you do and their experience is just as valid and important as yours.

I led the short pitch over to the Dawn Wall and set up camp. Max's A4+ pitch loomed overhead. I noticed that he looked at it only a little and mostly kept his head down. He joked that since he had the outside of the ledge that night, it would be staring him in the face, that it would keep him awake looking at it and worrying about it.

Cheyne Lempe texted to ask if it would be okay for him to rap down from the top and take photos of Max on the crux pitch. We agreed as long as he agreed to bring up a bag of chips and a jar of salsa for us.

We were up and brewing coffee early and Max was on the pitch by 8:30 racked with beaks, heads, small nuts, cams and hooks. "Make your best placement, bounce the shit out of it, get on it, forget about it, repeat and have fun," I told Max before he left the ledge. "You know it" was his only reply.

It has sort of been wild climbing walls with Max again. We had done a few back in the 70's, an early ascent of Mescalito and Zodiac, and an attempted the fourth ascent of the PO that ended when I dropped a flake on my finger. We had frequently led A4, placed heads, tied off pin stacks, carried the usual "shoulder-bruising load" and suffered the night in hammocks. Thirty-four years later we are back at it again. Of course we are older, we aren't young anymore but we each lucked out and have those genetic freak bodies and brains that allow us to keep doing this. Even aside from that, we are willing to modify our goals to be happy with what we can do. We know we can't climb Reticent in a push, and we know we don't want to do the Sea of Dreams simply because being that scared for that long wouldn't be any fun. It doesn't matter to us what we did "back in the day". Today is the only day that matters and BITD relates only to someone else's day. Today, for us, is our day and it's the only day worth living for.

Max Jones on the crux pitch of El Capitan's Reticent. Max was working his way up the pitch when Cheyne's rope snaked down from the top. Max leaned over and asked me to tell Cheyne to tie a big ol' honkin' knot at the rope's end before going too far. Cheyne stepped over the edge, slid down the rope a few feet and said "Don't worry about me, I'm not too scared". It was wild seeing him dangling in space, hanging right above Max. As they we up there talking and Cheyne was snapping away I had nothing to do but think of the route and El Cap and life. I have known Max for longer than Cheyne has been alive but I've climbed and had great experiences with both of them. Eventually Max climbed out of view and Cheyne jugged off, promising to return the next day for our haul bags. Max called down that he was off belay and let out a Whoop! It didn't take long to clean the pitch since everything came out easily. It looked like a great pitch and I was glad Max got to lead it. All that was left now was the circuitous last pitch and the work of getting everything away from the edge.

I led the pitch quickly and found a net bag with chips and salsa hanging from the last anchor. I had all the smaller bags on top before Max had finished cleaning the pitch and then showed Max a neat trick to create fast and safe 2 to1 get the bags over and away from the edge quickly and easily. We never congratulate each other or stop and relax before we get everything safely away from the edge. Only when it's all on top do we drop our harness and shake hands.

We eventually had everything up at around three and as is our custom, planned to spend the night on top. I consider the top of El Cap the most beautiful place on earth and can never find a reason to hurry down. We spent the afternoon organizing gear and the packs for ourselves and our porters for the hike down in the morning. Since we had topped out with considerable water, we laid it out in the sun to warm up and later on, each took a nice shower with some fairly warm water. The sun rising over the Sierra Nevada behind Half Dome

Aside from one party on the Zodiac and a couple parties on El Cap Tower we hadn't seen any other climbers in days. That afternoon and evening two parties had walked by. One had just climbed Freerider from Heart Ledge, in a day, and another came up from working on the free Muir.

At 5:30 the next morning we had coffee made and were set up to watch the sun rise over the Sierra. An hour or so later three climbers walked by, heading to work free climbing the Salathe Headwall.

After they passed by, Max and I remarked that it was 36 years ago that we had first tried to free climb El Cap and now climbers were doing it every day.

"You know, Max", I said, "we had quite a time back in the day, back in our day, and we just had quite a time on this route. I hope those guys know and appreciate that yesterday and today and tomorrow are THE day for them. Everyone is out there creating THEIR day. You just have to realize it".

Mark Hudon and Max Jones on top of El Capitan's Reticent after 9 days on the wall

It had been just about the perfect El Cap experience, nothing had gone wrong, the weather had been perfect and the route was the perfect level of difficulty, interesting the whole way but never too scary or really dangerous and I got to climb it with my best partner ever.

We sat back, made another cup of coffee and enjoyed being on El Cap.
And it was quiet.
It was really quiet.
It was actually quite nice.

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