El Capitan ~ Grape Race/Tribal Rite - Solo

trip report: Mark Hudon

I was having a bad day. The wall was so steep that the bottom of the gear rack hung eighteen inches away from the rock, and the two quarter-inch anchor bolts to which everything was attached – including us – were not exactly inspiring confidence. A jet screamed through the Valley, and when I turned to look I suddenly took in the surreal view of a group of cavers hanging from their 3000-foot rope way out in space. I really didn’t want to be here, in fact it was much more severe than that. I knew I was finished. Not just this wall, not just El Cap, but all of my climbing. It was all over. I was done.

Mark Hudon after injuring his finger on the Pacific Ocean Wall

"Rainsford,” I declared. “I can’t do it. I’ve already climbed my last El Cap route.”

Back on the security of the ground, I knew my career as a rock climber had ended. As I emptied the water bottles, I could feel my soul draining empty with them. Within the next twenty-four hours, I would give away all my climbing gear – pitons, ropes, haul bag, hundreds of biners, the whole deal. I started to cry and didn’t stop for hours.

In the spring of 1978, Max Jones and I attempted the 4th ascent of the Pacific Ocean Wall, considered on its first ascent to be the hardest big wall in the world. Only the week before, three climbers from the Midwest had fallen to their deaths off of the Nose when they dropped their haul bag and a bolt hanger had broken. It was, and still is, El Cap’s most horrific accident. Max and I were more than a little freaked, and when a flake I was nailing fell off – ripping off my fingernail and almost cutting my ropes in the process – it was all the excuse we needed to bail.

I climbed El Cap three more times in the next few years but something had changed – things felt different, and I was no longer calm and relaxed. A string of El Cap failures cumulated on the South Seas with Rainsford.

I had failed. I was a failure.

Everything I do in my life I do intensely – windsurfing, carpentry, photography or mountain biking. I usually indulge in intensive market research before I buy the best gear, then I get on the forums, learn the techniques and pretty much live the sport or activity to the max. I’m so intense, I even lost two years of my life to a computer shoot-em-up game. Every now and then I’ve said stuff like I don’t care if I ever climb, windsurf or take another picture again, but my friends know me better, and have learned to accept my lies along with large doses of salt. In the early 90’s, someone asked me to build him a climbing wall. This piqued my interest in sport climbing and I was rabid with it til I reached my level of incompetence spending 15 days over two years to redpoint a single 5.13c route at Smith Rock.

I met Bill Wright in 2000, and we climbed in Colorado doing some of my favorite routes like the Naked Edge and Country Club Crack, and on one of my favorite cliffs, The Diamond. A few months later we visited Yosemite and climbed the Rostrum and then the West Face of El Cap. Long “trade” routes rekindled my love of climbing, but living in Oregon limited my opportunities.

Years passed and I climbed less and less. Eventually I realized that whenever I told someone about my rock climbing, I was really telling them about my climbing El Cap. Other routes and formations faded from memory, and time and time again I returned to El Cap. After some friends climbed the Nose in 2008, I figured it was time I quit talking about the damn thing, and get back on it.

Mark Hudon jumaring to Heart Lesdges in 2009

When I made plans for the Shield with John Fine last year in 2009, I was sure I wanted to do it. I had hoped it would be relaxed and fun. I had spent so many years sport climbing, lobbing off onto bolts worry-free, I hoped this attitude would carry forward to the big walls.

I was unprepared for how calm and “at home” it felt, even from the very first instant when I clipped my jugs onto the ropes dangling down from Heart Ledges. Somehow I knew I was going to be able to do it, I knew it was going to work, and I knew it was going to be right.

That night – my first on El Cap in thirty years – was probably the best night of my life. It was where I was meant to be: the sounds of the birds at dusk, the bats flying around in the night, the view of the Meadow, the stars covering half the sky and the hulking mass of El Cap blotting out the other half. I was home again, I was back! Later, when John got sick and we had to retreat I was bitterly disappointed, but also overjoyed that I had discovered something inside myself again, something I had feared I’d lost forever. Later that month on the Nose, it felt so right again. I felt calm and confident – it didn’t matter that I was short roping with no real belay on 5.10, or that I was a gazillion feet off the ground – every jam was perfect and solid, every anchor and ledge was home.

I had originally thought I’d solo something short and sort of easy, at least as “easy” as a solo of El Cap can be. Virginia came to mind, although I had already climbed the Tangerine Trip and it wasn’t exactly my favorite El Cap route. I had read some trip reports for Tribal Rite and when someone suggested it, I liked the idea. But I had already climbed the right side of El Cap Tower twice and didn’t want to repeat it a third time, and hauling up the Nose was certainly not on my to-do list. Right around then Erik Sloan posted his trip report on Grape Race and I was intrigued. I looked at some of Tom Evans’ photos and saw that it might be feasible to connect Grape Race to Tribal Rite by swinging right onto Tribal Rite from where the original Nose route swings left on the Grey Ledges heading to Camp 4. I figured Grape Race would be a good warm-up for the harder climbing above, and that it would also give me an opportunity to learn how to solo climb, hopefully in time to be ready for Tribal Rite! I started buying gear and learning everything I could about soloing big walls.

Now, I’ve been climbing for a hundred years and thought I understood the basics of big wall soloing, but not much more than that. It’s sort of funny “being me” – I’m kind of well known in the climbing world, at least among the Old Farts, so I have immediate credibility with just about anyone ancient enough to remember who I am.

Max JOnes and Mark Hudon on top of Devils Tower in 1979

I had met “Pass the Pitons” Pete Zabrok briefly once, and knowing he had done eight solos of El Cap I emailed him a question. Imagine my surprise and delight when he answered with pages and pages of instruction. Over the following months, I would ask Pete hundreds of questions and he would answer with hundreds of pages of replies - literally. When it came to putting together the systems, I began to “get it”. Pete told me he enjoyed answering my questions, and that I had good problem-solving skills. “Big wall climbing, especially soloing, is a continuous problem-solving process, and is therefore a Thinking Man’s game,” said Pete. “I think you’ll probably reach the summit – and you’d bloody better after all these frickin’ emails.”

On SuperTopo, I posted a question about copperheads and ended up receiving a haul bag full of ropes, pitons, copperheads, and rivet hangers from Mark Herndon aka Base104. He had once geared up to climb big walls, but unfortunately had developed health problems so the gear had sat in his garage unused for years. I’m sort of technically-minded, so many of methods came quite easily to me. For the more difficult ones, I would try setting up the system on my small climbing wall to try to figure it out.

Figuring out 3 to 1 hauling

For instance, I lugged 300 pounds of cast iron from the weight room at the local gym over to their climbing wall just to see if I could haul it with at 2:1 system.

It worked well enough on the vertical gym wall, but since Grape Race is pretty much the longest slab route on El Cap I had a 3:1 system figured out just in case.

Practicing setting up my ledge at the local Fitness Club's wall

I also spent time practicing setting up my portaledge and its rain fly. I was glad I did since I developed a slick way to set up the ledge with it laying flat against the wall and me dangling and swinging left and right from my Grigri. I also realized that the Grigri was going to be an invaluable solo wall tool, so I bought myself a spare and then tied keeper slings onto them so I hopefully couldn’t drop them.

When I told Pete of my original seven-day estimate, he laughed so hard he spilled his coffee. He told me he often observed people bailing off of walls because they feared they were going too slowly and would run out of food and water. “What a sad reason to bail from a wall, dude! Think of how much time, energy and money you have already invested, and compare this with the extra work it would be to bring a little more food and water, thus stacking the odds in favour of your success. We’re Old Bulls, dude, we win by attrition. We don’t run up and knock us off a cow. We walk up, and we knock them all off.”

Pete convinced me I ought to take my time, smell the flowers, and bring enough supplies to really enjoy this unique experience. I concurred and drastically increased my expected time to 11 days with actual food and water for 13, stretchable to 15 or 16 if I were delayed by storm or other unforeseen problems. As the trip got closer I was actually hoping for a few days of rain so I would have an excuse to hang out under my customized Metolius fly and while away the hours reading, sleeping and watching the storm clouds drift by beneath me.

I had SailWorks here in Hood River put a door into my fly. They easily did as good a job as any of the original fly makers would have.

Gear in the garage

My bags were packed almost a month before I actually left for the Valley. In spite of my certainty they were perfect, after dinner most nights I’d go out to the garage and visit them.

In my mind I’d go over every detail of leading, rebelaying, setting up anchors, cleaning and hauling. At work, I’d draw pictures of anchors, and write step-by-step instructions of every activity like arriving at an anchor or tagging.

My departure date was the Memorial Day weekend, and my friend Gary “The Bullet” Allan would help me hump loads and then belay me on the first three pitches. Grape Race starts from the middle of the 4th pitch of the Nose, and on Memorial Day weekend I had feared those pitches to be jammed, so planned to get up them as fast as possible to avoid the clusterfrig. I would lead and haul, then Bullet would belay and clean on jugs. It was, after all, all about me.

The weather in May was terrible, but the day I arrived in Yosemite, the clouds miraculously parted with clear and warm weather predicted for the duration. We humped the rack, my ledge, fly and some odds and ends up to the base of the Nose, and I did my best to speed climb up there, passing two parties. We climbed to the top of the 3rd pitch (linking the 2nd and 3rd of the Nose) in only slightly more than an hour, then rapped off. I was psyched and on-form. Since we had the time and energy, we humped another load to the base and hauled it up the first pitch.

The next day, Hansi Standteiner arrived and the three of us completed my final schlep. I hauled to the top of the first pitch where Bullet and Hansi bade me farewell.

the 4th pitch of the route

I was finally alone, still on the Nose superhighway, but feeling as though my fate rested in my own hands. I spent a bit of time arranging the haul bags and the Far End Hauler system. I had the time so I went up and fixed the 4th pitch.

Climbing was now a joy! I had all the time and gear I needed, and didn’t have to go fast to make anyone else happy. I could stop, smell the granite, take in the view and revel in the experience. The fourth pitch is 190 feet long and rated A3, but it seemed pretty easy with the only hard part being to clip a couple of fixed copperheads. Hooks used to freak me out, but I used a few on this pitch and felt right at home on them. I drug up the tag bag with the extra gear, set up the anchor and rapped off, eager to set up my ledge, enjoy my first beer, and relax.

As I lay back on my ledge and looked up at El Cap I thought of my journey. In 1974, only a hundred feet away from where I now laid, I fell off the 5.9 climbing of the Salathe Wall’s slab pitch and wondered if I could climb it. I was 18 and hadn’t yet climbed El Cap. That was a long time ago, and I wondered why I still do it. My main reason is of course that I love it. I love all of it – the smell, the sounds, the feel of the rock, the vastness of it, the uncertainty, the fricken wildness of simply doing it, the absurdity of it – these are the things that are is important to me. Physically, I’ve not suffered “the thickening” that some of my friends have. I’m in decent shape but I also know that I’m running down the clock. I’m 54 and I probably won’t last another 54. When you’re 21, you’re sure you will live forever and that you have all the time in the world to live your dreams. But when you’re 54, you realize that the end – although hopefully not yet in sight – is out there like a destination you’ve been approaching for hours, but have not yet reached.

A hanging bivy in a portaledge on El Capitan

Lying back on my ledge, the sky getting dark, the stars coming out, the bats and the swallows chirping, I fell asleep and slept the sleep of kings and babies.

The next morning, I knew exactly what to do. Back in the day we didn’t have efficient and portable hanging stoves. But now? Yeah baby, fire it up and hot coffee is just moments away! I didn’t used to “need” coffee, but I sure do now, perhaps the result of owning a coffee roasting company. The fresh batch of Ethiopian I had roasted just before I left home greeted me that first morning. I contemplated having a second cup but was so excited about the climbing ahead I didn’t make time to drink it.

Morning coffee from Hood River Coffee Roasters

Now, don’t forget that prior to this I had never rope soloed anything in my life. I had emailed with Pete back and forth a few hundred times, I had spent hours envisioning all the techniques and had drawn scores of pictures and written dozens of lists of how I thought it should work, but until this point it had all been Big Wall Theory. Now it was time to make it work. I made one mistake that day which cost a little time when my tag bag hung up because I forgot to unclip it from the anchor – duh. It hung from a fifi and was safetied with a “slippery overhand knot” so that if the hook fell off the biner somehow it wouldn’t fall onto my waist – at least in theory. Obviously I never should have clipped the bag in at all. Fortunately the climbing was not difficult, so it was no big deal to set up an anchor mid-pitch, rap down and unclip the bag. Good thing it didn’t happen while I was in the middle of an A4 hooking traverse. Everything else worked great for me that first full day, and if this was the worst El Cap could throw at me, I was in good shape.

The Slippery knot and Tag Bag setup

Again it was a beautiful night. This area of El Cap stands a bit away from most of the routes, and I could see no other parties. I felt completely alone on my solo – perfect.

The next day started out nice but the wind came up in the afternoon and it “nuked” – Columbia River Gorgespeak for “it blew like stink.” The gusts raised my tension level a bit, but given that I had nowhere to go and all day to get there, I was unconcerned. I was warm enough in a windshirt I had brought along, and I frequently stopped and laughed at how hard the wind was blowing and my involvement with it.

Almost at the end of the last pitch of the day the wind had blown the lead rope/tag line out of its rope bag and under the haul bags. As I tried to pull it up, the rope had slid up behind the bags and had become hopelessly caught. It was now getting late and to rap down, fix the problem, clean the pitch, and haul would have delayed setting up my ledge and calling my girls (Peggy and Ellen) until quite late in the evening. At first I was sort of mad that I should have to worry about them worrying about me, but then I thought, “What the hell – I’m on a pleasure cruise, not a speed climb.” So I rapped back down to the previous anchor, set up my ledge, took out my iPod and got Miles Davis’ “Kinda Blue” going, popped a beer, called my girls, and marvelled at my blessed life.

Music, beer and a sandwich

The next day I jugged my line, hauled the bag and then set off on a solid 65-metre pitch that would end at the top of the slab and the very prow of El Cap.

When you’re soloing with a Grigri the rope slips back and forth through the device depending on which side has more weight of rope at that moment. You might yard yourself a bunch of slack, but when you get back to climbing, find yourself with only five feet of rope. Or fifty feet of rope – all of it, by the way, hanging nicely down at the anchor and out of view.

Climbing the Jardine Corner

The next morning I lowered off the belay and swung over to the corner starting at the end of the Jardine Traverse. It’s a beautiful corner, steep and clean with good finger locks every few feet. I was in free climbing shoes with only a minimal rack. I figured this was going to be great. Well, it wasn’t. The Grigri was back-feeding, and then the tag line got stuck in its rope bag. I rapped down, fixed the problem and then fought my way up to a ledge even with the top of Boot Flake. I was glad no one was on this part of the Nose at that time since I didn’t want to involve them in my cluster. I rappelled back down the pitch, released the pigs, jugged the rope and started to haul. I had combined two pitches so the haul was quite long, perhaps 190 feet.

Partway through the hauling I felt the call of nature. On Grape Race, a route rarely climbed, I didn’t feel the need to capture my water waste. Here on the Nose, one of the most popular rock climbs on the planet, it would be insulting and selfish to urinate down the cracks up which everyone who came behind me would have to climb. I freed myself from the haul system and rapped down to the haul bag to get an empty water jug to relieve myself. For the next three or four days while in urinating distance of the Nose, I captured all my water waste.

Connecting the Nose and Tribal Rite routes on El Capitan.

My plan to swing right to the top of TRibal Rite's first pitch worked perfectly and that night I set up my ledge on Tribal Rite for the first time.

With the debacle of the previous day fading from my mind, I got ready to climb one of Tribal Rite’s old crux pitches. The SuperTopo guide rates it A4 but the pitch goes clean and is mild C3, with the first part being awkward but not extremely so. All in all, the pitch is interesting and fun – only 140 feet straight up. That means it didn’t take too long to lead, and it was easy to haul so I could get back to the pleasure of my portaledge, beer, snacks, music and scoping the Valley and other climbers with my binoculars. By this time I was getting quite a system worked out for the various wall tasks. I had the anchors all figured out, the hauling was easy, and so was setting up my ledge and arranging my food, clothes and water. It was all good. I’d be dangling around, setting up my ledge and when it was done I’d be the most satisfied man in the world. I’d unpack my bags, clip my color-coded Metolius Wall bags to the ledge straps and then drop them down to the ledge. It made me happy to no end seeing them laying about my ledge, all clipped in.

Sun Ledge on El Capitan's Tribal Rite route.

I’d take off my harness and put on an old swami to be more comfortable. I’d blow up my sleeping pad, open a beer, sit there, take in the view and relax, make dinner, make a dessert, take some photos and call my girls. You can’t even imagine a man so happy and relaxed!

The happiest man in the world, Mark Hudon on El Cap.

I felt that I was now into the real meat of the climb. I had made a few mistakes lower down but I had things pretty wired by now. Somehow the days passed like a leisurely float trip down a placid river. I’d wake up, make coffee, and eat breakfast all in the beautiful Yosemite morning light. I’d get up as soon as the sun hit me and given that I was on “The Wall of the Early Morning Light’ in the springtime this was quite early. It was wild to be up in the brilliant sunshine looking down into the still-dark valley. I’d laugh at myself – everything was important yet nothing was important. I’d stop and watch the birds or the clouds or spend a few moments appreciating the hook I was hanging from or the four inches of haul line I’d gain with every push while hauling the bag. The climbing continued to be steep and the rock beautiful.

Beautiful and steep climbing on El Capitan's Tribal Rite route.

As a funny aside here, I knew two of the three guys who made the first ascent of Tribal Rite – Alan Bard and Tom Carter. Both are well over six feet tall. Me, well, I am not much over five feet tall, so those fuckers were all about a foot taller than me! I figured this might give me problems on the rivet ladders so I had gone to a local ski shop for an old ski pole and cut it down to what I figured I’d need to reach from rivet to rivet – about thirty inches long. On the next pitch, I came across a flake that I could have climbed if I had had a copperhead to hammer into a small hole in its side. The only time I used the stick on the whole route! I had just moved my tag bag up and it was only ten feet away but I didn’t have any copperheads on my rack. I put a cam hook into the hole but it levered the flake out. I could see it move and I certainly didn’t want to break the flake off onto my lap. So rather than tag again, I got out my “cheat stick” thinking, “I hope that bastard Tom Evans isn’t watching, or this will be all over his El Cap report.” Guess what? Tom got the shot and later that night, Peggy reported to me that I had been awarded the “Stick Clip of the Day”! I laughed and laughed. Wouldn’t you know – the only time I used the stick on the whole route!

The Carrot and the next pitch turned out to be among the best of the route. I was and still am bummed at all the fixed copperheads in the route. Quite a few of them seemed placed in legitimate piton placements. I would rather have worked to place a pin or even a nut than mindlessly clip into a ladder of fixed copperheads. On a supposed A2 pitch I took one of my biggest falls, about 15 feet when a nut pulled. I did the pitch clean and would easily rate it alongside any C3 pitch on the route.

I bivied on top of that pitch, below the next one rated A3R, I guess since it involves hooking right off the anchor for quite a ways. But it didn’t seem too bad, and I climbed only one pitch that day. I was setting myself up for two pitches the next day and then two on the final day. I still had the “RURP pitch” and then the final two pitches, which I had climbed when we made the 4th ascent of New Dawn back in 1976.

The RURP pitch was great and the next pitch was easy and fun. It was pretty wild to pull onto a ledge where I had bivied 36 years previously. Aside from a few bolts of course, nothing had changed. I set up my ledge, called my girls and was cooking dinner when I saw there was a message on my phone. I called to find that a buddy who had driven down from Hood River on his motorcycle wanted to know where my car was so he could put some stuff in it. I called him back and found that he was right down on the road, next to the bridge,

“Hey, man, where’s your car?”

“Right there, across from the bear boxes,” I told him.

“No, it’s not,” he replied.

Shit! Where did my car go?

The last night on the route.

I was starting to loose cell phone battery power so I cut the conversation short and called Peggy, hoping she could get a hold of Tom Evans and maybe get some answers. In the meantime I tired to stay unconcerned. If we couldn’t find my car, my buddy couldn’t store any of his stuff in it and wouldn’t be able to hike to the top to help me hump loads down. I had a ton of stuff; it’d be hell to hump it all down myself.

The next day dawned sunny and clear – as beautiful as they all had. I was laughing at myself, making up stories about how a bear had shredded the inside of my car and the guy at the garage telling me that he didn’t think the bear liked me. The standard “sad that the adventure was almost over” feeling hit me but I pushed it back. “It ain’t over till it’s over, and I ain’t down yet,” I told myself.

It was sort of sad climbing the last two pitches, seeing the beautiful knifeblade crack I had nailed so long ago now pocked with 1-1/4” pin scars. I tried to use cams and nuts wherever I could, even an upside-down cam hook, but I still had to place three pins.

The top-out is one of the best on El Cap, changing immediately from overhanging to a nice flat ledge with three bolts within sight of the flat top.

The gear on top of El Capitan.

It was strange pulling over that last edge and clipping the bolts. The trees were within spitting distance and it felt that all of a sudden my adventure was done save for the work. Yet I felt neither elated nor sad. I shuttled my rack a safe distance away from the edge and returned down the haul line to clean the final pitch. It was wild looking up to the trees on top and down to the trees far, far below. It had been twelve days since I left those lower trees, twelve days living on this wall – how wild was that? But I wasn’t finished yet – the bag had to be hauled and everything had to be carted away from the edge.

I found a sheltered bivy site and set up camp. I was on top and the climb was done but I wasn’t finished. I learned a bear had broken into my car and the Park Service had towed it. It was now somewhere in an unknown parking lot, gathering pollen. I just wanted to be finished, but everything had to be done and I was the only one to do it.

The next morning I packed all my gear into four fairly heavy packs – two awkward and heavy haul bags and two heavy packs. I began shuttling my stuff down for ten minutes before dropping one pack and then hiking back up to retrieve another, all in all spending a minimum of seventy minutes to get all four packs ten minutes down the trail. Hour by hour I repeated this scenario. After awhile I was exhausted and mentally drained. It took me at least 70 minutrs to get my 4 bags 10 minutes down the trail. The way down is a trail in only the faintest sense of the word. It’s a climbers’ trail – steep, rocky, root-filled and loose and requires constant attentiveness which I became less able to give. I collapsed just before the slabs above the rappels, unable to even think of carrying another load. Two parties passed me while I lay there and bivied. One party mentioned that the bear had broken into five other cars besides mine!

The next day was more of the same but included getting my four bags down the rappel ropes which I did in a single rap, then further nasty downclimbing. At 3:30 I finally wobbled into the Manure Pile parking lot with all my bags, unsure whether to jump for joy or sit down and cry. I was so exhausted I had long before switched to autopilot, going through the motions but unable to feel much of anything.

The bus picked me up and I mentioned my bear predicament to the driver. She said that she knew right where my car was and that she would take me there. With a bus half-full of tourists she drove around the backside of the garage in Yosemite Village and dropped me off right in front of my car.

The car had the usual bear damage and no more and it was really no big deal to me. I cleaned it up, bent the window frame back into place, taped it shut, called Peggy to tell her I was down and safe and then went off to the grocery store for a gallon of water, an apple and a cold beer.

I seemed to have some nervous energy left over, but couldn’t decide what to do. I felt like I was in an emotional limbo. I was so tired that I couldn’t think straight, but figured I needed to do something, although I wasn’t sure what or why. I went over to Housekeeping Camp to get a shower and then to the Curry bar for beer and nachos. Later that night I drove to El Portal, rented a motel room – with a bed! – and watched some TV before finally passing out.

Things in my life affect me strangely sometimes. The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” album reminds me of my first girlfriend in high school, the smell of propane and The Stones' "Sticky Fingers" always remind me of my first trip to Yosemite in ‘74. Whenever I see a beautiful smile I am reminded of my wife, whose smile enchanted me from the first second I saw it (and still does). I sometimes cry when I hear Bono, in U2’s song "Bad", singing “I’m wide awake, I’m not sleeping”.

I returned to the Valley to bask in the glory at the Bridge for a couple of days, and jumped off it, naked, into the Merced much to everyone’s amazement. Sorting gear at Chrurch Bowl.Sitting there on the bridge, looking up at El Cap, the climb started to take form inside me like the pieces of a puzzle falling into place. Looking at the wall, seeing places I had been years ago and just recently, remembering climbs, partners and experiences. All parts of my life, parts that are what make me who I am, it all started to come together. Eventually I wanted a quieter day since I needed to organize my car and equipment. I parked in a shady spot over at Church Bowl and emptied my car. When I dumped out the pack that contained all my solo gear, I saw my laminated topo of the route. When I picked it up to look at it, I started crying.

I don't know why.

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