Martina Cufar: rock climbing in Yosemite, Indian Creek and more
From 15 April to 15 June Martina Cufar travelled to the U.S.A. for her first taste of Indian Creek, Yosemite, Tuolome Meadows and the Needles...
In mid April Martina Cufar from Slovenia traveled to America where, together with Stephanie Bodet, Arnaud Petit and Sean Leary she spent a month discovering the joys and pains of trad climbing in the States. From humble beginnings with 6a off-widths to climbing her majesty El Capitan in Yosemite, check out her interesting report below.
Rock climbing in America - enchanted by El Capitan by Martina Cufar
In 1997 I went to Yosemite Valley for just a day before a competition in San Francisco. And just one look at El Capitan was enough for me to dream about it for almost 10 years. During all the following competition years it was always somewhere in the back of my mind. “When I stop competing, I’ll go climb El Capitan”, were the words I repeated to myself time and time again.
And the words became reality
Even before my last competition I found a team for the USA and I bought a ticket. I was to join a team of three French climbers; two of them I knew well from competitions, Stephanie Bodet and Arnaud Petit, the third was Nicolas Khalisz. They all had a lot of experience with traditional and big wall climbing (lat year they climbed the Angel Falls in Venezuela). I on the other hand was a complete “greenhorn” to this kind of climbing so I was more than happy to join such a great team. Just before departure Nicolas got injured, so there were only three of us, but I was certain I would find a climbing partner out there. I didn't have any specific goals; just gain as much experience as possible in crack climbing, placing gear, big wall tactics… And of course to climb El Capitan, no matter how. The climbing trip was going to be quite expensive since I didn’t have any trad gear, but I knew it was an investment for the future...
Indian Creek - is it possible to climb cracks and have fun?
That was what I asked myself after my first experience with crack climbing. Everything hurt, hands, toes, and the whole body suffered. We began our American tour in Indian Creek (Utah), known for its amazing sandstone buttresses with perfect cracks. There are many straight lines, 30 and more meters long and completely different widths. No footholds whatsoever, absolutey no crimps. And when you don't know how to jam, this becomes a big problem -in the beginning I couldn't even do a 5.10. (6a)! But I wasn’t discouraged, I was willing to learn. And I also had good examples around me, proving that crack climbing is easy. At least it looked so, when I watched Stephanie, Arnaud and the local climbers there. I learnt that the techniques used in crack climbing (and the muscles you use) are really very different to those I had encountered in my almost 20 year climbing career.
I also had to cope with another novelty; no bolts. I’d never placed a Camalot in my life, so this was scary for me. And when you're fighting with a crack it’s hard to find the right Camalot, place it well and climb on. It took me some days to overcome my fear of falling onto the pro.
Despite all these problems, pains and sore muscles, I woke with new motivation every day. And my efforts soon paid off, I really felt progress was being made. What a relief! I was soon able to relax in the middle of a route and admire the great view around Indian Creek. I did my first 5.11, then 5.12. I was as happy as if I have done an 8b! On the last evening I was really close to doing Ruby's Cafe 5.13a, a nice finger crack, which Stephanie did the day before. But in crack climbing the grades aren’t as important as on limestone; the difficulty depends more on the size of the crack. For Europeans, finger cracks are easier and off-widths really hard. I had watched the movie Return to sender where all jamming techniques are shown really well. Don't be fooled - it looks a lot easier than it is! The climbers describe the size of the crack according to the colours of the Camalots. My favorites were red and yellow (hand jam), I didn’t really like green and violet, where you have to do ringlocks - poor fingers! You have to roll and squeeze them as if you wanted to buy a new set in a supermarket the next day! But the worst were offwidths, where you have to jam both hands at the same time, knees, thighs…
Her Majesty - El Capitan
When we gained some experience it was the time to move on to California. We weren’t the only ones. May is the time of year when it usually becomes too hot in the Desert (Indian Creek), so many climbers move, like nomads, to the Valley (Yosemite), where the conditions for climbing become perfect.
Stephanie and Arnaud were focused on Free rider, so I needed to find a partner, and I was really lucky! I met Sean Leary, a local Yosemite climber. He had climbed all the classic routes and his project for this year was to free climb The Golden Gate (5.13b, 41 pitches). He was my great teacher. First we planned to do some easier classics to get used to the granite, big wall techniques etc. But then conditions in the Valley were so perfect that he wanted to go directly in his project. And so on my second day in Yosemite I was already on her majesty El Capitan! When I walked toward its foot I got goose bumps all over my body; this wall radiates a special energy!
Approaching a route in El Capitan means tactics. And once again everything was new for me! First we (with Stephanie and Arnaud, because Free Rider and Golden Gate have the first 24 pitches in common) fixed ropes ‘till the Hollow Flake ledge. Next day we hauled our big and heavy haulbags till there, in order to be able to climb light and fast at least on the first part of the route during the “real” ascent. It’s unbelievable how much one eats and drinks! I was aware of this fact while packing the haulbags and even more while hauling them! They were so heavy we needed to be in two on the other side of the haulline and we worked hard to move them slowly up the wall. And of course they got stuck behind every possible ledge.
After a rest day (jumaring and hauling makes you pretty tired!) we entered The Golden Gate on May the 14th at first daylight. The bear sitting 10 meters from the start of the route encouraged me to go fast ;-) and 6 hours later we were already at our haulbags. The route isn't really steep in the first section, but this doesn't mean that it's easy. There are some hard technical slabs and probably the longest pitch of El Cap, The Hollow flake, which I named The Horror flake. First you climb up to clip an old piton, than you layback down a long fingercrack, followed by traverse and finally 20 to 30 meters up the offwidth you can’t protect. At the top the only piton is about 15 m down to the right. You mustn’t even think about falling!
After the Hollow flake our progression slowed down due to hauling the two heavy pigs that weighed more than 100kg (15 gallons of water). And that wasn’t all; at the end of the day there was The Monster crack 5.12a waiting for us! This 40m long offwidth, also called The European crux, was the hardest pitch of the whole route for me! Sean did it easily, I was too tired even to try it, so I did it the next day, after almost an hour of fighting. When you go up 4 cm and down 3 cm on every move, you almost give up, but then your foot gets stuck miraculously somewhere, so you can take a breath and get some energy to continue, centimeter upon centimeter.
During the next days we were slow, not only because of the hauling, but also because the pitches in the upper part where El Capitan becomes overhanging are more difficult. Above El Cap Spire, The Golden Gate separates from the more crowded Salathe and Free rider. Therefore there was no more chalk, the line was not obvious and there was some vegetation in the cracks. At times even the anchors were not bolted. But by then I'd already begun to trust the camalots.
We soon came to the first hard nut to crack; a circa 10 meter downclimb traverse to the right. The wall was blank like a mirror, just one crimp and a slopy foothold far down. Too far for me. I tried to find a solution for a while (because I believe there is always the solution, even if you are small), but then I gave up. I didn't want to spend too much time there. I didn't go up El Cap with the goal to climb it free, but to get as many experience as possible and to help Sean make his wish come true. After more than 20 attempts Sean finally did this very balancy downclimb. Everyone who did the route (also Yuji Hirayama, who climbed it in an hour and a half) said that this is the hardest pitch and nobody knows how the Huber brothers could have graded it just 5.12c.
We exchanged leads most of the time, but I had it calculated well so that I didn't get any of those scary off-width pitches ;-) On the fourth day we reached the first of the three 5.13 pitches. I didn't know what to expect, especially after the great difficulties in the 5.11. off-widths. Luckily those three pitches were more “European style of climbing”. Some crimps, pockets, slopers and if there was a crack it was a finger crack. I even flashed two of them, The Golden desert and The A5 traverse! While on The move pitch there was another reachy move I couldn't do.
Sean's dream to free the route unfortunately ended on the Traverse; he was so close to doing it, he tried 5 times, but understandably he was out of fuel on the 6th day on the wall. The decision to continue towards the top without having climbed that pitch was hard. But we didn't have enough food and water to spend another more day on the wall. On the top, after 41 pitches and 6 days of climbing we both had an enormous smile on our face. After all we had freed the route! (I thing this may have been the 5th repeat, but I am not sure). Not in an ideal way (because none of us were able to free all the pitches) but big wall climbing is team work and so this was “our result”.
Spending six days on a wall was an unforgettable experience. I slept on a wall for the first time in my life, with hundreds of meters of air below you. I loved the exposure! Sean and I got along really well. We got to know each other in those 6 days more than we would in a year on the ground. I found him to be a perfect climbing partner for the last part of my holidays in America and we have already made some plans for the autumn, when I want to come back. El Capitan's energy is like a magnet! We would like to try El Nino.
After Golden Gate we did (not all free) some classic routes such as Astroman on Washington Tower (350m, 5.11c), Regular North West Face 5.12.d on Half Dome (23 pitches in a day), and later on when it became too hot to climb in Yosemite we went to the more elevated Tuolome Meadows and the Needles, where we did some easier four pitch routes.
Between one long route and the next I “rested” on short sport routes and boulders. Not the hardest, but certainly the most famous was Separate Reality 5.12a. It was Ron Kauk who climbed over this amazing roof crack in 1978 and the photos published in climbing magazines brought another legend to Yosemite - Wolfgang Güllich, who later famously soloed it.
The end of my climbing adventure was quite tumultuous, but had nothing to do with climbing. Apart from the huge delays at the airports, my swollen elbow (which had prevented me from climbing in the last days), made my journey back home a nightmare. Due to the delays at JFK Airport I was stuck for an additional 24 hours, with my elbow becoming bigger and redder by the minute. Instead of spending the night in a fancy hotel I spent it in a hospital with antibiotics. So my long list of “for the first time in my life” got even longer; a first ride with a ambulance, a first night in a hospital, a first infusion of antibiotics and, after returning home, my first narcosis and operation… All this was much harder than spending 6 days in the Golden Gate!
Fortunately it was nothing so serious, all my muscles and tendons are ok, so I hope to soon climb again. It turned out to be an infection on the back of the elbow. When I made a summary of all the pitches I did (190) and the meters I jumared, it's no wonder that my elbow began to complain. But I find it simply impossible to rest if I see a nice route. And there are so many in Yosemite!