• Living With A Very Serious Climber
  • What I've Learned: Sonnie Trotter
  • The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre
  • What I've Learned: Mark Udall
  • John Long's Favorite 5.10
  • The Rock Rambo: A "Tough Mudder" For Climbers
  • The Pirate: Adventures with Ammon McNeely
  • Dean Potter: What I've Learned
  • Call of the Wild: America's Hardest Crag - Wolf Point - Is Just a Vision
  • Berni's Tips for the Climbing Road Trip
  • What I've Learned: Heinz Mariacher
  • The Hardest Bouldering in America ... and Maybe the World
  • The Sasha DiGiulian Profile
  • What I've Learned: Chris Sharma
  • Notes from A Generation X Climber
  • Durango Unchained
  • Tipping Point on Everest
  • Tales of Sickness: Pro Climbing is Neither
  • Climbing Deal Breakers
  • Alex Honnold's First Ascent in Memory of Todd Skinner
  • The Seeker: Said Belhaj
  • The Art of Losing
  • Tommy Caldwell: What I've Learned
  • Dave Graham: Looking Backward
  • Reinhold Messner: What I've Learned
  • To the Death: Inside Catalunya and Ridiculously Hard Sport Climbing
  • The Definitive Charlie Porter Profile & Interview
  • Sonnie Trotter's Favorite 5.10: Exasperator (5.10c)
  • Unbroken: The Alex Johnson Profile
  • Steep Learning Curve: Honnold On His Early Free-Soloing Days
  • What I've Learned: John Bachar's Last Interview
  • Listening for the Echo: The Klem Loskot Profile
  • Bishop Bound: The Boulders and Beyond
  • The Eiger the Hard Way: Britain's Boldest Take on the North Face
  • Royal Robbins on the First Ascent of the North American Wall
  • Adam Ondra's Hardest Routes in Flatanger
  • Perfect Play: What It Took to Climb La Dura Dura (5.15c)--The World's Hardest Route
  • Sasha DiGiulian Explains Why We Don't Climb Hard Enough
  • TNB: The Only Blasphemy
  • Everest Deserves Respect: Why It's Hard, From Someone Who's Been There
  • TNB: Chasing the Devil's Snort
  • Life on Hold: The Ian Powell Story
  • Return to Yosemite
  • Rope Jumping with Dan Osman
  • Origin of Species: Fontainebleau
  • El Cap's Hardest: Wings of Steel
  • Cragging in the Bay Area
  • TNB: What's the Problem?
  • To the Rescue
  • The Midwest Mindset
  • Point Break: Fight Over Fixed Draws
  • Island of Opportunity: Exploring the Potential of Puerto Rico
  • Storming Castles: New Routing in the High Sierras
  • Soul Rising: In Pursuit of the South's Most Excellent 5.9s
  • Pure Magic: Spellbound By the Boulders of Switzerland
  • Arctic Gold
  • Where Worlds Collide
  • TNB: The Jungle
  • Tahoe Moderates
  • Comic Relief
  • Shoot Like Simon Carter
  • Kurt Albert: Free Wheel
  • Place of Happiness
  • High Exposure: A Fresh Perspective on the Gunks
  • California's Big House
  • TNB: The Hurt Locker
  • TNB: Eating People and the Real Seventh Summit
  • Wild Wild West Virginia
  • Wild Chihuahua
  • Who's Next?
  • Whole Everything
  • What's Supp?
  • Vintage Vantage
  • TURKISH DELIGHT
  • Tuff Love
  • True Believers
  • Tower of the Damned, Climbing the Crystal Tower
  • Top Digs
  • Todd Skinner: The Renegade
  • THE YEAR THAT WENT SOUTH
  • The Upstart
  • Tom Patey: The Tiger of Yesterday
  • The Stone Garden
  • The Secret of Nanda Devi
  • The Hidden
  • The Hard Way
  • THE GOLDEN AGE
  • The First Attempt on Latok I North Ridge by Michael Kennedy
  • The Eyes Have It
  • The Bond
  • The Black is Beautiful
  • Patxi Usobiaga: The Bionic Man
  • The Better Half
  • The Beast of the East
  • Talk is Cheap
  • Souvenirs
  • Southern Idaho Secrets
  • Simon Yates' New Route on Mount Vancouver
  • Routes Less Traveled
  • Rock Climbing in India
  • Ray's Roof Solo
  • Perfect Chaos
  • Open Water Treading in Paradise
  • New Mexico
  • Never Mind The Dinosaurs
  • Mountain of Clark
  • Michael Reardon
  • Melt Down
  • Max Turgeon and Louis-Philippe Ménard: Alpinists and Ice Climbers
  • Making The Grade
  • Local Color
  • Limestone Harmony
  • Landscaping
  • Kurt Albert: The Climber Who Invented Redpointing
  • King Air
  • JUNIOR MINTS
  • Josh Wharton: The Alpinist
  • John Rosholt: Climber and Gambler Disappears in Las Vegas
  • John Long: The Real Deal
  • John Long: Slaying Giants
  • John Long: High Times
  • The Stonemasters Climb at Pirates Cove
  • John Bachar's Last Interview
  • John Bachar Remembers Michael Reardon
  • John Bachar by Henry Barber
  • John Bachar Remembered by Duane Raleigh
  • John Bachar by Doug Robinson
  • John Bachar and the Bachar-Yerian First Ascent
  • Jimmie Dunn
  • Is Mixed Climbing Legitimite?
  • In the Land of Myths
  • Ice Climbing in Norway with WIll Gadd
  • Green Party
  • Getting High and Feeling Good
  • Generational Shift
  • Game On 2
  • G.I. YO!
  • Freaky Folklore
  • For Climbing
  • Empire Blocks
  • Divine Wind
  • Devil's Advocate
  • Deep Water Soloing in Mallorca
  • Dave MacLeod versus Dave Birkett
  • Conquistdors of the Useful
  • Colin Kirkus: Climbing's Greatest Unknown
  • Climbing Photography How To
  • Climbing Jobs, Benefits and Salaries
  • Climbing Jobs
  • Clever Levers
  • Classic Acts
  • TNB: Chris Sharma and The Art of Jeep Maintenance
  • Cheap Tricks
  • Charlie Fowler American Alpinist
  • Bouldering in Hampi India
  • Bastard Child
  • Backwoods Bouldering
  • Avoiding Arthritis
  • Attack of the Daks
  • Armenia Rock Climbing
  • Arco Climbing Comp, the Face of 2010
  • Alex and Thomas Huber Climb in Queen Maud Land
  • Ain't it Grand
  • Age of Reason
  • A Short Walk With Whillans
  • John Long: A Man for All Seasons
  • America's Best Climbing Area: Red River Gorge
  • Galen Rowell: The Vertical World
  • The Prophet
  • The Guy Whose Nuts Revolutionized Climbing: R.P.
  • Brotherhood on Orizaba
  • TNB: American Dirtbag
  • A Desperate Move
  • The Last Moonset
  • Murder At Cho Oyu
  • Climbing Dark Star, a Sierra Classic
  • Rock Climbing and Bouldering in Mongolia
  • Defying the Red Rock Bolt Ban
  • Crossroads
  • John Long: The Royal Scam
  • John Long: The Only Rule That Counts
  • John Long: On the Road
  • John Long: Nothing but Rubble
  • John Long: Mountains of Trouble
  • John Long: Legends of the Mind
  • John Long: Legend of Lord Gym
  • John Long: Guilty Pleasures
  • John Long: Channel Surfing
  • John Long: A Confederacy of Dunces
  • Dreamweaver Mixed Climb: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Tom Frost and Yosemite's Lost Climbing Photos
  • Refugee
  • Creatures of Feature
  • THE KARMA CONNECTION
  • The Dark Art
  • Altered State
  • THE WATERFALL
  • The Montana Girls
  • PYTHON
  • Moving Over Stone
  • An Encounter with Fred
  • Life Without Limits
  • Self Service
  • The Crossing
  • Disco Dance Party on the Blob
  • Rescue 5.11
  • VSC Reprise
  • Crashing the Heights
  • Cold Justice Paul Cormier
  • Whiteout
  • The Bucket List
  • Finding Nirvana
  • How to Prevent Bonking
  • Wabi Sabi
  • The Plastic Prince
  • John Bachar and the Cosmic Surfboard
  • Confessions of an Almost Serious Climber
  • Three F's for Jany
  • What's at the root of the name of the route?
  • For the Birds
  • Topropers Unite!
  • The Recreational Life
  • The Cruxiest Move
  •  
    Video Spotlight
    Create or Else: Chongo
    Create or Else: Chongo

    El Cap's Hardest: Wings of Steel

    14-Jan-2013
    By Ammon McNeely and additional reporting by Kait Barber

    The Great Slab, with bags fixed on Wings of Steel, as a storm clears. In fading light I balanced in my stirrups, hanging from a sharpened hook set precariously on a dime-sized edge on the granite slab. I took a deep breath, and announced to Kait that I was committing to the placement and was likely going to fall … again.

    “Watch me!”

    She grimaced and braced herself as yet another one of my 20-foot whippers rag-dolled her for the fourth time that day. My focus wavered as guilt crept in. Was I being fair to my partner, my girlfriend? She’d become frazzled catching fall after fall, and I could tell it was starting to take a huge toll. She wasn’t having fun anymore. I wasn’t even sure I was, either, but we’d given too much sweat and blood and heartache to retreat now. Was this route even worth it? Hours upon hours of tedious micro-flake hooking had infected my psyche. I was cracking.

    I took several deep breaths, eyed the placement one last time, and slowly climbed to the top-step of my aider, beads of sweat popping out on my forehead. Climbing in the dark has never really bothered me before, but this route Wings of Steel was a different kind of animal. I reached high with my right arm, pushing another talon hook toward what looked to be my next micro placement. Ping. The hook that I was standing on blew. I flew down the slab, dragging the upper hook until it caught an edge, ripping my shoulder from the socket. The pain was tremendous and I knew exactly what had happened—my shoulder had partially dislocated. Once I fought it back into place, Kait pulled me to the portaledge using the lower-out line. After all our hard work, it was now looking like we would have to bail.

    “Let’s see how I feel in the morning,” I told Kait. We settled down, drank a beer and let the night take us into unconsciousness.

    Wings of Steel is, without doubt, the most controversial route on El Capitan.

    When Mark Smith and Richard Jensen showed up in 1982 inspired to make a first ascent on El Capitan, their arrival did not go unnoticed by Valley locals. Conflict was inevitable: Smith and Jensen had never climbed a grade VI big wall, yet they chose as their first a new route the blankest, slabbiest, least naturally climbable section of El Cap, the 1,000-foot Great Slab on the Southwest Face, left of the Dihedral Wall. From almost the moment they started the route, they were threatened and slandered by a small group of locals who adopted the surfer’s “don’t surf my wave” turf mentality.

    “We were repeatedly told that my car would be destroyed,” says Jensen. “Groups of climbers would surround us in parking lots, even in the Village Store, to yell at us. Always there were threats: ‘You’re gonna be walking through the forest, and then there’s just gonna be the sound of bones snapping.’ And, ‘We’re gonna ship you back to San Berdo in a box.’ We always felt outnumbered, and there wasn’t the sense that it was going to be just a fist-fight; the intensity of the verbiage always made it seem like it was going to be much more.”

    Was this route even worth it? Hours upon hours of tedious micro-flake hooking had infected my psyche. I was cracking.The warnings went unheeded, with Jensen and Smith continuing up the route, angering some locals even further.  

    Things spiraled out of control when three locals decided to erase the burgeoning route. In a covert midnight raid, the crusaders ascended Smith and Jensen’s fixed lines and chopped the rivets and bolts. They then took turns defecating on the pile of ropes left at the base. The “shitters,” as they became known, bragged to their friends about the deed, but to this day have preferred to remain anonymous and unavailable to question for this article.

    The raid and threats caused the park rangers to hold a meeting with Jensen and Smith and some locals and SAR members, with the aim of keeping the peace. The rangers instructed all present that Smith and Jensen were to be left alone, threatening disciplinary action if not. Smith and Jensen picked up the pieces and continued their adventure, replacing the chopped gear and enduring 39 days on the wall. But the attacks continued even as they climbed—they were pelted from above with bags of excrement by a team on a route overhead.

    Jensen and Smith knew that their ascent would rile the Yosemite locals, but, says Jensen, “We figured that people with any concerns would talk to us and give us an opportunity to dialog, and that we would catch at most a bit of chiding for not having kissed all the right booty prior to having the audacity to do such a route. We honestly thought that people could be reasoned with.”

    “I heard the team drilled their way up the thing then chopped the bolts while cleaning.”As a long-time Valley big-wall climber, I’ve always had a mild interest in Wings of Steel but had heard it was just a bat-hook ladder protected by rivets up a blank slab, put up in the worst possible style by a pair of hacks. In 2005, a simple question was asked on the popular climbing forum Supertopo: “Has Wings of Steel ever seen a repeat?” I chimed in, believing it to be a botch job, like most others. Rumors abounded.  

    “I heard the team drilled their way up the thing then chopped the bolts while cleaning.”

    “There was a streak of feces and trash 200 meters long below their hangin’ bivy camp.”  

    “It’s nothing but a rivet ladder.”

    Suddenly the FA team joined the discussion to defend themselves, with Jensen facetiously calling himself “madbolter1,” opening a can of worms resulting in thousands of posts in dozens of threads.

    “For 29 years we’ve been widely accused of putting up the ultimate botch job on El Cap and then lying about it,” says Smith. “And the online forums have contained some amazingly vile speculations. Because we cared about what the climbing community thought, we tried to defend ourselves. But even  our defense got spun into ‘hyping the route,’ or, ironically, ‘being defensive.’ We wanted there to be a second ascent, because we believed that other teams would see that we told the truth and that the route was not a botch job.”

    ==

    2011. Home sweet home for 13 days. Kait Barber belays Ammon McNeely on the sixth pitch. This station is known as the “Faucet Bivy” because of its perpetual seepage.Twenty-nine years after the first ascent the controversy only intensified. The players included: the shitters, the haters, the believers, the supporters, the gawkers, the onlookers and the lurkers … quite the arena of spectators! It didn’t help that Jensen had written a book boasting of “A world record 39 days on the face of El Capitan” or that the back cover—written by an overzealous editor—states: “El Capitan soars 3,600 feet.” In fact, the wall is a bit less than 3,000 feet tall, and Wings of Steel is not quite 2,000 feet high.

    In 1990, the book Big Wall Climbing included a chapter by Steve Grossman, one of Wings of Steel’s most vocal detractors, where he singled out Wings as an example of how not to establish a big wall, writing that the first ascent team “ignored local ethics and bolted excessively.” Smith and Jensen were also berated when they showed up at crags to climb, with crowds gathering to fling insults and order them to leave. It went so far as climbers calling Ed Leeper, a bolt manufacturer, and saying: “If you sell any more bolts to those guys, none of the Yosemite climbers will ever buy from your company again.”

    In September 1988, six years after the first ascent, Rob Slater, who made the first asent of El Cap’s Wyoming Sheep Ranch (VI A5) in 1984 and who would die on K2 in 1995, attempted a second ascent along with Bruce Hunter. They reached the top of pitch 5, but with intense heat—the slab bakes in the sun—they decided to bail. Back on the ground, they noted that the route was tedious and very hard.

    Since then, other parties tried their hand at a second ascent. In the late 1990s the wall master Kevin Thaw, along with Tim Wagner and Calder Stratford, made another strong attempt. Their idea was to climb Wings of Steel in a single push. Kevin led the first two pitches—the two most natural hooking pitches on the route. Calder continued, pushing forward on the next couple of pitches and encountered bathooks (a small hook hole drilled into blank rock) and batheads (a copperhead pounded into a drilled hole). On the fifth pitch Wagner proclaimed the route bullshit—too many batheads to clean. With Thaw and Calder also unwilling to take the sharp end, they all bailed.

    To a non-aid climber, the difference between bathooks, batheads and enhanced hook edges, and especially hole counts might seem trivial, but in the world of aid climbing such things determine the righteousness and purity of a line, and its difficulty, which is why Wings of Steel has been so contentious: Jensen and Smith’s claims of rock alteration have been reputed to be inaccurate, undercounted and understated.

    Smith and Jensen contend that they did not drill a single hook hole into blank rock, and that they only used the drill to peck off micro crystals, “maybe the size of a couple of periods,” that prevented a hook from holding at all. Anytime they drilled a hole, they said, they either pounded a bolt, rivet or bathead into it. “We’ve always been honest about our reporting, and meticulous with the hole count,” they wrote in an e-mail. “It wouldn’t serve us to lie about the hole count, then be discredited by a second ascent, especially since vindication about our honesty was what we’ve been seeking for almost 30 years.”

    To a non-aid climber, the difference between bathooks, batheads and enhanced hook edges, and especially hole counts might seem trivial, but in the world of aid climbing such things determine the righteousness and purity of a line, and its difficulty, which is why Wings of Steel has been so contentious: Jensen and Smith’s claims of rock alteration have been reputed to be inaccurate, undercounted and understated. Curiosity and the online controversy got the better of me. In 2006, I hiked up to the Great Slab to see for myself. Once there I was confused by two different starts. Since I didn’t know the history, I decided on the left start, which looked better. I later learned that Smith and Jensen had established this “Bogus Start” in hopes that it would be an easier way to reach the top of the second pitch to replace the chopped bolts. The first pitch wasn’t too bad, but the second took me nearly five hours. It was the most confusing climbing puzzle I’d ever dealt with. There was no real way to see which hook placements were useable—they really are that small—and I constantly found myself at a dead end, only to deliberately choose a placement that would fail so I could fall and start over. I finally made it to the anchors but not before I took three huge falls, including one 50 footer, which filleted the skin on my leg.

    After that, my nerves were shattered and I needed to take a few days off. Meanwhile Pete Zabrok, Tom Kasper and Randy Wenzel showed up in the Valley also intent on the second ascent, and had none other than Mark Smith and Richard Jensen in tow. Pete attempted to lead the original start, but failed and used a cheat-stick to bypass hook moves he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do.

    “Hardest damn hooking I’ve ever tried,” Pete lamented later. “Light years harder than anything else I’ve done on El Cap, and I’ve done plenty. Mark and Richard were sick!”    

    Five more years flew by and the controversy on Supertopo only got worse. Vitriol and insults were hurled back and forth, and a bounty thread appeared, pledging thousands of dollars to the team that could do the second ascent. After securing permission from my brother Gabe, the team used my ropes to gain my high point so they could replace the rivets and bolts on the first two pitches. Zabrok wanted to chicken out, but Smith and Jensen convinced him to give it another try, which he did after rehearsing the hook moves on top rope. Ultimately, Zabrok bailed, unwilling to commit to the long fall potential presented by the hooking sequence.  

    While I recovered, my partner Cheryl Seger showed up and we were priming to get back on the wall when I learned I had only climbed the Bogus Start. Continuing would mean that we would not have made a legit second ascent. I ended up pulling my ropes and choosing a more natural line, the Jolly Roger (A5).

    Five more years flew by and the controversy on Supertopo only got worse. Vitriol and insults were hurled back and forth, and a bounty thread appeared, pledging thousands of dollars to the team that could do the second ascent. A rumor that Wings of Steel might be the hardest big wall on the Captain was circulating and I felt compelled to unlock the mystery, to find out for myself and formulate my own opinion.
    Looking from the base up the massive slab, I was perplexed as to why Jensen and Smith had chosen to climb the blankest section of El Capitan when plenty of other natural lines remained. It seemed odd, but maybe they were ahead of their time?  Maybe their route wasn’t a bathook hole ladder protected by rivets? I usually choose my big-wall routes based on natural aesthetics and the presence of a solid first-ascent team, but the unknown details of Wings of Steel kept the route in my mind.

    ==

    Ammon McNeely about 40 feet up the first pitch (A3+), which contained some of the best hooking on natural edges.Now climbing with my girlfriend, Kait Barber, I stood on a block at the base of the wall using my fingertips to push a hook up the warm slab, the first move of the route. The next move was on a Zmac rivet, intended for concrete in the construction world, and rated to only 400 pounds. I knew that a fall could generate enough force to sheer one of these rivets, so we came prepared with a hand drill, 25 rivets and 10 bolts, which we wouldn’t place unless absolutely necessary. I also donned skateboard knee pads and elbow pads. From my experience with the “Bogus Start,” I expected to take multiple falls and it made sense to protect myself from slab rash.

    I methodically hooked my way up the first pitch. I knew from Jensen’s Wings of Steel book that he had dislocated his ankle in a big fall getting to the belay. I did a few free moves and entered the delicate zone where he had fallen nearly 30 years before. The edges thinned and it was a crapshoot as to which ones would hold.

    Ping! My first fall was a 40-footer. I instinctively went to my knees and slid down the glacier-polished granite. Next, a 50-foot fall had me calling to Kait for the whiskey. “Send up the Jameson!”  

    This became a common refrain throughout the rest of our climb. I’ll give the FA team extra credit for being dead sober on those sketchy hooks. I pulled myself back up to the high point and tried again. Once more, I found myself whipping down the rock, but this time the rope caught my forearm, leaving a painful and nasty rope burn. I was finished for the day.

    The next day a layer of dark clouds drifted in from the coast. A ridge blocked our view and we couldn’t see just how bad the storm might be. I made my way up the rope determined to finish the pitch. With the knowledge of which flakes and edges wouldn’t hold, I reached the anchors without incident and encouraged. In total, the first pitch took me six and a half hours. Wow, I thought, I’ve climbed an entire El Cap route faster than that!

    The rain started falling lightly as I tried to haul our enormous flotilla while Kait cleaned the pitch, but I finally resorted to waiting for her to help me haul. I set up the Portaledge so Kait would be comfortable, knowing that the next pitch was going to take a while. The next pitch started with more natural hooking and some really spaced-out rivets—perhaps 25 feet apart. I stared at the granite, scrutinizing every inch for features to hook. When that didn’t work I used my fingertips. I took a couple of 15- to 20-foot falls and finally made it to the anchor at the top of the second pitch, only four and a half hours later. So far, I was impressed with the quality of the route and the natural hooking involved. We fixed and bailed for a few days of rest.

    A few days later we were back on the route, the sun beating on the slab, but thermal breezes kept us cool. I began the third pitch and found the first dimples made with a hammer and drill. We figured the holes were from a previous second-ascent attempt, since Jensen and Smith were so adamant about not making many dimples or bathook holes on the slab. Some tedious hooking and a couple of falls led me to the only real rivet ladder on the entire route. Even though we had plenty of light left to start the next pitch, I just wanted to chill, drink a few beers and decompress from the mental strain.   

    Next, a 50-foot fall had me calling to Kait for the whiskey. “Send up the Jameson!”   At the belay, Kait endured another white-knuckle session. “The further away Ammon got from a rivet,” she says now, “the more my stomach would knot up with anticipation, waiting for him to take these massive falls. I preferred to keep my head down, wait for the sound of a piece popping and his yell—and then brace for the fall. Most of the time I kept my head down.”

    That night Kait had a meltdown. She told me she was over it. “My mental game isn’t where it should be for this route. I need to go down.”

    The combination of watching me fall all day and some serious family problems at home had all come to a head.

    “I thought I could go up on El Cap and get away from it all, have some time to clear my head,” Kait says now. “Instead, while Ammon was on lead, I had hours to sit and think about my life and how my family was falling apart around me.”

    We talked for hours, debating why this particular route was so much more stressful to us than other hard El Cap routes we had climbed together. We determined that it was because of the certainty that I was going to take long falls. Most El Cap routes require no falls, but I’d whipped eight or nine times already and we were only on the third pitch. The hooking on the sloping ripples in the smooth granite was so delicate that my hook placements would unexpectedly blow off with the slightest wrong shift in weight. I also fell off the bathooks, which on this route had been drilled so shallow they barely held body weight.

    My heart ached as I watched her shed tears, but I wasn’t going to try and talk her into something she didn’t want to be a part of. We agreed to go to the ground, where I would find another partner. I was sad, and couldn’t imagine being up there with anyone else. I was very disappointed in the way the ascent was turning out.

    ==

    McNeely beginning the A3 hooking section on the sixth pitch. This photo was taken a few moves before he took a fall on a hook and dislocated his shoulder.The next morning Kait felt a little better, but still wanted to go down. We talked for hours. I had my own hissy fit and kind of lost it when our friends on Excalibur called over to us with encouraging cheers of, “Go Team!”

    “We’re not a fucking team!” I screamed, then went ballistic on the ledge, thrashing around like a toddler having a tantrum. This was my one and only chance to climb this route and I knew it would disrupt my momentum and focus if I had to find another partner, possibly thwarting my efforts. I sulked and hoped that she would change her mind.

    Eventually I calmed down, and felt ashamed of how I’d acted. After hours of negotiations and cowering from the sun, Kait decided she was going to suck it up and take one for the team. She didn’t want to let me down and hated the idea of bailing. I apologized and gave her a big hug. We continued up, Kait cleaning and me hauling the enormous load, glad we weren’t carrying 1,200 pounds like the FA team did. By the time we settled onto the anchor, the day was pretty much a wash, so we lounged on the nylon ledge and relaxed.

    The next morning we had to wait a few hours to climb because the reflection of the sun off the slab was blinding. The fourth pitch starts out like just about every other—with a pulse-quickening runout. We were starting to see a pattern in how the FA team operated: scare the hell out of yourself, sink a questionable rivet, scare yourself some more, and repeat.

    “Our choice of a bolt or rivet [on the first ascent] was determined by runout,” says Jensen. “We only drilled holes where we could find nothing to hook. So, we would choose on the spot whether to fill the hole with a bolt or rivet depending upon how crazy things were getting. Rivet to ‘keep the commitment level high,’ and bolt if the commitment level was getting ‘too high.’”

    Each day was the same: sleep in, numb myself by drinking beer and whiskey, get a single pitch done, then unwind for the rest of the day. As I led, I would occasionally ask Kait to dig into Jensen’s Wings of Steel book. “What did they say about the fifth pitch?” 

    The situation was humorous. What other route on El Cap can you climb while simultaneously reading a pitch-by-pitch account of what the FA team was thinking and doing? Reading also gave Kait something to do while I took hours to figure out the sequence and finally clip the belay bolts. Another day, another pitch.

    Each day was the same: sleep in, numb myself by drinking beer and whiskey, get a single pitch done, then unwind for the rest of the day. In anticipation of the heat, we had brought a 6- by 6-foot tarp with a reflector side. It fit nicely around the ledge and acted as a parasol. Our shady nook was so cozy I didn’t start the fifth pitch until 7 p.m. I figured I would be at the belay in a few hours, or could lower whenever I got to a good piece. I set off, not really too surprised when I saw bathook holes traversing out right. I again attributed them to repeat attempts, but this was the last pitch that had been repeated, by Thaw, Calder and Wagner, who reported numerous batheads, which, oddly, I didn’t find.

    By now I’d gotten into the groove, and was even having some fun. The traverse led to some thin seams that seemed to continue forever, and I kept wanting to lower to the bivy, but wasn’t comfortable fixing from the small heads I had placed. I was forced to press on through the night and didn’t make the anchors until 11 p.m. I came back down to the belay delirious, telling Kait that it was a fine pitch and that Jensen and Smith had utilized the seams really well.

    That night I felt like a bombshell victim, traumatized by all the falls I had taken, and worse, the falls I knew I had yet to take. I convulsed awake after “feeling” the sensation of falling. I’d never before experienced nightmares on a wall. After another ridiculously long day of cowering under our sunshade, I started up the sixth pitch with a smirk, this time having no expectations of how long it would take. It was one move at a time, pitch after pitch. I was in Wall Mode, forgetting the days and not knowing or caring how long we’d been up there.

    Some natural hooks led to some bathooks, a rivet and more dimpled hooks. At this point we were convinced that the dimples and bathooks had come from the first ascent, since we knew of no other attempts that reached this height. Was it possible that someone else did a second ascent and didn’t report it? Ping! One of the dimpled hooks blew and I took a 15-foot fall. I examined the placement and I could clearly see the fresh green-colored rock where the lip had broken. I tried to hook it again … Ping! The fall dislocated my shoulder and activated one of my only Screamers, clipped to an old rusted Z-mac.

    That night I felt like a bombshell victim, traumatized by all the falls I had taken, and worse, the falls I knew I had yet to take. I convulsed awake after “feeling” the sensation of falling. I’d never before experienced nightmares on a wall.

    I hadn’t considered using the drill buried deep in our haulbag, but I had broken the flake and it wasn’t going to hold a hook. I eventually drilled, and counted exactly four rotations, the minimum amount of rock removal to hold a hook, and in line with the first ascentionists’ dimpled trademark. The sixth pitch ended up being one of the most natural pitches on the Great Slab, winding through the weaknesses, using every feature possible. It was the most aesthetic pitch on the slab and I even placed cams in a crack. It was good to see Jensen and Smith’s choice beginning to make sense.

    ==

    The next day we watched our peregrine buddies score a meal. A male peregrine pounded into a swallow and dived after it while a female peregrine chased. With its kill in its mouth, the male swooped up and landed on a ledge parallel to ours, only 50 feet away. We watched in awe as the male spread his wings and wouldn’t let the female near until he was nearly done devouring the swallow. Then he flew off with the remains clutched in his talons, while the female pecked bits of the meat in mid air.

    I racked ten pounds of cams onto my chest harness and set off through the grassy crack. I didn’t care that it wasn’t clean—just being able to place cams for an entire pitch made me giddy. We were three pitches from the Overseer Roof, the obvious feature that marks the end of the slab, nine pitches up, and I couldn’t wait to put my paws into the cracks. I’d had more than enough of the slab! The clouds had continued to threaten and Jensen and Smith’s descriptions of getting pounded by waterfalls haunted me. A few hours later we were merrily hanging out on the top of pitch seven.

    The next afternoon when Kait made her daily call home, she said, “Two more pitches and we are done with the slab.” I made my way up to “The Pits,” a scooped section disrupting the smooth slab where I was able to place cams in a nice crack—finally! I lowered from the last rivet before I could make the belay, leaving 35 feet of natural hook and head placements for the following morning.

    Those 35 feet ended up taking an hour and a half. The ninth pitch also had some good features. It started out with bathook holes between rivets to a nice head seam that turned into a crack that took cams. Some hooking between rivets brought us to the Overseer Roof where Wings of Steel shares the Horse Chute anchor. That night we shared our camp with a crack full of chirpy swallows and I drank the last of the beer and whiskey.

    I racked ten pounds of cams onto my chest harness and set off through the grassy crack. I didn’t care that it wasn’t clean—just being able to place cams for an entire pitch made me giddy. Beaks and a few heads took me about halfway up the next pitch, the 11th. A bulge in the middle was the crux and sharp edges on the rock were definitely a concern. I hooked and headed, precariously making it onto some tipped-out beaks. I arrived at the belay, four quarter-inch bolts, knowing that we had the equipment to beef it up, but not wanting to add anything to the route. The original hardware seemed sufficient. I fixed the lead line and yelled down to Kait to lower the bags, leaving her to clean in the dark. After hauling, stacking the ropes, setting up the portaledge and getting out all the supplies we would need, I settled in comfortably. That’s when I heard a small voice from below.

    “Babe, I’m stuck … I need help.”

    “What’s going on?” I yelled. The next 20 minutes I tried to talk her through the predicament, but finally gave up and rapped on the tag line. I wasn’t happy and lost my composure, once again yelling. I found her hanging exhausted in midair, between two pieces, not able to reach behind her and clean a welded knifeblade. I got Kait on the rope and she jugged the line to the bivy. It wasn’t long before we were both back at the ledge, comatose.

    Was this route even worth it? Hours upon hours of tedious micro-flake hooking had infected my psyche. I was cracking. I was worried about pitch 12 because in Jensen’s book he said that he had placed 73 pieces of gear, most of them #0 heads, and our head rack was thin. The pitch started off with a few beaks and opened to a #3 Camalot. I placed the blue cam and heard chirping in the back of the crack. Twenty feet later I realized that I had plugged the door to a swallow’s home, her anger evident as she flew in frantic circles trying to reach her babies. I put in a couple of good pieces and had Kait lower me so I could remove the cam and let the family reunite.

    “If only everybody knew what a softy you are,” she said, laughing. I continued to the belay and felt that with our modern gear the pitch wasn’t all that bad, just tricky.

    I started the last pitch, the bathook hole traverse, which took no more than 10 minutes. Kait did a couple of lower-outs and we were on Aquarian, finished with the second ascent of Wings of Steel.

    From Aquarian Wall, we only needed a few days to reach the summit, in spite of it being nearly as many pitches as Wings of Steel. We were hauling the final pitch when our friend Dean Potter came free soloing by. We chatted a bit, catching up since we hadn’t seen each other for a while. Kait and I gave one another a huge hug on the summit, took the obligatory photo, then headed for the East Ledges descent.

    On the way down I started thinking again about the Wings of Steel controversy. Most of us climb for ourselves and don’t really care what anyone else thinks. There are no written rules. We can do what we want when establishing routes and only have our peers to judge us, to steer us in the right direction if we’re out of line. With everything in society that can go too far, who is to say how many holes are justifiable for a good aid route?  

    These questions swirled in my head as I stumbled down the trail. I was unsure of the answers, but I did know that we had had a great journey on an obscure part of El Capitan. The route had not been easy and I learned a lot about micro-hooking on a slab. We had learned something about ourselves and each other as well, things like patience and forgiveness.

    I also pondered Jensen and Smith’s hole count. They reported drilling 157 placements. Counting the 30 or so bathooks I used, the route as I found it had 188 drilled placements, which includes 48 belay bolts, some of which were likely added during repeat attempts. Subtract out the 30 drilled hooks that Jensen and Smith deny placing, and their hole count is almost exact.

    But you can’t subtract the bathook holes, which begs the question: Where did they come from? It is conceivable that the drilled hooks were added by a later and unknown party. Yet I tried to avoid the drilled holes and hook around them, but couldn’t find any natural features, even well off to the side. I had to use the holes. The drilled hooks are one mystery about the route that may never be solved.

    Then there is the question of whether Wings of Steel is El Cap’s hardest.

    Is Wings a good route? Depends on what you’re after. I think my feelings about the route were best summed up by Jim Bridwell when he described one of his routes on Half Dome by saying: “I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.” I took 20 falls, triple the amount of any other El Cap route that I have done. In total, I logged about 500 feet of air—half the distance of the entire slab! So if falling is an accurate measure of difficulty, then Wings of Steel is the hardest. But it is hard only because of the technical hooking, and it is relatively safe. The aid route with hard and dangerous technical climbing is Warren Hollinger and Grant Gardner’s 1998 Nightmare on California Street (A5), unrepeated despite strong attempts.

    Is Wings a good route? Depends on what you’re after. I think my feelings about the route were best summed up by Jim Bridwell when he described one of his routes on Half Dome by saying: “I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy.”

    And what of Jensen and Smith? They went on to do the second ascent of the most feared aid route in the world, Jim Beyer’s Intifada (V A5), in the Fisher Towers, and the fifth ascent of Sea of Dreams (VI A5) on El Cap. Do they feel vindicated now that Wings of Steel has been repeated?

    “Maybe ‘vindication’ is nothing more than a shift from the majority believing we lied, to a majority believing we told the truth” says Jensen. “Perhaps there’s some hope for that.”

    Ammon McNeely, aka The El Cap Pirate, has climbed El Capitan 68 times via 53 different routes. He holds 23 El Cap speed records, including 11 first one-day ascents. McNeely and Barber live in Oakdale, California.


    Related Articles:

  • Living With A Very Serious Climber
  • What I've Learned: Sonnie Trotter
  • The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre
  • What I've Learned: Mark Udall
  • John Long's Favorite 5.10
  • Reader's Commentary:

    Don't want to use Facebook, but still want to comment? We have you covered:

    Add Your Comments to this article:
    Hello