I think I was 18. I’d bagged a handful of long free routes but not the Nose or Salathé or any of the other trade routes up the 3,000-foot El Capitan, home to the most celebrated big-wall climbs on earth. Like many climbers before and after, I considered El Cap’s East Buttress a stepping-stone to the big time.
While an ascent of the East Buttress, located on the far right margin of the monolith, cannot earn you the same bragging rights as having climbed El Cap proper, you nevertheless mount some 1,500 feet of the Big Stone, top out and descend via the fabled East Ledges, the very same as if you were climbing the Captain for real.
In the early 1950s, with their canvas tennis shoes, white-line ropes and ring-angle pegs, climbers took one look at the terrible face out left of the East Buttress and said forget it. But the way the
Valley historian Steve Roper tells it, “The beautiful black-and-gold buttress on the far eastern flank showed distinct cracks and chimneys on its lower section. Higher, the prospective route blended smoothly into the wall, but here also the rock looked broken and perhaps climbable.”
Enter Yosemite hardman Allen Steck, who’d already established the punishing Steck-Salathé on Sentinel (1950) as well as that towering junker, Yosemite Point Buttress (1952). Naturally, Al looked to El Cap, and he started up the East Buttress with Bill Dunmire, and Bill and Dick Long in August, 1952. This adventure ended suddenly on the first pitch when Dunmire logged Yosemite’s first-ever “zipper” fall and nearly decked out, sustaining a nasty knock to his brainpan that cost him several pints of red stuff and a night in the clinic.
Steck returned later that year with Willi Unsoeld, of future Everest fame. They battled halfway up the East Buttress before rain and waterfalls drove them off.
In September 1972, Willi lectured at my college and he had brought along his daughter, Nanda Devi, who was my age and looked like an angel, with blonde hair and a thousand-watt smile. Four years later, she died in her father’s arms on the Nepalese peak for which she was named. When I read her obit in the Alpine Journal, I chucked an ashtray through my dorm =oom window. In 1979, an avalanche on Mount Rainier carried Willi away.
Steck returned to the East Buttress a third time, with Unsoeld, Bill Long and Will Siri. Bivouacing twice on the route, and using lots of aid, they reached the summit on June 1, 1953. Eleven years later, wrote Roper, Frank Sacherer, father of modern free climbing, along with Wally Reed, “freed the entire route with hardly a pause.” In the following years, if you thought yourself the shizzle, you jumped up on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Grade 4, 5.10, one of the finest long free climbs in the Valley.
This adventure ended suddenly on the first pitch when Dunmire logged Yosemite’s first-ever “zipper” fall and nearly decked out, sustaining a nasty knock to his brainpan that cost him several pints of red stuff and a night in the clinic.
I thought myself the shizzle, so I snagged my childhood friend Dean Fidelman (aka Bullwinkle) and told him to get his stuff; we were heading for the East Buttress. Dean was an art student and bohemian who would later develop the fantastic ability to inveigle languid climber girls out of their yoga tights to pose on boulders and flying buttresses for his legendary Stone Nudes calendars. Nice work, if you can get it.
We thumbed down to El Cap and marched up to the Nose and another 20 minutes out right along the base, quickly gaining altitude on a narrowing ramp ending at “The Edge of the World.” From there, the East Buttress fires directly up a prominent, symmetrical bombay chimney. Go 20 feet past this start and you pitch off a 1,000-foot cliff.
In those days the Yosemite ethic was safety and efficacy, which some of us interpreted as, Use the least amount of gear humanly possible and climb just as fast as you can. We considered this the best strategy, and for a time some of us idiots tried to outdo each other. Dean and I brought one 9mm rope, several slings, around eight assorted nuts, and no pack, water or food. Aside from swami belts and chalk bags, we had nothing else whatsoever. I didn’t even wear a shirt, nor carry along sneakers for the long hike down.
I shot up the first pitch and stemmed right over the 5.10 crux at the start of pitch two, not bothering to place protection because back then we were usually soloing our brains out at Joshua Tree, so never mind the gear. Plus this route was done two decades before, by a bunch of old guys who were like 40 now, so it couldn’t be hard. Fortune’s fool.
Above, the route soared up the mostly open face, wandering from crack to flake to shallow corner. I was counting on a load of fixed pins; there were none and the few nuts I brought along were mostly the wrong size so the pro was thin—two or three pieces for 150-foot pitches. It was August and hot as hell and I needed a lot more of that water Bullwinkle didn’t bring along. My stomach sounded like the Ganges in flood. I should have eaten something that morning. Instead, I got eaten alive by piss ants at the belay tree atop pitch two, and never found those hoped-for fixed pins until pitch six. I remember trying unsuccessfully to wiggle in a nut up there somewhere and finally yelling, “I don’t need no stinking pro.”
But this was great climbing for sure, way out there on that face and so high off the deck and pretty continuous. Several of the belays were from slings and less-than-ideal anchors and for brief moments we’d hang there, not drinking the water Bullwinkle failed to provide and wanting a burger badly but liking the breezy location. Of course, we could never retreat off the thing with one rope and eight nuts, half of them wires, which added high voltage to the adventure.
In a couple of hours, nearing the top, we gained the spectacular Knobby Wall. I had grown up studying photos of Willi Unsoeld pulling up this steep dark face with the great sweep of the Southwest buttress of El Cap towering behind him, and I was onto those knobs like all get-out. This wall was money, and I thought it wrong and cowardly that, evidenced by a string of rusty ring-angle pitons, the route veered off when the knobs kept on straight above. I took the direct line, of course, feeling like Hermes clad in kletterschuhe, loving life and climbing and all of creation when just like that the knobs ran out, and there was no crack and no pro, and I was out maybe 50 feet off a fixed ring-angle peg from old Willi Unsoeld’s very rack, and far below, Bullwinkle was belaying off a single antediluvian soft-iron peg that likely would rip should I ping for the big one.
Following this close call was a ghastly down-climb to slightly better holds, and a sketchy traverse to escape back onto the normal route. A short while later, we crawled over the top of the East Buttress, sunburned, dry as driftwood, hungry enough to eat the hind legs off the Lamb of God. With each weary stride toward the East Ledges descent route, I grew up a little more as a rock climber, till we finally staggered back down to the loop road and I dove into the Merced with my boots still on and I swear that river dropped a foot by the time I slithered out onto solid ground. I would go on to climb El Capitan many times after that first jackass junket up the East Buttress, and I would never again underestimate the seriousness of a big traditional rock climb, hard or otherwise, or assume that if holds were there I could simply pull on through to glory.
>ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Long is one of the founding Stonemasters, and in the 1970s helped redefine climbing standards in Yosemite. “Largo” is a longtime senior contributing editor to Rock and Ice.
The East Buttress is popular, though several ledges allow passing. The route is typically soaked by Horsetail Falls from December through May. In summer, the climb is enjoyable only if temps are below 80 degrees. Autumn is ideal up until Horsetail Falls starts running. Retreat is possible with one 60-meter rope from pitch 3. Higher, there are few fixed anchors and you would have to leave gear.
> Approach: From El Cap Meadow, join the trail starting 100 yards west of El Capitan Bridge and follow to a large clearing, then pick up the climbers’ trail leading to a point 200 feet below the toe of the Nose. Move up and right and skirt the face for 20-30 minutes to reach the start of the route.
> Descent: The 2-3 hour East Ledges descent—involving two full-length rappels on fixed static lines—is the fastest descent. Finding the fixed rap ropes can be difficult, if not dangerous, your first time. Otherwise, from the summit of El Cap, pick up the 4- to 5-hour Yosemite Falls Trail descent.
1 set of wires
3-4 medium RPs or equivalent
2 ea. .5 TCU to 2-inch cams
1 3-inch cam
1 long cordelette
60-meter rope mandatory