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The untold story of the first ascent of El Cap’s most revered route.

By Jim Bridwell.
Photos by Dave Diegelman

I cannot take full credit for the discovery of the sequence of scant natural features we now know as The Sea of Dreams on El Cap. In part, the character we affectionately knew as John “Yabo” Yablonski perked my interest in the line one day while we were lounging in El Cap Meadow. Yabo was young and had an expansive mental capacity that could see things invisible to regular people. Midnight Lightning, a recent—1978—problem on the Columbia boulder in Camp 4 is another notable example of his imagination turned reality. Now, he was jabbering about the blankest section of the Captain.

I borrowed a pair of binoculars from a spectating tourist to scope the potential route.

Binoculars alone, however, couldn’t reveal what Yabo had seen. Those weaknesses would require a more powerful tool. The Questar telescope, used by YOSAR to examine stranded or injured (or worse) climbers on El Cap would do the trick, and I still had access from services previously rendered. I asked John Dill, a true patriot and the mastermind behind YOSAR, if I could use and keep the Questar for a few days. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail,” said Benjamin Franklin.

Joined by Charlie Row and his VW van, we returned to the El Cap outdoor theater with the telescope in hand. The small but powerful refractor immediately drew a gathering of curious friends. I chose a 500x power eyepiece and did a quick geometrical calculation to get an approximation of distortion.
Of most importance, of course, was the angle of the sun. I’ll go no further into the variables of celestial bodies other than to note that it was June and at that moment only right-facing features, casting shadows, would be revealed. This, I took into account.

I scrutinized a discontinuous system of features that most people would consider a lark, an incomplete line. But I knew that the universe is anything but random. Everything—everything—is the effect of a cause and those micro features were there for a reason. I had long recognized a universal “superconscious,” a subject I had discussed at length with the theoretical physicist and visionary free climber Frank Sacherer. One evening sitting around the great fireplace in the lodge lounge, he told me that he and another physicist in Switzerland had, within three months of each other, come to pursue the same thesis.

Coincidence? I think not.

I had relinquished the telescope to Charlie when a white Cadillac with Texas plates pulled to a stop. The power window rolled down, exposing the bluish-gray hair of a woman in her late 60s.

“What are you boys looking at?” she asked.

“Climbers on the big white rock,” I replied and pointed.

Her face turned into a mix of amazed disbelief and anger from long-held prejudices of public opinion. The husband, who sat in the passenger seat, appeared frozen by the stagnation of dementia. The woman got out of the car with unexpected nimbleness and demanded the location of the criminal invaders of the vertical. I gave her the binoculars and located the climbers for her.

“There oughta be a law against that,” she said.

“Don’t worry, there will be,” I said, prophetically, because after our ascent of Sea of Dreams only one more route would go up on the southeast face of El Cap before it was closed by the authorities for falcon nesting.

Study through the Questar showed me that the route would demand nothing less than the best effort of the best climbers. I was juiced with excitement and eager to dial-up my partner, Dave Diegelman.

Without hesitation Dave offered to secure most of the non-perishable food stocks and necessary personal equipment.

Dale Bard sets off on the Ace in Space, pitch 16, during the first ascent of Sea of Dreams, in 1978. RURPS, hooks and other aid wizardry would define this pitch—and much of the route.

I returned from the Meadow to find Dave taping webbing handles on the greatly improved half-gallon plastic soda bottles we used to safely transport life-giving water. I gathered most of my hardware and Dave his. We spread the plethora of pitons, nuts, carabiners, nylon slings and tie-loops. Dave got a full dose of my propaganda, finally succumbing to the measured adrenaline release of impending adventure.

We spent the next couple of days scoping the proposed route from six locations, which I will reveal before I die, if I’m not too busy. I studied the line until I had closely calculated the number of drilled holes we would need, and the number of drills, and how many and which of the various technologies presently available we would apply—cams and a wide range of hooks, many personally modified by me, had just appeared. At that moment we didn’t have any cams ourselves, but fortune, I knew, would provide. When we weren’t scrutinizing the route, we carried loads of water, bivy gear, hardware and ropes to the base.

Dave and I fixed three pitches, both leads of the quality that offered potential excellence for individual character improvement. That evening, the last before we would commit to the wall, we attended a party at the Yosemite employees’ annex, a gathering that I had no doubt would be exemplary. Knowing the austerities that awaited us on the wall, we excused ourselves from any restraint. Mental stability at a premium, we sought the sanctuary of sanity within our self-imposed nightmare. That defines irony.

Dave Diegelman and Bard stock up on provisions before setting sail.
The high priest Jim Bridwell nestled in on a new invention, the portaledge, at a hanging bivy on the Sea of Dreams. Bridwell was the architect of hard wall climbing in the 1970s and early 1980s, and went on to apply his craft to big, extreme faces in Alaska and Patagonia.

I was on my second glass of wine when Dale Bard, another young climber and friend, asked if I minded having three people on the wall. Dale said that Dave had given his OK if it was OK with me. “No,” I said. “We are ready to start tomorrow and I planned for two, not three.”

Three was a bad number I had learned from psychology, and odd numbers were disadvantageous in general for cooperation and distribution of labor. Dale was persistent, however, and offered the use of Ray Jardine’s cams and to buy more food and carry more water, so I finally assented.

Dave and Dale jugged the ropes to the top of the third pitch, where Dave led the fourth, leaving the fifth for Dale. I made adjustments to food and water and carried loads to the base. That evening we made our final assessment of the challenges and our preparedness to meet those or other potential problems. At last, the only thing left was to pick personal music selections. Dave’s choices included a Little Feet tape with the lytics “You know you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promises your body can’t fill.”

“Is that for me?” I asked.

He chuckled.

At the age of 32 I had naturally evolved into a father figure to some and was obliged to represent sound values. There’s a fine line between boldness and stupidity, and prudence and cowardice. I was there to help define the line. I had seen too many young climbers fall prey to self-glorification. It is inevitably fatal, but then so is life.

Dale and I reached the top of the fixed ropes early while Dave wrestled with the bags. Before me was what we appropriately named the Potato Chip, a thin flake of superb El Cap granite. This was the perfect application for the new gadgets Dale had borrowed from Ray. We had gotten the use of four of what would be called “Friends,” one of each size from one inch to three inches with doubles on the #2. These Friends, and a couple of strategically place pitons made easy work of the flake. I lowered to make a difficult pendulum to a narrow ledge.

I missed on the first try, so lowered a bit more and this time I was able to hang on and set a hook for just long enough to beat in a Rurp and stand on the ledge. Dale cleaned the pitch. I hauled bags and Dave jumared the rope to me and began the next lead.

Dave hooked around some loose blocks in the small corner above the belay and my head. It was late in the day when he finished his pitch, and once again no drilled holes were needed. I was stoked—so far only three holes had been drilled at anchors. Everything was fitting together in a way that conferred measured confidence, “measured” being the operative word. Arrogance will find its own punishment. We set up our newly invented portaledges at the end of the “Laura Scudder” traverse for our first bivouac.

Diegelman (above) and Bard (below), two of the best wall climbers of the 1970s, and hand picked by Bridwell for the Sea of Dreams.

Dale led a necessarily short pitch the next day, set up a no-bolt belay and brought me up to start another short pitch to the extensive ledge system of “Easy Street.” Darkness was three hours away, inspiring efficient use of skills. The crack continued for 17 feet before it disappeared, demanding the intrusive use of brute force focused on a single point to prick the hide of El Cap. I drilled two holes and arrived at two dimples in the rock, one four feet above the other. Minimal enhancement yielded rapid progress to the final two holes and the pendulum point. To fill our holes, we had exchanged the standard ¼-inch aluminum dowel for the ¾-inch long by 5/16-inch diameter machine bolt with a slightly tapered tip. The machine bolt was a few hundred pounds stronger and trusty for pendulums. I had Dale lower me only five feet and started swinging, eventually running up the wall and jumped for an ample hole.

“Slack!” I yelled, manteling onto our cozy bivouac ledge.

The next day would answer one of my critical questions:

Did I know the geology of El Cap or was I full of shit? Unfortunately, the next pitch was Dave’s. He would have to be my eyes for this coming adventure, but make no mistake I felt both envious and paternal. Basically I would have the day off, as Dale would have the next lead, a section I assessed would consume the entire day.

I awoke early to the hum of the earth’s solar engine and began the rituals of self-maintenance. I dug out the food bag and the water allotment for the day. It was an unobtrusive method of waking up the team to pursue the goal of excellence. I told the lads to do their best this day, and settled in to enjoy the action.
I had just come onto the initial effects of a mild dose of a hypothropic agent when the tell-tale repetition of a hammer hitting the drill signaled that something was awry: There should be no drilling yet. Distracted from my reverie, I moved up to a better view to offer alternatives. Dave had already begun a second hole when I asked why he was drilling.

“Dale told me to,” he said.

“What will you do when Dale isn’t available to give orders,” I asked. “The mind fails long before the body, you must believe in yourself.”

Dave hooked right along a quartz ledge then started upward on thin aid cracks before placing three machine-bolt rivets for the pendulum that ensued. I was proud of his inventiveness when he hooked sideways, tensioning in opposition off the pendulum rope. It was great to watch him put together one of the world’s exceptional pitches, the “Hook or Book,” drilling only three rivets and one bolt at the belay, a relocation in total of three grams of El Cap granite. I was, in fact, so engaged watching Dave I almost forgot about the LSD. Almost.

We spent the next couple of days scoping the proposed route from six locations, which I will reveal before I die, if I’m not too busy.

Jim Bridwell

Dale cleaned what there was to remove from the pitch, and promptly engaged the next testy section that would bear the route’s only geographic connotation, in the crossing of the Sea of Cortez, also A5.

The boys were truly passing muster, stringing together leads that were the hardest yet done on the Captain. I happily contemplated putting off cleaning Dale’s pitch until the next day when friends of ours, Max Jones and Mark Hudon, arrived at our comfortable station. They had come to grief trying to repeat the nearby Pacific Ocean Wall, a line to the left that I had established three years earlier with Billy Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East. The PO had been an early foray in linking micro features and was a step up in thinness for big-wall nailing. The thing that made the PO different from other routes, I had told Billy, is “There are no corners to hide your ass in. Unless sticking your nose in a two-inch corner is hiding.”

Mark had proved this very thing by expanding a piece of the flake on the pitch off the Continental Shelf at the end of Easy Street and smashing a finger. They were on their way down, and gave us their extra beer and water and wished us well.

Diegelman and the pitch that would go down in infamy, the A5 Hook or Book.

Our goal the next day was Big Sur ledge, 11 pitches up the North America Wall.

The first pitch was mine. A short pendulum to the left off an equalized Rurp and a blade saved a bolt. Then it was easy aid to another no-bolt belay. Dave led another inspired A5 pitch to Big Sur about halfway up our route. To this point we had had the convenience of commodious ledges, but from here there would be no ledges and we were about to enter a section of the heartless diorite, where good cracks are behind loose blocks and the rock is like layers of rotten cardboard. There is a reason the black rock is steep—the rest of it has fallen away.

After another comfortable night, Dale led a pitch that ended only 20 feet higher, but involved circuitous free climbing to the top of the Peregrine Pillar, named for the birds I had been watching for the past three days. Soon, I was at work on the following pitch, an intriguing series of problems unique to the very weird brown cardboard diorite rock. The rock appeared blank, and I reluctantly reached for the drill, but discovered it was easy to just beat a hole to set one of the new Chouinard hooks.

In January 1971, I had clipped a bit from a London newspaper that read: “No wall worth climbing is easily scaled.” Indeed. This section reminded me of the veracity of that quote.

While Dave was consumed with the “Blue Room” pitch the next day, I took inventory of our food and water to ascertain whether adjustments to consumption were or would be necessary. The sun had just left the wall when Dave yelled down to Dale that he was off belay. Suddenly I felt what I thought were raindrops, but on a cloudless day seemed unlikely. Dave was pissing and thanks to the Coriolis effect it spiraled clockwise, down to me. Unfortunately, I looked up to discover its source.

Concomitant to this Dale voiced concern about the security of Dave’s anchors, which Dave assured us were adequate. Dale wisely demanded a bolt or he wasn’t coming up.

Once the bolt had been placed, Dale cleaned the pitch. Dave recorded Dale’s expression by taking a picture of him upon his arrival at the six-Rurp belay.

That photo would get published in George Meyer’s Yosemite Climber a few years later, and remains one of the most recognized images from the 1970s.

The wisdom of the bolt would be verified by the demands of the next lead, the Ace in Space: RURPS, hooks and other aid wizardry would end at one of the few two-bolt belays, justified because the anchor needed to hold the weight of at least two of us and everything else.

That evening we set new goals and named the route. I was stuck on a song, Sea of Dreams, by the Electric Light Orchestra. The name fit, and we all agreed to it. We also agreed to finish the climb using 40 holes or less. At that point we had placed 11 bolts, mostly at anchors, and 13 rivets for upward gain. The goal would stimulate the best type of competition that inspires personal character development—competition is essential to social evolution. Whether it is productive or destructive is individual in motive and representative of the prevailing social mores. Only the future would tell if this was the correct choice for motivation.

We efficiently hauled the four pitches we had fixed in two hauls, allowing me to begin leading the next pitch by midmorning. The route ahead followed a quartz dike that shot across the diorite all the way to the Roof on the North America Wall. The separation between the two types of rock offered challenging aid climbing consistent with the route, with tied-off fat Leepers to knifeblades interspersed with the occasional Rurp. The anchor was 14 pins carefully equalized in groups of three with higher pin groups backing up the other lower ones—it was bomber. I named this pitch the Bull Dike in recognition of the degradation of American mores.

Dave lowered out with the bags, which I hauled while Dale cleaned the pins from my pitch. Dave had begun the next lead when Dale arrived, and had already used two hooks and just finished placing the first of two rivets. The 25-foot void between my belay and the beginning of a dirty, arching crack that led back to the left had taken him over an hour before he began pulling out large chunks of dirt and moss from the crack. These fell harmlessly 15 feet out from the belay. It was slow, exhausting work. As darkness approached, Dave equalized three pins and I lowered him until he was level with the belay, but nearly 20 feet out from the wall. He would need to finish the “9-to-5” pitch the next day, thus the name.

Dave set the anchors at the end of the 9-to-5 right at the lip of an arching overhang, one of the most airy belays I had ever experienced. The wall was so steep I didn’t bother packing my portaledge for hauling, and at the belay, Dave and I sat in comfort watching and belaying Dale. He aided left on a good crack and began hooking up rickety flakes in the dubious brown rock. Encountering a short blank section, he thought to place a standard inch-and-a-quarter-long bolt, but ended up using a two-incher that was still only body-weight worthy. After a couple more hooks Dale draped slings over reasonable flakes and even ventured the odd free move before ending the pitch under a small roof.

For days the upper part of the wall had been obscured. Finally it was possible to see the way ahead. A thin white flake undulated rightward across equally excellent white granite—this was going to be good.

Drawing from a plethora of pearls of wisdom my father would cast my way, I recalled, “He who hesitates is lost,” as confirmation for action. I started up the flake forthwith. When it was somewhat horizontal, I found that by standing on hooks it was possible to place substantial pitons to protect the second following.

In places where the flake rose more vertically, I fashioned the placement for a sling, which, vectored with the rope, held it in place for the follower. Finally, the flake ended in an upward arch where I welded a copperhead and reached far right to take advantage of a small slope, which I measured and drilled allowing a hook to be sprung firmly in place. This I used to tension to the right, to free climbing. Once again I found solid anchors without the tedious process of drilling bolts.

So far, we were averaging about two and a half pitches a day, assuring we would top out the following day. Dave climbed nearly half of his lead before darkness dictated descent to the bivy site.

Rock sommelier Bridwell gives the “It’s primo” sign.

The Sea of Dreams was harder, and harder for longer, than anything yet done.

Jim Bridwell

That night we discussed but did not settle on a rating for the route. A grade could only be surmised using known related experiences—the weight of the burden was on me for credibility.

I compared previous climbs and their accepted equivalency of difficulty and duration of difficulty. The Sea of Dreams was harder, and harder for longer, than anything yet done, but I also considered that repeats would pin out the placements, making them more secure, and that new, more functional and efficient equipment would change the perceived difficulty. Certainly the range of cams would expand and practically eliminate the angle piton, reducing many of the A4 and A5 pitches.

In the morning, Dave jugged the rope he’d fixed, but the pitch was more resistant than first thought, maybe A5, requiring another two hours to complete. As soon as Dave drilled two bolts for the anchor, Dale leapfrogged past and jumped on the next pitch, the one that sealed the deal. From there, I scrambled up easy slabs, climbed over a roof to a short corner and stood on top.

We hung our ledges from a large tree near the rim of the Captain. Dave played the Little Feet tape with the taunting litany of reality as we finalized our assessment of our new route. The accounting tallied nine pitches of A5, three of A3 and the rest were A4, with 39 drilled holes. If the climb had been in an alpine environment it would have been a candidate for Grade 7 status, but it wasn’t, and the traditional Grade 6 was assigned.

And so it is with classifying the status of the achievement—it is only applicable to the prevailing standard of the time. Rating distinctions are ever dependent on the evolving conventions. More important than a number was that we did the best we could. Sea of Dreams was imperfect because we aren’t perfect—yet.

Endnote: I placed no bolts at any of my belays, which likely accounts for changes in location of belays. For example, the pitch off Big Sur ended on top of the Peregrine Pillar, which now lies about eight feet from the base of the N.A. in the crater it made when it fell off, changing the number and length of the pitches to The Tooth. We did not go to the Igloo, but finished on the original N. A. about 80 feet right of the Igloo. The addition of 60 or more new holes, mostly bolts, has no doubt changed many of the original ratings.