(To clear one thing up: technically the climb took 25.5 hrs and therefore wasn’t done in a day, but it’s the spirit that counts).
For most people, a solo NIAD would be the result of meticulous planning and preparation, but instead I chose to do it on a whim, with arguably terrible timing. The week prior, a cheeky climbing ranger passed me on the Muir Wall as he completed a proud 18 hour ascent, calling my rack a “peasant rack” because it lacked double black Totem cams. He and his partner’s banter was amusing, but their passing us made me and my friend top out in the dark that evening. Later that week I decide that the Nose is much easier than the Muir (when climbing both routes clean), and that I should at least be able to climb as fast as this friendly foe. I’ve previously climbed the NIAD twice, so I more or less know what to expect, although it has been several years and there are two concerns that I have. One concern is the logistics of soloing the route, and the second is that I am absolutely slammed at work for the the entire four day period leading up to the climb after I decide to do it, so I have roughly zero time to actually plan anything.
I work until 1500 the day before the climb in order to finish writing up a large project for a pressing deadline. After work I go home, do my laundry, change the oil in my car, wash the dishes, and rack up for the climb in my dirt driveway using the last of the waning daylight. I leave Meadow Valley at 1730 and begin my regular six hour weekend commute to the Valley. I make a stop in Reno at REI to purchase a new lead line. I bought a 70m 9.4 Black Diamond rope, as my other rope was fuzzed out and core-shot, and I wanted something that would be slick to handle and not cause me undue stress on the climb. I still haven’t bought groceries yet for the trip, so I stop and pick up an assortment of bars and other quick eats. I also buy the cheapest and lightest watch that Walmart carries, as my cellphone had drowned the previous weekend and I have no other way of keeping time for pacing. Using the bright light of the Walmart parking lot, I finish the final stages of packing my already pre-sorted gear.
I continue to Travertine Hotsprings, the standard highlight of my drive to Yosemite. There had been no time for sushi in Reno, but I enjoy a relaxing 15 minute soak with two fellows who are smoking weed and talking about how only drunks and outlaws drive at 2AM. I drive for another hour before passing out at 9000′ camp, just outside of the east entrance to Yosemite. At 0300 my alarm sounds, and I blast across the moonlit landscape of Tuolumne Meadows. No people or animals are awake at this time; I have the road to myself and am able to make it to the El Cap bridge by 0415. Unfortunately, I’m rolling on less than 3 hours of sleep at this point, so I set my alarm for 0500 and pass out.
A commotion wakes me up: headlights reflect off the roof of my car as other climbers are racking up at the bridge. I’m instantly wide awake, and in less than 5 minutes I am running to the base of the route at a brisk jog. I can’t afford to let anyone get in front of me – I have no idea how crowded the route is, but I know that I will be passing every party on the route and don’t want to start off waiting at the base. Tom Evans reported that the Nose was relatively uncrowded the previous weekend, and I was banking on luck that it was currently in the same state. I pass one party on the approach trail, hoping that no one else is in line. I barely remember where the start of the route is, but I figure it out well enough. I solo the fourth class approach pitch, and luckily find myself alone at the start of the real climbing. The party that I passed continues on towards the SE face of El Cap.
I start climbing at 0530, Self-belaying the first pitch with my unmodified GriGri and the new rope I had carefully flaked in my backpack last night. It is always challenging to get in the rhythm, and the first pitch probably took me 30 minutes to complete. My new rope feels slick and is not twisted (yet). The first pitches are fixed, with haul bags at the top of pitch two. For the second pitch I decide to clip a minitraxion to the fixed line so that I can free climb it in my approach shoes, with only a small amount of french freeing. Morally confused, I still belayed myself with my own rope. I later found out that those fixed lines belonged to a friend from Montana. I lower down to clean pitch two as the sun is rising, and another party is jugging up below me. “Hell of a way to start the day, with a stuck rope!” I explain that I’m soloing the route and I’m cleaning the pitch. He wishes me luck, and I catch my final glimpse of him as I look back from Dolt. He’s progressed a single pitch, but appears stuck at a bulge.
I begin Pitch 3 without a rope, aiding up the C1 section and building an anchor with a 0.75 and 1” cam and a bunny ears knot. I aid soloed the first section so that I didn’t need to re-stack as much rope. The rest of the pitch goes buy without a hitch.
Pitch 4: the first real pendulum. I climb up and tension traverse to a crack, clip a fixed piece, and tension over to a juggy flake. The flake has a large flat top, so I build an awkward gear anchor at an alcove (semi-hanging) and clean the pitch. I lower, jug up, clean my first piece, jug to the furthest pendulum point, clipping it as a directional, clean the few cams I had placed on the C2 section below, and then do a single strand lower out through a beefy quick link. Because of where I built my anchor, the rope pull is not at risk of being caught up by the rope eating flake below me. I stack my rope in my pack, and quickly solo across Sickle, dispatching pitches 4 and 5 in under five minutes. A team of 2 from the state of Georgia is climbing pitch 5-6, I free solo through their party, up to the 5.9 bulge and then request to minitrax their haul line in order to comfortably free it in my approach shoes and pass them faster. As I minitrax past the bulge I awkwardly pass 3 pieces of gear that they left for pro. I am self conscious, I am still climbing in my approach shoes and I do not want to knock any loose rock on the party who is so graciously letting me pass.
I get to the anchor and pull out my rope, attaching it with two lockers. The party is still hauling, and I learn that this is their first wall. I wished them luck, despite them having standard daisies and alpine aiders. They had fixed to Sickle and hauled the day before, and seemed to be fairly competent free climbers. A week later I learned that they did indeed top out the route. I place a couple of cams before I get to a bolt on the 5.12a variation, tension traverse to the second bolt, and lower myself out to the next corner system (the standard way is to lower straight off the anchor, but my route keeps me out of the way of the party I had just passed.
I climb up to just below Dolt Hole and built a gear anchor. Just above me there is a team of three Aussies from Tasmania, two at the anchor, with three giant in-line haul bags already docked, with their third already leading. I rap down and clean the last pitch, swinging over and unclipping the bolts. I ask the team from Georgia to unclip my anchor for me, which they kindly oblige (this is simply to reduce crowding at the anchor). Their second had cleaned the pitch and they were sorting gear for the next lead. The lead Aussie is now off route, they swung past Stovelegs and are in the next crack system. I suggest that they retreat and go the correct way, which they do. Starting lower, I swing over to the 5.9 lieback, which is a thin juggy flake (approximately a 0.4” crack). I aid it, and stop at an alternate belay below the 5.8 hand section of the Stovelegs.
I clean the last pitch, and again, have the leader of the party from Georgia clean my anchor for me so that I don’t have to tension back the entire way. As I talk to them I learn that they are planning on spending 3 nights on the wall, with 3 liters/person/day. I hope they have enough water, but there is always the possibility of stashed water… The Aussie is back on route and is now at the anchor. Their lead line and haul line have somehow crossed several times, I‘m glad to be getting ahead of whatever cluster is about to ensue. I quickly french-free/crack jug past them.
I almost drop my rope. It was flaked in my pack, but as I start climbing (ropeless) I heard the sound of the rope zipping out of my pack and reach back to grab it. Maybe 10m had already escaped from my pack. After that experience for the rest of the climb I ensure that the rope is clipped with a carabiner to the bag itself.
I crack jug/french-free Pitches 8-11 with my rope inside my pack until I reach Dolt Tower. Someone left water stashed here. I bring my rope out briefly for a single strand lower out (tie in with a figure 8, lower with GriGri, untie, pull rope) to get from Dolt Tower to the “5.7 squeeze”. Whatever that was, it was probably not a squeeze. I do a mixture of free and french free to get up to the pitch 13 fist crack, which I quickly aid using two #4’s. An easy solo up to El Cap Tower. The highlight is the high pulp orange juice that someone has left. After cautiously smelling it, I drink a third of a liter, leaving some behind. Shockingly, it was still good!
I aid the first 5.9 crack moves off of El Cap Tower, then free climb the loose face to Texas Flake. A Bonanza of Water!!! possibly eight 2L soda bottles, all completely full and in the shade. It’s approximately 1230 and I am thirsty. I gulp down a liter of water and stupidly do not refill my own bottles. At this point I had only drank 0.5L, but I had been pounding water the night before. I strip off my chest harness and rack and attach it to my pack via 2 attachment points, put on my climbing shoes, and began the awkward start of getting into Texas Flake. I‘m not in love with committing to the fixed tat slung around chockstones, but manage the awkward dance. I throw in a left hand jam and smash my wide hips into the chimney, repeatedly getting stuck, but finally dislodging myself and walking back into the cool depths. Black booty biner! I climb the chimney it facing out, below the lone bolt which I of course did not clip. I start climbing it as a starfish, with my pant legs rolled up to protect my knees, but then have to awkwardly transfer to knee-to-back, which is probably my least favorite chimney technique. There are not many foot holds to speak of, and it feels as desperate/more desperate than the last two times I led it. When I finally get high enough to reach the lip it is quite a relief. At the end, I remember that most people climb it further right than I had. Oh well, I had been committed. I haul my pack with my minitraxion 1:1 by hand. The cap of my water bottle wore one small hole in my pack, but luckily the bottle did not leak.
The bolt ladder to the King Swing feels heroic, I daisy solo it as quickly as I can, building an anchor on the last bolts and clipping the last bolt as a directional and to prevent a factor 2 fall. I begin cam hooking up the Boot Flake. The gear quickly gets better, and soon I‘m on top of the boot. I had been unsure of how to best do the King Swing, but decide to opt for the same way I had gotten from Dolt Tower to the next crack system. I pass a single strand through one rap ring, tie into it, and lower myself on my GriGri. There is a knot in the very far end of my rope as a fail-safe. I lower 20′ below the boot, and on my second try I am able to tension over and latch the reasonably good jug that brings me over to Eagle Ledge. I debate for some time whether to climb high and then pull my rope, or to just go for it (the flakes adjacent to Boot Flake with numerous cut ropes had me spooked), but I decide to just go for it and give it a big whip. The rope comes free and falls neatly without issue. I flake it on the ledge, and then flake it into my pack.
I climb ropeless to P18, where I build a gear anchor and aid up to the pendulum point, back cleaning all but two pieces. I push a bight of rope through the quicklink, and lower myself to the Gray Bands with an ATC while on belay with a GriGri. I arrive at the anchor and pull the bight, then rap down and clean the 2 pieces, plus my anchor.
Pitch 19 is a traversing pitch in the Gray Bands. I perform a single strand rappel to get past a blind 5.7 downclimb which didn’t look so bad after I could see it. I then solo to the next anchors on juggy terrain that climbs like a mixture of face and crack.
I put myself on belay for the next pitch, as the opening free moves on the traverse look intimidating. The moves climb better than they look. I had brought 2 hooks for these pitches, in case the face climbing was too much, but it proved to be doable in approach shoes without chalk. The crack following the face is awkward and wide, I have to place some very deep cams (which I back-cleaned) before the crack closes down to a reasonable size.
Arriving at Camp IV I have my second lunch/dinner. A feast of bars and cheese sticks, washed down with a fair bit of water. It has been windy for the last couple of hours, and this bivy is flat, wide, and has a wall to the west which blocks the wind and makes for a terrific back rest. I could have stayed put forever, but press on in an effort to race the sun with the thought of arriving at the great roof before sunset, just in case Tom Evans is taking any photos. Pitch 21 feels like a heroic free solo as I climb the black diorite cracks in my approach shoes, and then tackle the 5.7 face traverse without undue hesitation. There is one fairly difficult reach-over move, assisted by a fixed sling. I’m very wary of using any fixed soft-goods, but this sling appears new and seems good enough. I french-free the final 5.9 moves and arrive at the base of the Great Roof. Time to put on the headlamp.
The whole thing is chalked up, Nina Caprez and Lynn Hill are working on freeing it. It is inspiring to say the least, my favorite observation was a smiley face drawn in blood under the overhang. The starting C1 pitch is a breeze due to many fixed nuts interspersed with, many blue and yellow Totem cam placements. I back-clean most of it, leaving a handful of fixed pieces as pro. The fixed gear under the roof is a bizarre mass of equalized pieces, nuts, lost arrows, etc. that all seem like fairly recent additions. I clip these intricate mini-anchors as pro, and then back-clean to the anchor. To clean the pitch I pay out a load of slack, rap down, jug up the other side of my rope, pass the first lower out, repeat, and then clean to the anchor (leaving 3-4 pieces of fixed pro up high as directionals), jug up, then do one mega lower out, using the black carabiner I bootied in Texas Flake, and in the process booty a BD quickdraw that was left on the anchor.
I aid solo Pancake flake, which is thin enough that I place my cams deep and work to avoid certain sections with hairline cracks. As I climb the next pitch a missile flies past me, probably no more than three feet away. It is dark, so I can’t tell what it was. Maybe a cam, maybe a rock. It probably would have broken my arm if it had hit me. I shout up at the party 3 pitches above me. I rope up for the next pitch, bringing me up to Camp V, and am disappointed to not find any water. At this point I’ve drank three liters of my own water, and am now down to the last half liter. I drank so much so soon partially to reduce the weight on my back (my gear weighed 42 lbs starting out, including food and water), and I was feeling the fatigue and chafe. As an aside, my right daisy had also begun slipping slightly, luckily my left was still holding well.
I make an anchor at the first bolts of Camp V, then scramble up and left, climbing 5.7 cracks and ramps to get to the base of the Glowering Spot. On the scramble I see two water bottles, with only the tops visible. The condensation is clear. My excitement grows, but is short lived. The water bottles look like a dark and funky tea, and while I know what they are I open one just to be certain. Big mistake, as my sinuses are flooded with the smell of ammonia. I quickly close the bottle, cursing the parties that had left those here. I guess the OJ earlier on the route makes up for it. I start up the thin cracks to the Glowering Spot, immediately getting in a 0.5 and 1” cam. The crack quicky pinches down to thin sizes like purple C3. I transfer to the next crack at the correct time, and the sizes get larger. I lower down, cleaning the pitch. Once back at the Glowering Spot I promptly pass out at the luxurious ledge, which is more like 3×5′. I use my backpack as a back rest, and sit cross legged while wearing my belay jacket for the first time since the morning prior. The temps are in the 30’s, but I am warm because the ledge blocks the updrafts. Although I could have foregone the sleep and finished the climb in sub-24 hrs I am more interested in feeling good at this point. I naturally wake up in short order, and force myself to continue as I am still low on water and 6 pitches from the top.
Above me the C1+ doesn’t look too hard, so I aid solo the pitch to Camp VI, free soloing the final section. There is a party of two Scotts asleep in their portaledge, I quietly creep around them but can’t help but wake them up with my headlamp. I sheepishly ask them how they are doing on water. They are also low, but have some stashed on top. They are surprised when I don’t haul or seem to be with anyone else, and after a bit of deliberation I bid them goodnight as I step directly on their anchor that is strung up in my way, and began aid soloing the semi-loose rock directly above them (of course using the utmost discretion when placing gear and pulling on holds). The broken rock soon becomes a long, never-ending flake system, which pinches off just below the Changing Corners.
There is no two bolt anchor as shown in the SuperTaco (it had been chopped, so I built a 2 #2 Camalot anchor designed for an upward pull, with a #1 as both a directional and a pendulum piece. I penji to the first button head, and swing further around the corner where my progress is promptly ground to a halt. The gear is thin, camhook thin, but the angle of the corner won’t let me place any. There are a handful of fixed nuts, and tons of chalk everywhere, but I struggle to make my own nuts fit. One nut pops as I began to weight it, the leverage of the cables on the edge was all wrong and I knew it. I begrudgingly step up high on a tipped out, flexing green C3, and clip one of the high fixed nuts. I don’t know why it takes me so long to commit, but I haven’t fallen yet and am not entirely stoked on the idea at this point. I really wish I had a medium beak instead of the useless hooks I had brought. Nevertheless, I finish the pitch, and when I clean it I shudder at how sharp the knife edge was, making my 9.4 rope snaking back and forth across it look so delicate. I should have only clipped the face bolts, but I had also clipped nuts as pro, my mistake. The pitch is so steep and long that I am again exhausted. I try to pendulum out left to rest on a 4” ledge, but the wall is overhanging to the point where I can’t rest. I pass out briefly on the ledges up higher while seated in a squatting position (only attached to the rope by my ascenders). I wake with a start and finish the pitch, motivated by promise of the “wild stance” above.
Pitch 28 is one of my favorites, Lazer to Lazer. Pure blue totems from the top of Changing Corners to the roof, then 0.75-2” with enough horizontal traverse that your aiders aren’t pinned one on top of the other, like so many of the awkward low angle corners down below. I bump gear ferociously. I feel home-free, there is one “C2F” pitch above, but I remember that it wasn’t a big deal last time. I rope up for pitch 29, and am fairly glad for it at the end, as there are a couple weird flaring placements, as well as a transfer to free climbing using a sling. Cleaning the pitch is a lower out and jug affair, the last crux of the route. At this point the sky is getting brighter, and I am able to turn off my headlamp.
The rest of the route is a ropeless aid solo, The 5.10c crack of pitch 30 requires one or 2 moves to get into, but once established, is a splitter flake that I practically fly up. The bolt ladder suddenly looms in my vision. I am ecstatic, clipping the fat Fixe hangers and 3/8” sleeve bolts with gusto. Much of the pitch is lower angled and not too reachy. The middle has some tremendously steep roofs, and I have to get almost horizontal (fully cinched in on my daisies) to clip the next bolt. Heroic. The one move of C1 requires a purple (maybe a green) totem, no big deal. I continue up and solo the exit 5.5 slab to the summit, tag the tree and hike down past what seems like dozens of sleepy climbers, scattered in the boulders. I hadn’t told anyone about my plans to do the climb beforehand, so I was amused to arrive in the meadow and hear everyone’s crazy theories as to who I was or what I was up to, including one person who mistakenly thought I might be Alex Honnold, or another that thought I probably had a BASE rig in my pack when they didn’t see me climbing with a rope. Some people are just full of imagination.
For those who are interested:
- 70m 9.4 Black Diamond dynamic rope
- Patagonia Ascensionist 30L pack (for carrying water, rope, belay jacket, snacks, head lamp)
- 5.10 Guide Tennies
- La Sportiva Muiras (only wore once for Texas Flake)
- Arcteryx FL365 harness
- Misty Mountains Big Wall Gear Sling (chest harness)
- Petzl GriGri
- Petzl Reverso
- 2x Yates adjustable daisies with BD Hotwire carabiners
- 2x Yates speed wall ladders
- Petzl Ascension ascenders (L&R)
- Petzl Microtraxion (for hauling bag/flaking rope)
- 6 Petzl Spirit lockers
- 4 Wildcountry Helium II quickdraws
- 4 alpine draws (Edelrid Nineteen G carabiners)
- 000 BD C3 (1)
- 00 BD C3 (2)
- 0 BD C3 (2)
- green blue offset Alien (1)
- green/yellow offset Alien (1)
- yellow/red offset Alien (1)
- blue Totem (2)
- yellow Totem (2) yellow Alien (1)
- purple Totem (2) purple BD (1)
- green Totem (2) green BD (1)
- red Totem (1) red BD (2)
- yellow BD (3)
- #3 BD (2)
- #4 BD (2) (wanted to be able to aid everything, very useful at many times)
**If attempting again I would consider substituting the purple, green, and red Black Diamond cams for two red link cams.
- DMM offset (gold, blue, red)
- BD stoppers (4-6)
- DMM brass offsets (1 set)
- BD micro offset (2 medium)
- Moses camhooks, medium (2)
- (BD cliffhanger, Petzl skyhook) – didn’t use
- Moses Tomahawk, medium – didn’t bring, but wish I had one for Changing Corners.
- 3.5L, I bootied an additional liter of water on the route, wished I had more.