The Nose Job 2: First Attempt

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Chris McNamara (speed-climbing the Shield) on the cover of Climbing in 2000, a year after our attempt on the Nose.

Chris McNamara (speed-climbing the Shield) on the cover of Climbing in 2000, a year after our attempt on the Nose.

Next summer won’t be my first attempt at climbing the Nose in a day. I tried it once before—sort of—a little over 10 years ago. That attempt was the sole focus of what was undoubtedly the most disappointing trip I’ve ever done to Yosemite.

My then-girlfriend (now wife), a friend, and I planned to spend a week in the Valley. They would climb fun routes; I would more or less just hang out and wait for the best chance at the Nose. My partner was Chris McNamara, the ringer of ringers. He and I had hooked up for a new route in Zion a year or two before, and despite the fact that we’d never met and I was twice his age, we’d had a great time. Later, we did a quick, no-hammer ascent of the North America Wall on El Cap. I told him I wanted to try the Nose in a day, and he said, “You name the day.” At the time, Chris had climbed El Cap 40 or 50 times, including several blazing-fast trips up the Nose; he eventually would set nine speed records on El Cap. Climbing the Nose with him would be like getting some help with your math homework from Stephen Hawking.

Still, I hoped to pull my weight. We divided the route into blocks, playing to our relative strengths: I was reasonably quick at moderate aid climbing; Chris simply flew on 5.10 cracks and had dialed all the tricky traverses on the route. (In truth, compared to Chris, I was a flyweight at all aspects of climbing.) The plan was I would lead the first four pitches to Sickle Ledge; Chris would lead the complex traverse to the Stovelegs and fire up those cracks, and then traverse back left via the King Swing; I’d lead us up through the Great Roof and the corners above; and Chris would take us home. I was in great shape. The problem was the weather.

It was June, and it rained every day. The Merced was in flood, and our campsite in Lower Pines was a bog. We spent most days in the bar at the Ahwanee, watching the finals of pro basketball, which neither my future wife nor I cared the least about. We were bored and squabbling. Chris hung out at home in Marin County and said, “I’ll come up to the Valley when the weather looks better.”

Finally it did, and Chris showed up one evening, with just a couple of days left in my vacation. The next day we climbed something together—I think it was The Good Book—and then did the first pitch of the Nose so I could familiarize myself with the approach, which we planned do in the dark. I led the 5.10+ pitch reasonably smoothly, which undoubtedly came as a relief to Chris. It was the first day we’d free-climbed together.

We set the alarm for about three. When we woke, it was raining lightly. A couple of hours later, the rain had stopped, and we decided to drive down to El Cap Meadow. I was nervous but unafraid. How scared could I be with Chris, who, though he’d just become eligible to vote, was already an El Cap master?

At the foot of the Nose, we could see the first few pitches running with water. The top of the great cliff was in clouds. It seemed we’d been skunked. But the fog appeared to be thinning, and fixed ropes led from the ground to Sickle Ledge, four pitches up. Chris said, “We could jug the lines and go from there.” This seemed like a bogus way to climb the Nose, but I was out of time, and, as Chris said, “Why not? We’ll just call it a day of climbing.”

And so we jugged up the steep slabs, Chris carrying the rope and the rack, me trailing a heavy pack with our lunches, jackets, a tag line, and three or four liters of water. My calves and biceps burned by the time we reached Sickle. Chris started leading, and I watched in amazement as he weaved up and over the dihedrals leading to the Stoveleg Crack; at one point, he linked three and a half guidebook pitches, including two tension traverses, in a single monster lead. He reracked and then shuffled up the Stovelegs, barely pausing to place a piece. By midmorning, we were just below El Cap Tower. It was crowded above, despite all the rain, and Chris opted to sneak left via the Jardine Traverse. When I joined him at the stance at the far end, 14 pitches up the route, right where I was supposed to begin leading our next block, the rain started falling once again.

We bailed, and I’m really glad we did. The weather cleared that afternoon, and we probably could have finished the climb. But I was more or less being guided up the route, and we’d skipped the first four pitches by jugging. If we had managed to ascend the Nose that day, what exactly could I have said that I had done? Much better to come back later and try it for real.