I looked up the rope to the anchor above, which I was lowering myself away from. I was out of rope and still far from being where I needed to be. Alex had climbed almost the entire pitch without any gear, a typical situation. He glanced down and saw me hesitate. “The swing is clean; just go for it!” he shouted. I let go of the rope, and a guttural yell escaped my throat as I swung along the wall, covering nearly 100 lateral feet. My feet touched the stone, and I motored my legs like I was in the Flintstones car. I hit the apex of the swing, then turned and ran the other way until the momentum died. I let out a loud whoop of excitement. Despite being exhausted, we were still having fun on our sixth route on El Capitan in six days, and we still had one more day to go for our goal of seven routes in seven days.
We were about 45 minutes into the free-climbing start to Zodiac, nearly 500 feet up the route. It was June 7, swelteringly hot and day six of our week-long adventure on El Capitan in Yosemite, the “7 in 7” as we were calling it. Six days earlier, we had started the whole event on New Jersey Turnpike with the El Niño start (VI 5.13b A4), reorganized our gear on the summit, descended, and drove to El Portal to sleep. We woke up at 4 a.m. the next day and climbed Tangerine Trip (VI 5.9 C3). We repeated this process again and again on Eagles Way (VI 5.9 A3+), the Nose (VI 5.9 C2), Lurking Fear (VI 5.9 A2), and now Zodiac (VI 5.13a C3). The next day we would finish out the week on Triple Direct (VI 5.9 C2)—a lifetime of climbing for some packed into just one week.
I first heard about the 7 in 7 idea in 2007 from Ammon McNeely and the late Brian McCray. They had thought up the idea during their down time while working as riggers in Las Vegas. They would hang out in the ceiling and think of ideas for brutal big wall pushes and heinous link-ups. When Ammon mentioned it to me, he seemed to ponder how possible it was; I just laughed and questioned his sanity. At the time, I had never even imagined climbing El Cap, and it would still be two more years before that happened.
So seven years after I was first given the idea of the 7 in 7 by one of my climbing heroes, Alex Honnold and I had set out to make it happen. We used our unique skill sets: Alex’s insane ability to free climb and my knowledge of aid climbing. We had challenged ourselves on several objectives together over the last two years: Lunar Eclipse, the West Buttress, and most recently, the infamous Excalibur. As we hiked off the summit after our 16 hour, 10 minute first one-day ascent of Excalibur (aka “the alligator route”), I told Alex about the 7 in 7 idea. He smiled, his eyes lit up, and our next adventure began.
What I see now is that Ammon’s idea was about a lot more than just climbing seven routes. It was about attacking an impossible feat and finding out where your limits are: how far, how fast, and how big you can go—a challenging idea to create adventure. We were playing a game to bring some adventure and unknown back into climbing on a cliff where most climbers know that if they have the gear and suffer for enough days, they will arrive at the summit. So we assaulted the wall, one pitch at a time, one day at a time, for seven days, in search of our breaking point and a new level of challenge.
What I Learned About Tackling Big Objectives
I started training four months prior to the objective by mimicking the overall fitness necessary for really big days—climbing, running, hiking, and even weightlifting. For some goals, it might involve hitting the climbing gym three days a week or adding some bouldering into your regular routine in order to send a project. Start early and stay focused.
Whenever you are going to do multiple days of intense activity, you need to make sure you are on top of hydration. Drink early and often. I use drink additives like Nuun, Clif Shot, or Cytomax to replenish salts lost while pushing myself all day. Drink through the day, and start rehydrating in earnest as soon as you finish your activity.
This is a horrible task—painful and just really unpleasant—but it works. When regularly beating up your body, there’s very little else you can do to help speed up recovery more than icing. We used the cold Merced River and soaked our hands, arms, and legs starting on the fourth day. Both Alex and I felt marked improvements the next morning.
Figure out what gear you actually need and what gear you probably don’t, then pare your kit so that you aren’t hauling up the kitchen sink. You’ll speed everything up substantially by lightening your load. We saved time by simplifying our anchors: Two lockers and a bunny ears figure eight make a much quicker anchor than a 12-foot cordelette.
5. Staying Psyched
I woke up the fourth morning—the day set aside for the Nose—feeling like I had been beaten with a baseball bat. Everything hurt from head to toe. I tried to stay positive by telling myself that if we could get to the base, then we could climb to the summit. Break your goal into bite-size chunks and tackle one piece at a time. That makes it easier to keep pushing.