My boss Brendan’s phone vibrates around noon on just another August Sunday. "I just sent the proj!" sarcastically flashes across his screen. Brendan had concerningly requested an update once I had summited my weekend mission, as this was not a roadside sport project in the works. My obscure undertaking was attempting to rope solo the Nose in a Day (The SNIAD) on El Capitan.
Soloing, whether roped or not, is often driven out of existential questioning or a bit of social angst. This trip was certainly tinged in those themes. I had been working through uneasy feelings about what climbing means to me and what is a healthy balance in my life. I want to be a broadly relatable “person, who also climbs” more so than just “a climber”. I had become skeptical of the curated identities that endlessly refresh online and the paired external motivations of creating one’s own image. This mission was an experiment in enthusiasm. If I had a lofty mental goal and could go execute without sharing my plans before or immediately after, would I still feel a deep sense of joy? Are climbing goals really even fun anymore, or do I just do it because that is what I do? This idea was nagging and growing.
The Nose is usually rope soloed over a multiday endeavor, if ever. Through my limited insights as a Valley outsider, I found that around 15 people have climbed the route solo in under 24 hours (the abstract “in a day” cutoff). This list includes many Valley heavys which adds weight to the concept of pulling it off myself. I think I can do it. I can’t help but want to go find if this thought is true. I love the feeling of testing myself against a lofty notion, pushing my self-conceived limits and then seeing the world differently within my mind’s eye. My meek evidence was previous NIAD ascents where I had occasionally short fixed (a rope soloing head start to the next pitch) entire pitches while my partner was jugging the previous.
As a desk-working weekend warrior, climbing can sometimes feel like a motorsport. Kolin Powick, the face of Black Diamond climbing, has a firm rule that the number of pitches you climb in a road trip must be greater than the round-trip hours of driving. This is one of the few tools I could use to justify a three-day weekend ascent of El Cap road tripping from Salt Lake City: around 30 pitches of world class rock climbing balanced out by 20 hours of driving, all I have to do is skip a night of sleep! I would drive alone to the Valley after work on a Friday, solo climb the thing through the night Saturday, and drive back home safely on Monday after a full night sleep post-climb. In early July I quietly decided this would be the format of my mission and penciled it for some time in August. Decidedly off season, my best bet to avoid the crowds. Also, a clear reflection of my impatience to execute on an idea.
I pulled into the ghost town of Yosemite Valley right at midnight on a Friday after rolling across the animal spewn roadways of Nevada, this must be the most dangerous part of any climbing trip. The Valley was recently closed due to the proximity of wildfires and had only opened back up a few days earlier. The lack of crowds was eerie. It was clear that I would be the singular climber on The Nose, with only one other party on a different aspect of El Cap. My abstract idea was staring right at me as I strained my neck to look up the shadowy face of The Captain. I had my first moments of doubt while pondering the scale. These feelings were intensely private as only a few close friends knew of my plan.
Daylight brought recognizable features and the wall shrunk again in appearance. The rock climb itself was an anticlimactic toil of leading, rappelling, and jugging each pitch. I began in the shade around 5:45 pm and rested for perhaps 4 minutes during the entire ascent - two separate two-minute breaks to text my brother that I was still alive. It all felt more like "fitness climbing" than "speed climbing". I pitched out the entire route, avoiding unnecessary risks, focusing on efficiency and steady motion. I had prepared a high energy music playlist but ended up not needing this noise over the volume of enthusiasm I was feeling the entire time. The clearest highlight was pulling bolt-to-bolt out the roof on the final pitch with morning rays on my shirtless back, no one and nothing but a backpack of rope below me on the entire 3000’ route. Truly spectacular. A potent 18 hours and 24 minutes after departing on pitch one, I carried my backpack and rope loops across the slabs to the summit tree. By Tuesday morning I was back sitting at my desk grinning with joy, overcome by the wave of enthusiasm.
Mason Earle once called rope soloing El Cap in a day “the pinnacle of sickness”, and I couldn’t put more playful or colorful words to my own feelings. It is a truly outrageous thing to walk up to such a rock face with only a backpack of rope. In the last few years of climbing I’ve felt a sense of adventure replaced by competency. I realize that chasing personal achievement is a repeating loop, only slightly shifting and expanding. The meaningless meaning of rock climbing is what makes the pursuit special to me, mirroring the existential path of our wider lives. This three-day trip was a condensed reminder of this paradox and that rock climbing’s worth is in the enthusiasm and happiness that overflows into all parts of my life. I feel a clarified desire to embrace the lighted joys in climbing, such as the purity of top roping maneuvers, but perhaps with shared a partner.