Climbing El Capitan
The story of America's most famous mountain
Climbing El Capitan is a challenge that draws people from all over the world. For decades this North American peak has had an irresistible appeal for climbers, hikers, mountaineers and base jumpers, becoming an icon of both America's geographical and cultural landscape.
El Capitan has been immortalised on bumper stickers, coins, as the name of Apple's latest operating system and you can even visit it on Google Earth so what's the story behind this legendary US mountain?
El Capitan stands 900m (3000ft) above the scenery of Yosemite National Park in California. To put that in perspective, that's bigger than the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and almost the same height as three Shards stacked on top of each other.
El Capitan means 'the chief' or 'captain' in Spanish which is probably a loose translation of the Native American name for the mountain, made by a Californian militia battalion who explored the Yosemite Valley in the 1850s.
El Cap consists of a south west and south east face divided by a ridge of stone called the Nose. More than 100 routes criss cross this huge granite cliff and among them is the Dawn Wall, on the south east face, considered to be one of the toughest climbs on the planet.
The Making Of A Legend
The Chief's claim to fame is that it is the world's biggest granite monolith, a peak made from a single piece of stone like the rock of Gibraltar or Uluru in Australia. This explains part of the mountain's appeal but what's also important is the stone El Capitan is made from.
Granite is the stone that most of North America's more popular climbing areas are made of and it is formed by underground volcanic activity where magma has cooled beneath the earth's surface. When this stone is exposed to the air by geological movements it creates giant stacks of tough rock which take a long time to be worn into shape by the wind and rain. Estimates place El Capitan at around 100 million years old and there are still plenty of sections on the monolith which appear almost smooth.
Because granite is so hard wearing, you will often find granite surfaces that are virtually featureless, making them very difficult to climb, requiring formidable balance, precision and strength. The rock is in fact so tough to climb that most of the routes on El Cap are listed as assisted routes, requiring climbing aids to manage the tiny hand and footholds.
Impurities in granite wear away quicker than the granite itself so you can also find interesting cracks in the rock which make for some great climbing. Granite's strength also means that when you place climbing protection into the rock it provides very solid anchors you can trust, sometimes so solid that it's hard to get your gear back out again.
El Cap was first climbed way back in 1958 by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore who decided to try and conquer the Nose. The trio hammered metal spikes into the granite, fixing ropes to the rock so that they could return to the mountain again and again over a period of 18 months until the ascent was completed. The manilla hemp ropes the team were using would swell considerably if they got wet, becoming very difficult to handle, and even broke sometimes after being exposed to the cold for too long, but this didn't scare the three climbers off. In total it took 47 days of gruelling physical work to summit El Capitan for the first time, but Harding and co's efforts broke new ground for climbers everywhere.
The 1960 and 70s saw El Capitan start to become a major destination for climbers with ever faster and more impressive climbs being completed. In 1961 Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost finished the first continuous ascent in just a week, while 1968 saw Robbins return to complete the first ever solo summit in 10 days. Climbers began exploring routes across both faces of the Chief and 1970 marked the first ascent of Dawn Wall.
As climbing techniques and equipment developed, the time for climbing El Cap shrank further and further. The one day barrier had already been broken in 1975 and the 90s through into 2000s saw an ongoing battle between Hans Florine and Dean Potter which resulted in ascents under 3 hours. While most climbers take between 3 to 5 days to climb the Chief the current speed record stands at an insane time of just over 2 hours 23 minutes posted by Florine and Alex Honnold in 2012.
El Cap has pushed not only climbing speed but also technical difficulty. The climbing is so tough most of the routes on El Cap are considered to be assisted routes only, using climbing aids to stand on and pull yourself up the wall rather than the tiny, razor sharp hand and footholds available.
Toughest of all these routes is the infamous Dawn Wall which at 900m and spread across 32 different pitches includes some of the blankest, steepest and most difficult sections found on El Cap or pretty much anywhere in the world. Gradings for this section of the wall regularly rank at 5.13 and above, near the very top of the US climbing grade scale.
Since it was first climbed in 1970 Dawn Wall was considered impossible to summit without assistance, but all that changed in 2015. Following years of preparation, climbing legends Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson decided to freeclimb the wall without climbing aids, using strength, willpower and incredible technique to reach the top.
Despite shredded hands and numerous falls, the pair battled through 19 days of the most demanding climbing ever, eating and sleeping on the wall in hanging tents, until they finally reached the summit on January 14. This climb redefined what the climbing world thought was possible and fully confirmed El Cap's legendary status.
El Cap Today
Today the Chief stands proud as one of the ultimate testing grounds for climbers. Its accessibility, iconic status and challenging terrain makes El Cap the perfect stage for showcasing the highest levels of both speed and technical climbing. Breaking boundaries here shows that whenever the world says impossible there's someone just itching to prove it wrong.
All these qualities are part of what makes El Cap special but perhaps the simplest reason of all is what really seals the monolith in our imaginations. El Cap makes us feel small. It reminds us of our place in the world and just how big and beautiful that world can be.