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Climbing Lurking Fear- El Capitan, Yosemite

March 26, 2024

Climbing Lurking Fear- El Capitan, Yosemite

Written by Cait Horan

Early morning, the sun is just starting to rise over the lush valley below. I am approaching Lurking Fear on the west face of El Capitan. A mixture of anxiety and exhilaration was coursed through my veins. As I gazed up at the imposing granite wall, my heart raced with a unique blend of anticipation and trepidation. The months of preparation, from studying the route meticulously to fine-tuning my gear and honing my cli mbing skills, flashed through my mind. I couldn't help but reflect on the dedication, persistence, and sheer passion that had led me to this moment. With each step towards the vertical world above, I was acutely aware of the lurking fear, but it only fueled my determination to conquer the challenge that lay ahead.

I had climbed El Cap before, but this adventure held a special significance, as I was sharing it with my brother, Joe. The bond between us, forged through countless shared experiences, made this journey all the more meaningful and reminded me of the value of family and shared passions. The beauty of Yosemite Valley served as a backdrop to a cherished memory in the making. The rigorous 90-minute uphill trek and the challenging 4th class scrambling was made easier by our father and good friends Zoe and Stephen who helped lug the back breaking load to the base for us.

We had decided to take the gear up and see who else was on the route, fix our lines to the third belay and then come back to the valley for the afternoon. The first three pitches are steep with a lot of bolts. Joe blasted through the first 5.11b pitch, crimps and long moves, and we were off and climbing! We could see a party on the second pitch, I hoped they were moving well. Having been badly delayed by a slow team when climbing the Nose, I did not want a repeat experience. Joe had the bag moving up the wall in no time, amazing how quickly you can haul a bag when you are as big and strong as him. Our haul bag, affectionately named Babe (the pig), weighed about 40kg. We had packed enough water to spend two nights on the wall and some in case of emergency and we had to stay up there longer, we underestimated our speed up the wall and overestimated how much water we would use, we would end up ditching 12 litres of water!

I led pitches two and three. Steep bolt ‘ladders’, I would say it is a loose use of the word ‘ladders’. With several hook moves required between bolts, even for tall people in their top step! Halfway up the second pitch I looked up at the team above who had both been standing at the belay for some time, we were closing in on them fast. I pushed down repressed memories of the German team that had cost us most of a day on the Nose. We had planned to rap down tonight so surely they will get high enough for us to be clear of them by tomorrow. The first day of hauling was going to be the hardest for me. Joe could 1:1 haul the bag, but until we used some water I would be relegated to using a 2:1 which, you might have guessed, takes twice as long. 

By the time I started free climbing are the start of pitch 3 the team above us had just started climbing. I could see the belayer glancing down at me. The end of pitch 3 is a brilliant 5.9 corner crack. I turned the lip and cosied up to my new buddy from the other team, on the belay stance. Now we wait….. and a couple of hours later the team above finally cleared the belay, I hauled, Joe jugged and we got out of there. It had been a hot day, I was wearing my plum coloured pair of Mont Bimberi pantsand was impressed how cool I had stayed in the darker colour. Joe was sporting his Mont Run Short Sleeve Tee which with its sweat wicking properties was the perfect choice, not to mention how well the green colour stood out in the photos. Right, back to the pizza shop!

The next morning we headed back up the 90 minute approach and scramble in the dark. I would recommend hauling bags up the scramble, we didn’t and it was a bit risky. It was a cool morning so I started out layered with my Mont Guide Hoody, Mont Grid Pro Hoody and Outdoor Research Echo Sun Hoody.  This turned out to be the perfect combo for the whole wall. We jugged our lines and took off up pitch 4 at about 8am. 

Joe was on the sharp end this time. Pitch 4 is a 40m crimpy 5.10b climbing into a thin 5.12a crack. Joe always makes climbing look effortless, he has brilliant technique which can make terrain look far easier than it is. Joe made great time on this pitch and finished in the second of what would end up being many hanging belays. We had read about the amount of hanging belays and at the last moment added a bosun’s chair to our kit, this was invaluable!! 

Pitch 5 is a beautiful thin crack with great gear. In my opinion, the number one item on El Cap is the totem cam, especially black, but the Alien offsets run a close second. Both made for quick progress on this pitch. I layered and unlayered my Mont jackets as I moved from belay to cleaning in the shade of the morning.

We actually linked pitch 6 into pitch 7 making it 55m. Stopping half way through pitch 7 at the end of the traverse. Pitch 7 is the most photographed pitch on Lurking Fear. The exposure is nothing short of breathtaking, with a yawning abyss beneath, the sense of commitment is palpable. I watched in awe as Joe stepped out confidently with the whole valley as his backdrop, making his way sideways smoothly and delicately across this exhilarating section! 

Linking into pitch 7 meant either a short half pitch to get to the start of 8 or running it right through to the end of pitch 8. We had the rope, or so I thought, to go right through. The first 25m of climbing is nice varied cracks with a couple of good rests. The last 35m is a testing offwidth requiring you to jug number 4s the whole way. If there was any part of the route that put my clothing to the test it was 35m of thrashing, swearing, scraping and grinding up the offwidth. I felt for sure a couple of times I would have holes in my pants as the granite grabbed at them. To my surprise the Bimberi pants were in one piece. This was the same pair, in granite grey to keep me cool, that had a brutal adventure in the Warrumbungles, so at this point I am calling them indestructible. About 10m from the anchors Joe enquired how far I thought I was, I asked why he was interested and he casually mentioned the rope was starting to run out. Not much to do but continue on and deal with this problem if it eventuated. At this point my jugged cams were roughly 25m above my last piece, considering the fall from that point didn’t bear thinking about, so on I plugged. With 5m to go Joe called out that I was out of tag line. This was a 6mm Edelrid rap line that the team at Mont had sought for us. It was used to tag up our haul kit and main static line so we didn’t have to carry that weight while climbing, well, not until now. With 55m of rope already out, that amount of drag, and then add the weight of the haul kit and static line, I was barely moving. Like a sloth I used every ounce of energy I had and managed this unwieldy weight for the last 5m to the anchor. When I got to the anchor the 62m lead rope was completely used. Thankfully the infamous offwidth was complete and we were one pitch from our planned bivvy!

We arrived on top “The Pillar of Despair” and set up camp for the night. The G7 pod was a serious upgrade on my previous porter ledge and we were soon cosy and off to sleep. The Pillar of Despair, is aptly named and is only a bivy you could consider with a portaledge, there is not even room on top to sit comfortably.

Pitch 11 is tricky 5.12+ or the hardest aid on the route and the dicey placements are straight off the belay, so we decided to link it into pitch 10 so there would be loads of rope out if Joe was to whip. Joe didn’t whip, thanks to some confidently placed sky hooks and offset Aliens. I think Joe aged 10 years due to the hooking on this route!

We moved fast after this. Pitch 12, Joe on the sharp end on a thin 5.10 crack. DMM offsets were awesome. Then I took over for a block, pitch 13- a hard start followed by some loose 5.8 rock into 5.3 vertical sprinting. Pitch 14,15,16,17 great varied crack climbing using the full range of the rack and no hooks!! I was having such a wonderful time, climbing on the greatest stage on earth with my favourite climbing partner on belay. We landed on Thanksgiving Ledge just after dark. We had made great time. We’d planned to stop here for the night, but figured we could top out in a couple more hours if we kept going. It's not big wall climbing unless you are doing some at night! Alas, the storm that was forecast for the afternoon of the following day had moved forward and was now due in a couple of hours. So we unpacked our sleeping bags and cosied into the amazing, protected bivy that is the cave on Thanksgiving Ledge.

That night a massive thunderstorm unleashed on the valley. Our family and friends down below were concerned for our safety as the lightning crashed and the hail peppered the wall like bullets. As we peeked out of our perfect shelter I was less concerned about what this might mean for the rest of the wall and just in awe of how quickly paradise can change to life threatening conditions in the mountains. As the rain and hail subsided it was replaced by an almighty wind. If we had pushed through and camped on top we most certainly would have been blown off! As I drifted off to sleep I hoped the epic wind would dry the wall enough for a quick finish in the morning.

We woke at 5am, I reached outside the cave and touched the rock, dry, go time. I woke Joe and we started to pack up camp. The morning was freezing, in the lead up I had to convince Joe that bringing his Mont Icicle Jacket was a good plan for emergencies. As he packed up the camp in the warmth of his big down jacket I resisted the urge to say ‘I told him so’.

Both the last two pitches were mine. They were easy and fast. Conditions were good, if not a little cold. I almost got off route crack hoping on pitch 18, but saved it just in time. My hands went numb as I jammed them in cracks full of ice from the night before. As we stood at the last belay we marvelled. The storm from the night before had left masses of cloud down low in the valley, as it started to rise we were blanketed in layers of cloud, at times not being able to see each other when we were only a short distance apart. 

Once you finish the official Lurking Fear route you still have 400 feet of scrambling to get to the open top of El Capitan. This took some time as we wrangled Babe up the final slabs, through the manzanita bushes. As we dragged Babe up to the very top of El Cap where we were to meet our friends and family we noticed dark clouds moving in once again.

We had assumed we would top out early in the day so we planned to walk down rather than rap off the east ledges. Our support crew from the approach arrived, with burritos and coffee. After hugs, celebrations and the mandatory top out photos, we split up the gear and started the hike down. As we left the top of El Capitan it started to snow! It seemed like a magical finish, descending in flutters of snow. Until…. The snow turned to torrential rain. Luckily Dad had brought up Joe’s Mont Siena Rain Jacket, which being right for Joe, fitted just nicely over the top of my Icicle Jacket. Never fear, Joe had his Outdoor Research Helium Jacket on. We made our way down the mountain, tired, happy and content. Another successful adventure on the greatest rock on earth.

Standing atop El Capitan, the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled. The sheer granite walls that once loomed above now bear witness to the triumph of determination. The ascent is a mix of physical exertion, mental fortitude, and unwavering trust forged between climbers. As the wind sweeps across the summit, the view unveils a world below that seems both distant and conquerable. A journey filled with moments of doubt and awe transform into an indelible memory etched into the heart. The summit brings a profound sense of self belief and the realisation that no matter how formidable the challenge, it can be overcome with determination and a spirit for adventure.

Thanks to Mont for supporting our climb and supplying clothes that are designed and tested to perform, and stand up to, the most brutal adventures. I’ve been trusting Mont gear in the wild for my whole adult life. You should too!


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