Climbing the Captain

El Capitan
El Capitan in the fading light

Seven days ago marked our return to Yosemite Valley for the season. John’s white Ford van rolled into the Curry Village parking lot at 7:30 PM, and by nine we were ferrying loads to the base of El Capitan (accompanied by our new friend and fellow guide Maddie Hodge). Three ropes, two haul bags, pounds and pounds of gear, gallons of water, and 12 meals worth of food: everything that we would need over the next four days on the side of the granite monolith. And all of it needed to be moved from the van to the terminus of El Capitan’s southwest face. At 1:30 AM, after moving the final load, we slumped down into our sleeping bags for bed. I awoke three times throughout the night to chase ring-tailed cats away from our food.

I visited the Valley for the first time in 2017. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and drove from South Dakota with my friend Elliott. The summer was spent working for the concessionaire and squeezing as much time exploring the park in our time off. It was during this time I would meet Jack, a fellow housekeeper and a mentor of the style in which the granite walls of Yosemite are climbed. This first summer was a life-changing experience; I did so many new things, met so many new people, and went to so many new places. And I loved every bit of it.

Young Kanyon
The author sitting at Tunnel View circa 2017.

My first day on the wall was a stressful one. I’d never spent multiple nights on a wall before and the sheer volume of our undertaking inspired a baseline anxiety that refused to pass. Were it not for John’s infectious psych and positive outlook, I don’t think I would’ve gotten very far off the ground. Throughout the day, John kept moving the rope, the haul bags, and me up the wall. 

By the end of John’s block of three pitches, the sun was low over the western rim of the Valley. I departed for my first pitch of the mission with a heavy heart and failing light. I struggled to trust my gear, moved stiffly, and just couldn’t find any semblance of flow. Soon I was climbing in the dark. I reached for the headlamp on the helmet, clicked on the light, and everything changed. Suddenly, there was nothing but me and the rock in front of me. My world shrunk down to what was illuminated by that headlamp. John and the haul bags below me, the half-mile of vertical rock above me, it all melted away. I was just climbing, and all that mattered was the rock I was climbing right at that moment. Slowly comfort came and I was able to move much more confidently. I finished the second pitch of my block and we set up our portaledge for the night. After hastily cooking and wolfing down some backcountry pad thai, we fell asleep at midnight.

John and Kanyon climbing El Capitan
Kanyon waving at the camera as the two of them ascend El Capitan.

Elliott and I excitedly returned to Yosemite in the summer of 2018 with grand designs. We had a much better idea of what we were getting into and wanted to make the most of our second round. That meant bigger climbs and longer days spent exploring the Sierra. Jack also returned to Yosemite with similar intentions. Together the three of us made a failed attempt on the South Face of Washington Column but found success on other, slightly smaller objectives. Housekeeping, however, was beginning to grow old. 

“I’m feeling really unfulfilled working here” I admitted to Jack once. 

“That’s not the point,” he replied, “We’re not here to work”. He was right.

Kanyon and John on Thanksgiving Ledge on El Capitan
That’s a big ledge right there!

My second day on the wall was much more enjoyable. I was beginning to settle into the rhythm of wall climbing and was excited for the remaining two leads of my block. The first involved some straightforward plumb-line crack climbing, and the second an airy, exposed traverse. As I slotted hooks into tenuous edges and stepped around a blunt arete, an entirely new view of the valley opened up before me. The wind whipped my face, El Cap fell away above and below me, and the Cathedrals stared me in the eye from across the Valley. I recall this as my first moment of being truly grateful for the experience.

John being festive on El Capitan
John being festive on the ledge.

After graduating college in the summer of 2019 Elliott, my girlfriend Magnolia, and I decided to celebrate with a fall season in the Valley. We once again returned to our familiar jobs and canvas tents, but things were not the same. We’d grown up, and cleaning the turds of the upper class off of hotel toilets had lost its charm. In addition, the colder, shorter days of fall meant that our nine-to-five schedule ate away at the majority of our prime climbing conditions; no longer could we wake up at 5 AM to squeeze in a few pitches in our uniforms before work. Jack, however, was closing out an excellent season in the park. He’d found a new job guiding with Lasting Adventures and with it a new way to experience the park. Instead of toiling in the Lodge, he spent his time away from climbing by exploring the backcountry of the Sierra with visitors and would-be backpackers looking for an experienced local.

By day three I was riding an unparalleled high. I was to start the day by leading a new block of four pitches, and I was excited to prove myself and pull my weight for the team. By this point in the wall, the angle had lessened and the climbing had become a bit easier, so I threw on my climbing shoes and did a mix of aid and free climbing for each pitch. The act of stepping out of the raiders and coming fully into contact with the rock is at once both freeing and discomforting. After dispatching the first three pitches relatively smoothly, we stopped on a big ledge for lunch. John was beginning to grow weary from multiple days of labor on the wall and after my block, he had two pitches to lead before we were at Thanksgiving Ledge, our bivy for the night. 

Pitch four ended up being much more involved than the three before. After a two-hour lead, both the light and my mojo were failing. I was thankful to be done with my block and happily passed the rope to John in the golden light of sunset.

Kanyon backpacking in Yosemite National Park
Leading backpacking trips for Lasting Adventures!

After a year of the global pandemic had forced me to stay closer to my native South Dakota for the summer of 2020, I returned to Yosemite in 2021 with new prospects. Jack had helped me with getting a job guiding for Lasting Adventures. After spending 2019 being envious of his much more adventurous lifestyle, I was excited for the opportunity to try it myself. Alongside me was my friend John, who had similar connections with other employees at the company. That summer was nothing short of glorious. I explored new parts of the park I’d never even heard of, climbed formations and routes I’d been dreaming of since that first season in 2017, and met so many people that quickly became best friends. John and I had many successful outings in the Sierra, including an overnight ascent of the route on Washington Column that Jack, Elliott, and I had bailed off of three years prior. But one formation – the biggest of all – still evaded me that season.

3 days ago I stood atop El Capitan after climbing it for the very first time. Below me, the Valley sprawled in every direction & terminated in massive granite monoliths – none greater than the one beneath my feet. In every direction, I could see different parts of the park filled with memories. Places like Mt Conness and Cathedral Peak. Half Dome and Washington Column and Royal Arches. I’ve been coming here for 5 years now and falling in love more and more, and the whole time I’ve been dreaming of the day I’d finally climb the Captain.

At the moment I was mentally and physically exhausted and had a hard time feeling much beyond dread for the long walk from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley 3000 feet below. But even then I knew this was something extremely special to me.

Kanyon looking out pensively
Feelings of gratitude and accomplishment sinking in.

Moving into the next season I’m excited to see what adventures lie before me and what lessons remain to be learned. Over the past five years, it has become apparent to me that Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada have an endless supply of both. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or returning, there will always be something new to experience.

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