The Salathe Headwall / by Mayan Smith-Gobat

Snow has finally arrived in the Valley... The season is truly over and my plane leaves for NZ in about an hour. I am sad to leave this beautiful corner of the world which has taught me so much over the last couple of months and become another 'home' to me,  but the at least the last few weeks have been stunning weather. Cool clear days and crisp nights with no people in the valley - it has been quite a treat to experience Yosemite without the usual crowds.  In the last couple of weeks I climbed a bunch of the Yosemite classics, and although this year I did not succeed in climbing the Salathe in my ideal style, a single push from the ground, I did manage one final attempt at free climbing the last few pitches of the Salathe - "The Headwall". This is the most striking feature on the route and the main reason why I chose to attempt this line. These two stunning and crazily exposed pitches of 5.13b/29 crack, are also the crux of the climb and previously I had barely had the opportunity to attempt, let alone red-point them, due to bad weather and lack of partners.

On this last trip to the top of the Salathe, I had thought I had blown it, when on my first attempt a foot blew off causing me to rip a big hole in the tip of my middle finger, which just refused to stop bleeding, no matter how much, or how tight, I wrapped it with tape... At this moment I saw all my effort and my dreams of freeing El Capitan drop like stone to the valley floor, for this season anyway. I did not believe that there was any hope of me being able to hold those tiny crimpers at the start of the Headwall with a mummified finger. But after some thought my ever-present optimism returned and I realized that there was nothing, other than perhaps some sanity, to be lost by trying. I rested for the remainder of the day, hoping to come back the next morning with refreshed inspiration.

Luckily, the next morning the bleeding in my finger had subsided, but I was definitely thrown off by the tape causing my fingers to not fit nearly as well in the pin-scars, and a lack of sensation on the miniscule crimps. I fell off the delicate, crimpy start section several times, and was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I realized that my mind was holding me back - I was not believing in my ability to climb in less-than optimum conditions, and to have any chance of executing this climb I needed to fully believe in it.  I scrapped together the remainders of my motivation and pulled myself together to really give it everything, my best, for one final try... It worked, my feet did not blow, I pulled through the crimps and I almost felt as though I was floating up the 45 meters of flaring, overhung and desperately insecure hand-jams. It was the best feeling to finally pull through those last powerful finger-locks and sink my hand into that final jug, after all the time and effort I have invested in this route.

Mid-way up the epic flaring headwall crack. Photographer: Ben Ditto

Above me one final challenge remained before Long ledge - a 15 meter pitch starting with a steep, powerful finger crack, and finishing in an intense and very technical boulder. This late in the season there is very little shade on El Capitan, and by the time I started up this last pitch the sun was already on the rock and it was instantly to hot for me to be able to execute the final boulder problem. I returned the next morning, but unfortunately this last morning had turned bitterly cold and windy, I found it extremly difficult to warm myself up enough to be climbing well. Eventually, after many attempts on the finger crack I succeeded to relax and warmup enough to move efficiently and pull into the 'slot', which is a no-hands rest just before the final boulder. I rested for as long as I could, watching the sun creeping ever closer to those vital holds. I felt great when I launched into the technical sequence of lay-backs on slopping pin-scars, but unfortunately on the final move my foot slipped off a smear and I fell. There was no time for me to repeat the pitch, so I lowered back into the no-hands rest and succeeded to climb through to long ledge on my next attempt... Yoyo style?!?

It was definitely not my ideal, but I have climbed all the 32 pitches with only one brief hang on the rope. I know I can climb it clean and am already looking forward to returning next year to climb it in one push. The experience of working the Salathe on my own has been very powerful and has taught me much more than just how to climb a crack. Belief, motivation and psych are all important... they have the power to take you anywhere!