We counted out each cam, arranging them into lines on a table in Camp 4 for the much done, à la Chouinard-and-friends, monster-lead-rack-photo. We counted each meal, estimated the number of wag-bags (into which you poo), bought spare batteries, cut the topo out of the guidebook, set the alarm for the morning. In short, we felt more ready then anyone had ever been.
The west side of El Cap. Lurking Fear takes a line half way between the most prominent black streak and the left side of the wall. The Nose is the right hand arête where the sunlight stops.
It would have been really useful if we had checked the weather forecast.
Lurking fear is on the West side of El Cap and is a long way from most of the popular routes. Given where it is, it should be devoid of crowds, however it is also the easiest way up El Cap. Hence it plays a role in many climbers’ lives as part of their road to the nose of South Face of Washington Column, Leaning Tower, Lurking Fear, The Nose. This makes the path to the start of the climb easy to follow.
The route starts with a great pitch of simple aid up to and left under a roof. There is a direct free climbing start up some bolts which avoids this, but aid is what you came for, so take the long way, particularly as the last part of the pitch is almost all on bolts anyhow. The final few feet is on hooks, which given the line of bolts beneath you is a perfect place for your first hook move. A pitch of bolts follows, then some clean (C2) aid up the Window Pane flake and a short pendulum left into a crack to the top of pitch 3. The only real hooking follows, but soon gives way to easy C1 cracks for two pitches.
The first drops of rain started to fall on these easy cracks. It became real rain after awhile, running down the rock, down my arms, through my underpants and out my trouser bottoms. But rain doesn’t matter on granite cracks when you have brought a bucket load of cams and aren’t planning on busting out of the aiders very often. As the water had run down sun-warmed granite all the way from the top of El Cap it was even warm.
Wet but warm in my t-shirt I clip the belay, shout “rope fixed” then “haul line fixed” and start to haul while Nick cleans. Brain not plugged in, I’m not thinking about what will happen once the upper slabs are water logged. Nor do I notice that I’m belayed in a well-marked water streak. A few seconds after I start hauling the trickle becomes a pummelling cascade of icy water. I’m now chained to the wall inside a waterfall. Nick’s weight is on one rope and the bag on the other. I estimate I can take about 30 minutes of this. By the time Nick and the bag arrive I can feel the life starting to drain.
None of my clothes are in waterproof bags so on goes a wet fleece and wet waterproofs. Before we can get our ledge out, Irish Jane arrives from above and whips out her flysheet, and we all huddle underneath it. Wet, hanging on top of each other, but knowing we aren’t going to die, we talk of wet days in Scotland, of gullies filled with slush and convince ourselves this really isn’t so bad. After an hour the waterfall stops and we set up Jane’s ledge and all pile on, glad not to be hanging in our harnesses any more.
I open our haul bag, and despite the drain holes in the base, our possessions are floating in a bathtub of water. We drain the water and I discover that I hadn’t put my sleeping bag in anything water proof either.
In the middle of the night, with three of us lying on top of each other on Jane’s ledge, it is merely uncomfortable. Come morning the rain has stopped and we cheer ourselves up knowing that it’s California and the sun must come back out soon.
We are still soaking so the clothes come off, and I realise one of the many reasons why climbing creates such strong bonds. Here the three of us are sitting in space on a ledge made of nylon, Jane in nothing but bra and knickers, me going for a dump into a plastic bag and Nick sorting cams, all within a few inches of each other, and all pretending its normal; happy just to be there.
The Israeli team above start to bail. The team from Texas below do the same. We start to climb. We hang everything out to dry on the outside of the bag and ledge over the next two days. Our topo was destroyed in the storm and the ink on the backup topo has dissolved in the rain, leaving us with nothing but a clean sheet of soggy paper. Luckily Jane had laminated her topo and Nick copies it onto a page in the book he is reading – which is by no coincidence Lurking Fear by H. P. Lovecraft.
Jane is soloing the route so we say good-bye and climb more cracks to the top of pitch 6. The next pitch is a traverse – easy for us, not so easy for Jane when her bag gets stuck. Pitch 8 is one of the classics of the route: eighty feet of off-width. This is either scary if you didn’t bring enough big cams, or a super safe romp if you went shopping beforehand.
We put our ledge on the Pillar of Despair, which given the sun is out feels the opposite. In the morning we climb the cracks above for two pitches and Nick leads the roof above. This is meant to be C2+, but feels easy and safe. After a short aid section the next pitch is mainly easy free climbing. The next (pitch 14) gives the only poor climbing on the route: With awkward wide cracks and a traverse that is difficult to haul. We stop at the great bivy above and chill. Its been going more slowly than planned even allowing for the day of lost time the storm caused. But there is no rush. We came to go vertical camping, and we spend as long chatting as we do climbing. We eat the last of the food and drink the last of the water.
The next day Nick makes short work of the first two pitches and I screw up pitch 17. I get lost on the free climbing, the rope gets stuck several times and it is all a nightmare when it was meant to be a 5.7 path. The pitch ends on Thanksgiving Ledge where we find a litre of water, two beers and two cans of food. Refreshed we chill in the sun for a couple of hours, fix the ropes to the top of the route, then return to sleep in the cave on Thanksgiving and enjoy being able to sleep without harnesses.
In the morning we haul everything up and then get lost on the upper slabs (the correct route is clearly shown in the new guidebook by Sloan and Putnam) and waste another half a day. By the time we are at the top we are dehydrated and starving so throw ourselves on some hikers and eat and drink all they have.
We decide to walk down as we know that way there will be more hikers to mug for food and water; which we do mercilessly all the way down. (Tip. When an American says “How you doing buddy” They really aren’t expecting the reply “Really bad. I haven’t eaten or drunk for two days” as you stand blocking their path. This then allows them to show their natural altruism, leaving them happy and you with a full stomach.) By the time we hit the valley floor we are fully recovered, and ready for a beer or two, or just maybe another wall.
Lurking Fear was put up by Dave Bircheff, Phil Bircheff, and Jim Pettigrew in 1976. They were initially stopped by the wide crack on Pitch 8. So they returned to the ground to pick up tube chocks and hexes and free-climbed the pitch. They summited after three and a half days on the climb – about the same time as most parties spend today. The name Lurking Fear came from the short story by H.P. Lovecraft: “In the story, the Lurking Fear represents the fear that is always in the back of your mind” (Pettigrew).
- Decide if you plan on a light-is-right ascent with minimal equipment, knowing that you will either suffer or bail if anything goes wrong or you end up going more slowly than you thought. Or take enough stuff so that you can survive an extra day or two.
- Laminate the topo and take a spare in case you drop the first.
- It does rain in Yosemite, so use waterproof stuff sacks and put your sleeping bag inside your bivy bag before you go on the wall.
- Don’t take down clothing or sleeping bags. If down gets wet it will not keep you warm. And if it rains it will get wet from condensation and water running down ropes and into your bag.
- Black streaks indicate run off points, so bivy somewhere else if rain is likely.
- As soon as the clouds threaten, get the rain gear ready.
- 3 Wire Rivet Hangers
- 2 Hooks
- 3 Copperheads and hammer (unlikely to be used)
- 2 Narrow Cam Hooks
- 1 set of wires, from RPs to a number 9 Rock (offsets can be useful, but not essential)
- 3 sets of 0.3 to 5 Camalots (offsets can be useful, but not essential) each on a carabiner
- 60m lead Rope
- 60m haul line (can be an old lead rope)
- 20 extenders including several 60cm ones
- 10 extra snap gates
- 10 extra screwgates
- Petzl micro traxion with oval locker (for hauling), with extra pulleys if you plan on using a 3 to 1
- Two 120cm and two 240cm slings or cordelettes
Personal climbing kit
- Reverso (in case you need to bail)
- Grigri to belay with and possibly to short fix if you feel happy doing that
- Helmet possibly with material velcro’d to it to cover your neck and a visor
- Big wall gear sling with small hydration pack
- Aid gloves
- Pair of ascenders
- Pair of aiders with snap gates, unless attaching them directly to the daisy lockers
- Pair of daisy chains with lockers
- Fifi hook
- Haul bag or bags
- Fish portaledge (lighter than other makes) with fly, unless you plan on just trusting your bivy bag
- Sleeping pad
- Synthetic sleeping bag and super-lightweight bivy bag
- Waste case
- Lightweight waterproof top and trousers
- Warm clothing dependent on the season
- Aid climbing shoes
- Small knife
- Mobile phone
- First aid kit
- Food and water
- Stove and lighter – or take food that doesn’t need a stove