One of the most emblematic rock faces in the world, El Capitan is famous not only for its characteristic and striking appearance, but also the history that surrounds it. Some of the most important ascents in rock climbing history have taken place on El Capitan, and various climbers have risen to fame thanks to their memorable climbs on this impressive granite formation.
History of El Capitan Yosemite
It is believed that the first humans to lay eyes upon El Capitan were the Ahwahneechee Indians of the Miwok tribe, who called the Yosemite Valley Ahwahnee, likening the area to a wide, gaping mouth. But before anyone ever found the now famous granite face, El Capitan was formed from the magma created by the collision of tectonic plates and carved out by millions of years of flowing rivers and glacial action.
How Tall Is El Capitan?
One of the most striking formations in the Yosemite Valley, El Capitan measures in at about 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) tall from base to summit. Aside from its technical difficulty, its sheer height is one of the factors that makes ascending El Capitan such a challenging feat for rock climbers.
Where Is El Capitan?
El Capitan is found in Yosemite National Park, at the west end of the valley and towering over the Merced River. The park is located in central California, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just about 40 miles (65 kilometres) from the Nevada border.
How Big Is Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers some 1,189 square miles (3,080 square km). The park is surrounded on all sides by national forest lands, and the Yosemite Valley, at the western end of which you can find El Capitan, is about 7 miles long.
Rock Climbing On El Capitan
Big Wall Climbing
El Capitan is certainly stands out for its big wall climbing, and all of Yosemite is a big wall paradise. Famous routes like The Nose, Golden Gate, and Freerider, just to name a few, are some of the most well-known big wall routes in the world. However, El Capitan has dozens more big wall routes ranging from 4 to 35 pitches. Some of the longest, hardest big wall routes on El Capitan can take days, sometimes even over a week of multi-pitching, to complete.
Big wall routes on El Capitan can be a mix of free and aid climbing, though free climbing certain routes, like The Nose, significantly increases their difficulty. While El Capitan houses some of the most challenging big wall climbs in the world, it offers a wide variety of route difficulty, ranging from beginner (5.6) to expert (5.14) grades.
Trad Climbing vs. Aid Climbing
As mentioned, El Capitan offers a mix of trad, meaning that you only use gear to protect you and not to pull yourself up the wall, and aid, which is using gear to propel yourself up the wall, climbing, and depending on how you choose to complete a given routes will determine its difficulty.
For example, trad climbing the Salathé Wall is an incredibly hard feat, as it has a grade of 5.13b (8a). However, if you choose to incorporate aid climbing into your ascent, the grade drops to 5.9 C2.
Climbing Routes On El Capitan
Out of the dozens of climbing routes on El Capitan, The Nose is by far the most famous. It is considered by many to be one of the best climbing routes in the world, and some of its characteristic pitches have gained international fame.
This 31 pitch climb is rated at 5.14a (8b+) when free climbed and 5.9 C2 when aid is used. The Great Roof, the Texas Flake, the Changing Corners pitch, and the King Swing are all well-known components of this timeless climb.
Muir Wall is another beautiful, yet more accessible, big wall climb on El Capitan. Located just to the left of the nose, it follows a line of crack and corner systems and requires quite a bit of technical aid climbing. It is a 33 pitch A2 5.9 aid route characterised by its sustained and demanding climbing.
One of the shorter big wall routes on El Capitan, Grape Race starts on the first three pitches of The Nose then branches out to the left. It is a 12 pitch route graded at 5.9 A2 or C3, and can be a great way to get to the A4 5.5 Tribal Rite route, which is a great option if you are looking to avoid crowds.
The Zodiac route is perhaps the best route for a climber’s first El Cap experience thanks to its simple approach and excellent location. It is also an accessible grade, at A2 5.7, and at 16 pitches, it is less than half the length of other routes like Freerider, Golden Gate, or Muir Wall.
Climbing Grades On El Capitan
One of the best parts about El Capitan is the wide variety of climbing grades that it offers. While it houses one of the hardest routes in the world, The Dawn Wall (5.14d/9a), it also offers some superb moderate climbing, from 5.5-5.9. However, it is important to keep in mind that no routes are suitable for beginners on El Capitan, due to the quantity of technical knowledge and endurance that these long and complicated routes require.
Free-Soloing El Capitan
Perhaps one of the most famous aspects of El Capitan is Alex Honnold’s legendary free solo ascent. On June 3rd, 2017, he climbed the Freerider line in just under 4 hours without any safety equipment, making it one of the most famous rock climbing feats in the history of the sport.
The route is graded 5.12d VI, and is by no means an easy climb, even when using a rope and safety gear, which made Honnold’s ascent that much more impressive and death defying.
Famous Movies Made at El Capitan
Perhaps the most well known El Capitan film, Free Solo documents the record breaking free solo ascent of Alex Honnold on the Freerider route. The movie not only shows Honnold sending the famous climb, but also the training, trials, and deliberation leading up to his inspirational (and terrifying) feat, showing a glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most impressive athletes.
The Dawn Wall
The Dawn Wall chronicles Tommy Caldwell’s epic journey to make the first ascent of El Capitan’s hardest line: The Dawn Wall, graded at (5.14d/9a). Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgeson spend 6 years planning and mapping out a goal that they weren’t sure was even possible, and the film documents their struggles, perseverance, and legendary ascent.
Valley Uprising offers a glimpse back in time to the first climbers who dreamed of making their way up El Capitan. The film documents the birth of climbing in Yosemite and Camp 4, highlighting the efforts of climbing pioneers like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Dean Caldwell, and, of course, Lynn Hill with her first free ascent of The Nose in a day in 1993.
Sleeping On the Big Wall
If you’re not Alex Honnold or Lynn Hill, you probably won’t be able to ascent El Cap in a day, meaning you will probably have to plan to sleep on the wall if you hope to make an ascent. That’s why we have put together the following guide to make planning your trip a bit easier.
If you plan on sleeping on the wall, you will definitely need a portaledge. A portaledge is a hanging cot where climbers can sleep on multiple day big wall expeditions that shelter them from inclement weather and offer a flat surface to lay on.
It is important that you learn how to mount a portaledge before making your way up the wall, or climb with someone who already has experience setting up and sleeping in portaledges.
If you’re looking to rent climbing and camping gear, the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service rents out camping and alpine climbing gear like sleeping bags, pads, ice axes, and crampons.
However, if you are trying to avoid purchasing your own brand new portaledge, as they can run you up a few hundred dollars, you may have to get creative when it turns to renting, reaching out to locals or other climbers to see if they have trad gear to rent or lend to you. But always be mindful of the risks involved when renting from people you do not know.
Climbing Expeditions and Tours
The previously mentioned company, the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service, also offers guided expeditions, and for about US$6,000, you can hire them to take you on a 6-day ascent of El Capitan. You will be lead by seasoned guides, who are in fact the only guides that are authorized to lead and teach climbing in Yosemite.
The guides are trained to tailor the expedition to your abilities, and climbing with a professional will take off much of the stress that comes with trying to plan your own big wall climb.
Length of Stay
Depending on the route that you choose to climb, along with your abilities and climbing speed, the amount of time that you will need to climb El Capitan will vary.
The average time that climbers take to ascend the wall is between 4 and 6 days, but this is just a ballpark estimate. As we know, expert climbers can do it in a day, while novice climbers may need over a week to make their El Capitan ascent.
El Capitan Campsites
When it comes to multi-day outdoor climbing or bouldering in USA at some of the best climbing places like Red River Gorge or Devil’s Tower, camping nearby is always a fantastic idea. Yosemite is no exception.
There are 13 popular campgrounds in Yosemite National Park, and the Lower Pines, North Pines, and Upper Pines campgrounds are all conveniently located at the east end of Yosemite Valley.
However, the most popular, and well-located, campground for climbers looking to summit El Capitan is Camp 4, which is a tent-only campground in the north end of the valley. Keep in mind that it is required to reserve your campsite well in advance, so plan ahead.
Who Has Free Climbed El Capitan?
While thousands of climbers have free climbed El Capitan, there are various individuals whose ascents have made history. Perhaps the most famous are Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of The Nose in a day and Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of the Freerider route. Another notable free ascent of El Capitan is American climber Emily Harrington’s recent send of Golden Gate, which she completed in 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds in November 2020, making her the fourth woman to free-climb El Capitan in a day.
The first free ascents of El Capitan occurred over 50 years ago, when Ray Jardine and Bill Price climbed the West Face route in 1979. The first free ascent of a main El Capitan route occurred in 1988 when Todd Skinner and Paul Piana climbed the Salathé Wall in 9 days.
Is High Sierra As Good As El Capitan?
Another one of California’s granite wonderlands, High Sierra offers a variety of climbing styles in a beautiful, pristine wilderness. While the area has some trad and aid routes, the majority of the routes are alpine rock climbing routes, so be sure that you are properly prepared before going. If you prefer more alpine-style climbing and fewer crowds, High Sierra may be even better than El Capitan for you.
How Many People Have Died Climbing El Capitan?
According to Climbing.com, 25 people have died climbing El Capitan. The most recent accident occurred in 2018, when two experienced climbers, Tim Klein and Jason Wells, fell while simul-climbing.
Though climbing, especially big wall climbing, is an inherently dangerous sport, ensuring that that you are properly prepared and sufficient safety measures are taken can reduce the risk of accidents.