Today’s guest contributor, Sasha, shares her story of realizing a lifelong dream: climbing El Capitan with her best friend, Geraldine. She trained for seven years to make the transition from a sport climber to a big wall climber, and through sheer determination and obsession, finally achieved her goal.In the Venezuelan climbing community there aren’t as many women as men climbing multi-pitch routes, let alone in the realm of big wall climbing. And that’s why one of my dreams was to climb El Capitán with one of my best friends: Geraldine.
We hail from Venezuela, but I’m currently living in Spain. Before climbing El Cap, Geraldine and I hadn’t seen each other for 7 years and hadn’t climbed long multi-pitch routes together. We had quite a challenge ahead of us.
For me, it all started seven years ago when I moved to Spain. That was the same year that Geraldine went to Yosemite for the first time and climbed The Nose. At the time, I had only been climbing for 3 years and mainly sport climbing. I was inspired and impressed by what she had done.
When we were deciding what route to climb, I initially wanted to climb The Nose. As cliché as it may sound, it is the most famous big wall in the world. But Geraldine had already done it, so she suggested doing The Salathé Wall, which is supposed to be even harder than The Nose. There is a lot of free climbing, lots of chimneys, off-widths and tricky aid climbing. Geraldine, as the more experienced one, agreed to lead the chimneys and off-width pitches, which are climbing styles she happens to love.
I moved to Barcelona and started training to make my big wall dream a reality. It took seven years of training before we were finally ready to meet in Yosemite. My training involved a lot of multi-pitch climbing, aid climbing, running, and endless reading about El Capitan. It was my obsession. We went to Yosemite for a month and did single pitch, multi-pitch routes, practiced aid climbing at the base of El Cap, and even did an easier big wall route, The South Face of the Washington Column.
Geraldine was far more experienced than I. She had been to Yosemite many times and had a lot of big wall climbing experience. In the weeks and months leading up to it, I would send her messages daily asking all these silly questions about every detail of the trip to come. Her patience and confidence in my abilities was reassuring. Once, she told me that while my constant pestering was a bit annoying, it demonstrated that I was motivated and really prepared for what was ahead.
Finally, the time came. I was trying my best to ignore my nagging doubts and become more confident and motivated. We’d heard that slower parties take about 5 days and 4 nights, however, we were even slower than that; it took us 6 days and 5 nights. We didn’t bring a portaledge, so ended up sleeping on the tiniest of ledges. No matter what we encountered on the wall, the thought of bailing never crossed our minds. Fortunately, we had enough water, enough food, and the weather was perfect. If we bailed it would have been because we couldn’t handle the mental pressure, which is why most people bail the first time they climb El Capitán.
The scariest moment occurred two days before we finished. I was leading the headwall, and I was back cleaning because I thought I would need the gear for later. A stopper popped out, I took an 8 meter fall onto Geraldine’s back, and she suffered a concussion. She was unconscious for about 2 minutes, maybe even less, but for me, it felt like an hour. I have never been so scared in my life. When I realized what had happened, I immediately clipped onto the belay and started yelling at her to wake up. She came to, and ended up with a few small rib fractures and a back injury. Unfortunately, I crashed onto her helmet and the GoPro flew off, so we lost most of the photos from the climb. However, this was a small loss compared to what could have happened.
After the incident, I still had to lead two aid pitches. I had so much adrenaline in my body that I wasn’t scared anymore. I just had to focus on finishing the climb because it was already night and we had to get to the next ledge. The second aid pitch was one of the hardest pitches of the climb. I had to use every tiny stopper, and it was so hard to place them. We finally reached the ledge at 4am after climbing for 21 hours non-stop.
The last day, we only had 4 more pitches to go. Geraldine lead them, even though her back was hurting from the fall. I don’t even know how she did it, but I was thankful because I was exhausted from leading the day prior. After about 7 hours, we were finally on the top. We’d made it! We climbed El Cap! A dream come true!
It was such a huge experience. I truly gave it my all, physically, mentally and emotionally. Most of the time, especially the first 3 days, it was all about suppressing this overwhelming feeling of exposure. But after pushing yourself for days on end, you realize all the things that you are capable of doing. It was such a beautiful experience to be able to do it with Geraldine, who was an endless source of support and motivation for me.
What I learned is that when you really want something, your motivation and willpower will get you through the toughest moments of self-doubt and hardship.
Don’t stop dreaming, and climb on!