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The Salathé Wall – The Other Climb on El Capitan

“Dude, if you fall, try to push out. It’s looking kinda grim.”

The Salathé Wall is El Cap’s most natural line and quite possibly the greatest rock climb in the world. Many claim that The Nose is more classic, but there is no doubt that the Salathé Wall offers pitch after pitch of exceptional climbing.

It is one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan and was named by Yvon Chouinard in honor of John Salathé, an earlier pioneer of rock climbing in Yosemite. The route is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and is considered a classic around the world.

The first free ascent of a main El Capitan route was The Salathé Wall. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana made the first free ascent over 9 days in 1988, after 30 days of working the route (graded 5.13b by the Yosemite Decimal System)

It’s a vertical wall of 2,900 feet or 883.92m.

“It has been called the finest rock climb in the world. Thirty-six rope lengths of superb, varied, and unrelenting climbing on a near-vertical wall in one of nature’s most masterful canyons.  Is it any wonder climbers from all over the world have come to try the Salathe Wall.”

Royal Robbins

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The Salathé Wall Photo by Mark Kroess

This is climbing at its best as long as you enjoy vertiginous heights!

The Salathé Wall has elegant slab climbing, great cracks, horrifying Bombay chimneys, and, of course, the heart-stopping Hollow Flake.

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The first ten pitches up to Mammoth Terraces are known as Freeblast and it makes a nice relatively short day (it can be done in about six pitches with a 60m rope and minimal simul. climbing).

After FreeBlast the first real lead on the climb is pitch 12, SuperTopo, an 11C climb, described by one wit as: “It wanders a bit, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble.” This is Heart Ledge which wanders left, then pendulums left, then wanders back right. It’s mixed aid and free on poor quality rock with a few mandatory reachy moves and it gets you to Lung Ledge, and after Lung Ledge comes the fear-inspiring Hollow Flake.

Hollow Flake is infamous for being a seriously hard climb and unprotectable. It scares even the best of climbers. From there you’re into a chimney, in which, if the sun has rounded The Nose, you are likely to be fried. Before you get to The Ear there are 30 feet of 10d(A1) that start this pitch and then The Ear is in front of you, a huge (20 feet tall by 40 feet wide) chunk of rock that juts out from the main wall. It is attached only at the top, so it forms an upside-down V with the maw at the bottom being about 4 feet wide.

Having successfully triumphed over The Ear, another chimney brings you to the spectacular  El Cap Spire. It’s a 20 by 20-foot free-standing pillar that juts out from the side of El Cap.

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The view down onto El Cap Spire.

There’s still a long way to go, and I’ve only talked you half the way up the wall, but, give or take,  Salathé is a 5-day climb. It’s popular so there will be others heading in the same direction as you which means some waiting, some frustrating moments catching up with those in front or being caught up by another team, but camaraderie there is bound to be – swopping of experiences, anecdotes and advice being the order of the day.

On the summit the view is breathtaking and the sense of fulfillment and achievement is memorable. The awe engendered by the fact that you have climbed El Cap, that El Cap has allowed you to climb it, is a feeling that will never leave you – or so I’m told. Despite being exhausted, mutilated, dehydrated, filthy, and stinking, there will be a gleam in your eye that others will be envious of.

Hours of hiking and rappelling get you back down to the Manure Pile parking lot…

“Cruise or bruise Summit or plummet Make haste or tomato paste Finger locks or cedar box Climb in style or fly a mile Unravel the mystery or soon become history Underclings or angel wings

Nail the seam or giant scream.”

Dick Shockley, Cruising Up the Salathé Wall, Ascent 1980.

The best time to climb in the Yosemite Valley is mid-March to mid-May and mid-September to mid-November. Summer is too hot and winter is too wet and can be too cold. In April the weather is still variable, can be lovely but it can also be wet – however, the snow is over by then, and the chances are that the weather will be nice.

There is only one climbing shop in the locality – in Curry Village. The prices are not significantly higher than elsewhere and they do carry the specialty items needed in the Valley (pitons, haulbags, portaledges, etc…) in addition to the regular gear, but the choice is limited, and they might be out of stock. If you need to buy a lot of gear, it would be best to stop in Berkeley, which has a few good stores (Marmot, REI, Wilderness Exchange).