El Capitan has been called the largest rock in the world. That’s not really true but it is the single largest unbroken, exposed chunk of granite rising 3,593 feet above the valley floor and is considered the “Crown Jewel of American Rock Climbing”.
The combination of very hard granite that doesn’t crumble under pressure, the shear vertical face and the many cracks and fissures make El Capitan just about the most perfect climbing object anywhere. There are over 70 mapped routes to the top using different combinations of cracks where the surface of the rock is gradually breaking away from the main rock due to freezing water erosion effects.
Thousands of dedicated climbers attack it every year, especially in the spring and fall, to claim the glory of having climbed it. Thousands more line the roads below El Capitan with binoculars to watch the spectacle.
Even at night you can frequently see climbers headlamps flickering on the surface of El Capitan as the climbers settle into makeshift hammocks for the night. On average it takes four to six days to reach the top so an ascent is both an athletic and logistic feat.
Each climber needs about 1 gallon of water per day plus all human waste must collected and carried away at the end of the climb. All these factors add to the mental and technical difficulty of the climb.
El Capitan First Climbed
Warren Harding was the first climber to make it to the top of El Capitan use a “siege” method of attaching ropes higher and higher then rappelling down each evening to rest before resuming the next day. Altogether he took 45 days over 18 months before reaching the top in 1958.[sam id=1 codes=’false’]
Climber Royal Robbins thought his methods crude and assembled a team that made it to the top of El Capitan in a single ascent of seven days in 1960. All the early climbers went up the “Nose” route including Jim Bridewell who was the first to lead a team to the top in a single day.
One of the more remarkable climbers to tackle El Capitan was Lynn Hill who “free climbed” to the top in 1993.
She only used her hands and feet to grip her way to the top and only relied on ropes for safety. The next year she topped her feat by free climbing the face in a single day.
El Capitan Speed Records
Setting new records for speed seems to be an obsession lately with Hans Florine and Uji Hirayama making it to the top in 2 hours and 37 minutes in 2008.
A few climbers have even done the triple crown of climbing El Capitan, Half Dome, and repeating El Capitan again in a single day.
Such theatrics can tend to hid the fact that climbing El Capitan is a very dangerous venture. To date at least 24 climbers have died falling from the face.
The “sport” of BASE jumping began on El Capitan in 1966. This is where a daredevil leaps and parachutes off the top.
The sport was banned in 1980. An attempt was made in 1999 to remove the ban when a stuntwoman illegally jumped. But her parachute failed to open with fatal results. She made an excellent, inadvertent case for the dangers of BASE jumping.