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TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan)
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Dec 21, 2005, 10:35 AM
Post #1 of 6 (3569 views)

Registered: Nov 11, 2002
Posts: 1050

TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan)
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I posted this on supertopo a while back -- and would like to share it with RC also ..


"Friends in High Places"

Pics are available at

Video Trip Report (requires QuickTime 7)

Solo of South Seas, by Ricardo Lagos

My previous trip reports have been super beta intensive, pitch-by-pitch narratives. This one I hope will be different, since it wasn't so much the actual climbing that is memorable about this route, but rather the experience of being up on El Capitan for 13 days with my friends.

Choosing a route

Why another solo? -- Why South Seas? -- I asked myself these questions often in the months leading up to this trip. In the rare moments when I would answer them truthfully, the answer was a bit shameful. I wanted to complete with El Capitan, there was a nagging feeling deep down that I was not complete with El Capitan, until I had done one of the long routes, hard routes, and more wild routes. You see, Zodiac, and Tangerine Trip, are awesome routes; and they are trade routes, on the short side of El Capitan. I wanted to have no doubt in my heart that I had experienced El Capitan, before moving on to other projects.

South Seas was David Turner's idea. One morning at the Lodge cafeteria I was bouncing my idea of climbing Zenyatta Mondatta by Dave, his response was:

"Zenyatta? -- thats on the short side. You need to get on a big route. You should do South Seas. The A4 is not really A4, you can totally do it!"

For some reason when I talk to Dave, I am always inspired to push the edge. And I was sold on going on South Seas. I knew that I wanted to climb A3, and his description of the A4 pitch on South Seas left me feeling like it was no big deal.

Preparing to launch -- Fixing on South Seas

While fixing pitches at the base, I ran into Ammon; him and his girlfriend were fixing pitches on Space. They were a team of 4 (kind of like a all-star team): Cedar Wright, Ammon McNeally, Tim Oneal, and Tim's Brother (sorry I forgot his name). Tim's brother is paraplegic, and was making his first ascent of El Capitan.

After 2 days of hard work, I was fixed up to the 2nd pitch of South Seas, and was looking forward to a good nights sleep, the next day I would blast off. But rest was not what was on "The Space Boys" mind that night, they were already on the wall, partying at the 2nd belay of Space, with 2 ledges, and what I could only imagine was a haulbag full of beer, which they were determined to lighten by the end of the night. I was way too cool to yell at them to ZIP it!, so instead I just grinned and beared it, you'd think that since they were right next to each other they didn't need to scream to talk. All in all, I was actually pretty amused, here I was sleeping in the Alcove, and the foot of El Capitan, Nick and Dave were just at the top of the alcove, and the space boys were partying on their ledges, what a great way to start a wall. Then the most amusing (amusing only after I found out that nobody had died) part of the night came, when I heard Ammon scream "F*#k.. f*#k!" .. and then heard alot of commotion coming from above, and a headlamp come crashing down to the ground. I thought Ammon had fallen out of his ledge, and was now part of the talus field below. Luckily he was tied in, and had only lost his headlamp when he fell out of the portaledge.

I doubt that any climber doesn't get nervous before starting up a solo ascent on El Capitan. And I was feeling it! Before heading up the first pitch, probably one of the steepest pitches on El Capitan, I sat all racked up in the alcove. Ammon was there, his girlfriend, Ty, his dad, and his sister. I just sat there, and had lunch, taking every precious moment, and not rushing. Finally there was nothing left to do, nothing left to waste time on, I had the rack on me, and the next logical thing was to start climbing. How odd that feeling was, at that exact moment, the last thing I wanted to do was start climbing, specially a pitch that looked pretty hard. I started up, and was not disappointed; right off the belay was already the hardest climbing I'd done, with a pretty bad fall. I was greeted by granite wilderness that is El
Capitan, the bolts on that first pitch, are nothing but scary, the steepness is unrelenting. It took a long time, and I was almost to the anchors, and then it happened. The tell-tale sound of carabiners clanging against each other, and the view of granite rushing past me, filled me with adrenaline. The fall was pretty short, maybe 10 feet, I did pull one piece (a small RP), but the ball-nut below that stopped the fall, the grigri self-belay system had performed once-again, and the pitch was so steep that there was nothing to hit on the way down. I gave a loud howl, and immediately jugged back up to the high point, determined to do a better job.

The Radio

The radio is your only link to the real world. A world where people frolic on the meadow, eat real food, take showers, and most of all, live a life that is not full of stress from leading the next pitch.

There were so many memorable conversations on the radio. Like when on the first night I turned on channel 2-10, and listened to Kate describe what it was like to log airtime on Tribal Rite, to the tune of about 120+ feet. It was pretty amazing, that she was even talking to us. How many people have survived 120+' falls? The other thing that impressed me was how connected we were with Kate in that moment. Dave and Pete spent some time giving support to Kate, since she was weighing her options. (To bail or not to bail?). Everyone on the radio was super-cool and supported Kate, by letting her know that she should do whatever she felt was right, and that there was no shame in going down. (I would have called for a rescue!)

Kate is a pretty cool kitten, even though I have not met her yet; it was pretty damm nice to have encouragement during the early part of the wall.

I was pretty somber about heading out on lead on the A4 pitch of South Seas, and got a pep talk from Pete on the radio before heading up. Dave reassured me that I would be alright. And I carried the radio while on lead; Pete suggested I give him a call if I need "On The Wall Technical Assistance". There was no need to use the radio though, the pith got sent without incident, and was mentally and emotionally the crux of the early part of the wall.

Reality Check

"I think its going to take you 14 days, thats my guess"...

The words hung in my brain. Pete had just made his prediction on how long he thought it would take me to complete this route, and it was only my second day on the wall.

I had planned for 10 climbing days, 1 rest day. Just in case things got rough I'd brought enough water for 12 luxurious days, and food for 12 days. 14 days? -- that would be a long time.

By the second day on the wall though I already knew that my original calculations were off. Almost every pitch so far had some section that was not trivial, and my speed on the A3 or C3 sections was pretty slow. The difference between A2 and A3 is that in A2 you have a variety of placements you can make, in A3 there is usually only 1 placement that works -- so you have to figure out how to use it.

I began doing the math, it looked to me like 13 days, and that would be without a rest day. I slowly began to let that reality sink in. It was pretty important to let it sink in slowly, so that fears of not having enough water, food, or toilet paper wouldn't freak me out.

The water would not be a situation, the weather was cool, and I was consuming far less than I'd anticipated. Food though would have to be rationed. -- When I finally reached the summit, I had no food left in the bag.

The paper crux vs. the mental crux vs. the technical crux

South seas is harder than the PO. But it wasn't the South Seas that gave me trouble. On paper, pitch 5 is the crux of the route, rated at A4, and noted as expanding, the pitch traverses right under a flake.

Emotionally, the stress of leading that pitch was incredible, when I finished leading it, I just sat in the portaledge, eating jelly bellies, and talking to myself. Though technically the pitch is not that hard, I'd rate it A3, there is alot of small gear, but if you avoid nailing, the expando is very short, and not that expando.

The mental crux came later, finally on day 7 or 8 i got up to the 17th pitch of the Pacific Ocean Wall. This is the pitch below the bering straits. I had been looking forward to seeing the infamous trenched heads pitch. And there it was. The pitch starts fairly stiff right off the belay, heads, to fixed rurps, to more heads, and finally a crack. While testing the 2nd head, it blew. The trenches that I could see in front of me were crap. They were downward sloping spoons. After 30 minutes of heading, beaking, trying to place a rurp, I finally had a mental breakdown. I felt like I lost my nerve, and could not continue without something to keep me off the belay. -- 2 heads I had placed blew while testing, so my trust in heads in that moment was non-existent. Finally after agonizing over the choices, I finally declared the trenches blown, and placed a rivet. It was a low moment in my climb, I felt like I had failed some test. The rest of the pitch is pretty heads up, and I felt a bit better about myself by doing most of it clean on difficult cam placements, but the damage had been done.

The technical crux? -- my vote would have to go for the section of the illusion chain that climbs a loose and hollow flake (expanding flake!). It sounds horrible, as you ride the flake, and you can swear that you feel like moving back and forth. I could see imagery of me surfing the flake back to the talus.

Memorable Moments

Most of the memories from 13 days are kind of jumbled together. It is a long time after all. But what really sticks out for me are the moments that were shared with friends. (A different experience when you're soloing).

On day 5 my brother, Joy, Kevin, and Sandhia arrived in the valley to start their vacation, and give me encouragement. Hearing them talk about the feasts they were enjoying at camp4, and how amazed they were to actually see what big wall climbing was about was awesome. Rodrigo had brought a telescope to the valley, and they could see all the details of what was going on high up El Capitan. The wind was howling, my aiders were blowing sideways, sometimes coming back to hit me on the head, and I would hear over the radio:

"Turn around and wave to the camera dude..."

When South Seas came very close to Space, I spent a few days in close proximity with Dave Turner. His new route shared a few pitches with Space. It was pretty funny getting beta from him on the pitch leading up to the shark fin as I climbed it. As he lead a pitch, and I lead mine, we'd chat back and forth about future projects, photography, women, etc.

Towards the end of the route, I caught up with Nick. Nick would casually talk about leading a pitch with 11 beaks in a row, expanding rock, and hooks thrown in for spice. On tempest, it was casual to have to place 10 heads on a row on lead. (I had only placed 2 heads on the entire South Seas to PO).

The Summit

Finally 13 days after blasting off, I arrived at one of the greatest places on earth. The summit of El Cap. It was late afternoon, I was out of food, but I was on top. All along the way I had kept some sanity by telling myself that once I'd finish, I would never have to do this again. On the summit though, I already knew that the road taken to get here was well worth it, and there would be other routes in the future.

Alot of reasons to climb were clear then. I love putting myself in situations that don't have an easy way out. When you are on a wall solo, nobody else is going to bail you out. I love to solo because it contrasts so boldly with my everyday life, where I have the choice to pull a ripcord from a situation and get out.


Dec 28, 2005, 9:34 PM
Post #2 of 6 (3569 views)

Registered: Sep 6, 2005
Posts: 52

Re: TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan) [In reply to]
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Awesome trip man!


Dec 28, 2005, 10:18 PM
Post #3 of 6 (3569 views)

Registered: Feb 22, 2004
Posts: 378

Re: TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan) [In reply to]
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Really cool: sounds like an challenging and fun line. 8^)


Dec 29, 2005, 12:02 AM
Post #4 of 6 (3569 views)


Re: TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan) [In reply to]
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Awesome TR, really like how it shows how non-alone soloing a wall can be!


Feb 9, 2006, 1:16 AM
Post #5 of 6 (3569 views)

Registered: Nov 11, 2002
Posts: 1050

Re: TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan) [In reply to]
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Added a link to the top of the story to the Video Slideshow of this trip report.


Feb 28, 2006, 3:05 AM
Post #6 of 6 (3569 views)

Registered: Jul 9, 2004
Posts: 163

Re: TR - Solo of South Seas (El Capitan) [In reply to]
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Wonderful stuff. Some good "tack-a-lin fuel" in anticipation/planning of future trips.

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