Big wall climbing in Yosemite

01.06.2013 Blog Bergpost Yvonne Koch Charlotte "Charly" Gild Ursula Wolfgruber News
Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite. When Ursula Wolfgruber, Yvonne Koch and Charlotte Gild go on holiday the towels and bikinis tend to get left at home. You’re more likely to find, quickdraws, cams and ropes in their packs, together with a healthy portion of adventurous spirit and a passion for climbing.

It’s late September – the best time to go, as Charlie and Yvonne land in San Francisco. Travelling by train, bus and hitchhiking, they make their way to Yosemite, which has the best-known climbing of all America’s national parks. Ursi Wolfgruber is there to meet them. It’s no coincidence they know each other – they’re all passionate climbers, they all come from Bavaria and they’re all members of the Hanwag ProTeam.

During their time in California, Charlie and Yvonne plan to climb a number of routes, including the famous big-wall “The Nose”. They are staying longer than Ursi, who’s already had three weeks’ there, climbing with her boyfriend Patrick. First on the agenda though, a few days of sport climbing. It makes sense to climb some warm-up routes first. The granite requires different climbing techniques than the limestone of the Bavarian or North Tyrol Alps. Climbing in Yosemite involves a variety of crack climbing techniques and fewer pockets and small edges. Granite generally provides good friction, but it does take time and practice to get used to the rock.

After a few routes, it becomes clear that climbing in the “Valley” presents an altogether different set of technical difficulties than climbing in the Alps. Back home on the limestone, they climb grade 8 and 9 (UIAA), but here in Yosemite they are climbing grade 7. “There’s no point in comparing them,” Ursi says, “it will only get you down.” She explains that she learnt how to climb cracks in Utah and the Valle dell’ Orco. “You have to jam your hands right in the crack; your hand or even your whole arm might disappear inside it.” And it’s hard work for the legs, too. “Where there is no obvious foothold you just have to smear and hope it sticks.”

They are wearing normal climbing shoes for the short sport routes. For the approaches and long big-wall routes, all three of them opt for a lightweight Hanwag ROCK shoe – just one of the models they are currently testing. Here they are wearing a Badile model...

Once Ursi has headed back home, Yvonne and Charlie step things up a bit. Their prime objective: “The Nose” on El Capitan. 34 pitches and 1,100 meters of climbing up to 6+/ A2. Long and sustained; The Nose is probably the best-known rock climb in the world. The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) classifies it as VI 5.13+ or 5.9 C1. The Nose (5.9 C1) might be technically straightforward, but like all El Cap routes it is hugely exposed and terrifying.

They plan to complete the route in three days, spending two nights up on the wall. All but the fastest teams require at least two days and usually many more. Their starting point is the legendary Camp 4.

It’s the 10th of October. Charlie and Yvonne are ready to go, but the weather is not playing ball. Unusually for California, it’s cold, misty and raining. Nevertheless, the two climbers set off early in the morning and climb the first four pitches to Sickle Ledge, where they set up fixed ropes for their proper attempt. Then they abseil back down and return to Camp 4. The fixed ropes mean they can jumar back up to Sickle Ledge when they start out for real. This will save them time. But first, it’s a matter of waiting at Camp 4 for the weather to improve. It’s raining heavily the next day, but the forecast is improving and they decide to head on up...

A rather slippery affair

It’s four in the morning when they leave Camp 4. Charlie and Yvonne quickly jumar back up their fixed ropes. The next series of pitches contains numerous sections of aid climbing, using etriers (or ‘aiders’ as they’re known in the States). They’d rather climb them free; it would be well within their capabilities. However, the drizzle and cold, damp conditions have turned the route into a rather slippery affair.

Charlie and Yvonne both keep their Hanwag Badile Low Lady GTXs on for the aid sections. It’s a lightweight, technical shoe with good power transfer and a high-friction rubber sole. In addition, the climbing zone at the toe provides maximum precision for climbing on rock. It’s ideal for easier routes. The sections of aid climbing subject the Badile to some pretty harsh treatment, particularly the sole. But due to its robust cemented construction, there’s no danger of it coming loose during the climb. And if the tread does wear out after a lot of climbing, the shoe can easily be re-soled.

After 14 pitches, the team reach El Cap Tower. This massive rock pillar is detached from the wall and provides enough room to bivouac without a portaledge (a hanging tent/ ledge system designed for sleeping on big walls). Charlie and Yvonne make it as comfortable as they can and then get some rest before the next day’s climbing – their 10,000-star hotel affords a superb view over Yosemite Valley.

They’re even glad about the less than perfect weather, which has one distinct advantage: apart from a Spanish team, they are the only climbers on the route (overcrowding can sometimes be a problem on the famous El Cap routes).

It’s not their alarm clock, but the bright sunshine that wakes them the next morning. They had planned to start before the Spaniards, but they’ve overslept. Never mind, there’s still time for breakfast, to study the next few pitches and pack the gear.

During their second day on the wall they climb a further eleven pitches. A few sections go free, but most of the climbing still requires etriers and other aid climbing gear. Late in the afternoon, they reach their second planned bivouac site – Camp 5. Here, too, there is a ledge with enough room for Charlie and Yvonne to sleep on. There might be more comfortable places to spend the night, but there aren’t many that could offer a comparable view. “When you’re lying there in your sleeping bag, enjoying the view and the tranquillity, you just know exactly why you climbed up here in the first place,” explains Yvonne. “You find yourself planning your next big-wall trip in your head, even though you’ve not even topped out yet.”

All American Breakfast

Day 3 sees the team wake again to glorious sunshine. Delighted with the perfect conditions, Charlie and Yvonne treat themselves to a cheddar cheese and peanut butter breakfast to provide them with energy for the tough day to come. “We saved a lot of weight with the food,” explains Charlie, “drinking is more important – we hauled 24 litres of water up with us.” The water, food, two sleeping bags and the rest of the equipment is packed into a 70-litre haul bag (a large, waterproof, extremely robust sack, designed specifically for big-wall climbing). All their rubbish is collected and gets taken with them in the haul bag too. One thing is sure, what is taken up the wall must also be brought back down again.

The last day on the route involves nine pitches to the top. Once again, they alternate between aid and free climbing. The remaining sections go smoothly and they top out in the afternoon.

Happy but exhausted, they’ve done it. Their big-wall dream of climbing “The Nose” has become reality. “On reaching the top, we had a long rest and took in the view,” said Yvonne. “Then we set up camp. We decided to spend the night there, before making the long descent back down.”

On October the 15th, they descend back down to Camp 4. It takes them 4 hours. The first thing they do is take a shower, not that this is generally considered that important in Yosemite. “Being one with the dirt,” was how Yosemite-legend Dan Osman once described life in Camp 4. “He’s not wrong there,” says Charlie. Yvonne nods in agreement. We don’t need to go into this though...


Interview : ProTeam Girls

How did you start climbing? How did you get into mountaineering?

Yvonne: My parents introduced me to outdoor sports.

Ursula: Me too, I started going to the mountains with my parents. We spent our family holidays hiking. I went on my first ski tour when I was eight. Later on, I joined the German Alpine Club (DAV) youth group and started climbing more seriously.

Charlie: It was a similar story in my case. My parents, later on friends and then Innsbruck, the place I live, got me excited about climbing. At some point I realised I was totally in my element in the mountains.

People often use the term “women’s mountaineering”. How do you feel about that?

Yvonne: To be honest, I’m fed up with it. It makes no sense to me. I mean, it’s not as if people talk about “men’s mountaineering”.
Ursula: I’m not a great fan of the expression either. Although climbing with men is different to climbing with women. In particular, when it comes to the things you talk about…

Charlie: I agree! I remember climbing “Moulin Rouge” on the Rotwand with you two. We ended up debating whether cotton or nylon makes the best underwear for climbing. But generally speaking, it makes no odds to me whether it’s women’s mountaineering, men’s mountaineering or trans-gender mountaineering.

So do you prefer climbing with women?

Charlie: I really enjoy climbing with other women, but I couldn’t say I prefer it. I think it’s more important to climb with your friends and not simply form partnerships for convenience sake.

Yvonne: Yes, I agree! It’s better to climb with your friends, regardless of whether they are male or female. The main thing is that you’re compatible when you’re up on the mountain – in terms of ability and personality. I’m sure there are women out there who think it’s great to have a guy who’ll carry the ropes on the approach. Personally, I wouldn’t want it that way.

Ursula: The key thing is that you have to get on well.

What are your future alpine projects?

Yvonne: We’ve got a technical 6000er ascent planned in India in the autumn.

Ursula: I’m going too and of course we intend to do some climbing and acclimatising beforehand.

Charlie: Exactly. Really long routes that we’ll be keeping top secret.


Julia Englhart