Adventure Hiking up El Cap’s West Gully

A group of locals escape the heat and find both history and thrills on a little traveled line up Yosemite’s famed big wall.

By Chris Van Leuven, Photos by Max Buschini 

Today, 25 years after moving to Yosemite, this place of wonder remains my home. Here the climbing adventures continue as I seek out obscure routes to unearth hidden history and learn—firsthand—about climbs done over a hundred years ago. 

Yosemite Valley is quiet this summer for two reasons; it’s burning hot which drives visitors to higher elevations and with Covid-19, the park is almost deserted—open roads have replaced gridlock. Campgrounds are shuttered and trails are vacant except for a few people. When climbing high above the ground in silence, the stillness overtakes me.

To beat the heat most climbers head to the Yosemite High Country —Tuolumne Meadows—a scenic wonderland of rolling domes and twisting rivers. But for my friends and I who call the nearby foothills and the town of Mariposa home, the Valley, an hours’ drive away, is perfect.

To keep cool, we climb routes tucked in the shade up steep gullies or we climb next to the river. To find these lines, we peruse the park’s old guidebooks to find hidden routes that are a combination of steep scrambling and short sections of technical terrain. This includes the West Gully on El Cap, the location of Yosemite’s first climbing accident. This summer, we decided to climb it.

To find these lines, we peruse the park’s old guidebooks to find hidden routes that are a combination of steep scrambling and short sections of technical terrain.

First done in 1905 by J.C. Staats and Charles Bailey, the two started up together but only one finished. Halfway up the 3,000-foot route, “Bailey was sitting on a narrow shelf and Staats was clinging to the face of the rock below. Suddenly, Bailey began to slide. He shot downward a few feet to Staats’s left and fell headlong out of sight, striking his head several times before he disappeared,” wrote Charles R. Farabee in his book Big Walls, Swift Waters: Epic Stories from Yosemite Search and Rescue. When the park service retrieved Bailey’s body “[it] was badly mangled and most of the bones were broken.” 

Staats, alone, paralyzed with fear and not carrying a rope, was unable to climb down and continued up. Near the end, he encountered a final blank section of friction climbing over a thousand-foot abyss, which he overcame in a desperate claw to the top.

When my friends and I climbed the route, we imagined what Staats must’ve felt up there, fighting for his life. 

We also found more recent history. Halfway up we discovered lines that we believe belonged to the late Dean Potter who died in Yosemite Valley in a wingsuit BASE accident in May 2015. Rumor is that his highline is still somewhere hidden in the area.

We imagined he used these ropes as his access point to reach BASE jumps, meditate in solitude, and to walk his highline stretched thousands of feet above the ground.

We used his ropes, now tattered, faded and filled with cuts. Many had knots so that you could climb up them. 

The edge was always near as we walked over thin layers of grit, pulled on bushes, and climbed overhanging trees. We took precautions and clipped into bolts when they became available and used other protection points in the rock, but mostly we relied on the integrity of the ropes.

We hauled ourselves up the rotting lines, knowing a slip would send us cartwheeling down moss hummocks and over thousands of feet of slick granite into shattered talus. The edge was always near as we walked over thin layers of grit, pulled on bushes, and climbed overhanging trees. We took precautions and clipped into bolts when they became available and used other protection points in the rock, but mostly we relied on the integrity of the ropes.

Nearing the top of the route, the terrain became increasingly blank, void of holds, cracks to place protection, and even small edges. Had the fixed ropes not been there we would’ve relied on pure friction climbing, where pressure from our hands and feet against the blank stone would be our only security.

The final fixed ropes were in the worst condition. Winter after winter they sat draped on these slabs as snow blanketed them, then with the snow thawing, the ropes became saturated with water. Once past this final section, we transitioned to a thin layer of dirt over slick rock, with nowhere to clip in for safety. A few exposed steps later, we reached bushes and tree branches and wet grass. For the last hundred feet, we thrashed through the forest, and then, like a light switch, a flat trail appeared. This trail took us to the summit of El Capitan.

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