A historic look at climbing The Nose of El Cap, and what it’s like to climb it in a day.
LA guide Jack Waterhouse just might be the most understated big wall climber in Yosemite. Last fall, he low-key climbed the Nose of El Cap—a feat that normally takes an average of three or four days—in 19 hours. Low-key, meaning, he hardly told anyone until after the fact. One morning, he shared, “I climbed The Nose yesterday.” Casual.
Here, Jack fills us in on the history of climbing The Nose of El Capitan—possibly the most revered big wall route on earth—and how he added a his one-day ascent to that history. Included are the few photos he and his partner took for evidence.
Climbing the Nose route on El Capitan in a single day is one of the great prizes in Yosemite climbing. It requires a command of many different climbing styles and a level of efficiency and fitness to push it all day long. The historic nature of the route, the terrific exposure, and the quality of the climbing combine to make it an unforgettable experience, for those up to the challenge.
The first ascent of El Capitan, via the Nose route, was an 18-month siege. The team, led by Warren Harding, descended to the ground many times on ropes that were left in place before committing to the wall for a summit push in 1958. After many trips up and down the wall, gradually pushing the ropes higher, the team reached the summit after a final 12 day push.
In climbing, there has always been the question of style. One person showing they are better, stronger, faster than another is a tradition as old as humanity itself. The second ascent of the Nose, in 1960, made by Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost improved on the style of the first, by climbing in a more committing fashion. The four left the ground and kept climbing until they reached the top, seven days later, making the first single push ascent of El Capitan.
By 1975 the next generation had arrived, when Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay left the overnight gear behind, and climbed the wall in a single day. They were back on the valley floor before the bar closed, and were amazed no one had done it before.
In the 45 years since, climbers have gradually been whittling the time down. The first 8 hour ascent took place in 1990.
The first sub-4 hour ascent took place in 2001, and the first sub-2 hour ascent, and current record time, was completed by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell in 2018.
Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell set an astonishing speed record on The Nose.
The Nose is possibly the most legendary rock climb in the world, and has forever been a proving ground for the icons of the sport. I had been living in Yosemite Valley off and on for five years and had grown accustomed to the style of climbing. I methodically worked my way through its challenges when I first climbed the Nose over three days in 2020.
After making one-day ascents of some of the other walls in Yosemite like Half Dome and Mt. Watkins, a Nose in a Day climb began to seem possible. Barely.
There are more stars on the Hollywood walk of fame than people who have climbed The Nose in a day. Could I be one of them?
I linked up with my friend Ben, who is one of the best big wall climbers I know. The idea was to split the climb into two blocks. He would lead to a ledge 1800 feet up known as camp iv, and after that I would lead to the top.
The key to climbing fast on Yosemite’s big walls is to employ a tactic known as “short fixing.”
The leader clips the rope to an anchor point and starts leading the next pitch while the follower ascends the rope. Short fixing allows both climbers to always be moving. Our strategy was to short fix everything, and to just really go for it.
We started climbing around 4:30 AM. Ben raced up the lower pitches, climbing brilliantly. We made it to the King Swing around noon, a massive pendulum in the middle of the wall. He stuck the swing and continued on, while onlookers hooted and hollered in the meadow below. We reached camp iv around 2 PM.
My turn. I led out into the Great Roof and into the steep, golden, upper corners of the Nose. We reached the ledge known as camp vi right at sunset. We were 500 feet from the top, and it was then I realized that we were going to do it, I just had to keep it together for the last couple pitches.
It got dark. I threw up. We were getting tired now, and our pace slowed to a crawl for the last few pitches.
Shambling over the rim, I tied the rope to the tree at the top of the route. “Rope’s fixed!” I screamed into the night and collapsed. I took off my shoes and threw them across the slab. My feet bore a resemblance to cooked lobster. Ben ascended the rope. It was 11:30 in the evening, giving us a time of 19 hours. The stars twinkled. We had climbed the Nose in a day! It seemed impossible, but there it was. –Jack Waterhouse