Eagle's Way on-sight solo (2000)

[from the archives. Submitted by Ammon McNeeley, Aug. 2000]

The early August sun beat on my back as I studied the route, visualizing myself ascending the cracks. For only being 9:00 in the morning, I knew the Valley would see a scorching day. I laughed at myself, shaking my head about being such a slacker, having over slept for three hours. That's O.K., I told myself. I need the extra sleep for what I'm about to attempt. I felt as though I was taking a huge step toward the next level of climbing. My goal was to on-sight-solo El Capitan in a day, a very lofty goal for me since I am new to the speed-climbing arena. I felt like I was ready for this undertaking, even though to my knowledge nobody has yet accomplished such a task. The butterflies in my stomach did not help my situation.

The route I chose to climb is Eagle's Way, a moderate aid line on the short side of the overhanging southeast face of the Captain. I continued visualizing while hydrating with extra water. I started the climb at 9:45 with three gallons of water, four Cliff bars, a headlamp, and fleece jacket and hat. Halfway up the first pitch I stared the Grim Reaper right in the eyes when a wired hanger pulled off as I passed a rivet. I was on a hook and that was all that separated me from crashing to the ground to certain death. I quickly selected a bomber hook and placed it on a flake next to the other one. I then down climbed my aiders and placed a keyhole hanger and locking biner on the rivet. I continued without incident.

Arriving at the first belay in less than thirty minutes, I remembered the danger of over exerting myself and made an effort to climb steadily. The pitches fell quickly, un-roping, climbing like crazy-aid-man Bob, and other solo shenanigans. I soon became covered in sweat, fatigued, and was refreshing myself often with water. Drink, I told myself. Technically I have enough water for three days and I'm almost halfway up the route. I'll have plenty of water, I convinced myself. Route finding was a little confusing and spent unnecessary time figuring out where to go. I lead the pitch, fixed the lines, rappelled, strapped on my pack and cleaned the gear. Wow, I feel like a yo-yo. How am I supposed to speed climb with all this work? The logistical simplicity was great, although it was me doing everything. I started to feel like I was in a very crazy situation. I climbed the Black Pillar and continued to the Seagull, and soon found myself at the top of the tenth pitch. I dug in pack for some much deserved water as I looked at my watch. Ten hours. Not bad, for a first time speed solo. My smirk soon turned into a jaw dropper when the sudden realization hit me. I have no more water!! None!! I must have been so caught up in the moment I drank it all without realizing it. I tried to breathe evenly as the pulse quickened and a thousand things entered my mind simultaneously. WHAT NOW? was the big question. Most people would start the descent, right now, no questions asked. I couldn't let this knowledge influence my decision. Besides, I'm not most people. I hung in my harness drifting in and out of consciousness, not being able to give up and start rappeling. Besides, I'm exhausted, who cares about time anymore. My muscles in my arms and legs cramped all night and I felt delirious and dehydrated. Sometime in the morning I urged myself to move, my legs had no feeling from the leg loops of my harness cutting off the circulation. I didn't even think about the ground anymore.

I guess sometime in the night I made a subconscious decision not to give up. I also was certain there would be a full water bottle hanging from one of these belays. I was so certain because I saw it there while climbing Lost in America a week ago. The hope of water was a powerful motivator that kept me going. Climbing became increasingly slow. At times I couldn't even straighten my arms or legs. I hung on my daisy curled in a ball while dry heaving profusely. I slowly climbed through the crux pitch, an A3 overhanging squeeze. Talk about awkward, everything took two or three times longer to accomplish. Thinking the crux was behind me I soon realized I had one more to negotiate -- a tension off a manky old head. I crimped edges and smeared my foot while leaving one foot in the aider. POP!! I took a 25-foot whipper!! This did not help the situation. Explosions were going off in my head while fuzzy blotches appeared in my vision. I imagined all my brain cells popping like squashed grapes.

After a I felt like things were under control and my fit of the dry heaves subsided, I continued. Three #2 heads in a row got me past the situation, which led me to the top of the fourteenth pitch. By this time it was around midnight and I've only completed half as many pitches as yesterday. I stood on a small ledge that was so inviting that I prepared for a short bivy. I woke with a new urgency. I knew I needed to get off immediately. My mind must have gone into survival mode because I was thinking of all kinds of crazy things, like drinking urine. I'm almost to the top, besides that bottle of water should be on the next belay. I climbed around a corner and got some amazing exposure that led to a beautiful A1 crack that loved cam hooks. The pitches were easy but I was a mess. The simplest things were laborious and I would find myself out of breath constantly. Still no water bottle, I've given up the hope of it being here. I'm soon on a bolt ladder and new energy flows through me. I'm almost to the top. I finish on an A2 crack avoiding the 5.9 free climbing. I'm in no shape to do that, I thought. I crawled over the lip and to a tree. I made it to top, 46 hours after I started this adventure.

I shrugged and halfway crawled to Lost in America, where my cache would hopefully be. I was soon drinking, eating, showering and sleeping. I woke a few hours later feeling like a new man. I rappelled the fixed line and cleaned the gear with an official time of 51:14. Not exactly a speed climb, and definitely not the time I was hoping for. I smiled with happiness. I knew this was one adventure that would rise above all the rest. I started the East Ledges Descent, with a joyful skip in my stride.

- Ammon McNeely, August 2000