Danger Zone

The second installment of our three-part series, “El Capitan: Mountain of Dreams.”
A photo of the granite face of El Capitan, with text "El Capitan Mountain of Dreams"

This is the second installment of a three-part series on El Capitan. You can read Part 1 here.

Yosemite Valley’s gushing waterfalls, rounded domes and towering granite walls make a striking impression upon all who see them, like climber Noah Kaufman.

“When I first arrived in the valley, my jaw dropped to my knees. I didn’t know anything like that could exist in the world. It was way more impressive than anything I had seen up to that point in my life,” Kaufman said.

Finding El Capitan especially magnetic, Kaufman and his friend Bernard Guest set their sights on The Nose in 1999. A third climber also named Noah offered to join their team; he claimed to be an expert who had climbed the wall before. “Perfect!” Kaufman thought. The three planned a multi-day effort and packed food, water and overnight gear in a haul bag.

“We had a really fun day climbing the Stoveleg Cracks,” Kaufman said, referring to a popular section. “We were leapfrogging and taking turns leading. I learned how to jumar (to ascend a fixed rope with tools) and the three of us were getting our systems down… The climbing was immaculate and world-class.”

A photo of climber Noah Kaufman holding onto ropes while looking up toward the summit.
Noah Kaufman witnessed “a miracle if ever I saw one” while climbing El Capitan.

As the wall steepened, the team’s supposedly most-capable member seemed to falter. A harrowing moment was fast approaching.

Kaufman’s party experienced the mountain differently than climbers of earlier decades. By this era, climbers had mostly abandoned pitons, which mar rock over time. Instead, they placed less-damaging forms of gear, like spring-loaded cams, in cracks for protection.

A photo of climber Paul Gagner holding onto ropes and looking up toward the camera
Paul Gagner climbs El Cap’s 1,800-foot tall Zodiac route. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

In prior years, El Cap climbers relied almost exclusively on direct aid, which means pulling and standing on gear to assist in upward progress. Then free climbing, in which climbers scale just the rock and use gear only to protect falls, came into vogue even on large objectives.

Todd Skinner and Paul Piana achieved El Cap’s first free ascent on the Salathe Wall in 1988. In another historic first, Mark Wellman, assisted by partner Mike Corbett, made a paraplegic ascent over eight days in 1989.

By the 1990s, climbers were combining aid and free climbing, and ascended El Cap both in a day and free. Lynn Hill free climbed The Nose in 1993, and then returned to do so within a day in 1994. Scores of more “free” and “in a day” ascents followed. The number of El Cap routes mushroomed to more than 100.

A photo of a climber looking for his next hold on the rock.
Chris Van Leuven attempts a “free” ascent of the Zodiac route. Photo by Rob Miller

Unfortunately, an increase in accidents accompanied climbing’s surging popularity. According to a Yosemite study of climbing from 1970 to 1990, 51 climbers died from traumatic injuries and four perished from hypothermia in those years. At least 57 more would have perished without fast help from Yosemite Search and Rescue. More than 100 accidents caused at least 50 broken bones and a far greater number of sprains, cuts and bruises annually during that period.

On El Capitan, the worst accident to date occurred in 1978 when three climbers fatally fell some 1,000 feet – all together. Apparently, they had secured themselves inadequately while rappelling and their anchor failed. In another tragedy, two climbers unequipped for a sudden snowstorm froze to death just one pitch from the top in 1984. 

A large majority of climbers either ascend, or sometimes retreat, safely.  Yosemite estimated 25,000 to 50,000 climber days annually, resulting in about 100 accidents and 15-25 rescues per year. That would mean that more than 99 percent of climbs end without problems. 

Yet, 121 climbers died in the park since 1905, including 32 on El Capitan. All but five fatalities occurred since Warren Harding’s team pioneered The Nose in 1958.

Still, El Cap (and especially The Nose) became ever more popular, as ascents increased from one every few years to multiple parties per day. The route’s excellent rock quality, scenery, ease of approach and historic significance make it perhaps the most coveted rock climb in the world.

A photo of a climber taking a break on his climb, looking into the camera. He looks tired.
Tom Herbert catches his breath on the Muir Wall route. Photo by Chris Van Leuven

As Kaufman’s party pushed upward from Eagle Ledge, Noah began a moderate lead, protected himself with a cam in a crack, but seemed “scared and intimidated,” Kaufman said. 

Then Noah fell. That should not have been a problem, as he was roped. But while leading, he scraped the rope against a sharp edge. His fall weighted the line against the knife-like granite and instantly broke it. For a heartbeat, Noah plunged toward seemingly certain doom. However, against all odds, he landed beside his teammates on tiny Eagle Ledge, just one foot wide, uninjured and even unaware of his nearly-impossible luck.

Kaufman, horrified, immediately secured his partner with a sling and carabiner. “We had this long moment of silence while we all visualized him falling a thousand feet and becoming a ketchup smear on the slabs below,” Kaufman said. “Noah’s shirt was off and I could see his heart pounding as he put it together. Then he knelt at the belay and started sobbing… I think it was a miracle if ever I saw one.”

An illustration showing a climber falling from a rock, with a graphic also showing the route of the climb.
“Falling Noah” narrowly avoided a deathfall on The Nose. Illustration by Christoper Hampson.

Though Noah wanted to descend, the team regrouped and continued, overcoming more typical challenges. These included running low on food and water, dropping gear, and pulling “the pig” (their haul bag) through obstacles like rock constrictions called chimneys.

Finally, they reached the summit. 

“We were psyched when we got up there. We took pictures and gave high-fives. It was definitely a bonding experience,” Kaufman said. After descending, “we went straight to eat and spent all the little money we had on a carpe diem, mega dinner. This experience was an exciting story to tell in the dining room though there were some climbers who never believed it. People began calling me ‘Catching Noah’ and him ‘Falling Noah.’”

Traumatic as it was, the ordeal gave Kaufman more confidence and self-reliance. “That first big wall was the ultimate trial by fire for me, and I thought I’d never do another one, ever. The Nose was the most crazy, horrible, amazing, and way-too-intense experience I’d ever had. But, of course I went back and I’ve done a bunch of big walls since. Now that I know what I’m doing, they’re a lot more fun.”

In the 1990s, climbers broke formidable speed records on El Cap routes, including West Face, Mirage, Excalibur, Son of Heart and New Dawn. The Nose record fell the most dramatically as Hans Florine and Peter Croft raced up in just 4 hours and 22 minutes. Impressive as the era was, the new millennium would herald even greater achievements.

This is the second of a three-part series. Next time: Need for Speed

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