Staffan Karlsson and Peter Olsson fulfilled one of their dreams with a trip to the Yosemite National Park. The two Swedes visited the big wall Mecca to give climbing another go.
Peter Olsson is enjoying the peace and quiet – and an exceptional view – from Dinner Ledge on Washington Column. The moon is shining brightly and a thousand stars are twinkling in the sky. “Just amazing,” he says. The Swede is sharing this idyllic moment with his childhood friend. He and Staffan Karlsson have set up camp for the night in the Yosemite National Park. It’s not the first time the two 44-year olds have been on a trip together. They have already climbed in their home country and on the Lofoten Islands and in Romsdalen in Norway. Now they have come to spend three weeks in the US National Park, the home of big wall climbing.
For many years, it hadn’t looked as though Staffan and Peter would be making this journey together. Staffan, who works as a self-employed technical consultant in Stockholm, had infected his mate with the climbing bug at the beginning of the 1990s. They then travelled all round Scandinavia going trad climbing together. In 2002, on his return from a climbing trip to Patagonia, Peter’s focus changed and the teacher from Karlsborg took up hunting. But his love of climbing never deserted him completely. “I was missing something and I wanted to go and experience it again,” says Peter. So he picked up the phone and called his friend. And to cut a long story short, this resulted in the two of them packing up their equipment and flying to the USA.
Queue of sleeping bags for camp 4
Why Yosemite? “Every climber dreams of going to Yosemite. The huge granite rock faces are impressive, sometimes even overwhelming,” says Peter. Not for nothing is the national park known as a Mecca for big wall and trad climbing. The area is extremely popular with climbers from all over the world. The two Swedish friends saw this for themselves when they tried to get a place at the legendary Camp 4. It’s not possible to reserve a place at this, the most famous camp site in the park. In high season, long queues of people form in front of reception, with people sleeping overnight in their sleeping bags in the queue. “We arrived at six in the morning and check-in opens at half past eight. We thought we had arrived plenty early enough. But it wasn’t going to happen,” says Staffan. Instead, they stayed at “Tamarack Flat” campground, a 40 minute drive away and at a height of 2000 meters. It was a cold night. The next morning, the Swedish friends lined up in the queue at 4.30 am. “We still weren’t first in the queue but we did manage to get a place.”
Waiting in sleeping bags at camp 4
Peter and Staffan set off from the camp to tackle their first routes. They started with some easy crack climbing on The Grack, for example, with a grade of 5.6.
Staffan and Peter warm up on The Grack (photo: Joakim Neander)
The route is on Glacier Point, a viewpoint above the Yosemite Valley. From there, you can see some amazing views over the national park and the valley and of the Half Dome. So of course a souvenir photo with the landmark of the national park was an absolutely must:
Peter at Glacer Point, with the Half Dome in the background
The two friends also spent their first few days in the Yosemite National Park familiarising themselves with the type of climbing in this valley. “It’s quite different from what we are used to. It’s a bit like the old school kind of crack climbing, with few foot and hand holds,” says Staffan. Peter adds: “We soon realised that Yosemite is different from the climbing regions of Europe. There are fewer holds but a lot more cracks.”
In actual fact, there are often hooks or bolts on the pitches of busy routes. Peter and Staffan began with the shorter routes on cliffs such as Cookie Cliff, Church Bowl and some first pitches on classic aid routes on El Capitan base. They also took on one of the classics, the Central Pillar of Frenzy. “That one was quite challenging and a real little adventure,” says Staffan. After all, you are climbing almost exclusively in cracks, which are sometimes only as wide as your finger and sometimes as wide as a chimney.
Peter aid climbs the North American Wall on El Capitan
Staffan chimney climbing on the Central Pillar of Frenzy.
You can also go bouldering in the valley. Staffan tried out the famous Midnight Lightning 7b+ in the middle of Camp 4 and cut a pretty good figure:
Staffan on Midnight Lightning
The first bigger thing
Back to Washington Column: Memories of the previous night and the starry ski are still fresh in their minds. Peter and Staffan pack up their equipment early in the morning and move on. They climb the Kor Roof, which is the trickiest part of the route. Free climbing with difficulty grades of 5.6 to 5.8 is followed by technical climbing up over a steep roof. The pair then follow a C1 crack over protruding rock to the belay point. They finish their climb there and go back down to the valley. “That was the first bigger thing we had dared to try. It was a good experience and we were able to learn a lot about the rocks,” says Staffan.
Early morning on Washington Column.
Peter on Kor Roof.
But the biggest challenge is still to come for the two Swedes: The Nose on El Capitan. This is one of the most popular climbing routes in the USA. Climbers take an average of three days to climb the 1000m route. A few even manage it in just a few hours. Like Americans Alex Honnold and Hans Florine, who climbed it in 2:23:46 hours in June 2012.
Speed climbing is not on the agenda for Peter and Staffan. They want to give themselves time to enjoy the experience. They set out early in the afternoon to avoid the traffic jams on the route. They took with them supplies for five days and a portaledge to provide them with on the freedom of sleeping anywhere on the route. The good bivy ledges can be hard to reach or already too crowded. By 4pm they have reached the first belay and by 7pm the second. “Up until this point, the climbing was already quite tricky because the climbing is in old-flared pinscars and you had to swing between the cracks,” says Peter. It’s long after nightfall by the time he and Staffan have suspended their portaledge. Dinner is served at 8pm in their two-person portaledge camp. Once again, it’s a clear night and the sky is full of stars. And lights signals from down below and lights above them suggest that there are still climbers on the wall.
Sickle Ledge junction
At 2am the two friends are woken sharply. Two Germans with bright helmet lamps are climbing past them. They are making a “NIAD” or “Nose in a Day” attempt. Sheer madness! The Swedes are impressed. “We can only make a guess, but given the speed they went past us in the dark, they must have made it,” says Staffan.
As for him and Peter, they wait until the next morning to continue. The alarm goes off in the grey morning light and by 7.15 they are on their way once more. By 11am they have left two more belays behind them and have reached Sickle Ledge, the first big ledge on the route. Most climbing teams get there in one day, haul their equipment bags up after them, fix their ropes, rappel down and continue up on the route another day. Sickle Ledge is also an important crossroads for many climbers. 50 to 60 percent of climbers give up at Sickle Ledge or even before they get there, according to a guidebook.
Staffan and Peter end up belonging to that group. It soon becomes clear to the two friends as they discuss it with one another. “We are too slow. At the speed we’re going, we estimate we will need six days,” the Swedish pair realise. So they decide not to continue on the route. “Of course we’re disappointed, because we might have been able to do it. But it would have been really exhausting,” says Staffan.
Pause for Peter on Sickle Ledge.
Peter and Staffan on The Nose route.
The Nose on El Capitan, seen from Sickle Ledge.
So for the two best friends, their stay in the Yosemite National Park ends with unfinished business. But they are able to take home with them their memories of impressive scenery, challenges on the rock face and talks with strangers from all over the world. “There is so much involved in climbing, such as preparation, training and logistics. You set yourself a goal that you want to achieve. But it’s also about the problems that only arise once you start out on a climb and finding the solutions to these problems,” Peter says. “That’s what’s so appealing about climbing. It’s like a recipe with a lot of different ingredients.”
The 44-year-old friends haven’t ruled out tackling The Nose again some day. Or going back to the Yosemite Valley in general. “You can spend your whole life climbing there,” says Peter. They would spend more time on the preparation in any case. “Safety, rope techniques, crack climbing, technical climbing – there are so many different challenges for which you need to be prepared,” Peter now knows from his own experience. Bohuslän province in Sweden or the big walls in Norway are perfect climbing areas for training. Staffan at least has other plans for the short term. He is off to Margalef at Epiphany for some sport climbing. This climbing area in northern Spain is a popular destination with climbers from all over the world.
We would like to thank the two Swedish friends for their honest accounts of their special trip to the Yosemite Valley.