Though he had climbed El Capitan in a day–three times–twenty-two-year-old Cheyne Lempe spent the days leading up to his solo attempt on the Salathe Wall (VI 5.9 A2, 2,900′) trying not to puke out of apprehension. In 2011, he became the youngest to solo Zodiac in a day, and did the same on the Nose in 2012. Earlier that year, he and Scott Bennett did one of the longest linkups ever climbed in the El Chalten area of Patagonia, yet soloing the Salathe would be–he thought–among the most difficult.
Admittedly inexperienced in off-widths and chimneys, Lempe spent the summer strengthening that weakness on boulders and walls around Yosemite Valley. He planned to carry an 80m rope that would whittle the number of pitches on the route from 35 down to 17.
“Tomorrow I’m going to try to climb the Salathe Wall on El Cap, in one day, by myself… Man, all those words in the same sentence just sounds… sounds like it’s going to be a lot of suffering,” Lempe told his camera on November 6.
The following day, he ascended the Salathe in 20 hours and six minutes, beating the route’s only previous in-a-day solo ascent time by over an hour. Without getting his rope stuck, dropping gear or suffering unbearable exhaustion afterward, Cheyne topped out 2,900 feet later, happy to spend the rest of the season without any objective but to “eat food, get fat.”
Can you describe the terrain that the Salathe goes through?
The Salathe is really cool because it follows a super natural line up El Cap. It has some of the least amount of bolts on it. I think Salathe has one pitch where there are bolts protecting a face climb down below, but a lot of El Cap routes have bolt ladders going through blank sections. The Salathe doesn’t really have that. It’s this really natural line and all of the belays have natural stances, there are a lot of natural ledges on it. You can sit in the meadow and look all the way up it, it’s cool.
How has your knowledge and skill changed since your 2012 solo ascent of the Nose?
When I climbed the Nose, that was a big leap. [I did] a lot of mandatory free climbing to make it in under 24 hours. And the Salathe was an even bigger jump. What made Salathe harder was the mandatory free climbing. There’s this 10b, a pitch on Freeblast. You can’t pull on gear because there isn’t really any gear. It’s harder than the Nose because you absolutely have to free climb it.
Also, on the Nose when I got to Pitch 20 I kind of bonked out and just kind of aid climbed as fast as I could to the top. With Salathe, the aid is significantly harder, and there’s mandatory sections you can’t aid–there’s no way that you can aid it. The pitch after you climb the Salathe Headwall–I think they call it like 5.8 or something–it’s kind of dangerous, you can take like a 30- or 40-foot whipper.
For you, what were the cruxes of the route?
When you’re soloing, everything is kind of magnified. Something that might be a little bit scary for you with a partner is kind of almost doubled because you’re by yourself, and you don’t have this other person to relay this fear to or talk to like, “Hey watch me,” or “Hey, this part’s a little hard.” When you say those things out loud to your partner, you’re kind of relieving some of that stress and bringing it to the forefront of what you’re thinking about. But when you’re soloing, there’s no one for me to be like, “Ah, I’m really nervous about this pitch.”
It’s kind of funny, the free climbing cruxes, I think they’re only like 5.8, but you know a chimney you have to climb for like 20 or 30 feet with no gear. Compared to other routes on El Cap, the Salathe isn’t that technically difficult as far as aid routes go. I think when the aid climbing was harder, it was just more time consuming. A pitch, with my 80-meter rope, would take me like, an entire hour to go like 150 feet or something. And the Salathe headwall is really time consuming. It’s so steep and strenuous, and it’s overhanging. You’re trying to move fast, but the tenuous placements are slowing you down for sure.
What was the low point of the climb for you?
I think as soon as it got dark. That’s always kind of hard. I slow down, I’m not as quick because you obviously can’t see as well, and your body kind of naturally gets more tired because your body is telling you that you need to sleep. I tried to eat a bunch of food and turned up my iPod a little bit louder so I could just keep moving. My brother is in this new band and he’s been putting out some new songs that I was pretty psyched to listen to. Whatever I could listen to that would get me psyched, even if it was like Dubstep or Pretty Lights or electro music stuff.
Now that you’re done, what are your plans? Are you really just going to “eat and get fat” or do you have other things on the horizon?
Before I climbed the route I was like, “Oh man, I’m gonna get really burnt out after I climb this route,” because that’s kind of what happened with other solos that I’ve done in the past. It’s so hard, and I’m so emotionally invested in this one climb. Then I do it, and it’s extremely hard and I kind of epic on it. That’s what happened on the Nose and Zodiac because each one of those were like personal benchmarks. That was the hardest thing I’d ever climbed in Yosemite. I would kind of run out of steam on the amount of effort and suffering that goes into doing those long routes.
But after I climbed this one, I was able to stay well hydrated for a lot of it because it’s November, and there were a lot of hours at night so I don’t think my body was burning off as much water as it would normally need. I was able to still think real clearly even in the late hours of it. With the other routes I would be so unbelievably dehydrated that my entire body would start to cramp up. But now I’m down and I’m trying to think of what else I could go solo. I’m psyched to climb more.