Excalibur - Freeing the Sword from the Stone

by Steve Schneider

originally published in Climbing #140, October/November 1993, p.78-85.

Brief excerpts here for now, describing the crux offwidth pitches; you should read the full article, including some awesome action photos by Chris Falkenstein!

Excalibur takes a line just left and parallel to the Salathe' Wall on the southwest flank of El Capitan. Rising almost 3000 feet from base to summit, it is distinguished from other big-wall climbs by its wide cracks. Over a half dozen pitches on Excalibur are in that most-feared category: offwidth. Too wide to handjam, and too narrow to chimney inside, offwidths can grind even the best crack climbers into mulch. ...

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... Higher, I managed the first free lead of the eighth pitch, a clean overhanging 6-inch crack that fell at 5.12b. Although strenuous, the pitch succumbed to kneebars and handstacking - basic Leavittation. For protection, I tied a long leash from a homemade #6 Friend to my waist and moved it along as I climbed, placing another big cam below me every 20 feet.

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... Then I told Bill [Price], who was back from his job, that it was his task to free the ninth. Yosemite connoisseurs will remember the picture of Bill in Yosemite Climber aiding the ninth pitch using the 2-by-4 stacks. It seemed fitting that Bill should have first crack at this body-stuffing offwidth from hell.

Armed with large cams, Bill lurched upward, precious inches at a time, his breathing accelerating as his energy diminished. If he was Superman, then this crack was Kryptonite. Twenty-five feet off the belay, he was utterly spent, and finished the pitch with some aid. ...

... I thought I was clever to avoid the arduous hauling until I took my first step off the portaledge into the maw of the ninth pitch. I sputtered upwards, losing some flesh along the way, just managing to flash the evil section. I deemed the pitch an honest 5.12c.

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The next pitch, which joins a major crack system that runs for hundreds of feet to El Cap Spire, is the most spectacular of the entire climb. A hundred and forty feet long, the 13th pitch goes from a friendly two inches to a gaping six inches wide. I donned an armory of big cams, feeling like a medieval knight in shing armor. I could barely move.

Easy handjams led to the vertical fist section. When the crack got too wide for a fist, I decided to gamble. Instead of using Leavittation, I tried to lieback the crack. While less secure, laybacking would get me quickly up the crack, and with less effort. Problem was, after 10 feet I couldn't let go to place protection. I had to get back into the crack, but the corner had rounded out so much I couldn't pull into it. With arms pumping, and looking at a healthy plummet, I made a last-ditch effort and dynoed into a knee jam. This actually worked, and I quickly established a handstack. I was exhausted, and with 50 feet of overhanging water-polished offwidth to go, further free climbing felt impossible.

"Help me, I'm gassed," I yelled down to my buddies, who instantly became a cheering section, passing energy up the rope to me. Renewed, I found I could rest my arms off the kneejam, though the effort pumped my abdomen and forced my breath into gasps, as if I were above 20,000 feet. I began to realize I had one chance to free climb the pitch, as it would take me days to recover enough strength to attempt it again, and by then we would have moved on. I moved my kneejam, then the handstack, in endless repetition. Slowly, the belay got closer. After struggling for nearly an hor, I clipped the anchors and yelled, "I'm the king of the world!" Sport climbing has its kiss of success, but there's nothing like the nirvana release from mastering a punishing offwidth. It was my proudest flash ever, and over a year later it still puts a strut in my stride. I rated it 5.12d. After all, who would believe I flashed a 5.13 offwidth!

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