El Capitan

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This article is about El Capitan in California. For other uses, see El Capitan (disambiguation).
El Capitan
Yosemite El Capitan.jpg
Southwest face of El Capitan from Yosemite Valley
Elevation 7,573 ft (2,308 m) NAVD 88[1]
Prominence 9.833 feet (3 m)[1]
Isolation 1.5 miles (2 km)[1]
Parent peak Aconcagua
Translation "the captain", "the chief"
Pronunciation el-KAPɪ-tæn
El Capitan is located in California
El Capitan
El Capitan
Location of "El Capitan" in Yosemite National Park, California
Location Mariposa County, California, U.S.
Range Sierra Nevada
Coordinates 37°44′03″N 119°38′16″W / 37.73417°N 119.63778°W / 37.73417; -119.63778Coordinates: 37°44′03″N 119°38′16″W / 37.73417°N 119.63778°W / 37.73417; -119.63778[2]
Topo map USGS El Capitan
Type Granite rock
Age of rock Cretaceous
First ascent November 12, 1957 (1957-11-12) by Warren Harding, George Whitmore, and Wayne Merry[3]
Easiest route Hike

El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, located on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end.

The granite monolith extends about 3,000 feet (900 m) from base to summit along its tallest face, and is one of the world's favorite challenges for rock climbers and BASE jumpers.

The formation was named "El Capitan" by the Mariposa Battalion when it explored the valley in 1851. El Capitán ("the captain", "the chief") was taken to be a loose Spanish translation of the local Native American name for the cliff, variously transcribed as "To-to-kon oo-lah" or "To-tock-ah-noo-lah". It is unclear if the Native American name referred to a specific tribal chief, or simply meant "the chief" or "rock chief".[4] In modern times, the formation's name is often contracted to "El Cap", especially among rock climbers and BASE jumpers.

The top of El Capitan can be reached by hiking out of Yosemite Valley on the trail next to Yosemite Falls, then proceeding west. For climbers, the challenge is to climb up the sheer granite face; there are many named climbing routes, all of them arduous. For skydivers, the challenge is to achieve sufficient horizontal separation from the sheer granite face before opening their parachutes.


El Capitan is composed almost entirely of El Capitan Granite, a pale, coarse-grained granite emplaced approximately 100 mya (million years ago). In addition to El Capitan, this granite forms most of the rock features of the western portions of Yosemite Valley. A separate intrusion of igneous rock, the Taft Granite, forms the uppermost portions of the cliff face.

A third igneous rock, diorite, is present as dark-veined intrusions through both kinds of granite, especially prominent in the area known as the North America Wall.[5]

Along with most of the other rock formations of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan was carved by glacial action. Several periods of glaciation have occurred in the Sierra Nevada, but the Sherwin Glaciation, which lasted from approximately 1.3 mya to 1 mya, is considered to be responsible for the majority of the sculpting. The El Capitan Granite is relatively free of joints, and as a result the glacial ice did not erode the rock face as much as other, more jointed, rocks nearby.[6] Nonetheless, as with most of the rock forming Yosemite's features, El Capitan's granite is under enormous internal tension brought on by the compression experienced prior to the erosion which brought it to the surface. These forces contribute to the creation of features such as the Texas Flake, a large block of granite slowly detaching from the main rock face about halfway up the side of the cliff.

Climbing history[edit]

1864 photo of El Capitan by Charles Leander Weed

Once considered impossible to climb,[7] El Capitan is now the standard for big-wall climbing.[8] "El Cap" has two main faces, the Southwest (on the left when looking directly at the wall) and the Southeast. Between the two faces juts a prow. While today there are numerous established routes on both faces, the most popular and historically famous route is The Nose, which follows the prow.[8][clarification needed]

Pioneering The Nose[edit]

Main article: The Nose (El Capitan)

The Nose was first climbed in 1958 by Warren Harding,[9] Wayne Merry and George Whitmore in 47 days using "siege" tactics: climbing in an expedition style using fixed ropes along the length of the route, linking established camps along the way. The fixed manila ropes allowed the climbers to ascend and descend from the ground up throughout the 18-month project, although they presented unique levels of danger as well, sometimes breaking due to the long exposure to cold temperatures.[10] The climbing team relied heavily on aid climbing, using rope, pitons and expansion bolts to make it to the summit. The second ascent of The Nose was in 1960 by Royal Robbins, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost, who took seven days in the first continuous climb of the route without siege tactics.[9] The first solo climb of The Nose was done by Tom Bauman in 1969.[11] The first ascent of The Nose in one day was accomplished in 1975 by John Long, Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay. Today, The Nose typically takes fit climbers 4–5 days of full climbing, and has a success rate of around 60%.

William Henry Jackson's 1899 photograph of El Capitan

Expansion of routes[edit]

Efforts during the 1960s and 1970s explored the other faces of El Capitan, and many of the early routes are still popular today. Among the early classics are Salathé Wall (1961, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost) on the southwest face,[12] and the North America Wall (1964, Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost) on the southeast face.[13] Also climbed in the 1960s are routes such as: Dihedral Wall (1962, Ed Cooper, Jim Baldwin and Glen Denny); West Buttress (1963, Layton Kor and Steve Roper); and Muir Wall (1965, Chouinard and TM Herbert). [14] Later ascents include: Wall of the Early Morning Light, now known as Dawn Wall, on the Southeast face, adjacent to the prow[15] (1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell);[16] Zodiac (1972, Charlie Porter (solo)); The Shield (1972, Porter and Gary Bocarde); Mescalito (1973, Porter, Steve Sutton, Hugh Burton and C. Nelson); Pacific Ocean Wall (1975, Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East); Sea of Dreams (1978, Bridwell, Dale Bard and Dave Diegelman); and Jolly Roger (1979, Charles Cole and Steve Grossman). Today there are over 70 routes on "El Cap" of various difficulties and danger levels.[17] New routes continue to be established, usually consisting of additions to, or links between, existing routes.

Solo climbing[edit]

After his successful solo ascent of the Leaning Tower, Royal Robbins turned his attention to the Chouinard-Herbert Muir Wall route, completing the first solo ascent of El Capitan during a 10 day push in 1968. The first solo ascents of El Capitans first four classic "siege" routes were accomplished by Thomas Bauman on The Nose in 1969;[18] Peter Hann on the Salathe Wall in 1972;[19] Robert Kayen on the Kor-Roper West Buttress route in 1982;[20] and Beverly Johnson (first solo ascent by a woman) on the Cooper-Baldwin-Denny Dihedral Wall route in 1978.[21] Other noteworthy early solo ascents were the solo first ascent of Cosmos by Jim Dunn in 1972, Zodiac by Charlie Porter in 1972; Tangerine Trip by David Mittel in 1985; and The Pacific Ocean Wall by Robert Slater in 1982. These ascents were long 7-14 day ordeals that required the solo climber lead each pitch, and then rappel, clean the climbing gear, reascend the lead rope, and haul equipment, food, and water using a second haul rope.

Ascents by women[edit]

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley

Beverly Johnson was the first woman to successfully ascend El Capitan, via the Nose route, with Dan Asay in June 1973. In September 1973, Beverly Johnson and Sibylle Hechtel were the first team of women to ascend of El Capitan via the Triple Direct route, which takes the first ten pitches of the Salathe Wall, then continues up the middle portion of El Capitan via the Muir Wall, and finishes on the upper pitches of the Nose route.[22] In 1977, Molly Higgins and Barb Eastman climbed the Nose, to become the second party of women to climb El Capitan and the first to climb it via the Nose.[23] In 1978, Bev Johnson was the first woman to solo El Capitan by climbing the Dihedral Wall.[24]

Free climbing[edit]

El Capitan from Northside Drive

As it became clear that any face could be conquered with sufficient perseverance and bolt-hole drilling, some climbers began searching for El Cap routes that could be climbed either free or with minimal aid. The West Face route was free climbed in 1979 by Ray Jardine and Bill Price; but despite numerous efforts by Jardine and others, The Nose resisted free attempts for another fourteen years. The first free ascent of a main El Cap route, though, was not The Nose, but Salathé Wall. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana made the first free ascent over 9 days in 1988, after 30 days of working the route (graded 5.13b on the Yosemite Decimal System).[25] The Nose was the second major route to be freeclimbed. Two pitches on The Nose blocked efforts to free the route: the "Great Roof" graded 5.13c and "Changing Corners" graded 5.14a/b. In 1993, Lynn Hill came close to freeing The Nose, making it past the Great Roof and up to Camp VI without falling, stopped only on Changing Corners by a piton jammed in a critical finger hold.[10] After removing the piton she re-climbed the route from the ground. After 4 days of climbing, Hill reached the summit, making her the first person to free climb The Nose. A year later, Hill returned to free climb The Nose in a day, this time reaching the summit in just 23 hours and setting a new standard for free climbing on "El Cap."[10]

The Nose saw a second free ascent in 1998, when Scott Burke summitted after 261 days of effort.[26] On October 14, 2005, Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden, husband and wife, became the third and fourth people (and the first couple) to free climb The Nose. They took four days on the ascent, swapping leads with each climber free climbing each pitch, either leading or following.[27] Two days later, Caldwell returned to free climb The Nose in less than 12 hours.[28] Caldwell returned two weeks later to free climb El Cap twice in a day, completing The Nose with Rodden, then descending and leading Freerider in a combined time of 23 hours 23 minutes.[29]

On January 14, 2015 Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free climb of the Dawn Wall after 19 days, one of the hardest climbs in the world.[30][31]

Speed climbing[edit]

Speed climbing "El Cap" is also popular. The record for the Nose has changed hands several times in the past few years. The record currently belongs to Alex Honnold and Hans Florine, who broke the previous record by almost 13 minutes, with a time of 2:23.46 on June 17, 2012.[32] Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter broke the speed record for an all-women team, with a time of 4:43, on October 23, 2014.[33]

South-East face of El Capitan viewed from Yosemite Valley

On November 6, 2010, Dean Potter and Sean Leary established the previous record at 2:36.45, breaking the old record held by Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama by a mere 20 seconds.[34] Prior to that, the Huber brothers (Alexander and Thomas) held the record with a time of 2:45.45 (2007).[35]

There are more than 100 different routes on El Capitan and most of them have some kind of speed record attached to them. Ammon McNeely owns the most records on El Cap, 23 records in total, 13 of them being First One Day Ascents.

On June 22, 2010, Alex Honnold set a rope solo record on the Nose, posting a time of 5:49. (He had rope soloed the Regular Route on Half Dome earlier that morning, in about 2:09.)

BASE jumping[edit]

El Capitan has a controversial history regarding BASE jumping, and the National Park Service has effectively banned the practice. Michael Pelkey and Brian Schubert made the first BASE jump from El Capitan on July 24, 1966. Both men sustained broken bones from the jump. During the 1970s and with better equipment and training, many BASE jumpers made successful and safe jumps from El Capitan. In 1980 the National Park Service experimented with issuing BASE-jumping permits. The first legal BASE jump was performed on August 4, 1980 by Dean Westgaard of Laguna Beach.[36] These legal jumps resulted in no major injuries or fatalities, however, some jumpers exhibited significant disregard for the park's rules and the environment. After a trial lasting only ten weeks, the National Park Service ceased issuing permits and effectively shut down all BASE jumping on El Capitan.[37] On October 23, 1999, BASE jumper and stuntwoman Jan Davis died while making an illegal protest jump in support of lifting the park's ban.[38] BASE jumpers continue to fight the National Park Service in court for access to El Capitan.[39]


Reverse of 2010 "America the Beautiful" United States quarter dollar coin, depicting Yosemite National Park

El Capitan features on a United States quarter dollar coin minted in 2010 as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters series.[40]

Popular culture[edit]

The mountain is featured in the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier which features Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, freeclimbs the rock face alone “because it is there.” He is interrupted by Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who distracts him causing Kirk to fall from the mountain. He is ultimately rescued by Spock just inches from the ground.[41][42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jump up to: a b c "El Capitan, California". Peakbagger. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  2. Jump up ^ "El Capitan". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  3. Jump up ^ Fimrite, Peter (9 November 2008). "50th anniversary of first ascent of El Capitan". SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle). Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  4. Jump up ^ "El Capitan". SummitPost.org. http://www.summitpost.org/page/150993. Retrieved 2011-05-07.
  5. Jump up ^ Robbins, Royal (1995) [1973]. "The North America Wall". In Galen Rowell. The Vertical World of Yosemite. Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press. pp. 115–136. ISBN 0911824-87-1. 
  6. Jump up ^ Huber, N. (1987). "The Geologic Story of Yosemite Valley". Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  7. Jump up ^ Roper, Steve (2000). "Revealing Routes on El Cap: First Ascents". Retrieved December 30, 2006. 
  8. ^ Jump up to: a b Kallen, Christian (1996). "El Capitan: First Ascent". Archived from the original on December 19, 2006. Retrieved January 1, 2007. 
  9. ^ Jump up to: a b Frost, Tom (2001). "Yosemite Guide" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved July 11, 2006. 
  10. ^ Jump up to: a b c McNamara, Chris: "Yosemite Big Walls.", page 76-77. SuperTopo, 2005
  11. Jump up ^ "Notables and trivia about The Nose Route". Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  12. Jump up ^ Roper, Steve; Steck, Allen (1979). Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 269–275. ISBN 0-87156-292-8. 
  13. Jump up ^ Jones, Chris (1976). Climbing in North America. Berkeley, CA, USA: U of Cal Press. p. 360. ISBN 0-520-02976-3. 
  14. Jump up ^ Jones, Chris (1976). Climbing in North America. Berkeley, CA, USA: U of Cal Press. pp. 362–363. ISBN 0-520-02976-3. 
  15. Jump up ^ Geldard, Jack. "Chris Sharma to Try Dawn Wall Project on El Cap". Rock and Ice Magazine. Big Stone Publishing. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  16. Jump up ^ Jones, Chris (1976). Climbing in North America. Berkeley, California, USA: American Alpine Club / University of California Press. pp. 347–369. ISBN 0-520-02976-3. 
  17. Jump up ^ McNamara, Chris (May 2005). "Yosemite Big Walls - 2nd Edition". Retrieved December 30, 2006. 
  18. Jump up ^ Alan Kearney (1993). Mountaineering in Patagonia. The Mountaineers Books. p. 67. ISBN 0-938567-30-6. 
  19. Jump up ^ American Alpine Journal, Vol. 18, 46, 1972, p. 72-74. ISBN 0-930410-69-6.
  20. Jump up ^ American Alpine Journal, Vol. 25, 57, 1983, p. 162-163. ISBN 0-930410-21-1.
  21. Jump up ^ Cauble, Christine (2010). "Remembering Bev Johnson". Retrieved April 18, 2010. 
  22. Jump up ^ Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing. Steve Roper, editor. Palo Alto: Stanford University Library Press, 2003; Sibylle Hechtel,"Untitled. The American Alpine Journal," 19(1), 62 - 66, (1974) Sibylle Hechtel , "All Woman Ascent of El Capitan, " Summit 20, 6 - 9, (1974)
  23. Jump up ^ "A Short History of Yosemite Rock Climbing". yosemiteclimbing.org. 
  24. Jump up ^ http://rockriprollgirl.com/home/2011/04/remembering-bev-johnson-one-of-americas-greatest-climbersadventurers/; http://yosemiteclimbing.org/content/short-history-yosemite-rock-climbing;
  25. Jump up ^ Samet, Matt; Steve Bechtel (November 2006). "Loss of a Legend". Climbing Magazine. Primedia. Retrieved 2007-03-27. 
  26. Jump up ^ Fallesen, Gary (2007). "Lynn Hill - balancing Life By Climbing Free". Climbing for Christ. Retrieved October 10, 2007. 
  27. Jump up ^ MacDonald, Dougald (2005). "Caldwell-Rodden Free the Nose". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved January 1, 2007. 
  28. Jump up ^ Schmidt, David (2005). "The Nose – Free in a Day". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved January 1, 2007. 
  29. Jump up ^ MacDonald, Dougald (2005). "Caldwell Frees Nose and Freerider in a Day". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved January 1, 2007. 
  30. Jump up ^ Bello, Marisol (January 15, 2015). "Yosemite free-climbers reach top of El Capitan". usatoday.com. 
  31. Jump up ^ Bisharat, Andrew (January 15, 2015). "Summiting Yosemite's Dawn Wall, Climbers Make History". news.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  32. Jump up ^ Honnold and Florine Break Nose Speed Record. Alpinist.com (2012-06-17). Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  33. Jump up ^ [1]. Climbing.com (2014-29-10). Retrieved on 2014-11-09.
  34. Jump up ^ Florine, Hans (2008). "Speed Climbing News". Retrieved May 27, 2009. 
  35. Jump up ^ Perlman, Eric (2008). "The Nose Goes Quicker". Retrieved December 7, 2008. 
  36. Jump up ^ Tuscaloosa news Aug. 1980
  37. Jump up ^ "The BASE Jumping Story So Far...". BASE Climb. September 5, 2005. Archived from the original on June 18, 2006. Retrieved July 11, 2006. 
  38. Jump up ^ Costantinou, Marianne; Lewis, Gregory (October 23, 1999). "Death Fall from El Capitan". San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved August 30, 2010. 
  39. Jump up ^ "BASE Jumpers vs. NPS". Vertical Visions. 2006. Retrieved July 11, 2006. 
  40. Jump up ^ "The United States Mint Coins and Medals Program". usmint.gov. 
  41. Jump up ^ "El Capitan". Fullscreen360. Destination360. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 
  42. Jump up ^ "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Trivia". IMDb. Retrieved 20 January 2015. 

External links[edit]