Back in the days of the Stonemasters, the NIAD (Nose in a day) was the benchmark by which the most competent climbers measured themselves, and it’s still a huge accomplishment today. Climbing “The Nose” on El Capitan in one day requires covering 3000ft (33 pitches) of dead-vertical granite with an incredible combination of efficiency and fitness. To train for this goal, one tactic of the more audacious stonemasters was to practice at Joshua Tree by free-soloing enough laps on various climbs to total 3000ft of vertical in one day, and just like an actual climb on a big wall, you weren’t allowed to cover the same pitch twice in the day. They referred to it simply as an “El Cap Day.”
I’ve always loved big climbs, personal challenges, and free-soloing, so when I realized that I had the potential to pull off an El Cap day myself, the attraction became rather irresistible. After all, the opportunity to cover a large amount of rock with minimal hassle is one of the main reasons I choose to solo so regularly. “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing”, and this is the exact definition of “more climbing” distilled into a single day challenge. But how do you even begin prepare for something that massive?
The first problem was to find a cliff. Somewhere with 30+ pitches of terrain where I feel solid enough to leave the rope at home. Most crags were too short (for example: Sandrock, AL), or too sketchy (Looking Glass, NC). One year ago, when I first came to Shortoff Mountain and climbed “Paradise Alley” (5.8+), somewhere mid-way through the second pitch I knew I’d found the right wall for my shenanigans. Dead-vertical and slightly overhung walls with solid holds and good features for confident and controlled climbing. With wall height ranging from 300-500 feet and over a dozen routes on the “classics” list, I knew there was massive potential for soloing at this crag. This place felt like it was custom-made for soloists, but despite searching on the internet and submitting personal queries through the word-of-mouth grapevine, I was unable to get any info beyond a few rumors that a handful of routes might have been soloed at some point in the past. Nothing definitive, and certainly nothing expansive. Whatever soloing had happened here, it never became big news.
After a few exploratory trips with partners, gear and ropes (you know, “normal” climbing) I decided to come in for a solo-inspection day by myself. The goal was to solo one particular climb that I thought would be the crux of my day, “Built to Tilt” (5.10b). Well, I’m not the smartest person in the world (obviously), and planned terribly for the event. We got positively HAMMERED in Greenville, SC on a Friday night, and when Sunday morning rolled around I was still feeling the effects. Un-deterred I made the 4 hour drive to the Wolf-Pit and was at the top of the Shortoff Mountain by about 1pm. The weather looked awful but I just happy to be climbing at all, and figured I’d keep going as long as the rain would hold off. I wound up soloing 2200ft, in an afternoon, mostly onsight, while sleep-deprived and slightly hungover. The rain caught me half-way up the final climb of the day: “Little Corner” (5.6 ~500ft). Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t as ambitious as I had thought. It was so outrageous, that I still read my own words about that day, and it’s like I’m reading about someone else. The guy that did that would’ve had to be crazy strong, and I didn’t feel like that guy. I mean, 2200 feet of free-soloing in one day. Who the hell does that?
But this had me thinking, what’s the next step up from an El Cap Day? And almost immediately I remembered reading about Michael Reardon’s Mile-Days and Two-Mile days out at Joshua Tree. I started flipping through the guidebook and mountain project to expand my list of potential routes. The goal is to solo one vertical mile (5,280 feet) between sunrise and sunset at Shortoff Mountain, without climbing any routes in the circuit more than once during the challenge. Extra laps on easy climbs seems like cheating, so repeats had to be nixed from the program, and since there are a finite number of climbs at a cliff, this drives the grades up. Looking at harder climbs, this was becoming less of a sure thing. Hard soloing is a scary notion, what does it take to be prepared? First, I’ve been soloing a lot over this summer to keep my head in the game, and redefining what I consider “easy” climbing. Practicing onsight solos up to 5.11b/c and soloing rehearsed climbs up to 5.11d, then taking those same talents onto multi pitch routes, culminating in a solo of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11 ~300ft) at Shortoff Mountain. Now that I’m looking at 12-15 routes, instead of the 8-10 that would have been required for an El Cap day, I came up with a spreadsheet to keep track of the routes and what order to climb them. That’s when it hit me: This is going to be huge. Six of the fourteen climbs on my list are 5.11 and harder.
A couple climbs need pre-flight inspections, the cruxes are too hard and too high for me to onsight-solo comfortably. A few climbs I’m going to onsight during the challenge, and only a few climbs will be something I’ve soloed beforehand. In the end only half of the day will be spent on “familiar” terrain. Soloing in unfamiliar terrain like that begs one important question: How can you stay safe in the face of the unknown? Getting in over my head is not an option.
My evaluation comes back to the most important aspects of anchor building: Redundancy and solid placements. I have to be 100% sure of two things: First, that my hand and foot placements are solid enough that there is no risk of a fall, and second, that I have an escape option. There are four options in soloing: Climb Up, Climb Down, Climb Left, Climb Right. As long as I have at least two of those options remaining, then I have a way out if the climbing gets to be more than I bargained for. As a rule, I MUST back-off or utilize one of my escape options if I don’t think I have two of those options available in un-familiar terrain. That’s the only way to stay alive in this game, and I make sure to take more pride in the times I choose to retreat than when I send.
Beyond that, It’s just a matter of spreadsheeting to find out what questions are un-answered. What routes are ready to go? How hard are the pitches? Where is the crux? Does it need a preflight-inspection? Research beta on the internet; can it be onsighted comfortably? For the next month I’m focused on taking trips out to check up on the crux pitches and making the go/no-go decision for each one in turn. If I can’t send a route on a rope while maintaining my composure enough to carry on a conversation, it’s probably a route I’m not ready to solo. That’s really what it’s about, being calm and confident, and carrying an extra reserve of strength far beyond what is necessary to simply send the route. Because, sometimes things do go wrong, but that’s just part of the game. I have trained and prepared for those problems, and I will never solo a route unless I can send it comfortably even if many of those things go wrong on the same pitch. I have to train extra strength to maintain that physical/fitness safety net.
And so I train, and train and train like a masochist. The dates are set, and I’ve scheduled my push for the end of October. With only a month and a half until showtime, I’ve never been more stoked! The list of routes for this day, the Mile of Mojo Mega Marathon, is going to be STACKED. I still don’t know if I’m going to be able to make the full mile, but even if I don’t hit my target distance, this is going to be the single most fun day of climbing I’ve ever had in my life!