“El Capitan is something every climber aspires to climb one day,” says Peter Mortimer, a Sender Films’ co-director of Valley Uprising, a 2014 documentary about the climbing history in Yosemite National Park in California. “But relatively speaking, very few actually do it.”
Now it’s possible to experience what it’s like to climb the famous and historic Nose route of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot tall monolith in Yosemite Valley, without even knowing how to tie into a rope. Google, working with a team of photographers and professional climbers last January, has digitally mapped the entire rock climb using the same spherical 360-degree panoramic photography found in the Street View of its maps.
“This is some pretty incredible technology,” says Corey Rich, who was one of the photographers on the wall for the project (see more of his Yosemite photos). “I’m sure future climbers will be able to rely on these interactive maps during their own climbs.”
The Google Street View team captured two scenarios with Tommy Caldwell climbing the Dawn Wall, considered El Cap’s hardest free climb, but poured most of its energy into the Nose. Alex Honnold, a renowned free-solo climber, climbed the Nose (using gear and ropes) last January while wearing a harness containing six high-resolution cameras, which captured imagery every ten vertical feet from the ground to the summit. See the results.
“This kind of vertical mapping is pretty cool,” says Mortimer, who also collaborated on this project.“You can click your way up the Nose, the way you can click along a street [in Street View mode on Google Maps]. If you’re never going to climb the Nose, this is an amazing way to get to see what’s like and to also see these famous features you’ve heard about.”
Honnold, Lynn Hill, and Tommy Caldwell all helped out with this project. The Nose holds a special place in each of their histories.
A Brief History of the Nose
El Capitan has two prominent aspects, a southeastern and southwestern face, that adjoin together and form a central proboscis-shaped prow in the steepest, tallest and most central part of the monolith. Hence, “The Nose.” The first climbers were originally drawn to this feature for its continuous vertical cracks that weave upwards.
In 1957, a California wild man named Warren Harding began his campaign to become the first person to climb El Capitan. Over a period of 45 days spread out over the next 18 months, Harding and various team members that ultimately included Wayne Merry and George Whitmore finally reached the summit of the Nose on November 12, 1958.
In 1993, Hill became the first person (man or woman) to free climb the Nose, meaning that she was the first person to climb it without using climbing gear to aid her ascent, although gear was used to keep her safe in case of a fall.
“When Lynn freed the Nose, it was one of the greatest feats in all of climbing,” says Alison Osius, an editor at Rock and Ice magazine. “You cannot overstate it.”
In 1994, a year after Hill’s first free ascent of the Nose, she upped the ante by free climbing the route in a single day.
“I don’t know of any other sport in which a woman made such a major breakthrough, one-upping the guys on the exact same playing field,” says Mortimer.
In 2005, Caldwell and Beth Rodden officially became the next team of climbers to free climb the Nose.
“Without a doubt the Nose of El Cap is the most iconic big-wall rock climb in the world,” says Caldwell. “It’s one of the best climbs I’ve done, for sure.”
A couple of days after their ascent, Caldwell followed in Hill’s footsteps and free climbed the Nose in just 12 hours, a record. Even more remarkably, he used the next 12 hours to also free climb Freerider, another routje on El Cap. In other words, Caldwell free-climbed El Capitan twice in one day, an achievement no one else has even come close to matching.
The Nose is also famous for an informal, if extremely dangerous, competition to see who can climb it the fastest, typically using a combination of both free-climbing and aid-climbing techniques. Alex Honnold and Hans Florine are the current record holders, setting a blazing time of just 2 hours 23 minutes 46 seconds in 2012.
Up Close on the Dawn Wall
In addition to mapping the Nose, Google also captured Caldwell on the crux pitches of the Dawn Wall, considered the longest, hardest free climb in the world and first climbed, after a multi-year campaign, by Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in January. (Watch a video of Caldwell and Jorgeson reflecting on the climb.)
“Maybe one day there will be helmet cam technology that allows climbers to capture routes all around the world,” says Caldwell. “Then you’ll be able to just go online and get a virtual tour of the route you want to go do. That would be pretty cool.”
Yet, for as engaging as these interactive maps may be, they could never replace the real thing: The gut-sinking sensation of dangling in space on a single 9-millimeter rope with 2,000 feet of air beneath your feet, or the routine swoosh of swallows diving past you mid-day, or the novelty of sleeping on a ledge smaller than a coffee table during your multi-day ascent, or the mix of pride, ecstasy and utter depletion that you will feel after finally reaching the summit.
You’ll have to actually climb El Cap to experience these things. But for many, this virtual tour might be more than enough.
A Guide to The Nose’s Most Famous Features
• Stove Legs Cracks
This set of wide cracks, located about a thousand feet up the wall, are notorious for first thwarting Warren Harding and his team back in 1958. The trouble was that the cracks were too wide for the normal, if rudimentary, climbing gear such as pitons. Harding innovated, and returned to the wide cracks weeks later with the cast-iron legs of a wood-burning stove. He pounded these heavy pieces of metal into the cracks and was finally able to overcome this first set of difficulties.
• The Great Roof
Visible from the Valley Floor, the Great Roof is a massive overhang that is considered to be one of the free-climbing “cruxes,” or most difficult sections, of the Nose. Part of the difficulty in free climbing the Great Roof is wedging your fingers into the incipient crack formed where the vertical wall abuts the roof, all while praying that your feet don’t slip off the glassy footholds. On the scale of free-climbing difficulty ratings, the Great Roof is given 5.13c. Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of the Nose in 1993 was captured in an iconic photo of her pulling triumphantly around the roof itself. This moment was recreated here.
• King Swing
One of the most unique, and memorable, sections of climbing the Nose of El Cap is the infamous King Swing, which involves a climber lowering down his or her rope, and actually running across the vertical wall to reach the next crack, more than 50 feet to the climber’s left. Climbers often take up to three or four attempts to generate enough momentum to swing, or “pendulum,” across the slab and latch onto the crack.
• Texas Flake and Boot Flake
El Capitan is a comprised of highly compressed granite that is slowly releasing its internal pressure as it expands outward. Texas Flake, a “Texas-sized” block of granite, and Boot Flake, a distinct boot-shaped piece of granite bigger than a house, are the result of this outward force. From the Valley floor, both Texas Flake and Boot Flake are clearly visible and look positively detached from their surrounding rock faces. One day, these features will surely fall—hopefully on a day when no parties are on the wall.
Explore all of the 360-degree Yosemite images and behind-the-scenes content at google.com/maps/about/behind-the-scenes/streetview/treks/yosemite/.