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Tour de Ditch: Quinn Brett and Josie McKee climb seven Yosemite big walls in seven days
Posted on: November 1, 2016
On October 6 through October 12, Quinn Brett and Josie McKee completed what they dubbed the "Tour de Ditch" in Yosemite Valley, which entailed seven Grade V-VI routes in seven days. They climbed El Capitan, Lost Arrow Spire, Leaning Tower, Mt. Watkins, Washington Column, Half Dome and Liberty Cap in that order, and set what are likely two new overall speed records and three potential female speed records in the process.
The "Tour" went as follows:
Day 1, The Nose on El Capitan (VI 5.9 C2, 3,000'): Brett led to the top of Boot Flake, and then McKee took over to the top. They passed eleven parties and topped out in 8 hours, 50 minutes.
Day 2, Lost Arrow Spire Direct (VI 5.8 C2, 1,400'): Brett led the first half of the climb; then McKee led to the top. This was an onsight for Brett. They rappelled the route and finished in 7:20, an overall record, according to YosemiteBigWall.com.
Josie McKee leading the last block to the top of Lost Arrow Spire on Day 2. [Photo] Quinn Brett
Quinn Brett leading on Lost Arrow, Day 2. [Photo] Lauren Delauney
Day 3, West Face of Leaning Tower (V 5.7 C2, 700'): McKee led the first four pitches, and Brett finished the climb for a possible female team speed record of 4:09. "[We] both tried hard," Brett said.
Josie McKee jugs the last pitch on Leaning Tower, Day 3. [Photo] Quinn Brett
Day 4, South Face of Mt. Watkins (VI 5.8 C2, 2,000'): Brett started and McKee finished in 9:50, also a potential female team record. They passed a team of four along the way. Friends picked up the women in Tuolumne and drove them back to the Valley. The climb was an onsight for McKee. "She definitely pooped out in the middle of her block, but she pulled it together and sent proudly," Brett said.
Quinn Brett, left, and Josie McKee consider their progress halfway up Mt. Watkins on Day 4. [Photo] Josie McKee
Day 5, South Face of Washington Column (V 5.8 C1, 1,200'): The women simulclimbed through the Kor Roof, one of the route's cruxes, on Pitch 4. They swapped leads through the next three pitches and then simuled to the top. They finished in 4:01, yet another possible female team record. "[We were] both tired and not taking as many risks," Brett said.
Day 6, Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.9 C1, 2,200'): Brett and McKee simulclimbed the first eleven pitches in under two hours with Brett leading. "Stoked!" she wrote. They lost time transitioning into McKee's lead-block, which involved the two new pitches where a massive flake fell off in July 2015 and erased part of the original route. McKee overcame the blank section by throwing a knotted rope into a crack and pulling herself across the face to regain the normal route. From there she led to the top for an elapsed time of 7:40. Brett noted that there is definitely room for improvement on the time. The climbers hiked down from the summit on the Cables Route trail to the base of Liberty Cap, where a friend had stashed a sleeping kit and stove for them. "It was a huge help not having to hike to the valley floor and back up the next day," Brett said.
Quinn Brett jumars to the last pitch to the top of Half Dome, Day 6. [Photo] Micha Dery
Josie McKee walks off Half Dome on Day 6. [Photo] Quinn Brett
Day 7, Southwest Face of Liberty Cap (V 5.9 C3-, 1200'): After sleeping at the base, Quinn and McKee onsighted the route in 6:13, another overall speed record.
"Stoked to have completed this project," Brett said. "Not sure it's been done, and stoked to have set some speed records along the way, overall and female!"
Libby Sauter—who shares the female speed record on the Nose with Mayan Smith-Gobat (4:43), and also set a record with Brett in 2014 as the first female team to climb El Capitan twice in a day—agreed that this type of challenge is rarely attempted. "Hans Florine did a similar project of seven Grade IV-VI routes back in 1997," she said. Florine did El Capitan's Waterfall Route (originally VI 5.10 A4; rockfall damaged the route and it's unclear what the modern grade may be), the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, the Nose, the West Face of El Capitan (IV 5.11c), Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral (IV 5.10b) and the Steck-Salathe (IV 5.9) on Sentinel Rock.
The Beginning of a Partnership
Brett is a veteran Yosemite climber who works seasonally as a climbing ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. In 2014 she set the record with Sauter as the first female team to climb El Capitan twice in a day via The Nose and Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2) in 21:17. Brett also established The Colorado Route (5.11c, 45 degrees, 500m) on the East Face of Fitz Roy (3405m) in Patagonia last January with Max Barlerin and Mike Lukens.
McKee grew up as a competitive sport climber until a friend introduced her to the Yosemite high country at age 17. She's been living seasonally in the Valley as a member of the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team since 2013, but she and Brett didn't meet until they crossed paths in Patagonia two years ago.
"We didn't climb [together] our first season down south as we had previous partner commitments," Brett said. "Our second season we had one foray up Raphael Juarez neighboring Fitz Roy. This summer, the flame re-ignited for a big Valley adventure.... I sent her an message inquiring how she would feel about it."
This was the first time the women roped up together for a significant amount of time.
"I think we did a total of three pitches [in Patagonia]!" McKee said. "Oh yeah, and we did a warm-up jaunt on Royal Arches (III 5.10b or 5.7 A0) a couple of days before the Tour. I think Quinn proposed this idea to me about two months ago. I had pondered some version of it in the past, but never planned anything. Quinn had it all lined out and I'm psyched she thought of me to do it with her.... Quinn is a blast to climb with! She was a great partner to be teamed up with for this kind of endurance event—she is efficient, encouraging, quick to laugh and she's a climbing machine!"
Brett expressed mutual appreciation for her partner: "Josie is incredibly stoked, highly capable and an absolutely kind and generous person. Seriously couldn't imagine a better partner for this endeavor. She is a knowledgeable and strong climbing partner, even when she gets tired she pulls through. We laughed a lot, we pushed each other to keep moving, and keep moving with purpose. And she put up with my stupid jokes and snorting!"
This was their first try at the enchainment. "Thankfully it didn't take multiple attempts!" McKee said.
Brett said she's had this in mind for a while. "I originally schemed for May 2015 but my partner struggled with a bad back injury," she said. "It was put on the back burner until I found a partner with ridiculously high stoke to say YES!"
When asked how long she prepared for this, Brett said: "My whole life! Seriously, the more you climb, the more you run around and more you try hard, the more you are capable of doing all of those things at a greater and greater capacity. I work as a climbing ranger in RMNP during the summer months so I am out running around in the alpine most every day (four days of work and at least two of my days off). That was perfect training and I enjoy long days in a row."
Addressing the New Face of Half Dome
The flake that fell off the classic Half Dome route in 2015 was estimated to be roughly 200 feet high and 100 feet wide. The feature was integral to Pitches 11 and 12, which literally disappeared overnight. It took climbers several attempts to find the best solution around the missing pieces. Matt Saunders and Matt Leavenworth found that an old-school technique worked wonders when Saunders tossed a knotted rope into a crack and pulled himself across the blank section. Saunders told Rock and Ice Magazine: "I got the idea to try rope throwing from the Royal Robbins book Advanced Rockcraft where he states: 'If you can lasso a tree or get a knot stuck in a crack to save the use of putting in bolts then it is in the finest style.'"
"This was the first time either of us had done the Regular Route since the rockfall," McKee said. "I spoke to several friends that had done the route recently—everyone made the knot-throw sound sketchy and gave detailed beta to pendulum from a hand-placed beak. I got to the pendulum point, took one look at the thin crack to a likely beak placement, and one look at the block in the bottom of the chimney. It seemed like an easy throw and something about a pendulum from a hand-placed beak gave me a visceral reaction. So I threw the knot. Several near-miss throws left me determined and laughing. 'All these years,' I said to Quinn, 'I've been trying not to get my rope stuck in cracks and here I am...' I appreciated this bit of big wall shenanigans and it seems to be a fitting way to complete the new connection to Robbins' classic route!"
"This section slowed us down a little bit for a few reasons," Brett said. "First, we swapped leads at this point. Second, our uncertainty of rock quality and exact beta also caused a downshift. Essentially the first pitch is a reachy rivet/bolt ladder to an awkward pendulum/mantel. The second pitch is a small left-facing dihedral mixed with gear and a few bolts and a bolted anchor. The 'third' pitch is figuring out how to escape the left facing dihedral [and get] back onto the Regular Route chimney pitches."
Overall, Brett said, "the new pitches were not that bad."
Cruxes and Highlights: Q & A with Brett and McKee
Alpinist: What was the crux moment for you on this enchainment?
Brett: The physical crux for me was the second half of Washington Column (Day 5). It was an odd moment. I led up the first six pitches with no problems, psyched and feeling good, but as soon as we swapped and I started simulclimbing behind Josie I suddenly felt not as stoked. We had slept in that morning, having a later start, and the sun was blazing, I blame that (smiley face). The mental crux for me was the first pitch of Liberty Cap (Day 7). It is thin-gear 5.11 climbing to start off. I was sore, dehydrated, unsure of my gear and my ability to hang on for the mandatory free moves.
McKee: The sun hit us pretty hard just before I took over leading on Mt. Watkins. This was Day 4; we already had one Grade V and two Grade VI routes under our belts. Watkins was an onsight for me—the first pitch of my block (Pitch 9 of 18) was tricky—some fiddly aid and some slippery free moves above a ledge. I was on a cam hook and trying to place a micro-cam (which I had bounce tested out several times in a row). All of a sudden the cam hook blew and I was left hanging on two lobes of the cam, 20 feet above a nice, leg-breaking ledge. What the sun had taken out of me physically, this pitch began to take out of me mentally. During the next pitch, due to a miscalculation/miscommunication, Quinn ran out of lower-out line and decided to take the giant pendulum swing. I watched her tumble across a ledge and out of sight below me. She shouted up that she was all right. But I was mentally unwinding and I still had eight pitches to lead. At wits end and running on an empty tank, I moved slowly through several more pitches. I apologized and told Quinn that if we were going to make it to the top before dark she should probably take over. I know she must have been impatient—I was impatient with myself! But she told me I was doing fine and helped me push through. We still topped out just before sunset in under 10 hours.
Alpinist: What was the best moment for you?
Brett: Oh man! So many good ones. Watching Josie pull through what I think was her crux (Watkins, Day 4). It was incredible to see her so tired, so mentally blasted but hanging on and pushing upwards! Standing on top of Half Dome is always a treat. Blazing up Leaning Tower with plenty of time for a shower and a beer. Standing on the summit of Lost Arrow Spire! The friends who rallied together to help make dinner for us and just put up with us all week.... It's a long list of wonderful memories.
McKee: There were lots of good moments; it's hard to pick a best! The thing that used to be the hardest for me in big wall climbing has become my favorite—the fluid transition between aid and free moves. It is why I love speed climbing—no rules, just do whatever is most efficient. On Lost Arrow Spire, I pulled a sequence of big wall trickery that made me laugh out loud. I was in the middle of an aid section, and Quinn yelled up to me: "Is that a heel hook?" My response: "Haha! Ya like that?" Then: "Take...lower...climbing" as I did a short pendulum into a free section. "I love this stuff: cam hook, finger lock, heel hook, stiffy, fixed pin, pendulum!" I laughed the sequence down to her.
Q: What's next for you?
Brett: I want to get back into hard free-climbing shape; big walls seem to deteriorate my free climbing pull-hard. Maybe get elbow deep into some sandstone fissures. I hope to have some long runs in my future.
McKee: There are still a few more things on this season's Yosemite ticklist—maybe another speed wall, definitely some fun free climbing days! Then I'm headed to Chile for a few months to work and to attempt an unclimbed wall in northern Patagonia.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?
McKee: Several good memories actually came from encounters we had while passing other parties during the Tour. Especially the team on Washington Column that asked us (on Day 5) if we were training for something—to which Quinn replied "Oh, no. We're IN it." I always feel bad passing folks, and I strive to have as little impact as possible on their experience. With that said, I hope the people we met weren't too frustrated and also enjoyed the brief interactions. Thanks for letting us pass! I'd also like to give a huge thanks to all our friends who cooked us yummy meals and provided lots of moral and logistical support throughout the week. Ya'll rock!
Josie McKee, left, and Quinn Brett stand atop Washington Column on Day 5. Half Dome, which they climbed the following day, is in the background. [Photo] Quinn Brett
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