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El Capitan: Yosemite Valley’s Biggest Cliff

Fast Facts About El Capitan

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El Capitan: Yosemite Valley’s Biggest Cliff

El Capitan, the biggest granite monolith in the world, towers above the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

Photograph © Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images
  • Elevation: 7,569 feet (2,307 meters)
  • Prominence: 9 feet (3 meters)
  • Height: 3,000 feet (900 meters) base to summit on The Nose of El Capitan.
  • Location: Sierra Nevada, California.
  • Coordinates: 37.73420° N / 119.6367° W
  • First Ascent of South Face: Warren Harding, George Whitmore, and Wayne Merry reached the summit after 47 days of climbing spread of 18 months on November 12, 1958.

    El Capitan in Yosemite Valley

    El Capitan is a towering granite monolith that looms over the north side of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada in California. The cliff is divided into two main faces separated by The Nose, a blunt prow that rises from the formations low point to its summit.

    Naming the Formation

    El Capitan, Spanish for "The Captain," was named in 1851 by the Mariposa Battalion, a group of soldiers that pursued Chief Tenaya and 200 Ahwaneechees into Yosemite Valley where they were captured and taken from their Yosemite homeland to a reservation. The name El Capitan derives from the Ahwaneechee name To-to-kon oo-lah, which means "The Chief." Climbers usually call it El Cap.

    El Capitan Geology

    El Capitan is mostly formed by granite. The western side of El Cap, including The Nose and Salathe Wall, is composed of El Capitan Granite, a pink, coarse-grained granite that was intruded into older rocks to the west some 103 million years ago. After the El Capitan Granite solidified, Taft Granite was intruded and now forms the upper part of the wall; it appears much as the El Cap Granite. A dark, fine-grained diorite, another igneous rock, was also intruded into El Capitan. It appears as a spider web of dark veins on the east flank of El Cap where it forms a rough map of North America.

    El Capitan Shaped by Glaciers

    El Capitan is a massive rock formation rather than a broken down one like others in the Valley because it does not have a lot of joints or fractures that can be attacked by erosion and weathering. Instead The Captain's granite is slowly weathered by water, ice, and frost wedging. The primary sculptor of El Capitan was the action of giant glaciers that periodically filled Yosemite Valley. The Sherwin Glaciation, which occurred between 1.3 million and one million years ago, did most of El Cap's sculpting. El Cap's unjointed rock surfaces resisted the rivers of ice, leaving it standing tall and proud.

    Largest Granite Monolith in World

    El Capitan is considered the largest granite monolith in the world, being formed from a single chunk of granite.

    First Ascent of El Capitan in 1958

    The big wall of El Capitan was first climbed over 18 months in 1957 and 1958 using siege tactics by climbing upward and fixing ropes back to the ground. Camps were established on ledges along the way. The 47-day effort was led by big wall master Warren Harding. The team used aid climbing techniques, which was still in its infancy in those days, by pounding pitons or placing expansion bolts in drilled holes. Harding along with Wayne Merry and George Whitmore reached the summit on November 12, 1958 to newspaper reporters and champagne.

    Harding Drills 28 Bolts in 15 Hours

    The last days of the first ascent of The Nose in early November are legendary among climbers. After enduring a three-day storm high on El Cap, the team reached a narrow ledge that was 180 feet below the summit of El Capitan on November 10. An overhanging blank wall swept up above the climbers to the summit. Early on the morning of November 11, George Whitmore swarmed up the fixed ropes to the ledge, carrying enough bolts to climb to the summit. Warren Harding went to work like a madman, slowly hand-drilling 28 holes and then hammering 28 bolts into the holes to create a long bolt ladder up the steep exposed face over the next 15 hours, reaching the summit at 6 a.m. after climbing all night.

    2nd and 3rd Ascents of El Cap

    The second and first continuous ascent of El Capitan was up The Nose route in seven days in 1960 by Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Joe Fitschen. This ascent, accomplished without siege tactics, proved that Yosemite's big walls could be safely climbed in a single push. The third ascent of the route took three-and-a-half days by Colorado climber Layton Kor, Steve Roper, and Glenn Denny in 1963.

    Captain Kirk Free-Solos the Captain

    In the year 2287, a couple hundred years in the future, Captain James T. Kirk, el capitan of the Star Ship Enterprise, attempted to free-solo climb up El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Why? Because he wanted to go where no man had gone before…yeah, right. He almost slips and takes the big plunge off El Cap but his good buddy Mister Spock shows up wearing his levitation jet boots and saves the day…and the Captain.

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