I FIRST CLIMBED YOSEMITE'S El Capitan with my father, when I was 16, ascending the 35-pitch, 5.9c2-rated Salathé Wall over four days. Since then I've climbed El Cap 25 times. When I'm up there, I feel like I've got three times as much energy as I do anywhere elselike I'm living at a whole different level. Every big-wall climber aspires to do El Cap; it's like passing the entrance exam to climbing's graduate school. It's a huge endeavor. Everything feels awkward, your hands and feet swell, and you get all these nasty cuts and scrapes. To succeed, you have to be willing to look past that to the amazing things, like waking on a ledge 80 stories in the air. Prepare well and you'll have a great time. There's nothing better than looking back up at that enormous cliff from El Cap Meadow after you've just climbed it.
SKILLS & TIPS: You don't have to be an elite climber to scale one of the standard routes, like the Nose (5.9c1) or Lurking Fear (5.7c2). But you'll need at least a couple of years of practice on traditional climbing routes, where you place and remove your own gear. Once you're comfortable free-climbing 5.9-rated trad routes, you're ready for the basics of aid climbing, where you use nylon ladders called "aiders" attached to temporary anchors in the wall, which let you climb rock that may be too steep or smooth for free climbing. Crack climbs the length of one rope are also good for honing both free and aid techniques, but make sure you also do some routes with at least five or six pitches, where you'll need to set up multiple belay anchors and get comfortable with big-time exposure high up on a cliff's face.
Before attempting El Cap, do at least one wall like the 11-pitch, 5.8c1-rated South Face of Washington Column, in Yosemite; this route takes most people a day and a half, compared with the three to five days it takes to get up El Cap's easier routes. The Column will help you dial in your systems for hauling gear, jumaring up a rope, and managing ropes and huge racks of gear slung over your shoulder.
TRAINING: Stamina is the key fitness requirement for big-wall routes; you need to be able to sustain a moderate level of exertion all day, with periodic bursts of intense power. Foremost, you need to get mileage in on long pitches. Recreational climbers should climb from dawn to dusk whenever they can and put together at least two long days in a row before heading to Yosemite. No crag near home? Combine several sports for an all-day workout. I often do a two-hour trail run or bike ride before starting a three- or four-hour bouldering or rock-gym session, and I'll end with an hour of weights.
You'll need plenty of upper-body strength on El Cap, so close out sessions at the climbing gym with three sets of pull-ups and crunches, doing as many reps as you can while maintaining good form. Do pull-ups by holding the bar with your hands six inches wider than your shoulders to better simulate climbing. In the weight room, emphasize squats, leg presses, and calf raises to build leg muscles for standing in aiders and hauling up the "pig"the bag that holds all of your water, food, and sleeping gear.
As told to Dougald MacDonald