Put an El Cap on it: Road-tripping rock climbers fulfil dream of scaling iconic peak

Nick Brown, David Bruneau and Daniel Alacoque believe they are the first Newfoundlanders to reach the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

The Choss Boys, from N.L., climb famous California peak in 4 days

The Choss Boys return to their van after climbing El Capitan, the epic mountain in California's Yosemite National Park. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

After four days of climbing, which included sleeping on a rock wall and hauling rotten food, a group from St. John's conquered the ultimate challenge — reaching the top of El Capitan.

Daniel Alacoque, David Bruneau and Nick Brown think they're the first-ever team from Newfoundland to scale the 900-metre granite monolith in California's Yosemite National Park.

Daniel Alacoque uses his body as a counterweight to haul supplies upwards. The team used a single pulley system to hoist bags. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

"Sleeping on a ledge requires a lot of organization," said Alacoque.

"But it's better than sleeping on an airplane," joked Bruneau.

The trio of climbers call themselves the Choss Boys, "choss" being a term climbers use for loose rock.

"We feel that it sort of encapsulates our idea of moving ahead in unknown terrain and forging through the unknown," said Brown, a 21-year-old student from St. John's who started climbing nine years ago.

Nick Brown taking in the sunset from Long Ledge, on El Capitan mountain. (Submitted by Daniel Alacoque)

And moving into unknown terrain is exactly what the trio have been doing for the past few months. 

Brown and Alacoque, 26, purchased a 1985 Dodge van in B.C. in July.

Bruneau joined them in September, and the three made their way down the west coast to California, stopping along the way in Washington and Oregon to sharpen their skills for the big climb: El Capitan. 

A view of the middle third of the route up El Capitan during a rainy day. The heart-shaped impression in the wall creates low angle terrain on the left side, which the Salathe Wall ascends through. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

"The fact that this massive piece of stone has such a steep angle and so few ledges and features that climbers look for when they're attempting to go up the wall makes it very difficult," said Brown.

The Salathe dream 

The team chose to tackle El Capitan, via the Salathe Wall, over four days.

Daniel Alacoque climbing the sixth pitch of the Salathe Wall. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

That meant sleeping on the wall for two nights, either on natural platforms along the route, or on a hanging tent system called a portaledge, which is secured to the rock face.

"It can be unnerving if you haven't set the portaledge up right, and of course sleeping on a ledge with a 2,000-foot drop just next to your right shoulder is pretty intimidating," said Brown.

Daniel Alacoque and David Bruneau atop El Capitan spire after waking from a comfortable night spent on the ledge. The top of the spire is 550 metres above the valley floor, and completely detached from the rest of the wall at its peak. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

By the time the climbers settled in for the night, they were exhausted enough to fall sleep anywhere. They got up around 6:00 a.m. and didn't stop climbing until well after dark

The ghostly figure of Daniel Alacoque leading a pitch off the spire after dark to give the team a head start the next day. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

Lessons learned 

They also had to haul the 180 pounds of gear they were dragging behind them, including 15 pounds of food that went bad.

A train of haul bags the three climbers had to drag up the wall of El Capitan. (Submitted by David Bruneau)

"We thought we would be able to get away with food that would last a few days, like quinoa salad, which is a little bit perishable as we figured out," said Bruneau, who first started climbing at Wallnuts in St. John's 12 years ago.

"So we actually had about 15 pounds of food go bad on us … that we had to drag up the wall so we wouldn't leave a mess. That was a big lesson we learned."

Daniel Alacoque sitting on Long Ledge, the last spacious ledge on El Capitan's Salathe Wall and about 90 metres below the summit. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

Big names on a big climb

The Choss Boys encountered some big names in professional climbing on the wall.

They spotted Tommy Caldwell on the first day, Pete Whittaker on the third day, and just as they were tackling the trickiest section — the head wall — Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin rappelled past them and shouted some encouragement.

"As we were completely terrified so high off the ground doing the most difficult part of the climb, they were just up there at home swinging around on some ropes," said Brown.

Dave Bruneau follows Daniel Alacoque and Nick Brown up the 29th pitch of the climb, The Headwall. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

The St. John's group reached the top of El Capitan just after dark on Nov. 4.

"We let out a pretty mighty yell, that's for sure — at least I did," said Brown.

"And we [dragged] these three beers up with us that we got to enjoy at the top, a little bit of frivolous weight that we allowed ourselves."

The Choss Boys celebrate with beers at the summit of El Capitan. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

The Choss Boys spent the night on the top of El Capitan eating chocolate, listening to music and enjoying those beers 900 metres in the air.

"The stars were pretty amazing," said Bruneau.

The morning after a night spent on the summit of El Capitan. (Submitted by Nick Brown)

The next morning it was back to the van, their home for at least a few more months, the close quarters no big deal for three friends who put their lives in each others' hands.

"I think we're a good trio, we complement each other," said Alacoque.

Daniel Alacoque, Nick Brown and David Bruneau. (Nick Brown)