Following the pull of my lonely heart I recently found myself cragging on the sea cliffs of Tung Lung Island just before the hand-over of Hong Kong back to communist China. As I dogged bolt to bolt and bailed off sport route after sport route I had to ponder, "How did I become so timid? When did I become such a wuss?"
With fear as the anesthetic for my wounded heart three days later I find myself 1000ft off the deck on Yosemite's notorious DNB. As I lieback a 30 foot tall detached flake, the only "protection" I have in seems just as likely to pry the flake off, severing the rope and sending both of us rushing to the talus below. My hands sweat; I reach back quickly to chalk; my feet skid on the slick shallow dishes. No time to ponder anything now. Only time to do some of that climbing stuff. Hand, hand, foot, foot, stretch, rock, throw, and finally sigh...
An epiphany: it's much easier to be bold when there is no choice.
Why don't emotions materialize on demand?
But, as a friend once said, "Of course these things never start 9 pitches up, there's always some reason to be there in the first place." In this case, the reason is hard to track down. Some of it is just because I said I would. Dennis and I had talked about this route months ago and I hate to let a partner down. But what about the obvious self flagellation? It's a hard route, recently I haven't been climbing very well, the logistics are such that we will get a late start (most people are on the rock, about the time we'll just be beginning our drive to Yosemite), I don't bring enough, food, clothes, water, or a host of other things I swore I'd never again leave behind on a route like this (like a description of the descent). What was I thinking??? What is the draw of such an obvious epic? Why?!?
Do I thrive on crisis? Or am I just in search of a good story to tell? I think the answer to these questions is perhaps a trip report of an entirely different sort.
This story though starts with the route, the "Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock," aka the "DNB." The route is both famous and infamous. The former probably due to being featured in a popular John Long story. The latter due mainly to the nature of the climbing, hard and scary.
Different people prepare for routes in different ways. My preparations for this route began with 4 days of dehydration training in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong. Suitably parched I continued my preparations with a wistful goodbye, a 13 hour plane flight (bonus dehydration points), and a few hours at work. I arrived home from work to discover a massive power failure in my neighborhood. In an effort to overcome jet lag I toss back a few drinks (even more bonus dehydration points), read a bit by headlamp and finally crash around midnight.
When I awake the power is back on, but the clock is blinking 2pm. I'm in denial. It can't be two, the clocks must be confused from the power outage. Denial survives until I boot the laptop. It is 2. Sigh... So much for the 8am phone screen I was supposed to do. The phone rings, it's my boss. 2pm Friday: I've been awake 10 minutes, and already I can tell it's going to be a long weekend. A few hours at work and a blind date find me back at home. 10pm: I'm supposed to meet Dennis at 4am, maybe I should start packing now. I'm done by midnight and I hit the sack, desperate to resynch my cicadian rhythms. But, I've only been awake 10 hours so there is no hope of sleep. Around 2am I give up and begin surfing the net for beta.
Bill Wright has this to say about the DNB:
The crux 5.10b pitch, which is quite difficult, is one of the easiest pitches on the route. It has a runout section, but it doesn't take long to lead and it is easy to get past the mantle on aid. As for the rest, You can count the fixed pro on one hand. The belays are marginal. Every pitch is runout, some grossly. Route finding is difficult on a number of pitches and especially the start of the descent. There are offwidths or squeeze chimneys on the 1st, 10th, 11th, and 14th thru 17th pitches. The 17th pitch is the crux, then either the devious 12th pitch or super sandbag 10th pitch.
Hmmm. Not quite the bedtime story I was hoping for. Enough of the laptop, I play with the cats till 3:30am and then head off to Dennis's. A quick stop at 7-11 (not a lot of other choices at 4:30am) for doughnuts and coffee and we are on the road to the valley.
9am: we are racking in the turnout (could we be any less prepared?). Dennis has seen the light and agrees to leave his choss heap of a rack in the car. In what is maybe the only good thing that happens to me all weekend, we take my rack and only two Lowe Balls of Dennis's.
As we are hashing all this out, a bedraggled and limping climber comes stumbling out of the woods. Dennis chats him up and extracts what we think is the story. He'd taken a fall the day before up on the North East Buttress of Higher Cathedral, and after a chilly night on the summit he is only now making his way down. Given that I'd been benighted myself on the same route the story doesn't seem peculiar to me and the climber eventually wanders off.
The first hint that there was more to the story was the two SAR (Search and Rescue) guys with radios who bolt past us up the trail. The 2nd hint was the helicopter that flew by as I was starting up the first pitch. Dennis and I were baffled, obviously the guy's partner had been awaiting rescue while he stood around chatting with us. We had been nothing but friendly and in fact had a cell phone in the glove box. Why didn't he ask for help?!? An extremely ominous start to our climb. We wouldn't find out till later that the story got even stranger. It turns out the missing partner was not injured, just tired, and sent the injured guy out for a rescue. At some point he must have realized how this was going to look in Accidents in North American Mountaineering because by the time the helicopter got up there, he was nowhere to be found.
But, back to the first pitch. It's typical DNB: steep, leaning, flared and wide. In this case, wide enough to be called a chimney. For those who have never tried one, the Yosemite chimney is a special beast. It's difficult to describe the experience, but I'll let Ian try:
One of the main reasons that we came up to Camp 4 Wall was to get some chimneying practice. Well in the process of attempting to get the chimney lesson, I'm getting the "life is perverse" lesson and the "humility" lesson as well. Having done what I thought was a pretty good job on the 5.9 Doggie Deviations, I was feeling quietly confident about the 5.7 chimney at the start of Doggie Diversions. Anyway fifteen minutes into this lead, still only ten feet off the ground, stuffed into the chimney, desperate to get some gear in, confident is not a word I'd be using. Most of the words I am using are short and expletive. I had, heretofore, considered Big-Bro's a reasonably neat idea. I now think of them as an accursed piece of junk, lacking any saving grace except, just possibly, that of being the only thing I have with me that will fit this damn chimney. I certainly lack any single body dimension that will allow me anything other than a tenuous position. Evan and Andy are having a great time watching and listening to my progress. This is not a situation which I find pleasing. I am forced to articulate my theory that no chimney is wide enough to accommodate both me and my sense of humor. I eventually manage to fiddle the Big-Bro in and I allow myself to be lowered down and out.
Evan now enters the maw to show me how it's really done. If he glided up this pitch with a fluid grace, I might feel much worse than I do. As it turns out he grunts, squirms and shimmies up the thing given every impression of trying his hardest to push apart the walls. If that's what it looks like when you know what your are doing, I'm not sure I want to know.
Now, I've done my share of Yosemite chimneys, but part of their particular charm is that they don't ever get easy. This particular chimney experience (and in fact the whole climb) would be enhanced by my moronic decision to wear a brand new pair of climbing shoes. Somewhere around the 12th pitch they would begin to loose that slick "climbing on glass" feeling, but of course by that point my feet were so blistered and abused that no sensation other than pain registered anyway. With some judicious yanking on gear(a theme for the day), I managed to survive my lead of the first two pitches and we are under way.
The third pitch is Dennis's. The naive are fond of calling this pitch "The Crux" because it contains the highest rating found on the topo. In practice, this is a cruel joke, many of the traditional ratings on the route seem far from modern standards. Dennis does as most do and yards on the key bolt. On the follow I make another discovery about the DNB, "following is no free ride." I struggled through the balancy reachy moves at the bottom, but then barely slowed down at the mantle, just dyno'd for the quickdraw and kept moving. I did slow down at the unprotected traverse though. The "move to obscenity" ratio was extremely low.
I aided through the traverse on the fifth pitch to get us to the base of the sixth, also mine to lead. The anchor here is a classic DNB affair. One cruddy upward driven pin and a few junk fixed nuts. I throw a sling over a big flake up and left and decided to just not worry about it. Of course, it's hard not to worry about it, because the start of the sixth pitch is hard! Very thin face face, with just one decent undercling hold. I gave it a few tries with Dennis's eyes imploring me not to fall back onto the questionable belay. Finally Dennis suggested I put a TCU behind the undercling. It looked sort of lame but I stuffed it in anyway and gave it a test yank. As I did, the whole "laptop sized" block shifted. Bummer. Dennis suggested I take the TCU back out. When this block comes off (and it's close) the pitch will be much harder. Eventually I managed to make it go, crimping hard up and left, and rocking onto the loose hold. A few moves later with a decent nut in we were finally able to relax.
The way scary 7th was Dennis's to link with the 8th. The 7th starts by down climbing a ways, stuffing in a bunch of junk gear, than a 5.9 mantle and some runout 5.7 face. Casual to follow, but a heady lead. The 8th on the other hand is a nightmare to follow, a 50 foot hard and unprotected traverse. Luckily the belay is centered over the traverse, So with a bight lowered down it can be done with some semblance of sanity for the second climber.
It's around 2pm by the time I start up the 9th pitch. I've been awake for 24 hours. I'm 3/4 of the way through the 1 liter of water I have for the climb. Two doughnuts at 4am, some poptarts at the car, and a Cliff Bar(tm) have gotten me this far, but from now on I'll be too dehydrated to eat anything else.
The 9th pitch is the 30 foot tall detached flake where we started this story. Terrified I look down at Dennis for reassurance and get only an impatient glare. On the verge of greasing off to an uncertain fate I dyno for the top. As I mantle to safety I feel the fine grit that marks this as a recent fracture. When his turn comes Dennis walks over to the bottom of the flake, looks up and says, "Oh, if I'd known it was this scary I'd have put more gear in the belay." This flake is way loose and ready to go. I don't want to think about it anymore.
Dennis leads the 10th, and I the 11th. They are both wide and burly but thats nothing to write home about by this point. The 12th is all about route finding. I'm sure there might be a 5.9 way though this, but Dennis has the guns not to bother. I must have left my guns in the car, because I was pumped just yarding on the gear. Dennis leads the 13th+14th. We both found the 5.9 hands casual and the 5.8 lie back way hard. The 14th is rated 4th class which it wasn't, but it wasn't as sandbagged as we had heard.
I was on the line for the 15th, labeled "5.6 slot" by the topo, it was the one pitch where I thought the rating was just insane. I'd call it 5.8+ offwidth, quite a grunt and I had about 3 pieces in over a full 60m pitch. I was definitely starting to fade at this point, so Dennis took the last two. 16th was casual; the 17th and final pitch is really physical. Hard to say how hard this would be right off the deck, but as the 17th pitch, it seems a fitting finale to this climb. Dennis led it by headlamp, and I managed to follow it without too much grief.
Of course, just because you are at the top of the DNB doesn't mean you are anywhere close to done. I'm not kidding, this is exactly what we said to each other:
EJB: Hey, do you know how to get off this thing? DES: No, I didn't look at the topo, I thought you knew how the descent went? EJB: I didn't look either, I thought you knew how to get down!It's obvious that we are in trouble, but we wonder off to look for the descent anyway. Eventually we find the huge pine tree that marks the start of the "Cat Walk", the ledge system that is supposed to take us across the face of Middle Cathedral to the East Buttress, a point from which I should be able to get us down (I'd done the East Buttress two weeks before).
Trouble was, neither of us could remember whether the Cat Walk went above or below the U shaped dish in the middle of the face. We kept exploring, but wherever we went the ledges always seemed to peter out into technical climbing. At 2am we gave up. I was pretty shattered, it had been about 10 hours since I'd had anything to drink and 36 hours since I'd had any sleep. I had no warm clothes (just a t-shirt and tights), but it wasn't that cold so we decided to just sit tight until morning. As we struggled to get comfortable Dennis and I both pondered the irony of the cell phone sitting in the car. Lots of people get lost at the top of the DNB, if I'd read all the way through Bill's TR we would have had decent beta. Or, a quick call to Clint on the cell phone would have put us on the right track. Sigh.
I was sure I'd be out like a light as soon as I lay down, but it wasn't to be. I curled up up under a bush, on the flattest spot I could find, but as soon as I lay down the wind picked up and I was very cold. instead of some desperately needed sleep I ended up just shivering the three hours till first light. As is often the case with these things, the daylight didn't help as much as we'd hoped. It wasn't until we'd downclimbed all the way to the bottom of the U that we could look up and see the indistinct cat walk.
Not wanting to reclimb what we'd descended, we did two long pendulums across the face, and finally found some easy climbing to gain the East Buttress. While doing the pendulums, the direct sunlight hit the face. In the span of minutes I went from way too cold to way too hot. Badly dehydrated, I struggled for coherency on the pendulums. The gully up to the East Buttress is perhaps the most enjoyable pitch of 5.1 I've ever led. Maybe in the top 10 pitches of my life. It was shaded and breezy, and the refrigerated feel of the rock is the only thing that go me through.
Finally in known territory we switched to Tevas and packed the gear. One last bit of excitement though. Dennis didn't like a section of rock I chose to downclimb, so instead picked a 5.8 offwidth. His desperate cry that he is about to trundle the pack containing my entire free rack has me scurrying out of my shaded hiding place to find that he's managed to get himself stuck about 30' off the ground. With me perched on a slim tree branch not sure if we are playing catch or skeet he tosses me the pack, and then manages to downclimb safely. The rest of the descent is thankfully uneventful.
Back at the car we consume litre after litre of water. It's an interesting sensation to feel your body come slowly back to life. A flood of water over your skin as your body realizes it can sweat again, then chills as your internal cooling mechanisms flare into no longer needed activity, and finally, blissful humanity. We lounge about the river, contemplating the novelty of being able to drink as much water as we like.
Our original plan had been to do the Steck-Salathe on Sunday, but instead we settle for the long drive home. It's not obvious that this is actually less scary for Dennis. My propensity for fading out and drifting all over the road keeps the drive fairly exciting for him. It's 4pm before I'm back home. It's been 50 hours since I've slept. This time the cats are less effective at keeping me awake.