Standing in the meadow I look up at the route. With binoculars I can see the major features. The heart, the Ear, El Cap Spire, the Headwall, the Roof. I even manage to convince myself that I can make out the Hollow Flake. But, what I can't for the life of me do is picture myself up among those features. I mean its El Cap! and I'm just a lame wannabe... I suppress the urge to hide, and try to put up a good face for Andy. "Lets go climb something..."
Saturday and Sunday are spent running out some easy routes, trying to get my head back in free climb mode (I've been doing a lot of aid this spring). As a diversion we try Cold Fusion (10c) on the apron. If you too are in need of a confidence booster, this is the place to go, its barely 5.9. Unfortunately I wasted that pent up confidence groveling up "An Udder way" an honest 10a. Oh well...
Sunday night finds us in the Manure Pile parking lot, me praying for rain, Andy enjoying the view. Dennis shows up and the racking begins. Dennis and I have a long history of hating each others racks. My rack is a fine collection of the yuppiest gear money can buy (it does have that "lived in" look though). Dennis's rack is a bunch junk that might have been considered new-fangled in the 60's.
Its obvious right from the start that Dennis and I are coming at this climb from different perspectives. To me, its the biggest climb I'm ever likely to do and I assemble a rack proportional to how terrified I am. To Dennis, its a casual warm up for the nose-in-a-day and he puts together a rack thats lighter than what I take for a day of cragging. In the midst of the cursing and laughing we come to some agreement, and my bag of "stuff I'm bringing, but not telling him about" is smaller than I'd expected it would be.
The racking complete we head off into the woods to try and grab some sleep. Given that I haven't slept a wink in the week since I'd agreed to do this climb, I'm not sure why I bothered. There is nothing quite like that feeling of lieing in my warm soft bed yet being gripped out of my mind.
6am finds us shivering at the base of the Free Blast. There are some bumblies about with lots of shiny new gear. They have fixed but not cleaned the first pitch and are mumbling about the Triple Direct as Dennis heads up their line in what is the first of several fine displays of aiderless aid. It takes Dennis about 10 minutes to batman their rope and they don't even have the sleep out of their eyes before I've jugged to the belay and am taking the rack for the next lead.
Somehow I get it into my head that this pitch is the 10b crack I was worried about, so I break out my aiders and head up. We only have one cam that really fits the crack so I'm soon 30' out looking at a serious whipper. When Dennis joins me at the belay he informs me that I've just put on the sketchiest display of aid he's ever seen on a 5.8 lie back. Doh!!! I hate it when that happens... I need to climb more and think less.
Dennis had wanted to free the 11b roof, but as he started to sense just how slow I could be he made the decision to french it. This was the pattern of the day. Dennis grabbing, lunging, and swinging from piece to piece knocking off his pitches in minutes while I ponderously aided mine. The whole free blast is pretty much a blurr for me. Someday I'll have to go back and actually try to climb it.
The only pitch the really stands out is the half dollar where I actually got to free some of the awkward grunting chimney that the route is so known for. As I inched my way up this, arms barred, knees splayed I try to imagine what Alex Huber looked like as he climbed these same pitches. I find it hard to believe he whimpered about the pro in the flared crack the way I did.
This pitch turns out to be a rough one on the follow as well. Dennis struggles with a #1 camalot that has walked until its completely jammed. Eventually he gives up on it and we leave it. Of course, the only piece we will fix in 20 pitches of climbing is one of the two I've borrowed from Ian. oops...
In what to me seems like an amazingly short period of time we have fired the free blast and are standing on Heart Ledges contemplating our next move. Our original plan was to tie four ropes together and fix straight to the ground in one shot. This has the advantage that only one of us has to go to the ground to tie the haul bag on. But, we get talked out of this plan by some friends of Dennis's who are following us up the route. Too sketchy and too hard to free the bag if its gets stuck they say. So, we get talked into the more traditional plan of fixing to the ground anchor to anchor with 5 ropes and then doing intermediate hauls.
Unfortunately this means that I'll have to rappel off this fine ledge that I'm currently lounging on. Fear wells up in my throat, and I confess to Dennis "If I go to the ground, I'm not sure of your odds in getting me back up here are.." Dennis has had a partner wig at this point before, so he valiantly offers to go down and do the hauls alone. Unfortunately, he has brought neither a rap device nor a comfortable pair of shoes. We spend some time trying to figure out how to build a carabiner brake but finally send him on his way with the gri-gri.
The sun tries to bake the guilt out of me as I snooze on heart ledges while Dennis flails about below. Around dark he returns and confesses that the plan is screwed and I need to come help. He has been jugging and rapping countless times while I've been asleep. The rock below is full of roofs that hang up our just barely haulable bag. Full of regret that I didn't just do this in the first place, we rap down to work on it together.
Slave Andy, (who has been talking into carrying all our stuff to the base from the car as a way of learning about big wall climbing), has taught Dennis how to build a carabiner brake, so at least we now have two functional rap devices. Thank god those beginners memorize pictures from books the way they are told.
The hauling is tremendously hard. I can only move the bag by pulling up on the line with one hand while applying full body weight to the other side of the pulley. Dennis repeatedly goes down to free the bag and then returns to help haul. After finishing the free blast around 3pm it isn't till 2:30am that we are back in our sleeping bags on heart ledges. Not optimal planning...
6am again finds Dennis the frenchman doing his thing. The first pitch off heart ledges is hard, rambling and awkward. Not a great way to start the day, and of course the hauling is pain. Evens are definitely the way to go for pitches 10-20, because after Dennis slaved away on the hard one, my first pitch of the day is trivial 4th class. All too soon Dennis is up again, this time for the Hollow Flake.
I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I don't fight for this pitch, but so far we've been struggling every bit of the way, and it seems easier to just let Dennis do it. Sure enough, he flashes it in about 20 minutes. Its unsettling to belay this pitch. The climber is out of sight the whole time and its hard to know when to take in or give out rope. I'm deep in my own thoughts when Dennis calls down "off belay"
"How was it?" I call up "Hard!" he croaks back down, "I still can't swallow"
Following the pendulum is a complicated affair of tieing and untieing all the knots the hold me onto the rock. I'm amazed at how easy this pitch looks from jugs. Dennis assures me it was way hard, but from the security of the rope it looks like a piece of cake. Dennis was able to walk the #5 camalot up the bottom part, had to run out the middle, but was able to protect the top with a bomber #4 big bro. The bag is of course stuck in the hollow flake so I need to rap down and free it. More rope work of the sort that sends chills up and down my spine, but eventually, Dennis, the bag and I are all on Hollow Flake ledge.
The party below us are planning on bivying here, but Dennis and I are a bit mystified. They had told us it was an ok bivy, but the ledge we found was covered with blocks and rubble. Turns out this has been the scene of major rock fall and they didn't have the most comfortable of nights.
We make decent time over the next couple of pitches (after wasting some time lowering a rope to the party below us who were struggling on the hollow flake). But night is closing in on us as we get to the Ear. The topo forgets to mention the 30' of 10d that leads to the beginning of the actual horizontal bombay chimney that is The Ear, and Dennis's aiders come out for the first time on the trip.
Like the Hollow Flake, the Ear is a disappointment to belay and jug. You can't see the climber (although Dennis did give off a fine collection of grunts), and lowering out off the fixed hex just doesn't have the same spice as being on lead eyeing the fixed pin 20 ft away. As far as I can tell, the trick to this beast is route finding. The strategy seems to be to go high to clip the pieces, but then to go down low to make progress. The route you take ends up being a big V.
Its my lead as we sit at the base of the long 13b pitch, our final major obstacle before bed. Its dark now and Dennis wants the lead on the grounds he'll be faster. He's been really patient the last two days so I quickly concede the sharp end.
This pitch turns out to be Dennis's punishment for all lead hogging, past, present and future. We have beta that its possible to invert (get stuck) all your cams on this pitch when the 2nd weights the rope, so Dennis is in run out mode right from the ledge.
The first problem is that he doesn't have the right size gear to turn the roof about 20' up (we've broken a wire on our #3 camalot). So he makes a return to the belay to gather some more rack. After hauling himself back up to the high point there is a a lot of whimpering as he turns the roof on bad gear and little pro.
Once he's over the roof I'm left alone in the dark with naught but my thoughts, and the moonlit view. I watch the flash bulbs pop as the green dragon of tourists pass below. From my stance its an entertaining ground based fireworks display. Hours pass and I realize I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast (14 hours and a thousand feet ago). I clip my daiseys in with a lot of slack and go rooting around in the haul bag for some gummi worms. I've just pulled a stuff sack out of the bag when I'm slammed upwards out of my stance. My feet dangle in the air as my daiseys hold me to the anchor which is suddenly four ft below me, instead of above me. In my jangled brain I find this orphaned thought "Did he just say falling?" Thankfully we are belaying on a gri-gri.
"Yee Hawww!!!" I call up in a burst of adrenaline silence is the only response... "are you ok?" I yell in a more apprehensive tone "I'm trying to pull my balls out of my throat" he eventually croaks.
Relieved, what's happened starts to sink in. Around midnight on the 19th pitch, Dennis has gone for at least a 30 foot whipper when the #0 alien he was standing on shifted, then blew. Its the longest fall I've ever caught, and probably the longest Dennis has ever taken. Certainly the longest he's taken at night. Lack of gear, slack in the rope, and my 6' of movement all added to the air time. Dennis is seriously shaken and its a while before he starts hauling himself back up to his highpoint.
Eventually the lead is done. Now only a short fist crack separates us from dinner and bed in the Alcove. This crack would be a breeze to aid with two #4 camalots, but we only have one. I'm almost resigned to trying to free it when I spot two bashies out on the face. I don't even look at them as I clip and yard. Sometimes, you just don't want to know.
Finally I'm in the Alcove. Its huge, and looks like it will be a great bivy, but I'm flabbergasted when I can't find any bolts. (there have been good fixed anchors on every other pitch). I'm exhausted and frustrated as I try and sling some boulders in a way that will allow me to haul the bag onto this ledge. Its 1:30am by the time we're unpacked and settled in. I greedily slurp down fruit cocktail as Dennis wolfs his canned pineapple. Its a fine place to bivy and we're giddily happy just to be done for the night. Big wall climbing makes the simplest comforts seem extravagant.
Dennis wakes me at 5:30 the next morning, he's eager to be on his way. I shout "piss off" and go back to bed. Today is to be only 6 easy pitches and I'm no hurry to get to the block's "sloping bivy." Eventually he can be put off no more and we rouse ourselves to the tasks of the morning. A look of horror comes over Dennis's face as he looks at his foot. A huge blood blister on the side of his foot explodes as he's looking at it. He also can't bend one of his toes and its leaking a nasty brown puss. Dennis starts to talk about wanting to go down.
I'm simultaneously disappointed and relieved. We're two thousand ft (700 m) off the deck, but the climbing to this point hasn't been that scary. The fixed anchors have been good and there have been decent stances at most of the belays. I've been rattled, but all in all I was way more gripped in my bedroom at home. But, it only takes a quick glance upward at the headwall to know how quickly that will change. The route has been following a devious line of weakness up the wall, but eventually it just turns straight up the exposed face. Thoughts of the hanging belays on the headwall haunt even my day dreams.
In the end I think to myself its 3 days up and only 1 day down. I make it easy for Dennis to decide to bail.
We've come this far though and we are going to see the top of El Cap spire. I lead the funky chimney. Everything on this route has a catch to it. If the climbing is easy, there is no pro, or the hauling is bad, or something!!! Nothing is a gimme, and this 5.6 chimney is no exception.
Routefinding is key, I'm gripped doing difficult wide chimney climbing because I'm afraid to leave the protectable features. Eventually I set off on what I expect to be 40 ft of no pro chimneying only to discover a crack that takes bomber nuts. whew....
I mantle onto the spire and have a hard time accepting where I am. Even looking over the edge at the ground so far below my brain refuses to make the connection that I'm halfway up the face of El Cap. Dennis jugs up to join me and we lounge around taking pictures. Dennis unties to get that classic Royal Robbins look reclining on the boulder. I'm just about to snap his picture when he screams out "Wait! No, not with the GriGri, get this damn thing off of me..."
The jug to the spire crystallized Dennis's resolve to go down though. He's unhappy and in a lot of pain. I give the headwall a final glance and we pack for the trip down.
Dennis goes first to set the anchors, and I follow with the bag. Maybe I wasn't gripped yesterday because it was dark? But, all of a sudden, I'm very scared. Rapping from high on a wall with a big haul bag is no fun. We have to pass the party below us, and I skeptically eye all our anchors. I spend some time wondering why we aren't still on our way up.
Reversing the hollow flake is a huge amount of work. The bag gets stuck between two fixed lines on the pendulum and Dennis final has to rap down and cut one of the lines to free it. He thinks long and hard as he saws through the rope with his knife. Its scary stuff as the bag rolls and tumbles across the face. Once back onto Heart Ledges, the going is easier, but we are both pretty wiped out. Two days of hard climbing has taken its toll on us. We are both operating in zombie mode, hardly talking, just silently dealing with the things that need doing. A party of idiots have fixed their lines on the decent route in such a way that we can neither use their lines or conveniently fix our own. Dennis fumes and wants to just loop our lines over the chains. This is how an entire party got cleaned off the nose, and I'll have no part of it. We back everything up, 1/2" bolts and huge chains not with standing, I'm not in the mood to even have to wonder.
Finally we hit the dirt. I shed my harness, take two steps and fall on my face. Oh yeah, its that horizontal thing... Darkness is coming so I quickly pack the bag and hump it out to the road. I leave the bag and go back in search of Dennis. Eventually I find him, staggering down the trail in his climbing shoes. Next time we do a wall, this boy is bringing boots.
Back at the van we're slowly trying to make the jump back into reality. The reality that we failed, and the reality that if we don't watch where we are going the van will end up in the river. Two pitchers of Guiness and half a bottle of Advil later the emotions fade and its nice to just be down. On the wall I slept like a baby, but in the van, with the window open (river sounds wafting in, sock smell wafting out), the nightmares return. Being high on the wall, sleeping untied and rolling over into...
El Cap 1, Evan 0, but I'll be back.