Enough with the chit-chat, tell me about the climbing.
In mid May Paul and I attempted The Muir Wall, but were turned back by a cavalcade of errors, weather, and karma. Actually, The Muir wasn't even our true objective. Mescalito, the route we really wanted, was too crowded and that wasn't even the beginning of our misfortune.
A month will pass before I again find myself staring up at the corners high on the Muir Wall. Thanks to El Niño, it is a month with plenty of time for contemplation. In mid May, running scared ahead of an early midlife crisis, I quit my job to spend a summer in Yosemite as they had in the Golden Age. I planned on ticking many of the Yosemite classics I'd read so much about. What I didn't plan on was sitting alone in the rain dwelling on the past and pondering the future.
After several surgeries I settled in for the 16 weeks of recovery it would take for me to walk without crutches. Instead of a cast my ankle was held together by a device (the "External Fixator") attached to my lower leg. Because of the bolts drilled directly into my bones I was extremely susceptible to infections. The doctor's warning was stern, "Get it wet and face a bone infection. Worst case: amputation."
El Niño became the enemy. With the rain, I was literally a prisoner in my apartment. Before the novelty wore off there were many visitors, but soon, my injuries were no longer news. Reactions to my situation surprised me. People I thought of as climbing partners showed up unsolicited and made me gourmet meals. Others I thought of as close friends where nowhere to be found. Too soon though the holidays arrived and most departed to discharge other obligations. I explored Percocet and wine as a way of making the days disappear, but in the end, my cats were my salvation.
Throughout it all, I wondered if I would ever really climb again. Before I was off crutches I was visiting the gym and even managed a one footed eleven (while still falling off plenty of 5.7s). But, El Capitan was a long way away, both physically and emotionally.
On The Muir, when Paul suggested we go down, I was secretly relieved. I wasn't climbing well and the pitches were rattling me. I lacked the confidence and conviction that will take you further on a wall than any number of Power Bars. I didn't want to be the one to suggest we bail, but with the possibility in the open, I leapt at the opportunity to go down.
Of course, on the ground I fretted. An El Cap partner on a ledge is worth ten hopefuls in e-mail and Paul is as solid a partner as they come. Had I just let my opportunity slip by?
- Ian arrives in The Valley.
- We rack for 6 days and 5 nights on New Dawn.
- Fix the first three pitches.
- Ian leaves.
- His only real comment, "I think I'll go home now."
- I pull the ropes and gear from our high point then sulk.
Partners are at once the best and worst aspect of climbing. This spring was a bust, but Paul and I had laughed riotously our entire way up Zodiac. Benighted on a frigid October night, Ian offered me his patch of bark as insulation from the gelid ground. On the other hand, I once almost had to kill a wall partner when I discovered he reminded me of an ex-girlfriend.
My usual way of clearing a funk: a day of free soloing. But Pot Belly,
Anti-Ego Crack, Sloth Wall, and After Six leave me still feeling hollow.
They are not the validation I need, they don't solve the problems or heal the
wounds. Against my better judgment I grab a stranger out of the cafeteria and
head for the
of the Owen's River
Valley. The frustration with partners has reminded me of the dark times of my
I am not good company as we sport climb between squalls in The Gorge
and my mood is not improved when we run into the once-wall-partner who courted
death through innocent mannerisms.
Its time to leave.
I race through the 8 hour drive back to the Bay Area, desperate to see my girlfriend. The stranger is quiet, white-knuckled, maybe afraid. I don't know, I don't care, I need a hug.
I case the Palo Alto coffee shop. Its been days since I've showered, weeks since I've slept in a bed. It dawns on me that my collared shirt and Gramacci shorts are not going to make a convincing disguise. I look like a homeless person, I smell like a homeless person, I am in fact, a homeless person. The expressions of the staff make it clear that the dirt on my face is going to countermand the credit cards in my pocket. I decide to wait outside on the sidewalk.
Time passes, no girlfriend. I tire of the stares. Calling her home machine there is a vague message, "To whom it may concern: I apologize for being hard to reach, but I've had to leave town for the weekend. Sorry." Surely she means: leave to come see me, right? The message couldn't be for me, could it? An hour and a half later I decide the message is for me and I go in search of Motel 6. E-Mail confirms that due to an uncontrollable plan change I've been stood up.
Partners in climbing, partners in life. Frustration, disappointment, joy, gratitude. I'm awash in emotions as I follow the oh-so-familiar road back to The Valley and no matter how loud I play the music I can't drive the feelings away.
A big part of this summer for me is doing El Capitan with my new ankle
and my new set of daemons. To prove to myself that I can still climb before
perhaps moving on to other things in my life. Given the circumstances, what
better way than solo?
rope-soloing is twice as dangerous though and three times as much work. Do I
have what it takes
to go it alone?
It has been a month, but I'm once again in the meadow below El Capitan staring up at the corners high on the Muir Wall. What answers do those quiet, graceful sweeps of granite hold for me?
I spread out my tarp and begin the ritual organizing of gear. It's high tourist season in Yosemite and the climbers are part of the scenery. I field the usual set of questions, "How long does it take? How do you go to the bathroom? How do you get down? Ad infinitum..." The tourists are occasionally interrupted by other climbers inquiring about my plans. Some are being social but most making certain we aren't in contention for the same route.
I end up discussing Southern Man, with one of the social ones. I'd attempted Southern Man with Mark a few weeks ago so have plenty of advice on how not to get up it. His plan is to solo it, but he is nervous about the weather as well as the route. I Eventually tell him my name and he replies: "The Evan Bigall? Oh wow, I really enjoyed your Zodiac Trip Report." I figure anyone who likes my trip reports can't be that bad a partner so I offer him a starring role in the next adventure. It takes some convincing, but soon I have a new plan: Launch in the morning with my new partner.
I'm disappointed I wont be soloing, but also greatly relieved. It has been a spring of failures, I seemed to fumble everything I touched. I am hungry for the summit any way I can get it.
I go for a late afternoon jumar adding our lines to the ones already in place. The social stranger wanders off to buy more food and reflect on what he's been talked into. At dinner he meets Chongo who lets him read the "Why you don't want to climb big walls with strangers" chapter of his upcoming book.
First light finds us with the bag at the ropes leading up to Heart Ledges. I have a difficult question to confront my new partner with and I've been agonizing all morning about whether to do it on the ground or to delay as long as possible. I imagine less and less probable scenarios to delay the inevitable and finally blurt out:
Dude, what was your name again?Jim laughs and takes it in stride. We seem to be off to a good start. A few hours later and I'm not so sure about our start. Its been a long time since he jugged out of sight with the haul line and my shouts go unanswered. Eventually I leave the bag at the anchor and jug up to see what's going on. The knot connecting our ropes has wedged in a crack, and we've coreshot the haul line. Hmmm. So much for the smooth start.
The free climbing done, Jim takes over as we switch into aid mode. The 13th pitch starts with a pendulum right off the belay. Jim leaves gear in down low so there isn't enough rope left for me to lower off the belay ledge. I end up rappelling a single strand to a lower ledge, completely untying, then lassoing the rope on the other side of the anchor and pulling it through. Standing untied on a two foot wide ledge a thousand feet off the ground I give myself a talking to. On a wall, speed is safety but haste makes for stories that are only funny after several years have passed, if ever.
Pitches 14 and 15 run together and are also Jim's giving me my first opportunity to watch him climb. Throughout the planning he has been very self deprecating, constantly reminding me that he has never climbed El Cap before and asking me repeatedly if I am comfortable with such an inexperienced partner. The reality of the situation is that he is just as experienced as I am. We have done many of the same walls, and even though he hasn't climbed El Cap, he has rope soloed routes that I would be hesitant to attempt. The only substantiative difference between us is attitude. I am confident, optimistic bordering on arrogant. He has spent too much time in the meadow looking up. There is only one way to overcome such "El Cap Issues" and he is doing it. 14 goes easily, a pleasant double set of cracks, switching from right to left when the the right fades away. 15 is a gruntingly ugly flare but he makes steady progress and we are together on Grey Ledges as night falls.
The first night on a wall is often a special time. You are fresh, full of anticipation and excited about what lies ahead. The mood tonight is ruined though by water dripping off the shield headwall. I choose the upper, wetter but flatter bivy spot and end up drenched in my crummy REI bivy sack. Jim fares better curled around the haul bag on the lower ledge, but the drip seems to have an uncanny ability to seek us out. Our ledge is one of the few wet places left on The Captain.
Morning comes and we go about the usual set of tasks. Jim finds it necessary to give me a status report on his digestive tract. I inform him that its need to know information, and I most definitely do not have a need to know.
I led Pitch 16, and it is a complete blank to me. It must have been either really easy, or so hard I've blocked it out.
As Jim leads Pitch 17 a dark, ominous collection of clouds take over the sky. I am pretending not to notice when Jim shouts down, "What happens if it storms?" "Well," I reply, "We'll probably get wet." "But what will we do?" he further inquires. "It depends," I call up, "If you think you can finish the pitch you should keep going, if you don't think you can finish the pitch, you should come down." Many of my partners find these anti-koans infuriating, Jim finds them oddly calming. I, on the other hand, am still terrified. Jim would later tell me he wished he possessed my "Buddha like calm." I quietly try to explain to him the difference between being calm and being too scared to form coherent sentences.
Pitch 18 is mine. Its clear that the "free boys" have been here. Most of the bolts on this ladder are museum pieces, but every third one is a shiny new 3/8". I'm not complaining. I am complaining once I do the pendulum though. I'm trying to back clean my gear to avoid putting a 'Z' in the rope. Unfortunately the moves are quite thin and I am extremely uncomfortable with a the lack of gear. Its 20 or so feet before I can leave a piece as protection, and at that point the climbing gets easier. This would end up being one of the more difficult pitches for me.
Pitch 19 is Jim's. It begins by lowering him 30 feet off the belay for a a big pendulum. He is quickly out of sight and I'm left alone with the wind and my thoughts. Things seem to be going well. Jim and I have quickly developed a rapport and the climbing is progressing steadily. My thoughts turn to the ground. I wonder what awaits me there. This was supposed to be the weekend for my girlfriend and I to decide whether she will move to Boulder with me. But, she is away with her friends and I am here on El Capitan, as fine a hiding place from reality as can be found.
Pitch 20 is short and by far the easiest pitch of the route. The navigation can be tricky though, through this, the midsection of the climb. Several routes intersect here and bomber anchors abound. Parties have climbed this pitch and not even noticed it but there is no doubt when you've reached the bottom of Pitch 21 because...
I'm supposed to be the wide crack specialist, but Jim ends up leading all the big stuff. I must have paid my dues lower down to earn the miss here. I am astonished at how much this pitch resembles the pictures I have seen of "The Wormhole" on Great Trango Tower. All of the fun with none of the altitude. As Jim struggles with the awkward climbing the wall goes into shade and then finally dark. When he calls down "off belay, rope is fixed" it is chilly but I expect to warm quickly so I clip my nice NorthFace jacket to the back of my harness and start jugging. Somewhere along the grunt and thrash fest involved in cleaning this pitch the cheesy clip-in loop must have broken because by the time I reach the belay the jacket is gone and with it my stash of gummi worms. We have come prepared for bad weather so I have a backup sweater, but I will sorely miss my special treats at the long belays.
Our first Portaledge bivy, a better test of compatibility than any Cosmo Quiz. Eating, drinking, and pretending to be merry while not rocking that little bit of sanity in the sky. In the morning we share an intimate moment squatting over a paper bag. Jim then informs that as its my task to deposit the bags in their container, I do indeed have a need to know about his digestive distress. Needless to say it is a pleasure to get on with the climbing although I would exact digestive revenge in the form of gas that had Jim complaining from 30 feet below me.
Pitch 22 is a strikingly beautiful crack. Unfortunately its esthetics derive from its uniformity. How many Camalot Jrs did we bring? I make the mistake of leaving a key piece as part of the anchor and have to do extensive back cleaning. The climbing is easy, very A1, but slow with me meticulously placing each piece. From 70 feet out I look down on only few shaky tri-cams as my protection and I'm greatly relieved when the crack widens up enough for me to leave some expendable cams.
Jim's pitch doesn't look that hard, but when he attempts the pendulum he finds... nothing there. Not good. He fusses in a valiant attempt to get something to stick, but ultimately calls down for the hammer and pins. A tied off Knife Blade gives him a decent piece and he is able to do the rest of the Pitch 23 clean. At the belay, a pleasant surprise: a big slab. And, an unpleasant surprise: a fixed pin comes out, almost sending Jim for a big ride down the slab and off into space.
The shadows catch us with only three pitches done, but the next pitch is
rated A3 and Jim isn't keen to tackle it in the dark. We call it day and break
out the portaledge. Our third night on the wall and we have fallen into a
I set up the ledge then Jim digs our evenings supplies out of the haul bag.
We eat dinner sitting with our backs against the wall and then sleep head to
foot. Like camping on a park bench except for the fact that the nearest bench
is thousands of feet below. In an act that once seemed like reasonable planning
but now seems deranged, we have beer, but not enough to have one each night.
This evening we do without.
Jim is well into the A3 of Pitch 25 when calls down that he has had an accident. "What do you mean an accident? Did you drop something?" I yell back. "No," he replies, "You know, an accident!" Really man, I just don't need to know.
Pitch 26 starts out fun. Good moves out a big roof with huge exposure. Turning the roof lands you on a sloping ledge and then things start to go bad. The topo here is marked A2 expando but, when he climbed The Muir, Dave Hill ripped the flake off in a big fall thus eliminating the expando section. I move up and sling a horn. The horn is loose enough that I can move it with my hand, so I'm careful to only weight it back in, towards the wall. Above this there is only a vein of rotten rock. I place two Lowe Balls in the bad rock and begin to really know fear. If these pieces blow I'll go crashing down onto the horn ripping it off the wall and sending death and destruction raining down on Jim at the belay. I really won't have time to worry about though because the rope is running over a quarter inch thick serrated flake and may very well cut. Bad. Bad. Bad. I remember tales of loose rock slicing gear and wonder if I'm about to die. I'm overcome by calm as I top step off the Lowe Balls and do half a free move before I can sink a solid #2 Camalot in a place where the rotten rock has flaked away leaving a slot. Yikes! Big fun on the big stone. At least the pitch ends at a comfortable ledge.
Jim joins me on the ledge interrupting my reverie. Another routine: we quickly put him on belay, change over the gear, and send him on his way. Few words are spoken and shortly I'm alone again on he ledge. Big Wall climbing is not a sport for those who struggle to entertain themselves.
Pitch 28 is straightforward, somewhat thin and a bit calcianted, but the climbing is obvious. Cam hook, cam hook, cam, repeat... The crack is very continuous so the pitch ends at a flare where you can use different size gear for the anchor. We have left the path tread by the "Bosch Brothers" so there is no longer a pair of half inch bolts like bread crumbs at each belay to guide the way. It hasn't been a problem so far, but this belay could really use a few bolts. All the gear is in the corner making hauling awkward and setting up the portaledge problematic.
We have three choices: lead the next pitch in the dark, thrash around with the portaledge in this dihedral, or fix down to the ledge now more than a rope length away. We opt for the luxury of the ledge below. Jim is again deferential, telling me he wouldn't know how to begin getting us and the gear to the ledge. I tie two ropes together and tell him to rap down, mostly to give myself time to work it out. A quick check shows that I can lift the bag making things simpler than either of us thought. I just clip it into my belay loop and rappel down with it passing the knot.
Morning confronts us with the commute to our high point. With luck, we will summit today and being so near the finish makes me extremely nervous on the 250 ft jumar. Jim uses our zip line to maintain possession of his end of the rope as I pass the knot hauling. Soon, I am ensconced in the perceived safety of our belay seat as Jim works on Pitch 29.
The higher we go in the grand dihedral the thinner it gets. We have now entered the Cam Hook Zone. Upward progress is not difficult, but pieces that can be left as protection are few and far between. Jim goes a long way, even placing our new Micro Cam Hook, but eventually calls down for the hammer and starts nailing just short of the belay. I've returned to enjoying the view when I feel a violent tug on the rope. I look up to see what Jim's problem is and find that he has quietly taken a fall! A Lost Arrow he'd placed has popped and he's been caught by his previous pin.
Without further incident Jim reaches the anchor such as it is. The quality of the anchors has gone steadily downhill since we diverged from the free variation and to my cowardly sensibilities this one borders on unsafe: a motley collection of quarter inch spinners and a few pieces of gear that Jim places as the start of the next pitch. I am eager to reach the bolts I can see midway through Pitch 30 but its slow going to get there. Thin, subtle moves ultimately bring me to the disappointment of two more quarter inch museum pieces. From here the next placement is left, around a corner, and up under a roof. I can see the pin scar but every time I try to reach it my feet skate off wet rock and I come bouncing down on the old bolts. After ten minutes of frustration I call down for the hammer and pins but things don't get much better as I have never before placed a pin and meant it.
Without any intuition I choose a Knife Blade from our meager selection of pitons. Hitting it hard seems like a good idea so I do that for a while before I notice its not moving. I clean it with a gentle tug of my fingers, replace it with a Lost Arrow, then hit that hard for a while as well. With my fingers I can wiggle it but not clean it so I elect to ooze onto it in lieu of further testing. As I gently shift my weight I call down to Jim "Watch me, I'm not sure if this is good for five seconds or five years!" It seems like I hear the "schrinnk" and my own shout simultaneously as the pin pulls. I jolt to a stop, dangling from the rope 10 feet below the ancient bolts and Jim yells up: "I think that would be the former..."
I return to my high point and select a different Lost Arrow. I hit this one hard as well, but instead of trying to actually move onto it, I use it just to stabilize me on the wet rock as I slam a Baby Angle into the heretofore unreachable pin scar. I'm suddenly skeptical of pitons and bounce test the small angle extensively before getting on it. Its not until I place all of our large cams in one short horizontal crack that I begin to feel comfortable again. I place another Lost Arrow on the pitch though. After all, I have the hammer with me and the scent of taint, so why not.
Pitch 31, Jim's final lead of the route. Two low angle pendulums and then an interminable amount of time in search of an anchor. Once he is off belay we both struggle, Jim with the haul, and I with the cleaning. Jim's problems are honest: a low, awkward anchor and the bag getting hung up. My problem is summit fever. I botch the second lower out and hopelessly snarl the ropes. It takes two trips back to the pendulum point before everything is sorted out and we are ready for...
The last pitch: a short chimney, a few easy aid moves, then 4th class through bushes until you are willing to declare it "the top." Followed of course by the nightmare of hauling through said bushes.
The summit of El Capitan is always anti-climatic. No brass band, no parade, no scantily clad women with bottles of champagne. Instead, a bleak scree field inhabited mostly by mosquitos. On the ground, climbing The Muir had seemed so important. I'd pretended that getting up this wall would right all the wrongs in my life. On the summit I'm happy just to doff my harness, but I know in my heart, that nothing has changed.
Even though we are out of beer we elect to spend a final night together on top. Our partnership has been spontaneous but successful. Tomorrow we will descend, returning to the meadow and the lives we left behind five days ago. I will try, but fail to salvage my relationship, Jim will try, and succeed in soloing Southern Man. Life moves on with its inevitable momentum but for tonight, we enjoy a final pause on El Capitan.
My El Cap record is now 3 for 10. The successes are all special in different ways. To me, this one certifies that my life is still whole despite the tribulations of the past six months.