It all started during Ian and I's standard Wednesday night trip to the gym. One of the instructors (Siva) noticed that Ian's hands looked like they'd been dipped in acid (North Buttress of Middle Cathedral), and struck up a conversation with us. It eventually went like this:
Siva: Hey, do you ever aid climb? Evan: Lots. Siva: Are you ever looking for a partner? Evan: Sure, want to do the Salathe Wall? Siva: Ok, but you should know I've never aid climbed before... Evan: It will be fine, how about next week? Siva: Lets do it! Ian: Evan, you are going straight to hell...
Siva's climbing resume is impressive, she may not have much aid experience, but she has onsighted 12d, done 13's, and free soloed Nutcracker. Of course, none of that has anything to do with big wall climbing, but, most importantly from my perspective, she had a burning passion to get up the wall. I was really looking forward to going up with someone who had a significant emotional stake in making it to the top.
We did a checkout day at the Pinnacles, practicing all those good big wall tricks: jumaring, pendulums, cleaning overhangs, etc... Everything went well and we even got along. Siva, did a "psycho check" on me and I passed (obviously didn't talk to anyone who actually knows me). We survived the racking process with help from brownies Siva baked while we were sorting through her mountain of gear (potential wall partners take note, the bar on etiquette has been raised). Everything seemed to be going too well, and of course when thats the case its usually only a matter of time till things come to a crashing halt. For us, that time would be:
The first pitch. I will always wonder how responsible I was for the fall. I had given Siva the key lesson in aid climbing "Do it as little as possible" With that in mind she was psyched up to try and free as much of the first pitch (10c) as possible.
When we arrived at the base, a party in front of us was just getting starting. Luckily, they were headed up the Triple Direct, not the Salathe. Their leader was very efficient, and quickly linked the first two pitches. The second had never jugged before and I bit my tongue as I sent him on his way. Finally, after all the practicing, posing, and packing, its our turn!
Siva dons the rack and starts up. The first 30 feet are 5.6 and go easily, but soon she is at the start of the real climbing. She puts in a couple of pieces, goes up a bit and then I can see her start to get into trouble. The climbing isn't that hard, but it is awkward and she is struggling not only with the moves, but with the unfamiliar feel of the rock, the heavy rack, the trail rope, and most of all, the weight of the looming shadows from above. She falters on a mantle, tries to get in a piece, sketches, then falls.
I take in two handfuls of rope, but it does no good. She goes 10 or 15 feet hitting her head and landing flat on her back on the ledge below. The rope in my hands never even goes taunt. Its still for a moment as horror grips both me and the party above. Finally she starts to move and we all begin to breath again. Not Siva though, the fall has knocked the wind out of her, and taken with it her confidence. She is battered and bruised, but after a long rest pushes on, aiding the rest of the pitch. She coughs fitfully all the way and I know in my heart all is not well. At the belay we talk it over. She is hurt, but wants to keep going, neither of us can bear coming all this way only to fail 100 feet off the ground.
Siva, recovering from her fall.
The route looms above us, up and left.
Siva, leading the third pitch.
With a guilty conscience I take up the sharp end and free the 2nd pitch which had in the past given me so much trouble. After joining me at the belay, Siva nervously eyes the traverse that starts the 3rd pitch. The tattered purple sling hanging from the fixed stopper is a long ways from the shiny bolts she is used to, but she gamely clips it and swings away from the belay onto her aiders. She is obviously struggling mentally, but turns the roof and slowly aids her way up the corner above. At the belay I'm left alone with my dark thoughts. Watching the time tick away and knowing that I'm not going to summit El Cap this time either. Its almost 1pm before I start to jug.
On my last two attempts the fourth pitch(10b) had been a very slow undertaking, but now I'm angry and frustrated and vent on this pitch. Clearly I've learned something from the people I've been climbing with because I french it in under an hour (as opposed to the near two hours it took me last time), only having to go to my aiders a couple of times. I'm feeling better at the belay, but it doesn't change the situation.
Siva is feeling worse, physically and mentally. The exposure is starting to get to her, and to make matters worse, one of our water bottles tore off the bag on the last haul. The bottle was the one I had filled with cytomax, so we are now short both water and food. Siva declines the next lead so I head up, just wanting to get to the top so that we can do the easy raps off Mammoth Terraces. I have this pitch wired, and remembering to save small nuts for the roof makes all the difference.
At the belay, things are going from bad to worse, we are both starting to struggle physically. Its very hot and we are dehydrated. The pain, and exposure are starting to add up for Siva. There are tears and hugs, its agreed that I'll lead the rest of the way. I grab the rack and start up the sixth pitch.
I think something has changed on this pitch, because I don't remember it being super hard the last time I lead it, but this time the hook move I ended up doing was on just the tiniest of edges. An easy 5.9 pitch follows, and I find myself taking our last swallow of water and heading out under the Half Dollar for the third time in two months. I'm tired and the pitch is hard and intimidating, but eventually its done and I make my way up the easy ground to the top of the Half Dollar as the last bit of daylight fades away.
In our one bit of good luck, I score two bottles of booty water on the ledge atop the Half Dollar. One tastes strongly of borax, the other of sprite, but we are way past complaining about silly things like taste. When Siva joins me on the ledge we drink like drunks on a binge, splurging after so many dry hours.
Even with the water we are both thrashed. Its been a long and difficult day and we decide to just crash where we are. Despite the blood, pain, tears, and dehydration Siva claims to be enjoying herself and wants the full wall experience. The night is quite warm and there are no bugs, so in some ways its better than the ground. We end up using the one pile jacket we have as a pillow and the night passes easily.
First light finds us still on El Cap and still thrashed. We down the last few swallows of the borax water and I fire off the last two easy pitches. Welcome to Mammoth Terraces, but its really time to be going down now. We are both a mess, and "double check" is the motto for the day. Groggy and hazy we set up for the first rap.
My being gripped on these rappels was probably the cause of my first failure on El Cap, but by now, they are old hat. We slowly and throughly make our way down the face. At one of the stances I am surprised to hear a yell from below. Its Ian, he had come expecting to retrieve a spare rope after Siva and I were supposed to have had jugged it. Instead, we are just now making our way down:
Ian: Evan, is that you? Evan: Yeah, we're coming down... Ian: How's it going? Evan: Typical. Ian: That good?!?
When we finally hit the ground, Ian is a tremendous help, gathering gear and preparing to help with the pack out. Most importantly, he has brought that elixir of life "Gatoraid." Siva is wasted and really wants to get to our cache of water and food in the car, I give her the instructions "The easier trail is in the woods, not the base of the cliff," and send her on her way. Soon, we are stumbling after her, but when we reach the car she is nowhere in sight!
I crawl under the car in search of shade while Ian goes to look for Siva. Eventually she finds the car on her own after an epic bushwhack through the forest. If she had done a more thorough check on me, she would have known never to ask me for directions...
The first thing she does is slam down an entire two litre bottle of water. But, it's a bit too much and Siva goes green as she stands up. She just makes it to the grass before she heaves up a sparkling rainbow of gatoraid and water. A picnicking family of five watching climbers from the meadow looks on in shock. They decide big wall climbers are more fun from a distance and quickly pack their baskets and leave.
For me, its the second consecutive weekend a climbing partner has thrown up after an epic and the Salathe roof still shouts down its mute challenge. I glare up at it, but know that work and life conspire against another try this year. I will have to be patient, but eventually, I will meet that roof.