El Capitan

After I finished grad school, I drove west for a three month climbing road trip. Somewhere I heard that climbing El Capitan is a requisite tick in the career of every aspirant climber. First stop: Yosemite Valley.

Really it was the sixth or seventh stop after I entered California because I kept inventing reasons to pull over and avoid entering the park. In truth, all of those reasons loosened the big knot of anxiety that was growing in my stomach. The knot was on par with what I’d felt while A) doing a public presentation on my graduate work and B) being ten seconds away from kissing a pretty girl.

As I drove into the park it grew tighter and tighter, until I rounded a corner and the valley opened before me. Two things happened at once – my anxiety-knot pulled so tight it snapped, and I opened my mouth to puke. Instead of lunch, peal after peal of wild laughter came out.

I parked by a meadow below El Capitan and called Chris; the only thing I could say was, “This is stupid, it’s so big!” as though that was something we didn’t know when we decided to try to get up it. A few days later I picked him up in Fresno, and he pretty much agreed with my assessment. What happened in the next ten days was a jumble:

LEARNING TO WALL: Our first question was, “Austin, how do you haul?”

His response was, “Oh GOD. You guys are going to die!”

Eventually, with gentle encouragement and some amount of begging we convinced him to show us how to haul, and with that we were off to tackle our first wall, the West Face of the Leaning Tower. We left the ground at noon and got to our bivy ledge at around five PM. We learned that all the room on the ledge was ‘taken’ by the three guys on it, it was definitely too ‘crowded’ for us to come on. Wall gumbies we were, so with no further inquiry of the residents we forged upwards to top out at sunrise. That afternoon we learned we’d been lied to.

HEALTH FOOD: Although Chris started the trip on a healthy food bent, my insistence on taking a two pound bag of candy for every can of sardines really paid off. On the Leaning Tower, he finished far ahead of me in the Peanut M&M category.

THE PRE-ALPINE START: We napped for a few hours at the base of El Cap before starting to haul at 4 AM. A lot of squirrels joined our pajama party, but Chris thought they were bigger and furrier than they sounded.

“Jim, did you hear that?” he’d ask.

“What, the squirrel?” I’d respond.

At one point he heard a noise, reached out into the dark, touched my hair, and screamed. I did not sleep well.

CLASS FOUR: Perhaps the hardest pitch of the Salathe Wall was a traversing fourth class bit. We discussed carrying the bags and hauling the bags and settled on trying to haul them. Chris would push the bags while I pulled.

“PUSH, CHRIS!” I yelled.

“YOU’VE got to PULL!” he yelled back.

It went on like that for a long time – neither of us could do very much.

POOL PARTIES: We figured out early on that our wag-bag situation was very dire. We decided to share bags so we wouldn’t have to break into old ones. The accepted vernacular changed from “Time to bring the kids to the pool,” to “Time to bring the kids to the POOL PARTY!”

TEN O’CLOCK: We pushed up to Long Ledge from El Cap tower in one day. After a very impressive lead of the Salathe Headwall by full moon, Chris got to the ledge and fixed the rope.  When I arrived he whispered “It’s like, 10 PM, and these guys are sleeping,” to which one of the sleeping guys chimed in, “It’s TWO AM.”

THE PIN: Off of Long Ledge is the last pitch of any serious aid climbing on the Salathe. I was climbing to salvation until I stepped up on a fixed pin and it tore out. I fell 35 feet into space to the right of the belay ledge. I landed on par with Chris, whose wide eyes said what I’d screamed on the way down, “Holy shit!” I took the fall three more times before I got through.

ROIBOOS: What I remember most fondly is sitting on ledges after sunset with an old friend, drinking vanilla tea and getting to know each other again after a long time spent apart. We’d do that for hours, until we nestled into the warmth of our sleeping bags as monkey calls echoed down into the night.

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