By Mike Sarmiento, © 1996
Authors Note: The following is short story, some parts based on fact, other parts on fiction. Be aware that rock climbing and mountaineering are dangerous. The risk of injury and death can not be eliminated. The author does not recommend participation in outdoor activities without extensive, gradual, outdoor experience, as well as guidance and instruction from a seasoned climber. The story line is not necessarily indicative of how rock climbing or mountaineering should be approached. The reader should not infer that this story is meant to be instructional, or even informative. It is neither. It is a short story, meant to entertain, not guide. To protect the character of those with whom I climb, I have changed names and slightly altered personalities - mostly for the sake of dramatic effect. However, the story line closely follows actual events. Information on trail, climbing, and mountain conditions are as accurate as my descriptions allow.
Climb hard - play hard - live hard. But be safe.
- Mike Sarmiento October 7, 1996 San Francisco
“?A segurado?” I asked.
“Si,” Pedro answered, “Segurado.”
“Escolando,” I responded.
“OK,” he answered. “Climb on.”
I smiled and moved up the rock.
Cool. I thought. Climbing and practicing my Spanish.
Pedro and I planned to go to Mexico together just before Christmas. We wanted to climb Mt. Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America at 18,405 ft (5,612 m). We felt it would be good to begin climbing together. That way, we could get used to communicating with one another. Who knows. Our lives might eventually depend upon our understanding each other’s language - including tone and body language.
So there we were - on Great White Book (5.6R), Stately Pleasure Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. Pedro belaying me while I led the first pitch.
The climbing was easy for me. The protection was not hard to find or set. Other than the fact that I had only slept 4 hours the night before, I felt great. The sun shone hard on our now sweating bodies, and we climbed without shirts to even out our tans.
“I don’t know about that,” Erin commented earlier about climbing shirtless, “Just more skin to peel off and scrape while you’re climbing.”
We ignored him. We were vain.
Besides, I thought, he’s just pigmently impaired and would never want to climb shirtless. Either that, or he was right. Funny how when I ignore sound advice, it always seems to haunt me later.
I put the thought out of my mind and concentrated on the task at hand - climbing, placing pro, not falling.
“How are you doing Mike?” Pedro asked in his Spanish accent.
“All right,” I answered back.
“Talk to me,” he responded, “I like to make sure that you are doing OK at all times.”
“You got it,” I said. Damn. So much for climbing in the silent space that I enjoyed so much. But, it would be a nice challenge to adapt to different partners. So I began to talk whenever I did something.
“Escolando,” I yelled after placing a #0.75 cam in a crack and clipping in, “Climbing.”
When I got to a point where I would place a pro, I talked. When I began climbing, I talked. In between pros, I talked. Pretty soon, I ran out of things to talk about. Good thing I reached the first belay point by that time.
I set up 3 anchors, equilibrated them, checked that they were bomber, then clipped in.
“Off belay!” I yelled down.
“OK,” Pedro yelled back. “You’re off belay.”
I took up the rope slack and put Pedro on belay. “A segurado!” I yelled.
“OK,” he fired back, “Escolando.”
“Climb on,” I said.
He climbed, and talked on the way up. Jabbing away while climbing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It kept me from getting lonely at the belay station.
“Hey Pedro,” I said, “Critique my placement of protection as you climb. I’d like to hear your opinion.” Pedro is an experienced climber from Spain, having led up to 5.10s. I learned piecemeal from various people. But since I began leading, no one really ever gave me feedback. Today, I would learn if I knew what I was doing.
“Well,” he responded, “The first one - the nut - was really good. How you say? Bomber?”
“Yeah,” I said, happy that it seemed as if I knew what I was doing, “Bomber.”
“And the second one,” he commented, “Well, not so good.”
“Why not?” I asked. Guess I wasn’t as good as I thought.
“The cam is not far enough into the crack,” he pointed out, “It needs to be in a more solid position.”
I made a mental note. Make sure cams are in deep enough to be effective. I was glad Pedro was giving me instruction. What I learned from him today might save me later.
By the time Pedro made it up to the hanging belay with me, Joe and Ben started the first pitch below us. Joe led, Ben belayed.
Pedro thought all of my placements were solid except for the 2nd one. He looked at my anchor system and thought it was very good also. I guess all those books I read, sporadic instruction from other climbers, a good understanding of physics (mainly, gravity) and common sense helped. With Pedro’s approval, I finally felt as if I was qualified to lead - safely.
“Do you want to lead the next pitch?” I offered to him.
Pedro looked up and examined the rock. I could see the temptation in his eyes. He was like a kid in a candy store. As if his mother had just told him, “No, no, no! You’ll spoil your appetite!” the excitement drained from his face. He must have remembered that this was the first time he’d climbed seriously for over a year. Mentally and physically, he felt he was not prepared.
He smiled and turned to me, “No. I think it is better if you go.”
We exchanged gear, not bothering to organize it very well. I was in a rush because Joe was close to reaching our belay station. I didn’t want to hold him up, and I wanted to climb.
I started a traverse to my right. It was simple, but had a section that required a wide stem to get onto the large dihedral that would follow the route most of the way up. That’s why they called it Great White Book - it was formed by two planes of rock coming together and forming a route that looked like an open book.
As soon as I got to the dihedral, I placed a pro. This would prevent me from swinging down to Joe in case I fell. Pendulum falls scare the hell out of me because it’s hard for me to figure out where I’ll end up. Plus, it could put forces on the protection that I might not have predicted, causing it to pop out and making me fall farther. I just put the thought out of my mind.
“You’re not going to fall,” I told myself.
I came to a small roof problem and couldn’t seem to figure out how to get up and over it. The face approaching it was smooth, the crack to my right didn’t offer me much to jam into.
I was stuck.
What to do.
I decided to just trust my feet and friction climb on the face.
I moved and made it over.
“Muy bien,” Pedro exclaimed.
I placed a pro above the roof, breathed a sigh of relief, and thanked him. Then I thanked God.
I finished the second pitch when I got to a section of large blocks that was pretty flat. A nice place to hang out in the sun while I belayed. Unfortunately, setting up an anchor in rubble is not the most solid thing to do. I found what was immediately available and tested the anchors. Seemed solid enough to me. But then again, I could be wrong.
I said a little prayer as Pedro began to climb. Please, don’t fall and test these anchors.
Luckily, he didn’t.
I thanked God again. Funny how climbing makes me very religious.
By this time, Pedro was feeling pretty good.
“I think this time,” he said, “I go.”
“Great,” I said, happy to get a rest from leading. I gave him my gear and explained the next pitch to him.
“It’s a huge off width crack,” I said. “You’ll need to stem or friction or both to get up it. I don’t have anything bigger than a #2 cam. Not that a #5 would help. The crack is way too big for everything except maybe a Big Bro. So, essentially, you are soloing for the next 40-50 ft til you get to the next belay point.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have added that last sentence. Maybe I should have emphasized it more.
Either way, Pedro began to climb. He stemmed then put his back against the rock to his right and began to climb using chimney techniques.
“Wait,” I said, “Why are you climbing with my backpack on? You should leave it down here and let me take it up.” It was impeding his flow of movement.
“Oh,” he realized. “Well, it is OK. Too late now.” He climbed higher.
After he got up about 15 feet above me, he looked down at me and smiled apologetically.
“Uh, Mike,” he said, “I think I change my mind. Sorry. Coming down.”
“OK.” I said. “Come on down.” So much for my rest. Mentally, I had to prepare myself for this run out section. I had about 2 minutes to do that. Enough time? Probably not. This was the pitch that would test my concentration, not to mention how big my balls were.
Tengo mucho cajones, I told myself. Mucho.
This time, I didn’t bother making conversation with Pedro. I needed to really focus. I had to keep from looking down at him. I knew that if I looked down, I would realize just how stupid it was for me to be up here. I had promised myself after spraining my ankle on a lead fall that I would no longer climb run outs.
After that fall, I didn’t seem to have the same confidence in my climbing. Or was it lack of arrogance. Either way, the injury gave me a lot to think about. Hopefully, it made me a better, and safer, climber. I think it did.
But here I was. On a very serious run out. Some promises you keep. Some you mean to keep, but you start out on something not fully realizing what you are getting into. That was me. My eyes always bigger than my stomach.
I was 30 feet above Pedro now. If I fell, I would hit the deck. If I didn’t die, I’d be seriously injured. Jagged rubble rocks looked back up at me tauntingly, telling me that my body would give before they would.
I took a deep breath and continued on.
Tengo mucho cajones.
Well, maybe not. I could feel my heart pounding. I could hear my breath struggle. I could sense my knees shake. Fear was starting to grip me.
Somehow, I managed ignored my fear. I kept my eyes on the prize, and continued on. The climbing was easy - not harder than a 5.5. But the mental exercise was hard. At least today, for me, it was difficult. Very.
I made it to the next belay station. Two old 1/4” bolts with rusty hangers. I backed them up with two nuts and set up an anchor.
Man, I needed to pee bad.
Pedro followed without incident and joined me at the belay station.
“Muy bien,” he told me.
“Do you want to lead?” I asked him hopefully.
“No,” he smiled back. “I don’t think so.”
Oh well. Never hurts to ask, I thought.
I led the fourth pitch. Another run out pitch. This time though, I was able to place one pro before I got to the next anchor. When the going gets tough, I just keep on going - more out of stupidity and the fact that there is no turning back. We were committed.
I simply ignored my fears. I forget about my fatigue. I overcame my hunger. I just climbed, and told myself this was fun. Deep down, I knew it would just be a simple matter of time before my adrenaline ran out. Then what would I do?
At the fourth belay anchor, I was able to see the climbing party on the route called West Country. Karl was on the climb with Margaret.
“Hey, is that Mike?” he yelled to me.
“Yeah,” I answered, “Karl?”
“Yeah!” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Great!” I said. “This baby is really run out!”
“I told you!” he said, “But you are almost done. Just up there is the top.”
I looked up. It didn’t look very far. One more pitch maybe. Good thing. It was around 6:15 pm now, and the sun would be setting soon. I didn’t want to get caught in the dark. But what I want in life and what I get are usually polar opposites. I wondered if today would be any different.
“I can’t believe you did this as your first lead climb,” I told Karl. “It’s a fun climb, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice.”
“Well,” he said, “I liked it.”
Tu tienes muchos, muchos cajones, I thought. Muchos.
Pedro joined me at the fourth belay point. We examined the route topo and I started to lead again. There was another party on the bolts to my right, so I decided to take the 5.3 friction traverse to my left. That would get me to the top, and we could finish the climb. From there, it was an easy 4th class scramble and then the descent.
I was twenty feet above Pedro now. No pro between us. I looked down at him. Big mistake. Fear rushed through me. I tried to put it out of my mind. Frantically, I started looking for a place where I could put pro. I spotted a crack, and moved towards it methodically. Friction climbing requires quiet but confident movement. I was quiet, but not very confident.
I made it to the crack and placed a small nut. I tested it. Bomber. I hoped Pedro would be able to get it out. It looked very solid, to the point of becoming a permanent fixture.
I looked right, thinking that it might be better if I just moved to the bolt anchors. But the other party was still on it. I looked left, and saw the end of the climb only about 45 feet away. I went for it, and continued my traverse.
Friction was fun. I looked down and saw that Karl, Margaret, Kris, Dave, Erin and Eric were down at the cars already. Waiting for us. I waved and I think they saw me.
Wow, I thought. We are really up here. I ignored my fear again, and continued traversing left and up.
I got to a point where the face was really smooth. No friction climbing there. I moved up, hoping there would be a place to traverse above it. No luck.
Finally, I found a spot that looked promising. I stemmed wide, but as soon as my left foot hit the hold, it started to shake uncontrollably.
Friction. Quiet. Confident.
I was neither. Sewing machine leg started to hit. Not just my left leg, but my right. Then my arms started to shake. My palms began sweating.
I was totally gripped.
It would be just a matter of time before I slipped. I knew I had to do something. I rushed to find a solid foot hold.
I was in a panic now. I looked down and made matters worse.
Pedro asked how I was doing.
“Scared shitless,” I said. “That last pro is bomber, but I’m gonna swing way below you and flail for 60 feet.” Reality hit me. I had gone off route. The 5.3 traverse was below me. I went up too far before starting the traverse.
I was screwed.
To my left, 10 feet away, was a solid crack. I could easily put pro in. Bomber pro.
In between the crack and I were 6 feet of smooth face. Too scary for me to walk over it. So close yet so far. I was considering making a dynamic leap for it. I could do it. But if I didn’t.....
I bagged the idea quickly.
“Mike,” Pedro suggested, “Maybe you should go back to the right. Go to the anchors. I think it is better.”
“Yeah,” I said. “OK.”
But I just sat there. My back to the wall. Looking down at Karl and everyone else on the ground, looking up at me and my mini-epic. I looked down at Pedro. I looked down at Joe, who had joined Pedro at the belay station. I looked west towards the sunset.
The sun was setting.
Now I was feeling really screwed.
“Climb on Mike,” Pedro said. He was getting cold just standing there.
“I’M RESTING!” I said, half irritated, half tired.
“OK,” he said, “Sorry. Sorry. Yes, rest.”
I needed to gather my wits. My lack of sleep, food, and water had caught up with me. I was no longer able to focus. I could no longer block out my fears. Mentally, I was gone. Physically, I was gone. The run outs had taken their toll. The climb had beaten me. Here I was on an easy section, and I couldn’t move.
Oh God, I thought. What did I get myself into.
I just wanted to sit there. I could have Joe climb above me, lower a rope, and belay me from above. Yes. I give up.
I give up.
Tengo pequeno cajones. Muy pequeno.
Pedro looked at me.
I looked at him. Then it seemed as if instinct just took over.
I stood up and started to climb.
I traversed right and luckily found another spot to place pro. Bomber. I felt better. Confident. Quiet.
I traversed right and found my focus again. Climbing once again became fun for me. I forgot all about my mini-epic earlier. I was back.
“Uh, Mike,” yelled Pedro. “You are running out of rope.”
What!? I thought. My rope is 55 meters - 180 feet. Are you telling me that I’ve put in 2 pro, traversed left, then back right, and now only have a few feet left? A lot of rope drag. A lot of rope out. But I was still not at the anchors. They were only 5 feet away.
“Shit!” I exclaimed, “I’m almost there! How much left?”
“Uh,” he guessed, “Maybe 2 meters.”
“I’m going for it,” I told him, not waiting for an answer.
I made it. Clipped in a hurry, put myself on anchors. Let out a scream of relief.
“OFF BELAY!” I yelled, smiling. I felt safe again.
I looked down. I had climbed 175 feet of traverses but only about 35 feet vertically. Guess I never learned that the shortest way between to points is a straight line.
The sun was starting to hide behind the peaks now. We were losing our light. We still had one more pitch left. We were screwed.
Pedro followed my route and cleaned my anchors. He climbed to my last anchor and removed it.
“Mike,” he said. “I think I just go up. It is easy up here.”
“OK,” I said. “But I’d feel better if you put in a pro. It’s dark. I don’t want you swinging into Joe down below.” Joe looked up at me and agreed.
The only problem was that I had all the lead gear. Pedro had maybe 2 nuts, one cam, some biners and runners. Maybe.
He tried to place some pro. Nothing fit. Everything he tested popped out easily.
I was getting very worried for him. For us. For all of us. Joe and Ben were still behind us a half pitch. It was obvious that total darkness would overcome us soon.
After discussing what Pedro should do for a tense 5 minutes, he decided he would put in a poor placement just to give him a mental edge. But he knew that if he fell, it would pop. I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to see the next foot or hand hold. I was scared that he would pop off and come crashing down. It was darker now. He didn’t have a headlamp.
He climbed up then left, then out of my view.
I could hear the sun setting.
It was beautiful, but eerie.
“Pedro?” I yelled.
Only the wind answered.
“Pedro?” I yelled louder. “PEDRO!?”
“Yeah,” he yelled back. “I’m OK. I’m at top. I am setting anchor. But, I only have a #2 cam and a #3 nut. I hope I find something.”
Someone was watching over us. He had exactly two pieces of protection. Either he could set up an anchor, or he couldn’t. Cut and dry. Screwed or saved.
Both found bomber homes.
He belayed me up.
At the top, I smiled, we laughed, then we hugged.
We were alive. We were happy. We were done with the climb - almost. The descent awaited. But that was far from our thoughts. For now, we exalted in our accomplishment.
It was dark now. I pulled out my headlamp from the backpack, and climbed the last 160 feet towards the head wall that we would follow for the descent.
I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The fear adrenaline had turned to ecstasy. I felt incredible. Pedro and I told each other our versions of the climb. What scared us. What was good. What was going through our minds.
Male bonding at it’s ultimate.
We looked up at the stars. It was almost as if you could hear each star as it made it’s appearance in the night sky. Pop. Zip. Plink.
Our smiles grew wider, our laughter louder, our happiness greater.
Then we remembered Joe and Ben. There were still climbing. In total darkness. They had headlamps, but that would only help to a certain extent. The last pitch was run out. I said a silent prayer for them, and waited.
We didn’t know it then, but Joe had gone off route also. He did a similar traverse right, then down climb, then left. He too was gripped. Only in the dark.
They made it though. We exchanged stories, laughter and food.
Then we began the descent. It wasn’t so bad, but a little scary in the dark. Steep. Smooth. Dark. But we were doing all right.
“Well,” I turned to Ben and Pedro as we continued descending, “Y’all are now official CHAOS climbers. It seems that Chaosers always get caught in the dark on climbs. Welcome to the club.”
“Yes, yes,” Ben pointed out, still with the same smile he had up top, “We are CHAOS. The only thing missing is that we are still clothed.”
“Yeah!” I agreed, and laughed. “We should do a naked descent!”
Before I knew it, we were stripping and laughing and telling ourselves that we were crazy.
We were. We still are.
We descended the last 100 vertical feet butt naked. The sun had warmed the rock considerably, and it felt great to bare all as we walked. We kept on our harnesses, climbing gear, and shoes. The only thing that was missing was our clothing.
I turned around and shined my light at Pedro and Ben.
“Nosotros tenemos cajones de noche,” I said.
“!Si!” they laughed, “!Cajones de noche!”
We got back down to the road and walked towards our cars, singing songs and laughing. We wondered how everyone else would react when they saw us naked.
They laughed. They shined their lights at our parts and inspected us, trying to believe their eyes. Our nakedness kept them from asking us what took us so long.
We took the prerequisite nude photos.
I saw a car coming down the road, and thought it would be fun to hitchhike with all my gear on, naked.
I moved towards the road. Ben and Pedro followed my lead.
Three naked men, hitchhiking in full climbing gear. What a sight.
The white Ford Escort slowed down, then stopped. They wanted to take a good look at us. An elderly couple with Georgia plates.
“Look honey,” he probably told her, “I told you these Californians were a weird bunch!”
We probably made their vacation.
We moved away from the road and laughed. Good thing. The next car that passed was a truck with “RANGER” painted on the side. Five minutes later, he came back and parked by us.
“Did your friends make it down?” he asked. Earlier, he came by to tell them they couldn’t camp where we were parked.
“We know,” they told him, “We are just waiting for our friends to get down.”
“Yes,” they told him now. “They made it down OK.”
“I see,” Ranger Bob said matter of factly, “That must be them over there. The naked guys behind the car!” He laughed then drove off. We laughed.
What a day.
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