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Northwest Face of Half Dome, July 4th week 1995

by Inez Drixelius

Team: Inez Drixelius and Bruce Bindner

What do you call a woman who packs in a grade V (the Steck-Salathe on the Sentinel) and a grade VI (the aforementioned) in 4 weeks, adorns kneepads, sports polished toenails and an anklet? Gnarly, aka Nar-Nar. Thus I have earned a reputation and a name, all a bit sordid to live up to.

Bruce told me long ago that he knew I was big-wall material when we climbed our first multipitch route together. He hadn't done a wall in over a decade and were he to go at it again, it would be with me. Sensing an opportunity for bigger things to come in my climbing career, I jumped at the opportunity and nailed him with a commitment as early as last Summer. Every month I would remind him that we had a "date." He would remind me with fabulous christmas, birthday and valentine gifts such as jumars, pulleys and kneepads. There was talk of me learning to aid climb, that we would go and practise. I vaguely remembered how to jumar, the pulley was still wrapped in its christmas wrapper and my aiders were somewhere stashed away beneath the high heels I wear once a year.

We never got around to the aid climbing course, so when our big date approached it was decided that I would be taking a crash course in big wall climbing on the big wall itself. Good luck, Nar! Hope you keep it together!

Bruce, having done the route before, decided on our itinerary and what to bring. Friday evening after our last encounter with civilization (a barbeque and frisbie game in a Berkeley park) we motored on up to the secret campsite outside the park. Early in the morning we headed in, temporarily agitated worrying about whether we might get turned back. It was 4th of July weekend after all. We had also talked about taking fireworks along, but abandoned the thought as we worried they might mistake the celebration on the wall for a rescue request. God Bless America!

Saturday we did a little fun climbing and packed the haulbag and the rucksack (rucksack spent most of its time on the wall inside Howdy). My load was all the gear, shoes and one rope, Brutus carried the rest in the haulbag, which is a 70's antique and makes a horrid backpack. Water was to be had at the base. We set off Sunday mid-morning and proceeded to hike up the regular trail to Half Dome. Got doused on the Misty Trail, that was fun, and I suffered from extremely bad hair days henceforth. When we met some German backpackers who inquired as to the weight of my pack, I finally became convinced that I am indeed "Nar." The 6'2 Teutonic Wagnerian bearded compatriot could not, I repeat, could not, lift my pack. Hurray! I loved it, but kept a straight face. There were many mutterings of admiration and respect and mumblings of "eine tolle Frau...."

We were pretty hammered once we got to the base of the climb, but with a little Gatorade and the promise of the team already on the 2nd pitch that they were going to abandon the climb, we felt rejuvinated. Plenty of time to fix a pitch or two and noone ahead of us. Brutus jumped on the first pitch, freeing the 11 section, set the sturdy anchor, rapped down and we enjoyed a wonderful meal of dogs and tortillas and the last of our fresh veggies, except for the carrots we took on the climb with us. Good sleep, thanks to some evil chemicals that kept the Mongolian hordes of mosquitoes away.

We decided to go in lead blocks of 4, with Bruce starting out on

Day 1

Jugged up. I remembered the jumar set up, my prussik back up and just did it. Yippee! Bruce lead the 2nd 5.9 sandbag and proceeded up the 3rd p. 11c undercling, aiding, and lead on up to the top of p. 4. He had me come up on the steeper sections and showed me how to haul and by the middle of the day I knew how. I remember fixing a washing machine once, I guess, I do have some practical talents after all.....

Now it was my turn. 2 5.9's, a 5.6 (sandbag) and a 4th class. Great, I can handle all that! I quickly learned to aid climb on the first 5.9 piton scarred crack! When you are carrying that much gear and you have been jugging and hauling, a 5.9 quickly takes on the look and feel of something 5.hard! All's well that ends well, we reached the first bivy site atop p. 6, set up camp, hung out and I fixed the next two pitches. Came down and settled in for supper and the daily picture show, the sunset. The weather was wonderful and remained that way for the whole climb.

My one and only bad moment was that very day, when I was fumbling around on p. 8, which is 4th class. No pro, really, lots of exposure. You have to eventually move from the broken left section of the dome to the main sheer face, where the angle steepens to dead vertical. The belay is on a sloping edge sporting one manky bolt. Great anchor!! I felt a cold coming on, I was exhausted and really irritated with myself for wandering and not finding my belay. I finally got so frustrated, I anchored on a bomber little tree, backed it up with friends in a crack behind it, yelled "off belay" and proceeded to weep in frustration and anger. However, I never wanted to go down, I just wanted to kick myself. Brutus gleefully announced that the anchor was about 20 feet below us and that the tree was a perfect backup for that one manky bolt. Boy, was I pleased. My tantrum didn't phase him. "You're doing great, you are NAR!!!"

Day 2

Jug n'haul up to the start of p. 9. This pitch is loose stuff on the main wall leading up to the famous Robbins traverse, which, incidentally has been refurbished with bomber bolts. Brutus performed a fine pendulum stunt and my jumaring was facilitated by backing my traverse up with a sling to the let-out rope above, so I didn't get to do the little sideways dance. Humpf! Yea! Fine with me!! By that time a siege team was catching up with us. It had become apparent that there were two super climbers at work. Travelling light, simulclimbing terrain that had taken us the whole previous day to conquer, in just a few hours. We had by then decided to take it easy as we had plenty of water, food and time to spend another day on the wall, bivy atop p. 11 and not push for Big Sandy that day. Once the Green Berets of Big Wall Climbing met us at my stance, we immediately offered them the right-of-way. They were most gracious, simulclimbing past us with an occasional body belay, grinning and chatting. Lips and Way, yes, Lips and Way, two great guys and friendly as playful puppies. Cute too! Lips was a real doll. Visual culinaries on the Wall. Yes!!

Uneventful proceedings to p. 11. I enjoyed leading the 5.8 chimney sections, wildly exposed as you exit one system into the other. God I love chimneys! I freed that section too, after Bruce threatened: "Don't you DARE aid the chimney, Nar!" I shimmied up the thing, so thrilled, I went right past the belay and ran the rope to its end, but it all worked out fine as I was able to combine further up and finished the last 5.9 hard crack on aid the next day. Bivy 11 was lovely, again, we had ample time to fix and rap, enjoying another wonderful sunset and great food. I have learned to passionately adore sardines in mustard sauce. By the end of the day we saw the Green Berets collecting their pack and heading down the slabs to, undoubtedly, the Mountain Room Bar..... We then also spotted another team get on the climb. Goodie, they were big-walling it, no chance to have them catch up!

Another day, another pitch...

This was the endeavor to get to Big Sandy and the top looked nearer and nearer all the time. We even had a close brush with death as some tourists dropped a waterbottle from the top. It hit about 10 feet above us and scared us enough to yell to the top threatening to do them in if we ever saw them. Yea, get real! Silence, we both realized how vulnerable we really were. I had slept like a baby that night, obviously getting over my cold. Amazing, a big wall cures my common cold! Lots of steep climbing above, Brutus moving fast past the fixed pitches, in full charge of efficient hauling. I had by that time gotten the hauling technique down, my anchors were solid and I began to feel completely at ease with the technical aspects of such a climb. The anchors further up are mostly old piton contraptions but can be backed up nicely. However, you don't want to learn to set up a proper anchor on a route like that. AND you certainly can't be concerned with endless worries about cordelette sizes. You have to be able to equalize an anchor, cordelette or no cordelette. I do nicely with rope and slings.....

Last night, last day

Big Sandy Ledges

Yea, we got to Big Sandy, again with plenty of time, food and water. This was great. We even made a lair where we could sleep next to each other, with me on the outside, but tied into Brutus as well as into the anchors. Lots of very dramatic steep and easy climbing up to the Big Sandy, incidentally. Brutus of run-out, ham-ing it up for pictures and my one mistake was to jug that pitch, as I had to let go and freeclimb a traverse. Unpleasant! Had I just climbed the whole thing with a belay, it would have been tons easier. I also missed out on a real pretty pitch. Oh well! By that time we could look up and see the end in sight! Brutus fixed the zig-zags that afternoon. Great style! Hard stuff and dicey pro to boot, although there is quite a bit of fixed gear up there. That night I asked if Bruce would be willing to lead the Thank God Ledge and the hard aid pitch after that and I would lead us off to the summit. I was apprehensive about the Thank God after having read Pat's account of a very frightening lead and he's better than I am, fer sure! Also, there was the issue of speed. Bruce agreed.

Once we got up to Thank God, it was time for major picture taking! Grand photos, the best! I might change my career. Beth Wald, here I come..... Brutus walked, running out of the right size pro, knelt down, tried to place, no luck. I was looking at a great pendulum. Such is life. I decided to think about other things, contemplating if love and lust are one and the same, if a big wall is a vehicle for sanity or insanity. All sorts of nonsense..... Next thing you know, there he was, mantling across the ledge into the chimney system, his forte awaiting him. He flew up the last squeeze section, "off belay." Some intricate haulbag traversing technique to follow. Uneventful and well done. Yeah, rope eating cracks?? Nawt! I walked across to the thin section, lowered myself, plucked the friend that seemed so far away before and proceeded to straddle the ledge in a rather erotic sort of way, crawling across for a few feet, back up, bi-pedding it and grabbing a fixed sling to get past the face into the chimney where proper climbing resumed. The exposure was wild, wilder than you can imagine. By that time we were 3 pitches short of the top at 8,500 feet. Brutus powered through the last aid pitch, one more little pendulum, loads of fun to follow, then switching leads. I lead the 4th class down-climb to the belay to pitch #24, a runout little friction face number, very sweet, by now in the gleaming sun with little touron heads appearing from the ledges above. Cameras are snapping, rowdy teens telling us which way to go and savvy pre-teens telling us that we were crazy.

Suddenly I hear my name, sure enough a member of my climbing club recognized me. She had done the day hike via the cables to the top. Random chit-chat, however, wasn't what I was in the mood for. Brutus had to handcarry Howdy across the 4th class terrain, which was dicey business. He deposited the bag below the top anchors, abandoned our overweight child and raced over to the little alcove where I was sitting, belaying him wearing just a bra. It was getting real hot and I didn't care who saw me, I wanted that dirty t-shirt off. The finest part of the last lead was that I was a woman leading my partner off this incredible climb. Proving that women can do it too--for those on the planet who think women can't.

We topped out in brilliant sunshine, basking in bewildered, admiring and surprised stares from peoples from all over the world. German tourists were curious, asking questions, pleased I could speak the language, snapping pics and giving us fancy cookies. Our spare water was donated to some thirsty hikers. We coiled the ropes, shed the gear, changed underpants (one of the most delicious moments in my life), brushed our hair, put on our packed stuff and headed down via the cables, one more brush with airy exposure. The only time we needed our headlamps was on the last mile to the car.

A fine experience, one I would love to repeat. But not right away....

Get me back to

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