By Matt Niswonger
In the year since I lost my nerve on Tangerine Trip, much had transpired. Cathy and I were married on July 10, and we moved into a nicer, larger house. We honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies. We did some sport climbing and hiking and spent lots of money. Things were light and airy and it was fun to just celebrate being in love. I fantasized about some long free routes that I wanted to do in the valley, but nothing on El Cap was really tugging at my sleeve.
Two months later and Cathy is done with summer break and back to teaching second grade; and being an Arborist is the same as it ever was. The day to day grind catches me drifting off, distracted.
I began to get a feel for the weather and I had a sense that we might be heading for Indian summer conditions. I had been trying to swing doing the Steck/Salathe' but I couldn't find a partner. That route has a bad reputation. When that fell through I realized that deep down there was some ambition to do something on El Cap-a feeling that had been missing for over a year. It was a choice between Mescalito or the PO, but it wasn't really a choice at all.
In late September I drove up to the valley from Santa Cruz with the intention of soloing the first five pitches to fix ropes. I would return in one week alone or hopefully with a partner. Upon arrival I realized that there wasn't enough time to lead and clean the initial pitches, so I cheat-fixed by jugging a Swiss team's lines. The initial pitches did not look interesting and I was only too happy to get a head start on this long route.
Back home a friend of mine that I have never climbed with said he would like to go with me. I was elated. He had only done one other wall but I said that I was fine with leading all the pitches that he didn't want to lead. After some spotty preparation we met at his house, organized gear and left San Jose at nine p.m. Sunday night.
It was Three in the morning by the time we had the haulbags humped to the base. I slept fitfully until first light and then we began jugging the lines. A German engineering student stopped by while I was waiting and he asked questions about climbing El Cap in sheer awe. It was fun for me to play the role of the insane expert to this person experiencing Big-wall climbing for the first time. My last words to him as I jugged up my lines were, "practice all year and I'll see you next summer and we'll do this route together....", pointing to the Sea Of Dreams starting pitch. He laughed and continued hiking down the talus.
The first day was exhausting. Scott and I problem solved and got the bags to the station. I led two pitches that day. There was a party two pitches ahead.
The next morning I was leading the first pitch of the day when there was that familiar clattering sound of someone taking a fall. I looked up to see that the guy in the party ahead had taken a pretty good winger. He composed himself and kept on leading and I didn't think twice about it. Later, after I had hauled the bags and Scott was almost finished cleaning, I realized that the party above was bailing. I called up and asked if they were alright. The leader said that he had cut his hand pretty bad on the fall but that he was ok. We asked them to leave some water at the next belay and they said yes. It took them an hour to retreat past us and in this time we learned that a dowel had broken. He had replace the dowel with a bolt but added that if we don't have a bolt kit we are screwed. Great, I thought.
The next morning there was a real circus atmosphere over on Mescalito. There was like four parties all on the first ten pitches and people had boom boxes and were partying up a storm. I was secretly envious and thought them to be badasses for having such a cavalier attitude while climbing an El Cap route. Within 24 hours three out of the four were bailing. The weather was perfect. We had some high clouds and light drizzle in the middle of the night, but besides that things were looking good. The granite wilderness that is El Cap doesn't really begin until you are past the five-hundred foot mark-these guys were only in love with the idea of climbing El Cap, not the long-suffering reality.
Two of the highlights of the climb for me came the next day. One was the crux of the entire route as it turned out. Getting onto the hook traverse at the top of pitch eight turned out to be burly. No one mentioned this section, but then again it is a lot harder to find people who have done the PO than some other routes. You are high in your aiders on the last of six bad dowels in a row above varying degrees of mank below that. Eight feet above is a mellow looking hook traverse along a rail. Between you and the rail is a micro-dyke and a lone crystal bulge about the size and shape of the outside of a halved avocado. The micro-dyke is trippy and flaky and the bulge is sloping. Time to turn the brain off and FIRE the move. I reached up high and used my finger tips to braille-read the hooking possibilities on the top side of both of these features. Not too encouraging. Time to turn the brain off and FIRE the move. In the end I used my Fish hook on the avocado. There is no question in my mind that if I would have blown that move and taken the resulting screamer, I would have insisted that we bail. Week-end warriors like myself don't get back on the horse after falls like that. I would have shook hands with the PO and retired shamelessly to the deck. I had no time to think about it though because next up was Nothing Atolls.
The Nothing Atolls pendulum is for real. I approached it like a scientist and was rewarded. I was getting frustrated by my tenth failure though. Even if you swing from the exact right place you have to make an athletic move to stick the corner. This is no give-away program, I thought to myself when I finally caught the slopers.
We were off to a good start but the heaviness of what lay ahead weighed on our minds at night in the double ledge. Scott was doing awesome. He stayed enthusiastic and was on top of problem solving, but I could tell that the heaviness of the task ahead was weighing on his mind. This was a whole different ball-game than Leaning Tower. At night we hoarded cigarettes and tried to talk about other stuff. Sleeping was pretty cramped. I learned from experience to compartmentalize that part of me that desperately wanted to walk on firm ground again. No, I am on Granite flavored LSD now baby, and the trip is just beginning. Can't fight it-gotta learn to love it.
Mornings I actually enjoyed. I was always up for the first lead of the day, and the caffeine pill-Motrin-nicotine morning cocktail always brought things into clarity. Free climbing section? Bam! Fire! Thin pins to a cam hook? Bam! Fire! Mashie to three RP's? Bam! Fire!
However, as the day wore on there was always a steady decline in my disposition. By the third lead of the day my brain was like oatmeal. Everything and especially rope drag evoked an irritable response from me. Scott was pretty patient.
Things went fairly smoothly in this vein and the next I knew we were at the base of the Black Tower, a 165 foot 5.9 offwidth pitch that I was secretly apprehensive about. I looked up at the gaping maw that was the wide section as the sun set on us hauling our bags to the Island in the Sky, an enormous bivy ledge. That night I tried to talk Scott into leading it but he was not down. I knew this was for the best. It is time for me to stop getting all weepy every time the going gets a little wide on my ass. I sucked hard on the cigarette I had that night-to the point where it burned my lungs a little.
The next morning dawned cold and sunny. Far below in El Cap meadow I knew my wife was watching us through the binoc's. The thrilling feeling that we might actually top out on this thing shot through me like a bolt. Yes partner, it was time to pull up my skirt and lead some offwidth.
The offwidth was totally fun. I grunted and sleazed my way up it like a real pro.
We slept that night at a less than industrial strength belay cause I couldn't link the Illusion Chain with the with the short pitch after. The short but sweet expando section rattled me enough so that when confronted with a committing 5.9 mantle over a few dowels I had a hissy fit that our friends over on the NA could hear quite clearly. Swear words filled the air and I cursed our topo and Bridwell and climbing in general. Actually the topo we had was bitchen-the new McNamara topo that hadn't even been published yet. I was just whining and I knew it. I retreated and we slept at the previous belay.
The next day was a pain in the ass but productive because we finished five pitches and topped out. I had another hissy at the top as hideous rope drag forced me to untie early and rig a super extendo belay on two distant trees using the excess in the haul line. I've got to learn to roll with the punches better, I remember telling myself.
The next morning we were groggy but elated. We talked to all the parties on the way down. Everyone we saw was bedraggled and in good spirits. We had breakfast with the east coasters who topped out on the NA. A crappy route was the synopsis-lots of heinous hauling and much traversing and general wandering. I thought about our route. The PO is the linking of many clean, smaller lines. You always feel as if your just clinging to the skin of an immense behemoth. As far as aid climbing goes I wouldn't want it any other way.
My wife and Scott's girlfriend met us in Camp 4 with tablecloths, champagne and steaks. The dirtbag climbers in the nearby sites couldn't believe it. Neil Grimes of Hard Grit fame had occupied the same site one day earlier and passed out in his own filth and here these no name climbers come down from El Cap and get the Royal Taj treatment. Scott and I were loving it. I looked at the twenty-two year old vagabond, hungry, sinewy and intensely alive Irish guys with a glint in my eye that said..."life sure is sweet when you can reel in the babes. Keep climbing my Irish friends and some day you might be a babe-master like me.". In my post-wall euphoria I kinda had a neat fantasy going where I was a cross between Elvis and Wolfgang Gullich. Then I found out they did Astroman their first day in the Valley and I was suitably humbled.
I was reminded how much I love being married and how far I have come since the days when I more closely resembled the Irish guys. My life may be less on the cutting edge of what it means to be human, but I am much more stable and fulfilled. In the old days intimacy of any sort was a rare commodity. For one reason or another many young male climbers have a difficult time with intimacy; whether from the peer group as friendship, or from a woman in the form of sexual intimacy. I related to those guys because I too may have been involved in a complicated lifestyle at that time in my life. However, here ends my chronological narrative. Read the postscript if you are interested in an explanation of these musings.
Funny how life has its phases. This wall taught me a lot because of what it wasn't. It wasn't life changing or profound. It wasn't a new kind of fear, a new kind of appreciation for my life, a new kind of anything.
Hanging around with the Irish Guys afterwards was interesting though. I saw the Irish guys and I was looking at myself in the mirror six, seven, eight years ago. I too was rough around the edges. And I too had a profound appreciation for the bold and vibrant consciousness that climbing could bring.
I remember a deep sense of personal pride because I was intensely lonely back then and yet strangely enough at the same time I became deeply fulfilled. Put simply I felt very close to God.
Climbing as an activity attracts fringe types and I guess that phrase describes, or at least described, me. However, I hastily add that the "norms" in everyday working society are pretty abstract and questionable so being "fringe" with respect to these is probably a good thing. But that is just my personal opinion. I say this by way of introducing the fact that I went through a heavy Christian phase. I knew of and climbed with other climbers who were into the same trip. People who haven't been there will not understand this. I prayed for up to an hour every day by myself in the woods. To Jesus. It almost sounds silly writing about it now.
Why did I do this? Why did a person who grew up in a very enlightened, free-thinking, open minded household embrace a thought system that he had previously laughed at--and derided the members as being close-minded, weak minded, and worst of all judgmental?
The reason was that I needed the world to make sense. Age 17-25 involved some painful years. I struggled with anxiety attacks and depression. Mainly I was just very, very, isolated and lonely. To the Christian, God is very personal. This is a beautiful thing.
I remember living in my van and just praying and being stoked on climbing. Everything I owned including my fear I gave up to God. I climbed with purity and abandon. I reshaped my insides to resemble the starkness of granite and wilderness. I was no longer an emotionally needy man-that abhorrent thing that any twenty-year old is deeply afraid of. I was now a pair of eyes to look into. Intimacy was a conversation with a stranger in line, a long letter written to a distant friend, a handshake. I learned to survive on meager rations, and when I did this I regained my crumbling sanity and mastered my mental disease. I used to say that God saved me. Now I know that I saved myself.
In the end it was the Christians that drove me away from organized, formal Christianity. By this I mean Fundamentalist Christianity. Initially I had suspended my intellectual reservations concerning the thought system and I was willing to suspend all doubt in the face of anything that could stop the inner pain. Eventually, salvation secured, I had to re-examine the things I was advocating in public. Some things were too ridiculous to ignore. In time I stopped associating with fundamentalists.
To this day I can't ignore the fact that I met God and God was and is, for real. I almost never pray anymore, but I owe my mental well being and current happiness to the foundation I built when I was just another scummy dude obsessed with climbing. I often feel that I would like to start praying again. I often feel that Christianity was a great platform for my first view of the deeper truth-but that the next time I wrestle with God it will have to be under different circumstances. The world is no longer a place wherein I feel like I am slipping into a living hell on earth. It is however, a place that sometimes feels as if hell could be perpetual, meaningless apathy and boredom. My intimacy crisis is over but I am by no means ready to retire from wanting more meaning from my life. Or knowing that I can wrestle with God and walk away changed. To the Irish in Camp 4 I say this: life on the periphery may discourage you at times but remain true to your longing. No one ever beat god in a wrestling match, but you can definitely score points.
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