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Sea of Dreams

By Nathanial Beckwith

The day we topped out on the Native Son, we decided to spend the night
on top.  It is a nice way to wind down before getting back to the
tourists.  I woke up early the next morning exhausted from a terrible
nightmare.  I dreamed I was back at home about to wake up in my own
bed.  Old familiar faces were about.  It was terrible.  What a relief to
wake up and see Half Dome in the distance.  I wasn’t ready to leave the
Valley yet.  It had been two months.  I needed two more.

Only a few days before on the climb, I had sworn I was going to sell all
my wall gear.  I had grown to hate the wall, and myself for going up
there.  It seemed it was for all the wrong reasons.  I didn’t belong. 
All I wanted to do was go get a Big Mac, head for Tuolumne and climb the
long, moderate alpine stuff I knew I really loved to climb.  

But it wasn’t that easy.  There I was in the middle of hauling the load
down East Ledges, and I was already getting psyched for my next wall.  I
wanted something harder.  I wanted to learn more.  I wanted to learn how
to be more comfortable up there.  And so the cycle had again come full

My preferred partner for a harder route was psyched to go, but it was
just too hot for me, even in the shade at the Center of the Universe. 
It was time for three weeks of alpine.  The first was in Tuolumne with
Brandon.  One of the best weeks of climbing ever.  Third Pillar, SW Face
Conness (12 hrs car-car), and a solo of North Peak left Col.  ( Remember
smoking Drum, watching the stripper in the Winnebago and the meteor
shower? )

I also had a partner lined up for Canada.  What an epic that turned out
to be.  By the time I returned to the Valley in early September I had:
driven over 4000 miles, been hit by a Winnebago, broken down in the
Canadian bush, my van taken away, my partner thrown in jail, and ... I
had consumed over 20 Big Macs.  I was now ready for another wall.

All my best partners were gone.  I didn’t feel like soloing anything. 
First order was to spread myself around.  I called, e-mailed, and talked
to anybody and everybody whom I thought might be interested in the Sea. 
Grant once called me a route slut.   I didn’t think that was too
accurate.   Traveling alone a lot, I’ve learned that I won’t get to
climb much if I put all my “faith” in only a few partners.  Things come
up, especially if the route in question is hard.

Relationships in the Valley are temporary.  People come and go.  It can
be nice, but it is also often lonely, even when there are a lot of
people around.  One day I may be having the time of my life with a great
partner on a great climb, then the next they are gone.  It is a welcome
change from the stale and toxic climbing community from my home in
Minnesota, but longer term relationships are important as well.  I had
just left Minnesota forever.  My whole world was in the Valley.  After
my trip to Canada, the scene had changed.  It was a bit frustrating
trying to find partners again.

Singer appeared.  They called him Singer because he was pretty good with
a sewing machine.  He had recently made the second ascent of Wheel of
Torture.  His partner for that climb, Eric Sloan, said he was really
cool except that he always woke up late.  At 120 lbs, he was a natural
for the hooking and #1 head pitches.  Things were cool again.  I had a
project, something to do, a place.  I was on.  My lateral drift was

The words of two well known climbers have always inspired me.  Lowe, in
“Cloudwalker,” said something like “it’s all about being comfortable
with being up there... that’s when I know I’ve grown [as a climber].” 
And the seriously injured Doug Scott, while contemplating an epic
descent from the Ogre said “There was only one way for me to tackle a
big complex problem like that, and that was one day at a time, keeping
the broad idea in my mind that I’d got to get to Base Camp, but each day
thinking no further than that day’s objective, confident that if each
day’s climbing was competently executed than the whole problem would
eventually be solved.”

I had recently taken a class that covered Self Organization.  Using only
a few simple rules for interaction among smaller parts, massively large
and sophisticated structures can be formed out of the smaller parts
drifting in Chaos.  With a little vision, and persistance in always
taking the next step, no matter how confusing or insignificant, large
tasks will eventually come to completion or order.  It is a natural law
of sort, like a bear seeking food 60 miles away.  You can’t do a big
route thinking that you can control, make known, and plan for all the
variables.  On a big enough route it will simply become overwhelming, no
matter what level of control you are capable of.  

There I was in the parking lot early one afternoon in middle September,
drinking a Pepsi, sitting on my blue tarp, looking over about 300 lbs of
gear, waiting for Singer to get out of bed, contemplating the enormous
task ahead ... the Sea of Dreams.

We made a trip to the base to haul water and scope the first few
pitches.  We also gathered more empty bottles and garbage.  I walked off
to take a dump, and stumbled across a fish hook, a RURP, a #2 LA and
shattered radio fragments.  Looking at the oxidation on the gear, then
looking up, I realized that this was probably some gear from the epic
ascent of the NA by Stephen Ross.  Booty for me.  Time for some

The climb

Note: I’ve described the pitch ratings from the Reid book, not the new
wave ones.  For many reasons, this simplifies things.   The new wave
ratings from our improved topo turned out to be a little inconsistent,
but still perhaps more accurate than the Reid ratings from the Price
topo.  Still, it is my wish not to make the climb known too much and
ruin some of the adventure for future parties.

Day 1

Enough sitting around thinking, planning, fearing ... it was time to
climb.  We got an 8:00 or so start and humped the pigs to the base. 
Amber, a friend of Singer’s, helped haul loads.  She was pretty psyched
on the wall scene and was a great help getting off the ground.  She
belayed Singer as he combined the first two pitches.  Meanwhile, I got
the bags packed and hooked up to the haul line.  I then got off my butt
and up to the belay to help my 120 lb partner haul well over 120 lbs of
gear and water.  I then lead and hauled the next pitch.  We were to
spend the first night on the ground.  We dropped lines and rapped.  The
lines hit about 30 ft from the base.  The wall continued to hang and
loom above.  Back to the Valley to chow down.

Day 2

The following morning we jugged back up to the high point.  The next
lead was Singer’s.  We had heard that the pendulums on the Sea were
pretty hard.  This turned out to be the case.  Singer got the first
one.  After several attempts and rests, he made it.  This put me at the
base of the next A4 “loose” pitch.  I somehow ended up with all the
loose and rotten pitches on the Native Son.  This trend continued for me
on the Sea.  

Singer then led the Laura Scudders flake, to another hard pendulum. 
Singer took his first fall here.  He nonchalantly placed a head after
the pendulum, and it blew.  He went cartwheeling back across the swing,
grinding one of his fingertips down in the process.  While lowering out
the bag, my munter hitch jumped the biner and I ended up burning nine
fingers, with 2nd degree burns on two or three of them.

We couldn’t climb like this and expect to stay alive on such a route.  I
was disturbed.  We needed to get our act together.  I told Singer this. 
Time to stop for the night.  I sent in a bolt at the belay, the only one
we placed on the climb.  Early wall blues were setting in hard.  I felt
like shit.  I didn’t want to be there.  I didn’t tell Singer any of this
for fear that he would agree and we would bail.  Either that, or he
would think I was light.  My mind was so focused on being blue and
anxious that I wasn’t seeing things clearly.  This needed to change, at
least for safety reasons.  Things were quiet during our first night on
the wall.  Just a little scuffling as we got our systems worked out.  I
pulled out the human repair kit and we compared injuries.

Day 3

The next morning I got the first A5 pitch.  The topo yet again said
“loose.”  My new specialty.  Halfway up the pitch I was reaching far to
drive in a sawed-off on a traversing section.  One or two hits to set
it, then I let go of the pin and gave it another hit. “Ahhhhhhhh
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!”  The pin fell out.   I really hate dropping
gear.  Singer later told me that this was one of his scariest moments on
the climb.  He thought I was about to rip the pitch.  He had pulled in
all the slack and curled up waiting to get yanked.  Maybe I over reacted
a bit to dropping a piton.  The pitch really wasn’t that hard, but it
took longer to lead than any other on the route.

Singer took the next long pitch, bringing us close to the Continental
Shelf.  The following lead had the crux free climbing on it.  A pendulum
to a 5.9 mantle and delicate layback, then a traverse onto the Shelf. 
Swing swing swing.  Just when I thought I was going to swing into a full
circle, I slammed my hand onto a small knob.  “Slack!.. fucking slack! 
fuck fuck fuck ... watch me!”  Pretty interesting in a pair of Chuck
Taylor’s and a heavy rack.  No pro.  Slip slip, grope and grasp.  We
were soon established on the shelf.   The Hook or Book pitch came into
view above.

Singer took the 5.9 offwidth leading to the start of the hooking pitch. 
Some 5.4 led to the base of the offwidth.  Singer jammed a big rock
between the #5 Camalot and the walls of the crack, then pulled an aid
move.  The rock then fell out, as did the cam.  The cam was now well
placed for an upward pull, low in the crack, fully preventing Singer
from climbing any higher.  He was too high in the crack to down climb. 
There was no pro yet in the pitch.  Singer was basically fucked.  I
unclipped from the belay and hurriedly started to climb up to him.
“Hurry up hurry up hurryuphurryhurryhurry ... I’m slipping ... this
sucks thissucksthissucks...”  I yanked out the cam and Singer sprang up
to the top of the crack.  The day’s difficulties were over.  We had a
nice ledge to eat dinner and spread out on.  

Hook or Book traversed above us.  Originally I had wanted all odds.  I
didn’t notice that the 9th pitch belay was marked twice as a move-belay
for hauling convenience.  Singer and I talked this over.  Hook or Book
looked like a beautiful pitch that I would not mind leading.  This gave
Singer Don’t Skate Mate, which from our beta was the supposed technical
aid crux.  This also maintained our pitch swapping as normal.  Singer
also admitted that he didn’t want to set up the “Expanding Anchor”, a
pretty radical feature of the route.  Things were cool.

Hook or Book was the first “if you fall, you die” pitch on El Cap, and
has since seen no added protection.   If you loose it, you will fall
about 100 ft into a pendulum and slam into an open book.  It had my
interest.  My success on the 5.9 free pitch made me feel better about
things.  I was back in the groove.  I no longer wanted to bail.  I also
knew that at this point, bailing would not be an easy task.  Normally I
think I would not have slept well in this situation, but on this night I
slept okay.

Day 4

The next morning I lead the Hook or Book pitch.  I was totally into the
climbing.  I didn’t want to be disturbed.  I was very calm and involved,
a trance that is one of my draws to climbing.  Lots of whooping and
hollering at the end of the pitch.   The pitch wasn’t too bad at all. 
Things were under way.  We were attuned.  

Singer took the next pitch.  The only gear necessary for this pitch was
hooks, #1 & #2 heads, and a #1 Camalot.  Singer’s light weight, and
light rack, allowed him to cruise this A5 pitch.   

Next, I lead up to the infamous expanding anchor.  I drove in a 1 inch
angle to expand the flake.  McNamara had lost one of his #1 Camalots at
this anchor when the flake closed up on it.   I bootied the cam, then
dumped half our cam rack into the flake and an adjacent crack.  I then
equalized every last one of them.  It was pretty cool.  Singer slowly
and tentatively lowered the haulbags out.  I watched all the cam lobes
slowly move, then stop.  It looked okay.  

The next pitch is Don’t Skate Mate, A5, and fell to Singer.  This pitch
is thin beaks, heads, etc. to mandatory 5.9 offwidth.  All this above
the expando anchor.  Pretty radical.  Singer made good time on this
pitch, bringing us to the Big Sur ledge.  

Our mood was good.  We had just knocked off some of the hardest pitches
on the route.  Three A5s and an A4+ that day.  We were making good
progress and having a blast.  Big Sur was a comfortable place. 
Although, several more days of climbing loomed above us.  A scream came
from over in the direction of Zodiac:  “Yeeee hahh! ... big wall dump!” 
We went to bed.

Day 5

After our third bivy on the wall, I took the Peregrine Pillar pitch that
morning.  This pitch turned out to be one of the hardest, scariest
pitches on the climb for me.  Starting out with a long stretch of no pro
5.8, I arrived at the base of two loose pillars which I would have to
climb up the middle of.   Watching my cams expand and contract in the
loose diorite, I half freeclimbed, half aided to the top of the pillar. 
Next was some tricky nailing, with a bad fall to the pillar if things
went wrong.   A few moves up I started pounding in an angle.  The rock
started moaning and would not stop!  I tapped on all the rock around
me.  All loose and hollow.  The moaning continued.  I thought surely the
entire face was about to go.  Finally the moaning ceased.  I decided not
to take any more swings at the pin.  I tied it off and continued
upward.  Finally some better pins, then the belay.  And not a moment too
soon.  This was a long pitch.  

Singer took the To the Tooth pitch, then I got yet another rotten, loose
pitch leading to the Blue Room and the RURP belay.  This is a famous
belay spot.  There is a well published photo of Dale Bard jugging up to
several RURPs equalized with clove hitches.  There it was.  It didn’t
look too bad, really.  If the crack wasn’t already full of broken off
RURPs, I would not have added a bolt here.  Fortunately, there were
three bolts.  Seconding the first traversing part of this pitch was
easy, all the gear simply ripped out and Singer went swinging.  More
rotten rock.  I loved it.  Just before the belay, I had left a skyhook
in behind a long protruding surfboard that needed to be hooked across. 
I had tried hammering it out without success.  Singer ended up funking
it out.   Funking out a skyhook seemed pretty radical, so we got some

Singer then took the next pitch, Ace in Space.  It turned out that this
may have been the hardest pitch on the route.  Mid pitch, singer blew a
#1 head and took a daisy fall onto a skyhook.  Very tenuous pitch.  I
seconded on hooks, leaving some gear in that we could only retrieve by
lowering down from the next pitch, which traversed above.  

Time to crash for the night.  Another bolt would have been nice for the
belay, but lacking a half-hour, I opted for a rivet.  Out came the
drill, then the rivet.  After two hits on the rivet, I noticed that I
had made a bad mistake.  This was a low grade steel rivet.  I had
mindlessly bought the wrong grade.  We settled in off the two old bolts
and a good piton.  Damaged, but not irreparable.  Singer made amends in
the morning.

Day 6

Two more pitches the next day got us out of the diorite.  Singer led
Price is Light.  It was only A2, but still a scary lead for Singer
because we had become so unnerved by black rock, plus the pitch was very
steep and exposed.  The belay was called the Space Station.  The bolts
were situated such that everything hung below the lip of a roof.  All of
the North America wall was in view below.  The next pitch traversed
right close to the lip of this roof, then up onto some hooks.  Finally,
we were out of the diorite.  Singer took the Peruvian Flakes pitch to
finish the day.

That night was likely going to be our last on the wall.  It was our 5th
night.  I was happy.  The major difficulties were past.  We ate dinner
and talked and laughed at things other than climbing.  Singer was a good
partner.  I would be leaving the Valley soon after we topped out.  I
didn’t know if I would ever have a chance again to be in such a
setting.  We stayed up a little later eating, talking, and watching the
commotion on the Zodiac and in the Valley far below.  We were pretty
much in outer space.  Some of the most difficult rock on El Cap swept
below us for thousands of feet in the moonlight.  My anxiety level had
dropped significantly since earlier in the climb.  Things were good.

Day 7

Four beautiful pitches the next day put us on top at about 4pm.

That night on top, again I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night. 
For about an hour I sat awake and aware, untired, looking at Half Dome,
reflecting on the over five years of people and adventures this valley
had brought me.  Orion quietly stood watch over my little world from his
ever changing perspective.   I had been watching him drift, talking to
him.  Half Dome and Sentinel stood undisturbed by Orion and I.  The
peaks of Tuolumne sat proud in the blurry distance as an audience to our
little dance high over the Valley.  Tonight, El Capitan was a fine

But tomorrow I would be back down among tourists.  I knew from
experience that I would miss this moment and wanted to prolong it.  I
was ready to leave, but sad and thankful of the passing.  I knew it was
necessary to move on.  I sat back in my bivy and fell fast asleep.  It
was time to go find a new home and a job.

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