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The Shield

by Brian Povolny (bpovolny AT aol.com)

What did I do for a week in Yosemite? Tom and I spent 7 days and 6 nights on the Shield of El Capitan, 3 of the nights in a portaledge. A portaledge is a small cot just big enough for two grown men to sleep smashed together like chicken wings in a two pound pack in the meat department. When one guy moves the thing shifts and creaks. The longitudinal poles bend like archery bows and when you kneel or stand the fabric looks like its going to tear wide open - disgorging its contents into the abyss. Imagine answering nature's call on the thing ... into a ziplock. The other party has to keep absolutely still so the bomb sight is accurate. I'm not going to try to describe the Shield. You'll have to go to Yosemite yourself and have a look at it. To me, its the most compelling face of rock in the world, and I've secretly wanted to climb it for 15 years. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Our approach was to leave the ground and climb to the top in one continuous effort. No fixing of ropes and returning to the ground to limit the load on the final push. Many parties do this to shorten the time on the wall as well as lighten their haulbags. Also, many parties actually skip the first third of the route which is the lower angle section with many obstructions that make hauling bags exceedingly difficult. They do this by ascending fixed lines and arriving at Mammoth Terrace in maybe 6 or 8 hours. It took us two and a half days of bone crushing effort to get our 350 pounds of gear, food and water to Mammoth. In order to move the load we both had to put all our weight on the haul line, as well as push with our legs as we pulled in unison, straining as we attempted to walk down the wall. One-man "hauls", which we always used in the past, were out of the question. This alone slowed us immensely, since the leader had to wait for the second to clean the pitch (a rope length of about 165 feet) before hauling could begin. If the leader can haul, the job is usually done before the second even gets up to the belay after cleaning the pitch. So ... first day: three pitches, second day five pitches (ending on headlamps long after dark), third day 3 pitches with two fixed pitches above a ledge at pitch eleven. At this rate we figured it could take as long as 7 or 8 days to reach the summit. Good God, that seemed interminable! Best not to think too much about it. On the third morning we looked at our load and decided to leave something to lessen the crushing psychological weight. Three cans of kippers and two cans of salmon were culled and left on a ledge for some hungry party to enjoy at a later time. Why we left one pound of protein while continuing with 14 gallons of water and juice, not to mention 60 pounds of hardware we weren't even sure we'd need, escapes me. It was an act of desperation: we needed to convince ourselves that we were going as light as possible. However, we both agreed that 349 pounds was definitely easier to haul.

Day 2 nearly proved fatal. We made the classic big wall error - hauling from a leash that went over a ledge. After hauling the ridiculous load on pitch 6, repeatedly putting over 800 pounds of force on the leash from which we and the bags were suspended, Tom noticed that the leash was severely abraded. Cut one third of the way through. If we had been using anything other than cut-resistant Stratos ropes I shudder to think what might have happened. As it was we chopped the 200 foot rope and still had a 165 foot lead rope. As we sat contemplating this near-disaster rockfall from high on the wall came whistling by amid shouts of "ROCK!" echoing from above. The danger of big wall climbing suddenly occupied our thoughts and I wondered out loud if we really ought to be doing this climb. We continued, however, and I thought I'd better just put the frayed rope out of my mind. That night we camped on the top of the half dollar after arriving after dark.

A couple arrived on Mammoth (pitch 10) the evening we spent on the ledge at pitch 11. "What route you doing" the girl called up. "The Shield" I yelled. Some inaudible talk between the two ... I then heard the guy say "that sucks." He then called up: "how far you going tomorrow?" I told him we were going to the gray ledges (pitch 14) and planned to fix two pitches above there in order to get on the headwall the following day. The guy complained: "that's only two pitches" as if he had any idea of how hard we'd slaved to accomplish what progress we'd made to that point. Sorry dude, we're on the route. Live with it. We ourselves had been stalled that very day as we waited for a pair of New Zealanders to vacate the ledge on pitch 11 on their way to the Muir wall. Luckily these guys, who were no faster than we, planned to diverge from our path on pitch 16 after the few pitches the Muir shares with the Shield.

Day four was a big one. First bona fide one man haul, pitch 14. Yippee!! The steeper terrain (vertical) and lightening load made it possible for one man to move the pigs (did I mention that our cluster included three haul bags, one poop tube (a PVC pipe 4 inches in diameter), day pack, and the portaledge?) Here the real aid climbing started: A3. This means that numerous placements in a row may hold only body weight so if one pops you may "zipper" a few of the pieces below and take a "ripper". This day, for the first time, both Tom and I had long pitches where we used zillions of nuts, cams, carabiners and assorted aid dohickeys, all of which hung in multiple, overlapping curtains from both sides of our torsos like a thousand tangled wind chimes. Finding the piece needed for a given placement required pawing through the huge mass of gear to find to one special nut that would fit the little crack just ahead. And this day started the hanging belays as well. A hanging belay is one where, as the belayer, you have to literally hang in your harness for hours as you watch the leader's rope because there is no ledge to stand on. Good training for the next three days, where all of the belays are hanging. Tom and I conferred about doing the final pitch before the Shield Roof as evening approached. If we made it, we'd be setting up the portaledge in the dark under the huge roof that borders the bottom of the Shield's awesome overhanging headwall. We decided to go for it rather than retreat to the gray ledges as we'd told the couple the night before. Wouldn't have mattered - we never saw them again anyway.

It was 11 PM before we got the ledge set up and all our stuff hung from a million slings and carabiners in biggest clusterfuck either of us had ever seen. Everything, you must realize, has to be clipped in or you'll drop it. Shoes, helmets, gloves, food bags, cheater stick, hundreds of pieces of gear, personal clothes bags, water bottles, sleeping bags, aider stirrups, fifi hooks, jumars, and countless other small items hung in a huge wad that engulfed the space we simultaneously tried to occupy with our own bodies in the rickety trampoline. And be careful not to drop stuff that can't be clipped in like your glasses. But it was a night filled with hope and wonder. The roof over our heads extended 30 or 40 feet out into space, giving the feeling of being in a cave high on the face of El Capitan. Beyond the rim of the overhang above us the stars glittered intensely. Bats clicked and chirped in the night air around us. No storm could get us here, we realized, and this thought eased some fear that we'd developed about deteriorating weather during day 4. Once we passed the roof we'd be committed: retreat would be very difficult, if not impossible. The AM station we tuned into on the radio neglected to give a weather forecast for the next day. However, a little single malt after dinner, which consisted of shared cans of stew, salmon and canned fruit, smoothed the evening deliciously.

Next morning I sang Happy Birthday to Tom as we lay scrunched in our bags. This was his 40th and no accident that he was on El Cap for the occasion: he'd soloed the Aquarian 10 years ago and spent his 30th in a portaledge a quarter mile (yet a million miles) from where we now hung. Disentangling from the web of clipped-in crap took hours, but we finally managed to straighten things up and I set off on the lead. Lucky Tom: for this long belay he got to luxuriate in the portaledge instead of hang in his harness and do further damage to harness-sore hips. The third or fourth piece on my lead was a fixed pin with a ratty looking runner hanging from it. I used the cheater stick (you can guess what that is) to reach the ratty webbing and began to transfer onto it. A sickening ripping noise accompanied the shifting of my weight. I was about to suffer the fate of the unlucky few who weigh more than the average Shield climber, so I shifted half my weight back to the previous piece and the ripping sound stopped. But I was caught between the two pieces and couldn't really move back. Tom helpfully reminded me to clip my rope into the previous piece, which I'd forgotten in all the excitement. Thank God he did, because I realized I had to just go for it. You know what happened next: the rotten webbing broke and I took a fall. Not so bad, really, on overhanging rock. You don't hit anything. Screw it, I thought, and clipped a different, slightly less rotten sling that was attached to the same pin as the one that just broke. This one held (why didn't I clip it the first time?), as did all the rest of the ratty looking slings and pins as I moved out over the roof. Passing the lip was surely one of the most spectacular moves I've ever done, like climbing around the bottom of a huge granite zeppelin suspended a couple thousand feet above the valley. I then set up a belay on the headwall and we passed the magical point of no return. This milestone had less effect on Tom than it did on me since he never even considers retreating. I don't like to think of myself as a chicken, but I am aware of bridges burning and doors closing.

Anyway, welcome to the ocean of undulating overhanging orange and gray rock that goes on as far as the eye can see in all directions, the Shield Headwall. Smooth and featureless, except for a single discontinuous seam that keeps jumping to the right like repeated lane closures on an twelve lane freeway. And say hello to the wind. Up on the Headwall it howled unrelentingly all day. A sense of physical and psychological isolation overtook me as Tom climbed out of sight on his next pitch. Stuck to the great headwall like an insect, the wind whistling through the air holes in my helmet and blowing the ropes horizontal, I retreated into a tight sense of singular purpose: Climb. I thought only about how to efficiently untangle the next clusterfuck, how to access needed food and water, how to stay warm, yet not perspire when my next burst of activity began. I took note of how much rope was out, worked the haul line that dangled from Tom's harness to prevent it from getting stuck as it arced outward under the force of the wind. I practiced three dimensional topological analysis as I mentally pictured the coming sequence of ropes pulling taught over (or should it be under?) the intertwined morass of tie-ins that constituted the belay and haul bag anchors. Success in this task would be measured by having the lead line and the haul line feed out just where they needed to and not cross each other as Tom pulled them up after establishing his belay. If I had to untie from the lead rope in order to untangle everything my topological analysis would have proved wanting. Guess what -- I untied at this and numerous other belays. Just before I was to leave the belay I dropped the stuff sack with that day's lunch and also a water bottle with 2 liters in it. This rattled me a bit, made me think I didn't belong up there. When it came time for me to follow the pitch, I kept thinking how the wall would get back to vertical over the next hump. It really looked like it would and it actually seemed to be vertical, except the haul bags hung far from the rock as Tom pulled them up.

My next pitch was A3+, which as you can deduce is "harder" than A3. Actually it wasn't harder or more difficult than A3 or A2, its just scarier with longer rippers possible. This pitch was actually easy, not strenuous or awkward. All I had to do was trust little house-key sized blade pitons and rotten webbing stuck to copper and aluminum things mashed into the incipient seam that constituted our path up the Headwall. Up and up I followed the seam, which stopped and started again a few feet to the right on two occasions, until I reached a zone of many bolts. Too many bolts. Bolts are concrete anchors placed in holes drilled in the rock and are the belay anchors in places like the Headwall. They are placed by different parties at different times, and vary widely in reliability. As I contemplated all the bolts at this belay station my mind went numb. For at least ten minutes I dumbly hung, looking at the good bolts, the bad bolts and the questionable bolts trying to imagine which would become the "power point" anchors (the main belay), which would serve as the portaledge anchors, which would be ancillary anchors to hang stuff, and how to tie it all together. I was out of carabiners, too, and tried to imagine ways of creating the belay that used the fewest. Ideas just didn't spring forth at that moment, so I told myself to go slowly and triple check everything I set up to be sure it was right. Mental processes crept in slow motion. The unceasing aggravation of the wind, the length of time hanging, and the unchanging look of the Headwall after a full day of climbing on it had sucked my psychic stores dry. It took a good 40 minutes to set up this belay and get the hauling under way. We set the ledge up right there that night.

My mind came back with a little food, a lot of water (we drank ad libitum since we had so damn much) and a sip of scotch on that oasis in the desert of overhang that the ledge afforded. You only have to hang in your harness for 18 hours to appreciate a portaledge for the technological marvel it is. Somehow we enjoyed our cramped perch on the Headwall that night though neither of us slept very well or for very long. If a couple of middle aged dentists could be said to be in tune with one of the world's great rock climbs I think we were that night. We tried to discuss what it meant to us to be here, and to be a team, counting so much on one another. How incredible it was to climb El Cap together after spending more than a decade away from walls. I vowed to get married, have children, and give more to charity. Tom wondered if he really shouldn't be home with his kids instead of hanging out on the Big Stone, but ended by saying that he was glad to pass the milestones of age here: it made him realize that getting old was OK. I wondered what we were going to do when we actually did get too old for El Cap. At some point it won't be possible to defy advancing years by undertaking big wall climbs and something made me feel this might be my last. But as I fell into the stupor that passed for sleep that night I felt like I belonged there on the Headwall, and dreamt of the incipient seam above our ledge.

The next day would prove critical to our getting off in time to get the flight home, not to mention avoiding hunger and dehydration. All we needed to do was climb 4 more pitches of this discontinuous seam and we'd be at Chickenhead ledge, a large relatively flat place where the world of the overhang ended and above which only 5 pitches of more reasonable climbing remained. First Tom would have to do the crux pitch of the climb. This time I got the generous portaledge belay in the morning. Trouble was, I couldn't relax because Tom's pitch started out with nothing but funky stacked pins and weirdo aid things like Birdbeaks, which are little hooks about 2 inches long and a sixteenth of an inch thick that you pound into an incipient seam with a hammer. Not that this was so rad in and of itself, but in this case Tom was 30 feet off the belay before he got something that he thought would stop a fall. Any fall below that and he might have come crashing right through the portaledge where I lay. This is not the type of fall that makes a good story afterwards. Tom was actually more scared than I've ever seen him as he led this pitch. I was glad to see his fright because he was as careful as it is possible for a climber to be and he finished the pitch with only one small (10 foot) fall higher up when a teeny brass thing the size of an aspirin pulled through the rock. I then led the next pitch which was less scary but demanded the use of literally every type of gear that we had brought. During this pitch I entered the Zone - unconsciously creating solutions to each little puzzle as it presented itself and getting about 4 feet higher on the Headwall with each little Eureka. The 60 pound bag of gear justified our efforts to lug it up the lower reaches of El Cap this day. In some ways it may have been easier to climb the Headwall decades ago when the seam took just one thing: RURPS (realized ultimate reality pitons, the aforementioned house key-sized pitons). Now the seam has been widened by the use of many succeeding piton placements and the climber tries to get bizarre gadgets that don't need hammering, as well as a few pitons, to stick. This just means more stuff, greater wads of tangled gear, more gargantuan clusterfucks and more time to climb what used to be a straightforward aid pitch. But its also a great feeling to look down a pitch you've just led and see 40 pieces of protection from 10 completely different categories clipped to your rope.

Two more pitches and we'd be off the Headwall! On his next pitch Tom caught up to a party that had been at least a day ahead of us and whom we never expected to see. One of their party was injured with a broken rib, convalescing in a portaledge. The other guy, a smiley blond haired Canadian told us that his partner fell onto his daisy chain the day before when a homemade rivet hanger broke. For the purposes of this account suffice it to say that its not a good idea to clip your daisy in such a way that you fall on it instead of the rope. The rope is very stretchy and limits the peak force in a fall but a daisy will shock load you horribly. About the home made rivet hanger I like to use stuff that is tested, but a rivet hanger breaking is no different than rotten webbing tearing or aspirin-sized brass nut ripping out. Anyway there was some talk about the able bodied guy going to the summit with us the next day and then hiking out for help, but it was decided that they'd try to signal an SOS with a headlamp that night. Within 15 minutes a Ranger was on a very powerful bullhorn three thousand feet below playing twenty questions. "Climbers on the Shield: blink twice for yes, four times for no." "Climbers on the Shield: Do you speak English?". "Climbers on the Shield: Is the injured party dead?" "Climbers on the Shield: Are limbs broken?". And so on for a half hour until it was decided to do a litter rescue the next day. I can't imagine what effect this might have had on my state of mind had I heard it while bivvied below the Roof. Dead climbers above on the Headwall? Killed in a lead fall?? Yikes!!!

Tom and I by this time had made Chickenhead, about 100 feet above the injured party, and basked on the nearly level ledge with headlamps off to avoid confusing the twenty questions by headlamp. Now we knew we'd made it. Only five "easier" pitches to go. Our last substantial protein-containing food was consumed that night on Chickenhead, as was a quantity of scotch. We tried not think about the kippers and canned salmon. I felt relieved to be off the Headwall but sort of let down as well. Now I knew what I'd be doing for the next week, the next year, the next decade. My connection to the wall seemed to lessen as the singularity of purpose faded. All we had to do now was not make a mistake and we'd be off. I suppose that was always true, but I couldn't see it when we were on Mammoth Terrace or the gray ledges below the soaring orange Headwall. Down below, the discontinuous seams that scribed the Headwall had presented a map to an alluring, fascinating world that floated above everything else. And here, on Chickenhead, the mystery was gone. I feared I'd never have another dream climb to keep me company and allow me to speculate what I'd like to do, maybe, someday.

The irony is that on Chickenhead we didn't really know what was in store for us. We got off just at dark on the final day after grunting for yet another day. Tom had to follow a descending traverse that I led as the 28th pitch, and he'd finally had enough. The technical difficulties he encountered were complex, but suffice it to say that he had some harsh words for the Big Stone as he struggled with this last stumbling block. On the final pitch, a chimney, he dared El Cap to try and get in his face anymore and raced up it at breakneck speed. At dusk on the seventh day, after 29 rope lengths, we pulled up to a ledge on the summit plateau of El Capitan and threw our harnesses off and lay back and laughed and drank and wondered how we'd done it.

I won't bore you with a description of the hike down. It was the most painful part of the whole climb, as we each carried haul bags that weighed in excess of 100 pounds. I tweaked my back stumbling on uneven terrain near the top of El Cap and ended up with a pinched nerve in my right arm that leaves two fingers numb even as I type this. During the ten hour ordeal Tom kept repeating " I don't know if we can make it." But I knew we could, and we did. Now I don't much remember the agony of the hike, and find myself daydreaming about the Headwall as I try to pretend that I'm the same person who started the climb only two weeks ago. I'm not.

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