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Viscious Circle

By Eric D. Coomer

Just about a year ago, I wrote what I said was my last solo trip report. What can I say, I'm a liar. The scars are still there, both on my arm and in my head but I'm back in it. The following is more of the same long winded semi-melodramatic spew from me. If you like that sort of thing then read on. If you don't, go ahead and skip it now. As always, all comments and criticisms are welcome at coomer@ix.netcom.com Cheers Eric 1998/05/18

        But if you could just see the beauty
        These things I could never describe
        These pleasures a wayward distraction
        Is this my one lucky prize?
                'Isolation'- Joy Division

'Wait!  You have a Ph.D., you're married, and you have no job''  The
twisted, drunken face of Walt Shipley just stared blankly back at me.

'Yup,' I slurred over yet another empty can of malt liquor.  Why was I back
in the valley?  Why was I trying, yet again, to climb?   I don't know.

So this is how it started.  Our bags were packed.  We were on our way up my
first climb after the big accident on the ZM route.  The doubt was already
laying heavy in my heart.  As I trudged up the familiar approach to El Cap,
my knee continuously buckled.  I had severely stressed a tendon a week
earlier.  This was not an auspicious start to the adventure.  Amanda was
visibly worried about my readiness.  So was I both mentally and physically.
It was dark long before we reached the base of the climb.  Sweaty and beat,
I dropped the last load and settled in for a restless night.

        So this is permanence - love's shattered pride
        What once was innocence, turned on its side
        A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
        Deep in the memory of what once was love
                'Twenty Four Hours'- Joy Division

I just sat there staring at the rivet and the sharp roof above where the
life line of rope stretched taught over and out of site to the belay.  The
demons were back to take me to hell.  They missed last time and they wanted
another shot.  Here I was just a 120 feet off the deck about to meet my end
jugging the first pitch.  I couldn't cut loose from the rivet.  I was
completely paralyzed.  Amanda continued to assure me that the edge was fine.
I was in no danger.  I just couldn't move.  I was more scared than I've ever
been.  It was too early; the route was too hard.

Finally I sucked it up enough to cut loose from the rivet.  As I spun out in
to space under the roof, I knew this climb was over.  When I got to the
belay I laid it all out.  There was no way I could continue like this.  I
was done.  One pitch off the ground and the adventure, for me, was over.  I
had failed.  I could see it in Amanda' eyes.  She had flown all the way from
Colorado for this climb.  Unlike me, she had a real job that required taking
vacation time.  I had let her down.  There was nothing I could say to make
it better.  Slowly we started to lower the bags that she had already hauled
by herself.

That night we looked at the rope leading up to the gear belay at the start
of the next corner system.  We'd have to eventually come back and do the
second pitch to reach the El Cap tree rappels in order to get our gear down.
I couldn't even think of that now.  A deep routed fear and the next can of
beer were the only things on my mind.

We spent the entire next day sitting in the Deli watching the cold rain come
down in sheets.  This was July in Yosemite.  It never rains like this in
July.  It only made me feel slightly better about bailing from the route.
But we all knew the real reason we were on the valley floor.

After a week of doing the valley bum syndrome, I finally went back to lead
the second pitch.  It was probably one of the hardest aid leads I'd ever
done.  A slightly rotting corner lead to creaky hooks on the dreaded black
rock of El Cap.  Then I launched in to a few moves of 5.8 to the belay.  The
lead took almost all day but I finished it.  It was slow and painful.
Climbing just wasn't fun anymore.

I left the valley to sit on my couch for another month to let the mental
scars heal.  It's hard coming to grips with the fact that the one thing that
makes you truly happy in life just may not be possible to do anymore.
Climbing had become 'it' for me.  I had given up so much to pursue this
terminally useless activity.  At one point, I packed up all of my shit-
every scrap of climbing gear, every piece of climbing related literature,
magazines, books, pictures and threw it in the back of my closet.  I was
done.  I was no longer a climber.

        Oh how I've realized, how I wanted time
        Put into perspective, tried so hard to find
        Just for one moment I thought I'd found my way
        Destiny unfolded - I watched it slip away
                'Twenty Four Hours'- Joy Division

Rash decisions never last much longer than the time it took to make them.
The depression I felt continued to grow.  I was miserable.  My wife was
miserable.  Climbing was still a far off reality for me.  But, I just couldn
't give it up.  I needed to get back to the high ground.  It's funny.  I don
't even climb that much.  It's not like I climb four to five days a week, or
sometimes, even once a month.  Over the last few years I've scraped my way
up a few walls each season, and maybe pulled down about a weeks worth of
free climbing.  That's it.  Why do I have such an deep connection to it
though'  It's a question I may never answer.

I got a call from a friend of a friend.  He wanted someone to do an 'easy'
wall with him.  Maybe this was my chance.  Start off slow, work up.  He also
had a friend who wanted to do some harder routes up on Half Dome.  The plans
were coming together.  I take this guy up the South Face of Washington's
Column in a day.  Then we'd move to the Prow.  In payment, he'd set me up
with his friend and I could get myself on some sick repeats of seldom done
routes way up above the valley floor.  I was on my way back home.

Sometimes things just don't go as planned.  John had the flu.  We managed to
push to the top of the fifth pitch on the South Face before he just gave me
that look.  It wasn't even noon yet.  We had plenty of time.  But he was
looking very ill.  Bailing was the only option.  This was becoming a habit.
The plans for the Prow fell as quickly as we flew down the ropes to the
valley floor.  The only real good that came out of that weekend was that I
met John's friend Eric George.  Sitting in the dusty lot that was home away
from home, we planned to do 'The White Room' on Half Dome just as soon as he
soloed the third ascent of 'Scorched Earth' on El Cap.  I felt pretty good
about climbing with him.

He spent nine days on 'Scorched Earth' even adding a three pitch variation
that bypassed the dreaded 'Leavittator' off-width pitch on the route.  He
was a true bad-ass.  Maybe this is what I needed to get back in the game.
He was a ringer that I could learn from.  I'd make sure he got the 'Loose
Tooth City' pitch on 'White Room' and I would take the other pitches as they

After days of humping loads up the slabs of Half Dome and dodging yet
another day of rain, we started up the route.  The first three pitches were
basically free climbing affairs.  The topo says to haul from the top of
pitch five but we thought it would be better to haul after pitch four.  We
spent the second day climbing the fourth pitch and then set up to haul.  Six
inches off the ground the bags were hopelessly stuck 400 feet below us.  I
think we started to see the reason for hauling from pitch five.  The day was
shot now and I had a flight to Arizona looming on the horizon for family
stuff just a few days away.  We decided to leave the ropes fixed and we'd
continue after I got back from Arizona.  It seemed like a good idea at the

The days were pushing in to late September by the time we headed back up to
Half Dome.  You could tell the weather was starting to change; the smell of
Fall was heavy.  We jugged to the high point on our route and I lead off on
my first real adventure with expanding nailing.  I was clipping pins before
driving them home as the car sized flake I was on flexed and vibrated with
every hammer blow.  Mid way in to the pitch I came to a flake that was
already partially gone.  The scar was clearly visible.  I pounded a thin
knifeblade underneath it and sent more of the flake to the deck.  I tried
again with the same result.  Soon the flake was gone and all that was left
was virgin featureless rock.  I called down for the short cheater stick we
brought for making some of the infamous 'Walt Shipley' rivet moves.  It wasn
't long enough to reach the next placement.  The next thing sent up to me
was the drill kit and a fresh rivet was placed where the flake had been.  I
eventually told Walt I added a rivet to his route.  All he could say was
that he was surprised the flake lasted as long as it did.

From there a long pendulum lead to a series of wild hook moves to another
line of a rivets.  Obviously, the 'Loose Tooth City' pitch above had lost
some teeth recently because the last rivet was sheared off by rock fall.
Things were looking worse than ever.  It was already getting late in the
day.  We decided to bail down to a mid rappel station directly underneath me
and try hauling the bags and then finishing the pitch the next day.  After
getting the bags stuck and unstuck for the ride to the belay we finally set
up the ledge for out first night on the route.  The skies above were crystal
clear and we left the fly deep in the haul bag below us.

At 2:00 am the rain started to fall.  It was a rude awakening for sure.  We
eventually extricated the fly and hunkered underneath for the remainder of
the early morning.  By dawn the rain was still falling and clouds obscured
the valley to the west.  It was almost four in the afternoon when we finally
got a break and started to move again.  Since Eric was taller he set off to
re-drill the missing rivet which I could barely reach from my top steps.

We were already running low on supplies and decided it was worth one more
trip to the valley floor before the push to the top.  We hauled the bag to
the base of the 'Loose Tooth City' pitch and rapped to the ground.  We both
had to head back home to take care of some things before heading back up
again and in so doing, we missed the best weather window.  Three days later
we were back at the start of 'Loose Tooth.'  I spent the day dodging rocks
and choss as Eric climbed what he called, 'The single hardest most technical
pitch I've ever lead.'  This is quite a statement coming from someone with
as much sick aid experience as he.  As I weighted the rope to jug the pitch
several of the pieces rifled out of the crack above me.  I was mightily

The walk up and the pitch had taken most of the day so we once again set up
the ledges.  I was starting to feel good about the climb.  We were getting
near the white overhanging rock section of Half Dome where the quality of
the climbing greatly improves.  Even though the skies were clear once again,
we had the portaledge fly out just in case.  This time it didn't rain but by
morning things weren't looking so good.

I quickly set out on the next big pendulum.  Once again I was too short to
reach the rivet on Zenith from the hook I was on.  Instead, I had to lower
even farther down and swing in to the Zenith corner.  By the time I reached
the corner, there was a wall of clouds heading into the valley. I could no
longer see El Cap.  By the time I reached the mid-way belay station, sleet
and freezing rain were everywhere.  I could barely see Eric at the belay
just a mere 40 feet below.  I tied off the station and lowered down while
Eric hurriedly set up the ledge and fly.  Everything was soaked and starting
to freeze.  We knew there was a storm forecasted three days later, but this
was just a pre-storm squall that formed out of nowhere.  Once again, the day
was shot with just a half pitch climbed.  We couldn't continue any further.
With just four days of food, a day lost already, and a big storm in the
forecast, we finally conceded defeat and bailed from the White Room for
good.  This was my third major failure since Zenyatta.

A week long storm settled in to the valley before I could get all the gear
down from the base.  I had to walk through a good six inches of snow when
the weather finally cleared to get the last load down.  As much as it hurt,
we had made the right decision.

I was still feeling rather depressed.  It had been months since I had
finished anything.  I was determined to get up something.  I asked Eric if
he wanted to have a go at a shorter route.  No dice.  He was moving to
Cleveland in just under two weeks and hadn't packed yet.

After ZM, I said I would never solo a wall again, but I started to think I
needed to in order to break the curse I was under.  With the weather good
but still unstable I decided to solo 'Jesus Built My Hotrod' on Leaning
Tower.  I spent the next couple of days humping loads to the base and
getting mentally ready.

The next day I started the traverse out from the start of the West Face.
Soon I was cowering at the lack of a belayer.  The traverse is loose and
scary and no longer fourth class.  Near the end are bona fide 5.7 moves on
loose rock with poor pro.  My resolve was once again shaken.  I set up a
belay at the base of the Hot Rod and high tailed it down to the valley floor
in search of a partner.

        I never realized the lengths I'd have to go
        All the darkest corners of a sense I didn't know
        Just for one moment I heard someone call
        Looked beyond the day in hand - there's nothing there at all
                'Twenty Four Hours'- Joy Division

I found myself back in the deli sucking down more cans of malt liquor.  The
depression was back with a vengeance.  I had failed again, and again.
Across from me sat the regular lot of valley bums.  Among them was a new
face.  A guy named Mike.  He had just rolled in to the valley for the late
season.  It seems he had just raced up the Salathe' in a 16 hour push.  I
asked if he was up for the Hot Rod.  He wanted to go and that was all I
needed.  The next morning we were on our way back up to the tower.

I worked my way across the traverse again and hoped that he would take the
first lead.  He was having none of it so I set off on drilled hooks that
lead to a precariously perched spike that was clearly fractured all along it
's base.  Shades of Zenyatta were racing through my head.  I could feel the
fear welling up inside of me once again as I lassoed the top of the spike
and prepared to ride it to the deck like Slim Pickins in classic Dr.
Strangelove style.  All I needed was an appropriate cowboy hat.  I must have
left it in the car.

As I finally got on the spike, Mike was shouting encouraging words.  The
spike held and I found myself riding the rivets up the next part of the
pitch.  Some thin heads, some good nailing and a bit of funk in the middle
and I was soon at the belay.  A good moderately hard pitch was behind me.  I
was starting to feel that groove that I had been searching for that whole
summer in the valley.  As Mike jugged the pitch the sun started to head
beyond the horizon.

I rapped back down to the belay and started my way back along the traverse
ledge towards the west face and a much earned beer.  As I was about to make
the one mantle move on the traverse, Mike asked me to hold the rope for a
minute.  Absent mindedly I wrapped the rope around my hand.  I wasn't quite
sure what was going on but it was getting late and I wanted to move.  Just
then, Mike cut loose from a ledge about 15 feet above me.  He was attached
to the line I was holding.  In a flash all of his weight hit the rope and my
last words were simply, 'Here I go.'

With that I was flipped off the traverse ledge and landed hard on my jugs
attacked to the fixed line over to the West Face belay.  I'm sure the demons
were hoping to finally catch me that day as well.  For whatever reason the
rope didn't cut but I was way beyond being okay.  In the fading light I
looked down at my horribly mangled finger.  The severity of the situation
hadn't even settled in yet.

'Oh shit dude, are you okay?  Are you okay'?  Mike asked as he spun in space
on the line from above.

'My finger is way broken.'  I said matter of factly.

Finishing the traverse with one hand was no small feat.  At one point I had
to stuff the broken digit into a tight jam and pull on it to get back to
safety.  Now I was really cooked.  Another failure, another realization that
perhaps, I shouldn't be climbing.  Hours passed before we were down on the
valley floor and off to the medical clinic for my second visit of the

They shot me full of Demerol that night before taking x-rays.  As I floated
in the bed higher than I've ever been before, the doctor came in with a
rather serious look on her face.  'Well, is there anything I can tell you
that you don't know?'

These are not the sort of words that inspire great confidence.  The
prognosis was that I needed surgery as soon as possible.  No cast was going
to help this situation.  So that's how it all ended.  Two permanent pins are
forever imbedded in my finger.  I've had more wall failures than I thought
possible.  I was once again looking at the real prospect that I would never
be able to climb again.  And this is how I spent the next 6 months of

        Now that I've realized how it's all gone wrong
        Got to find some therapy - this treatment takes too long
        Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway
        Got to find my destiny before it gets too late
                'Twenty Four Hours'- Joy Division

How quickly we seem to forget the really terrible things in life.  The human
species is a very odd organism.  El Nino was wreaking havoc with California'
s normally splendid spring time weather but my plans were already coming
together.  I was starting back at step one.  I had found a willing partner
for a short, easy route.  I'd heard fairly good things about Southern Man on
Washington's Column.  We were all set.

Once again, the best laid plans don't always seem to work out.  As Scott and
I lazily packed the bags, you could smell the storm in the air.  Twenty
minutes later the rain finally started to fall.  I was rained out yet again.
The failures were mounting and I could do nothing about it.  We spent the
next two days dodging the rain and getting in some low stress free climbing.
The wall for us was off.  Scott had to get back to work and had no time to
spare.  My situation was a little different.  It's one of the joys of not
having a real job.

There was no way in hell I was heading back home once again defeated by the
wall.  I started to dig out all of my stuff from the car.  It's a good thing
I packed my solo-aid 'just in case.'  The forecast looked bad for another
day but then it was supposed to clear.  I was going to feed this rat, or
beat it to death trying.

I humped my first load to the base and went back to the deli for one more
session of courage.  I bought some food for that night and grabbed the
second load and was on my way to meet destiny.  Perhaps I was building this
climb up too much.  I knew that if I didn't succeed, there wasn't much point
in kidding myself anymore.  I had to finish this climb or face the cold
reality that I was done for good.

Sleep didn't come all that readily that night.  Morning was cold.  I only
got out of my bag because I could hear another party coming up the fourth
class approach.  I did not want to be stuck behind a party of gumbies on the
first three pitches up to Dinner Ledge.  My fears were put to rest as the
party neared.  They were two friends doing a one day ascent of South
Central.  It was pretty clear that Nanuck and Seeder would soon be out of my

The day went pretty well.  I was climbing a bit slow but always moving.  By
the time I settled in for dinner that night on the most spacious wall ledge
in the valley,  I was fixed one and a half pitches above and it was only
6:30 in the evening.  I had originally wanted to fix higher but I didn't
want to get caught climbing in the dark.

Sleep was easier that night, mainly because of the physical exertion from
the climbing that day.  I woke early and got started on the task at hand.  I
set a goal for the top of pitch 7.  If I wasn't there by 12:00, I would
bail.  I reached the pedestal at exactly 1:00.  I looked up.  I could feel
the failure hanging there.  I looked down.  It was an easy retreat.  I only
had two pitches to do before the raps but they were long and I was tired.  I
didn't want to go home a failure again.

No conscious decision was made, but fifteen minutes later, I was 15 feet out
from the belay headed up.  I made sure the headlamp was stocked with fresh
batteries.  Whether I acknowledged it or not, I had no choice but to finish
the climb now.  The next belay was on gear and provided no easy means of
retreat.  It was either finish or leave a healthy price tag worth of gear.

Finally, after months and months of failures, I reached the top of the last
real pitch at sunset.  It was a spacious ledge with a big tree for
rappelling.  I was satisfied that I had finished and didn't feel the need
for the last chossy 5.6 grovel to the top of the column.  My climb was done.
All that was left was to rappel the south face back to Dinner Ledge for the
night and then a quick hustle out the next morning with the bags.  I could
feel the huge weight lifting off with every rap down.  My debt was paid.  I
was free to climb again.

        We'll drift through it all - it's the modern age
        Take care of it all now these debts are paid
        Can you stay - for these days'
                'These Days'- Joy Division

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