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Tangerine Trip solo 6/23/98-6/27/98 `nerves of toothpaste'

By Matt Niswonger

You said love is a hell that I can't bear; and I said give me mine back and then go there, for all I care.

T.T. had been a route of burning desire for me for some time. The name, the history (Charlie Porter 1973), and its reputation for being relatively moderate had kept me thinking about doing TT the whole long dreary winter. The other thing is that for one reason or another TT doesn't see nearly the traffic of Zodiac, which is right nearby on this steep and stunning part of El Cap. Initially however, I never had the least inclination to solo the thing-- I just wanted to do it and get out of my nowallsforayear funk. My friend Will and I went up in early June to hop on TT when it looked like we were finally going to get some decent weather. Yeah right. We were barely able to fix the first four pitches before we had to run away in the face of yet another grim storm. I left my ropes in place planning to return with Will or whoever else could come back with me as soon as the weather got good. I ended up having to wait two weeks because of the weather and pressing concerns here in Santa Cruz. During this time I mulled over what I had learned on my initial foray with Will. Tangerine Trip is a seriously traversing route. The fourth pitch actually traverses downhill. Retreat will not be an option beyond the fourth pitch, I told myself. As far as I was concerned, sideways down-nailing is a hideous concept; not an option. Surprisingly, I welcomed the commitment. After a long winter struggling with the somewhat mindnumbing realities of trying to run a small business, the thought of true commitment was welcome. So it goes with the big wall game. In the end I had to solo. Everyone was busy or didn't want to go. Secretly I had been hoping for this scenario. Don't ask me why. I guess when it comes down to it, my ass needed kicking. Deep inside I knew I needed to get slapped around physically, emotionally, spiritually. A solo ascent of TT would provide this in spades.

Two exhausting hikes up the Zodiac gully and I was finally once again at the bottom of my fixed lines--staring up at the intimidating initial overhangs. The plan was to jug the lines, haul the bag, and then sleep at the top of the following pitch, the super-classic fifth, which takes a hard left for 165 feet over the slimy roof of the previous pitch. It turns out I was a little overly optimistic. After hauling and jugging 330 feet there was only time and energy for setting up the ledge and falling immediately to sleep.

The first day was spent re-acquainting myself with the solo system and all of its finer points. Cleaning traverses has always been a secret shameful weakness of mine and I suffered because of this. By the end I had the system dialed but I wasted energy. Critical energy. And I was having a problem with getting too frustrated with myself whenever I did something that was less than the most efficient way. While soloing, saving energy is more important than gold, and I cursed whenever I made mistakes. I hadn't soloed anything in two years and was pissed off about how rusty I felt.

Two guys from Tahoe were right behind me and I knew that eventually engineering a pass would become an issue. My goal was to climb fast enough so that they wouldn't need to pass for a long time. Having them behind me was a good motivator to climb fast--which is what I wanted to do.

On the first day I only completed two pitches, one less than my goal. Fortunately Doug and Bob, the Tahoe guys, were moving pretty slow at that point also. When I went to bed they were one pitch below me. We talked a little bit that evening and they seemed like real nice guys. Having them there was good because it eased a little bit of the loneliness that was creeping over me.

The next day I awoke feeling late and groggy. My body was now officially very tired. I stared in a confused stupor at all the mess around me that would have to be organized and put away before I could begin the next pitch. The leg-loops to my harness would have to be put back on. The sleeping bag would have to be stuffed. Food and water put away. Ledge broken down. Haulbag re-packed. Gear organized. Ropes stacked. Topo reviewed. Water, Clif bar, caffeine pill and only then could I start climbing.

Day two was when everything began to feel for real. I was committed now and was feeling excited, lonely, and vulnerable. However I was also very absorbed in the tasks at hand. Things were somewhat clicking. My pace increased to three pitches a day, which is a critical pace to maintain, I felt. The system became rote. Lead the pitch. Set up the anchor. Pull up the end of the lead line and tie it in. Take the rope out of the GriGri. Switch the GriGri and the ATC. Carefully set up the Haul line in the hauler and pull out the slack. Slightly take the weight of the bag then back up the line with an overhand knot to a locking ‘biner. Do your best to get on rappel (you will have to bite the haul line and swear at least once). Rap the haul line. When you get to the previous anchor release the munter-on-a-mule on the tether line and lower out the bag. Tie in to the end of the lead line. Get the jugs on and break down the anchor. Clean the pitch. When you get to the anchor get safe and untie yourself from the end of the lead line. Take this end and stack it in the rope bag until you reach the anchored end. Clip the rope bag somewhere that meets the criteria (for the all important tangle-free feed during the next lead). Haul the bag. Tether it. Stack the Haul line. Start all over with the next pitch. Do this over and over again from the crack of dawn until the setting of the sun day after day. And during the entire process talk to yourself and soothe your rising fears; your rising sense of vulnerability as both the ground and the top feel very fucking distant.

Also on day two a new player entered the scene. The Russian. A few issues back in Climbing Pete Takeda reviewed a titanium wall hauler made by Ushba, a Russian company. He said good things about this hauler and so I bought it for this climb. The Ushba hauler was such a nightmare for me that it became key figure in the daily dramas, especially on the third day. Its name became simply, the Russian--and I cursed it. On the third day I spent hours cursing the Russian. See postscript for more about this frustrating piece of equipment.

Sometime during the second day I tapped in a BD bird beak--the end of my try for a hammerless ascent. This was a bit of a disappointment for me. I knew that slowly but surely I was losing my nerve. With every day the air felt a little heavier, the vulnerability a little more intense. Breaking out the hammer was like admitting that my nerves of steel had turned to nerves of aluminum. Next they would become nerves of wood, I feared. After that, nerves of clay. Then nerves of toothpaste. Don't ask me why nerves of toothpaste came after nerves of clay; it just made sense at the time. The point is, having nerves of toothpaste is not a good thing high on a big wall. This was my secret fear and I talked to myself about it a lot. Here is a sample: `Fuckin' nerves of toothpaste, man. Now that is path-etic! The climbing isn't even that hard! Nerves of toothpaste. Jesus. What a loser!' Berating myself in this way actually felt good at the time. A sense of humor is a very important thing.

On the third day I really did lose my nerve--to a greater extent than ever before in my climbing career. The thirteenth pitch looks like nothing special and I was wondering why one of the guys from Tahoe had taken a whipper on it the day before. It wanders up a groove/corner thing and then crosses out a minor roof onto a rivet ladder. As I looked over the pitch while eating breakfast I wondered where a fall was even possible on this pitch. The groove looked A2 with a couple of fixed pins and a rivet or two and then it looked like a hook move or two got you to the roof (small cam?) and then to the ladder. Hmmm.

When I got to the so-called hooking section I realized what the problem was. The entire twenty-foot section had recently exfoliated. Things were looking loose and shifty but not too bad, I thought. Standing high off a rivet I was able to get a larger micro-nut to stick behind a creaky flake. >From there I spied a hairline crack behind a short, shallow corner that would get me to the roof, which looked to be a solid small cam placement. I stood up high on a the beak that fit nicely in the hairline crack and put the blue Metolius TCU in my mouth as I prepared to slot the roof and then get on the rivet ladder which was beginning to look like the promised land. The TCU sucked all-too-easily into the shadowy pod in the roof. Instead of being suspicious however, I just assumed that the pod was just one of those made-to-order cam placements--or maybe its a gritty, flaring nightmare--at the time I didn't seem to care. I experienced a lapse in concentration. Ambivalence where ambivalence has no place. `Whatever dude'. For some reason I didn't take the time to really bounce test it before committing my full weight to this invisible placement.

I was falling before I had a chance to realize what was happening. The Birdbeak ripped, taking the entire corner with it, and so did the micro-nut, the rivet, and the small Alien before the rivet. I came to a stop in a clattering heap just below my portaledge--after falling for about forty feet. As I tried to catch my breath I heard a sound like cannon-fire below me and realized that all the rock I had pulled loose was hitting the talus. Everything got quiet. Even the hammering on Zenyatta Mondatta was no more. `Are you OK Matt?' The Tahoe guys. Physically I was fine but my nerves were shot. I went into auto pilot and began to re-lead the pitch. I knew I had to quickly finish this pitch or it was total melt-down time. Koo-Koo for Cocoa Puffs. Mommy daddy help me. `CLIMBER ON TANGERINE TRIP, DO YOU NEED A RESCUE?'

I got back to the fixed pin that arrested my fall and saw that it was going to be tough going. My fall had exposed ten feet of rock that was so loose it was hanging by a thread. To get to this area required two placements not likely to withstand shock-loading--as my previous fall had proven. Upon reaching the loose area I tried to hook a detached granite dinner plate but it immediately moved when I put any weight on it. Nightmare. `Keep it together Matt', I said out loud. I looked up and saw Bob belaying the pitch above. `I don't know how to get through this section without pulling off a lot of loose rock...' My words hung in the air as I waited for Bob to answer. `I don't think there is anybody down there to hit...', he finally replied.

I screamed `ROCK!' as loud as I could and pulled off three or four dinner plates and a block the size of a toaster. I watched the rocks zip through the air with sickening precision. The impact was so far away that the granite dust explosion far preceded the cannon-fire sound. Once again the hammering on Zenyatta stopped. I was making everyone this side of Mescalito feel very uncomfortable.

Among what was left was a small, loose edge that took a skyhook. Holding my breath I stepped high to Doubloon a tiny, downsloping remnant of a rivet that I hadn't noticed before. The Doubloon felt sketchy so I switched to a #0 rivet hanger. Only the rusty threads of the rivet kept the rivet hanger cable from slipping off. Totally precarious. Once again stepping high, I fi-fied off and surveyed the scene. One more doubtful-looking placement separated me from the roof that had spit me out before. And then the solid looking rivet ladder. `For the love of God don' t fuck this up', I told myself matter-of-factly. The thought of taking that same fall again was nauseating.

The remnants of the shallow corner that the beak had ripped off was my only hope. I pounded in a knifeblade behind the crusty bulge but it oozed downward and then popped out when I bounce-tested it. `Dogshit!', I said through pursed lips. In my fragile state this was almost too much. I needed everything to go smoothly. I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against the granite. Breakdown time. `If I take this fall again I will only hit air', I sobbed to myself. `Fuck that shit...if you take this fall again you're going to have a melt-down up here!' I knew it wasn't true though.

`Na-na-na-na. Be the ball, Danny.' Some old lines from Caddyshack came to me. Chevy Chase. `Do you take drugs Danny? Good Danny. Be the ball, Danny.'

Buzzing with fear, I pulled out a #3 alumi-head and set it into a gritty indentation above the knifeblade hole. I was pretty surprised that the crappy rivet hanger had held this long. I stared at the mashie in the indentation but didn't pound it--the placement seemed doubtful. I looked up at Bob again. I was so tempted to ask him to lower a rope. This thought filled me with shame. Then I got mad. I set about pounding the mashie like there was no tomorrow. `This bad-boy is going to stick.', I said with fervor.

With the Mashie set I got high in my Aiders and was able to reach the roof. I blew out the copious grit and was able to slot the Hybrid Alien--a new piece bought specifically for this climb. I bounce-tested the shit out of it and before I knew it I was in the promised land--the first of the rivets. The preceding twenty feet was the most harrowing aid I had ever done. Luckily, it was only twenty feet. I can't imagine doing one hundred and forty feet of stuff like that.

For the rest of the day I was in a world of fragile nerves. The climbing wasn't hard but I was cooked. I was ready to get off this thing. The so-called `loose 5.7' at the end of the next pitch was hell. Like an idiot I didn't wear my rock shoes and spent the last forty feet of the pitch greasing off rounded footholds and trying not to commit to the shifting car-door sized blocks that were the only handholds. My calves burned like fire as my Nikes smeared for dubious purchase while I reached back to feed myself slack to keep the lead line from yanking me backwards and off into the void. I trusted nothing--#3 Camalots might as well have been #0 RP's for the confidence they inspired. My nerves were shot. I was turning a straightforward pitch into a living nightmare. `Why didn't I wear my rock-shoes?...' My whining query hung in the air and then floated away. I said it out loud but I might as well have said it to myself. El Capitan did not care.

When I finally reached the belay I set everything up in slow motion. Every knot was checked and re-checked. I built an anchor that was redundant to the point of being silly. Nerves of toothpaste. I didn't care though. I knew I just needed one pitch to go completely smoothly so I could get back into some semblance of a rhythm. `The last two pitches were a disaster but this next pitch will be mellow...', I told myself. I looked up and indeed the next pitch appeared to be pretty chill--cams out a small roof to a 150 foot rivet ladder. The top was getting closer. A flash of hope shot through me like a small electric current.

However, before I could lead the next pitch I had to descend to the previous belay. I committed my weight to the haul line and jumped up and down hoping to force the Ushba to fail before I was out in space. Under my body weight, the cam in the Russian always failed and shock loaded the back-up knot, resulting in a six-inch free fall that I came to call the horror. Unfortunately, I could not get the horror to come prematurely. I rappelled down the rope, staring into the abyss and cringing in the face of the inevitable. This time the cam failed about half-way down the pitch--a six-inch free-fall while staring at the talus 1800 feet below. Sheer terror. `You must make a friend of the horror.', I quickly told myself. I looked up the tiny red thread that was my lifeline and followed it to its point of attachment, eighty feet above me. Marlon Brando's line from Apocalypse Now; so very appropriate. I set my jaw and smirked into the void. After the rope severed and I free-fell for more than ten seconds, what would I think about? I heard once that while falling the length of El Cap some poor climber looked down and screamed, `LOOK OUT BELOW!!!'. That person deserves to have the words ‘Polite To The Very End' carved into their tombstone. This made me chuckle. I was beginning to regain my composure. Nerves of wood.

I led the next pitch with nerves of wood. Unlike nerves of toothpaste, wherein you are swimming in a world of bile and inadequacy and shit, or nerves of clay where you feel like a deer caught in the headlights of your on-coming demise, with nerves of wood you feel generally competent. However, all it takes is the shift of a ‘biner or a slight delay in finding the right piece for a placement and you are instantly reminded of how fragile you feel.

The fifteenth pitch is actually quite stunning. You crest out on a bulge and now finally all of El Cap comes into view. No longer climbing behind corners or under roofs, you visually experience yourself in the context of the ocean that is El Cap. The granite stretches endlessly in all directions. I thought about every line up the cliff between me and the Nose. The zeniths of so many lives compressed into less than a square mile of granite. I listened to a team on the Pacific Ocean wall. They were screaming at each other in German. Their voices sounded high-pitched and quaky with tense fear. They traveled thousands of miles to experience nature at her most unforgiving. Life is pretty fragile on the P.O. wall--judging by their tone of voice, I thought to myself. It is not skill that you need up there, I reflected, it is artistry.

In the movie Quest For Fire I remembered that life was pretty fragile for the first humans also. They too experienced nature at her most unforgiving--not just for a few days but always. To survive, these people became not skilled technicians, but artists. Life was cheap back then and they faced the abyss of death constantly. This fact changed them; brought out a mystical side. Why? Because at the interface between the ego and the cosmos there is an indeterminate wilderness area called the human soul and there a person learns how to face the truly tenuous toehold that we call the individual human life. That place is the perilous inspiration behind true creativity. Every time a situation in life causes you to confront your own death, your own ego destruction, feelings of vast trauma are prevalent. The ego rears up like a mad elephant as if to chase the abyss of death away. But the cosmos is not some creature that can be frightened. The cosmos is just fact, plain and immutable, like the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Or the Pacific Ocean wall. When we first experience the trauma of the likelihood of our own impending death, real or imagined, the experience is not fun. However, successive trips to the abyss and we become familiar with the shenanigans of the ego, that great paper tiger. In time we learn to ignore the trauma of the death trip, and are able to take in the abyss more objectively. And we learn some pretty bitchen' stuff. Stuff that isn't very easy to articulate, but has something to do with feeling stronger and more healthily detached when we return to the everyday world.

One of my customers for my business is an accomplished Triathelete. He was telling me how lately he has been getting into adventure racing--Eco-Challenge type of stuff. He now wants to become an accomplished adventure athlete. We talked for a while about it and I kept asking him questions. I didn't tell him at the time but something was bugging me. Since then I have figured it out: the whole adventure athlete thing bugs me. Athletics and the whole Nike generation are about competency, about being the best. But true adventure is about self-discovery, spirituality. One person frees the Salathe', another climbs Nutcracker for the first time and both lives are equally enriched--at least potentially. Both make the pilgrimage to the abyss and both lives are enobled. That's the beauty of it. When the Just Do It set take over adventure climbing I'll be bummed. Or maybe they will be converted and see the more profound side of climbing.

The Germans on the P.O. won't feel at one with their mission until they let the spectre of death inspire them, not revile them, I thought. `You've got to tap in, dudes!', I screamed in their direction. No way they heard me though. That I had such philosophical thoughts during all the rivet hopping of pitch sixteen shows that I was regaining my composure after a hard day.

The rivet pitch ushers in the end of TangerineTrip in effect, because you gain much altitude quickly and the top comes fully into view. There are some long reaches between rivets and I found the pitch to be physically exhausting. My hands were now officially wasted. Pus and blood oozed from numerous lesions. Neither hand would open all the way.

When I finally crawled into my portaledge that evening I was a zombie. I talked to myself softly, in broken sentences. Mentally, this was one of the hardest days of my climbing career. All I had left for dinner was a can of fruit but I was too tired to eat it sitting up so I laid down and slurped the juices and chunks the best I could. The contents of the can dribbled all over my face and neck but I didn't care. I fell asleep with wet claw-hands still clenching the can of fruit cocktail.

I awoke the next morning feeling focused and ready to finish. Finally I was beginning to feel like myself, competent and unafraid of this moderate trade route. It would be a lie to say that I had fully regained my composure, however. As the caffeine pills kicked in and I set off to lead the next pitch one fear tugged at my sleeve: the 5.9 free climbing on the seventeenth pitch. The memories of the `loose 5.7' of the day before would not go away. Thoughts of horrible run-out face climbing on self-belay made me queasy. This would be the final obstacle. If I blew it and took some screaming, tumbling whipper, my resolve would be grinded to a pulp. I would end up like the guy on the staircase in Saving Private Ryan. See the movie and you'll know what I'm talking about. Soloing big walls: five days of trying to keep your head together.

As it turned out the seventeenth pitch was a cakewalk. Even on solo-belay. As I clipped the anchors I realized the hard climbing was over and my mood was transformed. I suddenly saw Tangerine Trip for what it is--no more, no less. Was it easy? The words easy and big-wall don't belong together in the same sentence. Was it hard? Well, it is only as hard as your mind allows it to be. And that can be pretty fucking hard, as I found out. As I topped out after the final 5.6 cruise to the summit tree, I felt humbled and in awe of the experience. I had felt nerves of toothpaste and yet found out that my real power had never left. Or at least that losing my nerve is something that I can endure. At the summit I packed my haulbag feeling like a professor on the philosophy of fear. A non-swimmer drowns because he won't stop thrashing his limbs long enough to feel secure in his ability to float. My fear of death causes me to act in ways that make me lose sense of what life is all about. I can spend my whole life dying, I realized. Or I can feel competent and vital right up to the last micro-second. And when that time comes I hope I have the presence of mind to scream, `WATCH OUT BELOW!!!' Before Tangerine Trip I didn't think I could afford to lose my nerve the way I did while soloing a wall. Now I know it's all part of the party. The whole process of losing my nerve and then gaining it back has made me more, um, elastic. Yeah, elastic. There is something better than having nerves of steel, I realized--nerves of rubber. Nerves of rubber are the highest level of all. But not just regular old rubber that breaks if you stretch it too much. I'm talking about some super high-tech polymer that never loses it's ability to stretch and stretch and then snap right back, better than ever.

After coiling my ropes I walked to the precipice and stared down to the valley floor and the Cathedral group on the other side. The wind was blowing hard and the beauty of the setting sun was overwhelming. Slowly I raised my arms and basked in the triumph of it all. `I SOLOED TT!!!!', I screamed as loud as I could. After about 30 seconds I overheard the party on Zenyatta yell to the party lower down on TT: `WHAT DID THAT GUY SAY?'. After a while one of the guys on TT yelled back: `I THINK HE SAID: `I SAW E.T.!!!'' I laughed and felt relaxed. My nerve was back and I prepared myself for six hours of hell through the East Ledges Descent.

P.S. I want to warn people that the Ushba hauling device is inadequate for hauling static lines and especially inadequate for a solo system that involves rapping a loaded hauling device as mine does. The problem is that the cam that is designed to stop the rope from feeding backwards (the wrong way) is not aggressive enough to automatically grab the rope as in Rock Exotica's Wall Hauler. So you have to manually poke the cam with your finger or the Ushba will act like any pulley without a cam-stop. Stuffing your finger in the hauler every time you pull on the haul-line is tedious to say the least. However this was just the beginning of the problem for me. Before I began rappelling into the void on the Ushba I of course backed it up with an overhand on a bight which I clipped in. However there was still necessarily at least a couple of inches of slack between the hauler and the clip in knot. Whenever I committed all my weight to the rappel, usually when I was about halfway down the pitch, the cam-stop would fail and I would take a six-inch free fall, as described earlier. This didn't seem to damage the rope but it was hell on my nerves. If you haul on a stiff static line (as all static lines are after a few walls), avoid this hauler. Also, if you plan to solo using the same system I did, do yourself a favor and throw the Ushba in a deep hole and bury it. I sent my hauler back to Ushba and all they did was send me a new hauler, same as the first.

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