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TR - Zodiac Reflections - An El Cap Novice Goes to School

By Pete

Note - If someone can give me the name and address of the organization that is
replacing belay anchors in Yosemite, I would be happy to make a donation and
encourage all others enjoying these peace of mind belays to do the same if you
haven't already.

Standard disclaimer:  As a long time lurker, its rare that I have anything
worth relating as most of my outings are pretty tame.  And while Zodiac is a
trade route in all respects, it was my first El Cap route, a dream I was
never sure I would see to fruition.  This is not intended to be a pitch by
pitch trip report.  Rather, I thought I would take a shot at relating the
impressions I gathered from this climb and some of the emotions I experienced
along the way - the universal truths in climbing.  Our style was less than
impressive to say the least.  The cheater stick was carried and used and pins
were tapped in on more than a couple pitches.  Occasionally, a profane word
was even uttered.  These are things that I am not proud of.  Hopefully I'll
do more El Cap routes and hopefully I'll do them in better style, but for now
I'm pretty content with just getting to the top.  Hopefully this report will
serve as a fun reminder to all you big wall veterans and maybe give a little
insight into what might be expected for those still dreaming of the

This was only my second big wall, although in many ways it felt like my
first. I had done Touchstone the year before after getting shut down on
Moonlight Buttress by a flash flood.  Touchstone was great fun and taught my
partner and I a great deal about hauling systems and big wall anchors but it
never really felt like a big wall.  At eight pitches and a rating of C2
(probably more like C1), there wasn't really all that much suffering.  It
left me feeling that either the suffering I'd read about in so many big wall
trip reports was greatly exaggerated or that Touchstone really didn't deserve
to be labeled a big wall. I now believe the latter.

In addition to Touchstone, I had taken an aid class from Pete Takeda and
spent an entire summer solo aiding everything I could find in the Denver
area.  I screwed around with pins and heads on out of the way choss piles up
in the foothills.  I definitely felt like I had developed enough technical
skills to get by on a moderate grade VI.  My partner was no more experienced
than I but shared my desire to have an El Cap adventure.  We had no illusions
of doing anything on El Cap in a day, two days, or even three days.  Our plan
was to make like tourists on vacation (which we were) and slowly work our way
up over four or five days.  I'd been dreaming of El Cap for more than five
years and didn't want to rush the experience.  And of course, when you plan
on being slow, you also have to plan to let faster parties pass.

Choosing the route was fairly easy.  We had wanted to do the Nose but neither
my partner nor I felt like we were free climbing all that great and doubted
we could aid 7 pitches a day (actually, it just sounded like too much work). 
We wanted beefy belays with great exposure and bivies that required a
portaledge. We wanted a route that kept you in the aiders most of the day but
didn't require anything harder than A3.  It came down to Zodiac and Tangerine
Trip.  But when we saw the great circle from the road, we knew that Zodiac
was the route for us.

That first look at El Cap as we drove into the valley nearly knocked my socks
off.  I uttered something unintelligible like, "Holy fucking WOW!" I had to
pull off to the side of the road so I could start thinking of excuses for
staying clear of this enormous granite beast for the next two weeks.  I
absolutely could not imagine myself up there.  I was not thinking rationally,
I was only thinking, "Its big, its too big, its way too big."  A very strange
thought process for someone who has done nothing but daydream of being on El
Cap every day for the last six months.	I think that there may be some sort
of relationship between your proximity to a big wall and your desire to climb
it. The greater the distance between you and the climb, the greater the
desire to be on the climb.  Back in Denver I wanted to be up there more than
anything in the world.	But standing at the base my motivation was
dramatically lower.

And then somewhere in the back of my overloaded-with-fear brain I had the
thought, "But what if we can actually pull this off."  And the more I stared,
the more that thought grew into a plan of action.  I resolved that I would at
least carry all of our shit up to the base before quitting.  That would count
as an attempt, wouldn't it?  Well, no, not really.  But at least it would
serve as some form of physical punishment for turning into the wimp I
suddenly felt like.

Sleepless from the sheer excitement of being in the valley for the first time
(and the 6 am wake up to get in the Camp 4 line), we set off the next day to
do some easy free climbing and get a feel for the rock.  We cruised up The
Grack on Glacier Point Apron, relieved that the 5.6 rating did not appear in
the least to be sandbagged and felt pretty close to Eldo 5.6.  I've heard so
many stories of sandbagged routes in Yosemite that it was a big concern for
me.  But I'm also smart enough to know that you can't make generalizations
about an entire area from one little climb.  Anyway, it certainly was a fun
climb that didn't require much thinking.  Perfect for day one.

That afternoon we headed over to El Cap Meadows to stare at our route and
formulate our plan of attack.  I still found it very hard to believe that we
would be up there in a couple of days.	Surely my partner is not so stupidly
brave that he actually wants to go up there.  When you first look up at the
wall you don't see any climbers.  But soon you're spotting parties all over
the place, nothing but tiny little specks hovering in a vertical sea of
granite. Absolutely incredible!  In my imagination, everyone up there was a
stark raving lunatic with a death wish.  It probably wouldn't even be
possible to have a conversation with them.  How could they do anything but
babble incoherently up that high?

Okay, I'm being a little over-dramatic (like that's anything new on this
newsgroup).  But the bottom line was that the wall just seemed too big for
little old me.	But if all those other little ants up there could do it, why
couldn't I?  Still, my confidence waned.  And then it occurred to me, break
the climb up into four or five smaller climbs when you look at it.  Eureka! 
Each segment actually looked doable!  I'd been trying to eat the whole
elephant in one giant bite.  My confidence now soared to the point where I
actually conceived putting on a harness and having a go at the first pitch. 
I didn't have to climb the whole damn thing at once.  Pretty simple concept
but it was quite the epiphany at the time.  Still, it was hard not to think
of the many crux pitches and possible epics that may lay ahead.  I really
wasn't sure if I'd have what it took to keep things together on those crux
pitches with a thousand feet of air below us.

Day two entailed an excursion up Bishop's Terrace.  Again, I was thankful
that the rating did not seem to be too far off from what I was used to.  A
really fun 5.8 crack with perfect hand jams at the top and a great way for a
couple of gumbies to start the day.  After a terrific meatball sub, we headed
back to camp to start filling water bottles and organizing gear.  Now the
wall was on my mind for real.  We wanted to fix to three tomorrow and blast
the day after.

Well, the best of plans often run into snags.  We neglected to consider the
human element on our climb.  We humped a full load of water, ropes and gear
to the base by 8am only to discover a party half way up the first pitch and
another party on pitch two.  Oh yeah, isn't this route often called the Zoo? 
It was all starting to make sense.  This definitely called for a revision to
our plans.  We dumped our loads and headed for Reed's Pinnacle for the
afternoon.  To make a long story short, I experienced a serious ass-kicking
on a beautiful 5.9 crack that looked from the ground to be easy 5.8 (don't
remember what it was called).  I'm not sure if this route was sandbagged or
if it was just me feeling fatigued from humping our load, but I never stood a
chance from the very first move. Eventually I French freed it in great style
(is that an oxymoron or what?).  Oh well, you just can't win them all.	And
when you're surrounded by such amazingly brilliant scenery, who cares?	Back
to camp for beers, bears, food and what not (thankfully, we had an ample
stash of what not).

The next day we arrived at the base bright and early.  The approach is
certainly easier without four gallons of water in your pack!  Ropes from
other parties were fixed to the top of pitches one and three but we ignored
them and started climbing.  We weren't sure if we'd get to three that day or
not but we at least wanted to get in the queue.  I volunteered for the first
pitch as I had been dreaming about it now for a good six months.  We'd heard
rumors that if you could get up the first pitch, you could get up any pitch
on the climb.  If that were true, I wanted to find out right away if I was up
to the task.

Some people have called the first pitch C1, which really makes me wonder what
color the sky is in their world.  I suspect that anyone who calls this pitch
C1 probably had a fair amount of fixed gear on the upper sections when they
climbed it.  When I did it, there was one fixed piece next to the anchors and
I thought it was pretty challenging.  The placements, my partner later
reassured me, were all solid, but I had never worked so hard for placements
before.  I had never seen pin scars so beaten out.  This was definitely
lesson number one in Yosemite aid climbing.

My gut was doing cartwheels as I geared up.  I shot up the first 30 feet of
rivet ladder and found a good rhythm.  After three or four clips I was
feeling much more focused and my anxiety level dropped about 90%.  My world
was limited to the three feet above my head and I was aiding like a true
stud!  Then my little joy ride came to a screeching halt as the rivets ended
and the thin crack began.  I slowed to a pace resembling that of a fast
moving glacier.  Meanwhile, my brain was racing around like a Chihuahua on
speed as I searched for the best placements.  This is where I learned lesson
number two: the Leeper cam is your friend.  I probably placed it six or seven
times on that pitch alone.  They offer zip in terms of protection, but they
felt much more secure than a lot of the junk I was moving on.  Every now and
then I'd get a decent piece in to keep my anxiety in check.  At one point I'd
gone through a Leeper cam, two cam 00 TCU, Leeper cam, two cam blue Alien,
Leeper sequence to finally get to a bomber C1 placement.  This was the
emotional equivalent of watching your favorite team (on which you bet a
hundred dollars that you don't have) score a last-second, beat-the-spread
touchdown.  Wahoooo!

But even when things looked cool, some of the placements turned out to be a
little more interesting than I thought they would be.  One yellow TCU looked
to be totally bomber.  I gave it the old bounce test and it stood firm.  But
when I got into my third steps, the piece became possessed and suddenly slid
half an inch on me.  That's where I learned that sheer terror switches in
your brain can be flipped easily and quickly.  One second I'm groovin' on the
climb and the next second I'm in FUCK THIS! mode.  But the piece held and
after a couple reflective breaths I got on with things.

One other thought process that was interesting, and not necessarily limited
to pitch one, was the experience of testing the iffy placements and hoping
that they WOULD blow so I wouldn't have to get on them.  Intellectually I
knew that these were the best placements I could come up with given my
remaining gear, but I was rooting hard for the piece to blow when tested.  A
couple of times I found myself testing a piece and then staring at it and
then testing it again and then just staring some more.	Eventually, I came
around enough to learn lesson number three: quit wasting time and get on it
already, you gutless piece of shit!

With pitch one completed, my confidence soared higher.	Now, for the first
time since eyeing this beast, I actually believed that gaining the top would
be possible.  I still had a great deal of angst around the Great Circle
pitches and especially for the Zorro Roofs.  As hard as I tried to focus on
the next pitch, thoughts of the Zorro Roofs pitch kept entering my mind.  For
some reason, I had it in my head that this was going to be the pitch that
separated the men from the boys.  If I was going to freak out in
uncontrollable fear, I expected it to be on this pitch.

On a wall of this size, it just didn't seem possible for my brain to ever
fully rest.  I was always worried about something.  If it wasn't a crux pitch
still two days away, I'd be worrying about our time, or the weather, or my
swollen hands, or dropping something, or not packing something, or not having
the right gear, or rock falls, or the group in front of us, or the group
wanting to pass us, or the wind snagging our ropes, or dehydration, or being
too cold, or being too hot, etc.  You name it, and I probably worried about
it.  At night, I often had trouble falling asleep.  My brain just couldn't
seem to take a rest no matter how tired the body got.  And when I did sleep,
I dreamt that I was stacking ropes, hauling bags and leading serious dice. 
There was no escape from this climb!

But offsetting all those worrisome thoughts were some of the greatest highs
I've ever experienced.	The views of the Valley were spectacular in every
direction.  There was just no way to take it all in, let alone take a picture
that did it much justice.  None of my pictures seem to capture the grandness
of the place and I really don't know the right words to describe how
incredible the views really are.  Even the simplest things took on a whole
new level of significance.  Cold ravioli never tasted so good.	Jack Daniels
was the nectar of the gods. My morning business was nearly orgasmic.  And
most importantly, the climbing was truly amazing.  If it wasn't for the
climbing, I wouldn't recommend this route to anyone.  The rock seemed to keep
changing in texture, color and angle with every passing pitch.	And every
pitch seemed to offer up some new type of challenge to keep things
interesting.  Its funny how those scary spookfest pitches are suddenly
transformed into the coolest pitch you've ever led by the simple action of
clipping into the anchor.

For me, my spookiest lead was by far and away the Nipple pitch.  No doubt the
weather was a large contributing factor.  I'd lead the Circle pitch the day
before and absolutely had the time of my life.	This was the funnest lead I
had on the climb.  But the next morning we awoke to some ominous looking
clouds rolling into the Valley.  By the time we finished breakfast, they were
coming in low and fast as the wind steadily picked up.	I jumped out on lead
and by the time I was at the top of the short bolt ladder starting the pitch,
we were completely socked in and it was beginning to rain.  Fortunately, we
were well protected by the overhangs above, but I decided to lower back to
the ledge to see how much worse it would get.  By the time I was back at the
ledge, a huge waterfall sprang up out of no where over to our climber's
right.	I was pretty happy to be back with my bivy sack and sleeping bag.

The storm never got much worse but it was pretty eerie when the low clouds
came in and you couldn't see more than 20 feet.  We had no idea if this was
the beginning to a major system or just a little front moving in.  We had
heard that the weather looked good for the next five days so this was a
little unexpected.  We sat around for about an hour feeling pretty bummed
that we didn't have a radio to get a forecast.	If this was some major
system, we'd need to think about going down.  After the next pitch, escape
looked very difficult.	But then, being the super genius that he is, my
partner remembered the cell phone he had packed.  We could use the phone to
get a forecast!  After calling directory assistance 7 or 8 times, we finally
got connected to a recording that told us that scattered showers were
expected for the next two days (the stupid recording never mentioned the
extended forecast).  I'm not sure why, but at the time, this sounded like
pretty good news and we decided to push upward.  Since we couldn't see if the
route was still protected after the Nipple pitch, we decided to just climb
one pitch that day.

So with one pitch on the agenda for that day (day three for those counting),
I set off sometime around noon.  I was not psyched to be leaving the nest in
such dreary conditions but I knew that we needed to make some progress or
risk running out of food near the top.	The rain had let up by this point but
the cold wind continued to howl.  My aiders were blowing and twisting around
like a sock in the dryer.  Every now and then I'd look down at my partner and
he'd be missing.  Just a rope threaded through gear fading into a white haze.
 And just to make things a little more intense, my next 10 placements all
looked to be #0 TCU or smaller with the occaisional undercling Leeper cam
placement.  Now if this were a sunny day, I think in some kind of twisted way
this would have been a lot of fun.  But at the time, my only motivation for
moving onward was getting this pitch over with.

Once the nipple was mounted I thought I was home free.	But then the fat cam
placements disappear and its back to the mank for the last 30 feet.  There
were actually some good placements to be had if I hadn't burned all my small
stuff down below.  But a couple of creative nut placements got me to some
mystery metal and eventually those oh-so-beautiful anchors. YEAHHH BABYYY!
COME TO POPPA!	And like I said earlier, when those bolts were clipped, the
pitch was suddenly transformed into the coolest pitch I'd ever done.

My partner knew that the Zorro Roofs had been weighing heavily on my mind the
whole climb so he did the only gentlemanly thing and offered me the lead.  I
knew that I had to take it, even though it really did have me pretty scared.
Fortunately, the weather improved the next morning so all I had to worry
about for the next two hours was the climb.  Stepping out onto lead in the
morning when I knew I was facing a crux pitch was not easy.  My legs were
doing Elvis and my mouth was pretty damn dry.  But its funny, once you get
involved with actually doing it and not thinking about it, you get so focused
that you forget to be scared after a while.  Once again, I was pretty psyched
when I got to the anchors.  Not because the pitch was hard, but because the
pitch that I'd been worrying about for so long was now below me.  It actually
turned out to be one of the easier leads I had on the route.  For the time
being, this pitch had been tamed by large amounts of fixed gear (without all
that fixed gear it no doubt climbs a lot harder).

We reached Peanut Ledge (top of 13) late that afternoon and decided to set up
camp for the night.  This was one sweet bivy (but I wish the designers had
made it just a little bigger).	It was nice not having to set up the ledge
for once, but we probably spent just as much time roping ourselves in for the
evening.  I was absolutely dead tired but still couldn't manage to sleep more
than four or five hours.  My fingers were now so swollen and hacked up that
they were keeping me awake.  Clouds drifted in and out during the night but I
was now so beaten down that I really didn't care what the weather did. 
Somehow, we would find a way to deal.  We would make it to the top one way or
another because that was the only way off.

The next morning brought sunshine and clear skys and we were happy.  During
breakfast, a rolled sleeping bag from up top shot by us.  I have no idea if
it was intentionally thrown (it almost had to be) but what I can tell you is
that it fell for a good three seconds longer than I thought it would.  I
followed it all the way down, and when it reached the point where I thought
it should impact the ground (probably five or six seconds), it just kept
falling.  It impacted a good 200 feet from the base of the climb.  My partner
and I looked at each other with expressions of amazement and horror and then
started laughing.  It was time to get off this climb.

My partner made short work of the cam walk pitch and I was soon on my way
cleaning.  The roof at the end of this pitch was the most intense exposure
I've ever experienced.	But it was intense in a very cool way.	If I had
somehow miracled my ass from the ground up to this roof, it probably would
have freaked me out in a major way.  But having spent the previous four days
hanging out on the cliff and slowly working our way up, I had become very
desensitized to the exposure.  It was just one more cool thing to look at and
experience.  This was also something that I had wasted too much mental energy
worrying about down on the ground.

My partner topped out sometime in mid-afternoon.  During the day, dark clouds
had slowly worked their way into the Valley.  By the time I'd cleaned the
pitch and pulled over the top, it had started to rain and hail.  This was
definitely NOT how I had envisioned topping out.  Getting the bags over the
top was a two man job.	My partner went back over the edge to unload all the
crap hanging off the bottom of the bag.  We still couldn't get it over.  By
now, the hail was coming down for real.  Once again my partner went over the
edge and started sending up the contents of the haul bag.  A stream suddenly
sprang up and started dumping water into his lap and into our open haul bag. 
This provided the necessary motivation for us to heave with all we had and
get the bitch over the top.  Like I said, this was definitely not how I had
envisioned topping out.

The storm came and went in about 30 minutes.  We were left cold and wet with
our gear strewn everywhere.  Still, I couldn't help smiling.  We stripped off
whatever cotton clothing we had on and soon our damp synthetics were warm and
dry.  We were both experiencing some strange type of vertigo that made
walking feel pretty strange.  I think that maybe our brains needed a little
time to shift from the vertical back to the horizontal plane.  Or maybe it
was the Jack Daniels.  We had enough food and water left so we decided to
camp out on top for the night and gorge ourselves on anything edible.  In
hind site, this was a brilliant move.  We would have been screwed trying to
figure out that East Ledges descent in the dark.

I awoke the next morning at 6am to a clear sky.  The sun was just getting
ready to rise over Half Dome so I hiked up the slabs to the top of the Nose
to enjoy the moment. It felt like the sun was rising on a new chapter in my
life.  I spent a good hour sitting up top reflecting on the climb and what it
meant to me.  It did not make me feel like hero, or a conqueror, or anything
along those lines.  If anything, this climb humbled me even more.  My only
feelings of success or accomplishment had nothing to do with getting to the
top, but rather lied in the fact that I had faced some of my fears and
attempted this climb. The sad irony being that until you reach the top, its
probably not possible to define success in this way.  I also felt like a huge
weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  Never again will doing an El Cap
route be the driving force in my life like it had been prior to this trip. 
Never again will I have to wonder if I have what it takes to get on an El Cap
route.	I hiked back down and thanked my partner for doing this climb with

We loaded up all of our wet ropes and strewn gear and headed down.  The
descent was really pretty easy.  That is, until we got to the rappels.	From
there on out it was UGLY.  Before I climb on El Cap again, I'll first have to
find a way to repress the memories of the descent.  It didn't help that it
started raining again on our third rap.  By the time we got to the gully, we
were soaked and the rock was muddy and slick.  We really thought that morning
that the suffering was over, but this descent had to be El Cap's last
revenge.  But thoughts of that buffet and more Jack Daniels kept us crawling
along and we eventually staggered into the parking lot and dumped our gear. 
From here on out our strategy was to do everything to excess.  It was time to
kick back and enjoy the good life.

And so we did.	Hot showers.  Clean clothes.  Band-aids.  Advil.  Buffets.
Beers.	Playoff baseball.  Music.  Phone calls.  Yahtzee! Sleep.  Sleep. 
Sleep.	Everything was good.  We spent most of the next day sitting in the
Meadow watching other parties and it felt like we had come full circle.  As I
sat there watching someone leading the Nipple Pitch, I couldn't help but
wonder what thoughts were going through his head.  At least this time, I had
a vague idea.


One world, one peace, go climb,


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