May 27-June 4, 1997
The black creature materialized, an apparition in the mist rising from the valley floor. Stately in flight, the spectre strode ungracefully to stop on the path in front of me. Worn by two trips across the wet slabs above the East Ledges in the rain with 90 lb haulbags (and getting heavier with each raindrop), my stomach dropped at what could only be regarded as a omen. Prophet? Bird or devil? The raven showed no fear, and did not rise until I was upon him. With a flap of ebon wings, he glided to the slabs I had just traversed. Not a feather then he fluttered, nothing further then he uttered, simply sat and watched, a ghostly presence in the veils of mist, until I dropped out of sight over the ledge (sorry, EAP).
I clipped my belay device into the manky fixed line, nervously checked my harness and knot again, then began downclimbing the wet slabs to the rappel chains. The mantle shredded in my belay device. Having little choice, I rationalized that the mantle provided little strength, and that the core would hold my weight. But I put less weight on the line, though I was too tired and wet and cold to be scared anymore.
The raven's omen came to naught, though the other fixed line at the bottom of the ledges also shed its mantle, and the rappels became simply a frustrating, soaking chore. A geyser sluiced from the soaked ropes onto my crotch. My luck, which couldn't be called good as the rain continued, at least didn't get any worse. The ropes survived rapping and jugging loads, and the haul bag and ropes didn't get stuck. The final act of this climb was just a wet, cold trudge out to the road, slipping on mud and lichen-covered rocks. Persnickety the morning I blasted off, Herman the Honda resumed its normally reliable ways, and cranked cheerfully on the first turn. In the rain and mist, wipers flapping, it brought me from the base of El Capitan to the Housekeeping showers and Degnan's Deli, six days later, the end of my first solo wall, and my first El Cap summit.
SEPTEMBER, 1995. My record on El Capitan has not been heartening. After doing the standard beginner's routes, the Prow and the Leaning Tower, in two weeks, I tackled El Cap's Zodiac with the same partner and a tight plane schedule. Rich spaced out several times on the first pitch, with the added bonus of a rescue going on at the same time - disconcerting to hear the soon-to-be-familiar bullhorn ``Climbers on the Nose, do you need a rescue?'' while my partner was fucking up. We bailed, more from intimidation by El Cap than anything else.
MAY, 1996. I returned to Yosemite the next spring with a Ph.D in physics. Still unemployed six months after my defense, and more than a year after I began applying for jobs, I had resorted to searching the classifieds for the perfect climbing vehicle. I had set myself a deadline of May 1; if I didn't have a job by then, I would spend my dwindling savings as a climbing bum until I was forced to return to the world of corporate rightsizing, office politics, and pointy-haired managers. I had turned down three postdocs at Fermilab due to a combination of undesirable projects and bad pay, but mostly the insurmountable wall of knowledge that I would be miserably unhappy there, with no climbing and bad weather half the year. What price was I willing to pay to pursue my dreams? Were these still my dreams?
Then, a week before my deadline, Caltech offered me a job, albeit in a different field. But still physics, and with Southern California climbing to be had. LA, gravity, Caltech on my CV, JT, Tahquitz, Yosemite, and the Sierras, in exchange for my beloved particle physics and... And what? CERN wasn't calling, and I couldn't stand the thought of spending years in central Illinois or Long Island, my two other choices. I told them I would start July 1, and left for a two-month climbing trip. Walls in Yosemite were my goal. I hoped to find partners, but my friend James had given me one of my two graduation gifts, a Solo-aider, so I was prepared to go it alone if necessary (the other was from my Austin climbing partner, Alan, who gave me a CD player for my car - also necessary for going it alone).
One abortive attempt on the Nose with Jeff Batten (I shoulda known!), was rained out by the first 100 Year Flood of '96 (wiped from memory by the second 100 Year Flood of '96-7). After playing partner tag on the Camp 4 bulletin board for a while, I finally hooked up with an experienced, compatible partner. Tim wanted to climb South Seas, the direct start to the PO Wall. I've always been hooked by challenges, and the thought of climbing a 28-pitch A5 whet my appetite. I wanted to nail, and was confident enough in myself to think I could handle it. And I had hung around with El Cap veterans long enough to have a completely unjustified disdain for the left-side routes, for hauling over slabs, for doing anything on the "girly" side.
South Seas was an eye-opening experience for me. Aside from the non-negligible logistics of an eight-day wall, SS must have been one of the first New Wave routes. Rated A5 in 1979, it still goes at a respectable New Wave A4-. Though I had had some practice in Texas, the first pitch was my introduction to real nailing. Thin and intricate, overhanging and wild, it required funk testing and had the complete mix of hooks, copperheads, tied-off #1-3 LAs, stacked and tied-off KBs, and body-weight-only offset placements. A3, with `only' 40-50' fall potentials, but almost certainly decking onto the slab below, with consequences best left unthought (decking makes it A5 in my book). Nothing like the A3 of Zodiac. The bowl funneled the wind upwards, cutting through our clothes, leaving us shivering while others on El Cap enjoyed the mild spring sun. I crawled up the pitch successfully, and Tim's initial uneasiness with my slowness faded as he cleaned the tenuous placements. ``I don't think I could have led it any faster. I cleaned it all by hand.'' Later, on the ground, several people complimented me. ``Wild, dude.'' ``Way overhanging!'' ``Was that you? Nice job. I was watching you from the NA.''
I was psyched, ecstatic. I hadn't been afraid (well, not
too), just involved in the moment, focused on the placement.
I had had the intensity of vision that makes climbing, and physics,
worthwhile. How could anything be harder than that? But that
evening, as we fortified ourselves for blasting over steaks in the
Four Seasons restaurant, Tim made a tactical error.
``I think you are ready for this,'' he told me. ``You have the head and the attitude. But if at some point you feel like you can't do something, just say so. I'll take over. And no recrimination.''
He was much more experienced than I, and completely informed of my wall time, or rather, lack thereof. He knew I didn't have as much time in the stirrups as most would like before attempting this. I knew it also, and hoped that my common sense and native caution would make up for lack of experience.
We got off to a slow start. After blasting off, we had two days cut short by weather, rain and snow. We were mostly protected by the seriously overhanging nature of the route, but still retired to the portaledges in anticipation of the wind we had felt in the bowl. Tim's expando A5 pitch was an all-day sucker, tamed via Lowe Balls and circleheads after an abortive attempt at nailing resulted in Tim meeting me back at the portaledge. Yup, a flake that big really can expand!
Three days up, we were on pitch 6, A4 and my lead. The A2 dihedral led to successively worse placements, and finally the wall became blank. Over to the right and up is the crack I want to get to. How to get there? After much study, the only thing I could find was a dicey hook on a crumbly ledge at the limit of my reach. Getting to the next placement would require top- or second-stepping the hook. My last few pieces were offsets and cams behind loose rock. And lord, what was I headed for? The crack would take nothing more substantial than a KB or beak. More likely copperheads. I could see many above, and almost all of them had ripped loops. Someone had whipped on small heads. This was serious, with a crunch into the dihedral below the penalty for a mistake.
I stood there for a long time with the hook set on the placement, knowing that if I got on it, there would be no turning back. Nothing substantial until the belay. No options but succeed or take the fall. Tim's words kept ringing in my head, his words a siren song luring me back to the safety of the belay.
After a long heart-search, a meditation, a dialog between cowardice
and good sense, between fear and fear of failing, I looked down at him.
``You're up, Tim. This is too much for me.''
We talked. Tim suggested that if I couldn't lead the hard pitches, and given our speed, we should probably bail. A non-trivial task on a route as overhanging as the Seas.
I know that he was disappointed. I had let him down. I should have felt a cad, a coward. But I was just relieved. I felt I had cheated death or serious injury. Not until we went through the epic of bailing the continuously overhanging route did I begin to wish that I had finished the pitch. Going down was not easy, and had none of the glory of going up. And worse, I knew I was capable of doing it. We trudged down in the moonlight, silent.
Tim forgave me my sins, though, and we promised each other that we would save South Seas for each other, after I got more experience.
So I lowered my expectations, and returned to the plan of gaining experience the usual way, through the usual El Cap hit list. Tim and I had been hanging out with Thomas Huber during his free-the-Salathe attempt, and his friend Florin wanted to do a big wall to gain experience for a Pakistan 7km peak he had planned. And slides of him on El Capitan would certainly help convince his local climbing club to sponsor his expedition. This motivation should have set off alarms.
We fixed three pitches of Zodiac. Despite his stated desire to learn the Yosemite Way, Flea refused to take any of my advice about better ways to do things. (Perhaps I do not always suggest things in the most acceptable manner.) After he and his compatriots had a comedy of errors trying to avoid the seven-day C4 limits, his newfound girlfriend Melinda convinced him that he would have more fun sport-climbing in the Owens River Gorge. ``Oh, the Gorge is very famous in Germany.'' I was left to find another partner, solo the route, or retrieve our gear.
Though I considered soloing, I did the last. Zodiac swarmed with a horde of advancing and retreating climbers. It was getting too hot to consider another wall, and I had to find an apartment in LA for my new job. The wall season was over for me. Two months in Yosemite, and my unspoken goal of climbing four walls had not come close to being realized. Though I had made many new friends, laughed and got drunk and told lies and played poker and gained a wealth of experience, El Cap had eluded me. The weight of failure increased on my shoulders.
OCTOBER, 1996. New job, new career, new city, new girlfriend, and I was jonesing to get up El Cap. The stone weighed on me, heavier with each passing day. I could not decide which was more frustrating: being let down by partners, or letting partners down. Soloing a wall had always been seductive to me. No one to blame for failure or success but myself. I had accumulated enough gear via credit cards and friends, and though I had not soloed a single wall, or more than a single practice pitch, I trusted my common sense and intelligence to foresee any problems and fix any errors. I couldn't bear the thought of climbing one of the shorter routes again; I had to try for the Captain. I climbed El Cap in my mind every evening. After the last fiasco, I had sworn never to try Zoo-diac again, but local's lore had it that Tangerine Trip was almost as good, and much less crowded.
Hank and I were going through a rocky time. She was torn between falling in love with me; not yet over her last relationship. She told me that it would be a good week for me to not be around, that she needed some time and space. Great, just what I needed. Emotional turmoil and stress. I determined to use it to my advantage, to let the uncertainty and anger drive me, not sap my will and strength. I was falling head over heels, thinking about making a commitment to this woman. She told me that she felt that way about me. Sometimes. Most of the time. But that she might soon be as certain as I. She asked me to hang in with her while she worked out her feelings.
I began shuttling gear up to the base of the route. With each step, El Cap loomed, grew larger, towered over me. I tried to put my doubts out of my mind, to not think about Hank, to simply take one step, then the next.
After fixing the first pitch, my doubts returned in force. I stood for a long time at the belay, contemplating the second pitch and life. While I was lost in thought, Mark Synott and Warren Hollinger arrived for an attempt to do the Trip in a less than a day. My indecision amused them greatly, but their laughter was kind, and they told me so. ``We've all been where you are, bro.'' Their push attempt gave me the excuse I needed to quit for the day, so I fixed a line, and chatted with them until they started in the late afternoon.
A great thing about wall climbing is that everyone is for you. No one wants you to fail; everyone wants you to succeed. These guys, who had just spent 39 days on `The Great and Secret Show' in Baffin, had nothing but supportive words and friendliness for this gumby on their route. We shared a pipe, trail mix, and beta. They gave me some wingnuts; I loaned them an extra gear sling.
I watched them climb the first three pitches in less time than it had taken me to do one, but I discerned no unknown secret of speed. I decided that I just thought too much. I returned to my guerrilla bivy with renewed commitment, my alarm set for a pre-dawn hike up the talus, and a goal to be fixed to pitch four, ready to blast, by the end of the next day.
The next morning in the pre-dawn twilight, I found I had paid the price of out-of-bounds camping. A bear had helped himself to my food, finding little pause in my locked car. All my food gone, my gear scattered, my car window shattered, I could think of no alternative other than pulling my lines and returning to LA with my tail between my legs. I cached my water and carried my stuff down.
Two weeks later, I returned with a slightly more solid relationship, resolved to do no more OB camping. Though it irked me to donate money to the Yosemite Nazi Park Police, I decided that I was not really renting the campsite but a bear box. Hank was to meet me in the Valley at the end of my climb. So I was psyched, both for the climb, and to meet her as a conquering hero.
Again, I made the treks up the talus to the Trip. Again, I began to fix lines. While cleaning the second pitch, one of my jumars broke. Arrgh! I rapped down, ran down the talus, and made it to the Mountain Shop just before closing time. I was determined to let nothing stop me. I returned the next day and finished the first pitch. I was moving too slowly. By 3pm, I had only completed the second pitch. With renewed doubts, I returned to Camp 4. Though the kiosk report predicted only scattered showers, the buzz in the Mountain Room had a major storm rolling in. Doubtful once again, and uncertain, I decided to wait a day. The weather turned bad; first high winds and rain, then snow. I was on borrowed time at my new job; I could not justify waiting the storm out and starting afterwards. My time had run out. For me, this year's wall season in Yosemite was over. I was disappointed, and relieved. I had not summitted, but it was not because I had not had the will. I could not be faulted for bailing because of bears and broken jumars and bad weather, could I?
Hank hitchhiked past the road closures and into my arms, removing any of my doubts about the wisdom of being on the ground, and not in my portaledge halfway up El Cap in a storm. We made love in my tent in the snowstorm in Camp 4, bound by love and relief and happiness in the moment. I wanted to be nowhere else, ever, except in this now familiar valley, with this woman in my arms.
But this moment did not last. Uncertainty and doubt led to insecurity and defiance, each feeding on itself, each renewing the other. Hank and I moved in increasingly eccentric orbits around each other, now burning in each other's fire, now chilled without light, until we escaped each other's pull and shot away into darkness.
MARCH, 1997. My desire to solo a wall was now stronger than ever. I craved solitude, wanted to face my fears and my doubts with only myself to rely on, only myself upon which to place blame for failure, or attribute with success.
I went to Zion with a still-heavy heart. Wall climbing is not about fun, but is very much like hitting oneself in the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop. Walls are about pain and suffering; fear and learning to accept fear. They are not fun, but can be rewarding. I don't think anyone, me or John Long, can prepare anyone for the work and suffering and fear. If you don't look up at El Cap the first time you see it and realize that you must climb it, then you will never climb a wall. Growing up as a rancher and farmer in the Texas Panhandle, doing construction work in below-zero weather with nothing but barbed-wire fences between me and the North Pole, spending seven years on a Ph.D in high-energy physics, I had few doubts of my ability to endure, to suffer, if that's all it took.
In December, a muscle spasm in my back (brought on by lifting Hank's 80 lb Rottweiler) led to a long and painful recovery. I hobbled about Joshua Tree, climbing though I could barely walk. Just when it started to get better, just after I spoke to Hank for the final time, I woke one morning to crippling pain and numbness in my right leg. After the usual battles with managed health-care, a CT scan and a neurosurgeon told me that two herniated discs and a compressed S4 nerve necessitated surgery. But first another scan. The speed of modern health care, rivaled only by mine on walls, gave me a window to try to climb something before the surgery. Barely able to walk, I began to make plans to return to Yosemite, to El Cap. The spectre of impending surgery made me wonder if this might be my last opportunity to climb a wall. The surgeon had been quite certain it was the best choice. Another goad to get me up the wall, and past my pain.
MAY 26, 1997. I love Yosemite. Driving the twisting roads through the dappled afternoon sunlight, smells of pine and smoke and grass, the chill of altitude, I returned to the familiar dusty environs of Camp 4. C4 was already darkening in the evening, though the sun would not set on El Cap for another two hours. I had not been in camp more than one minute, literally, when a familiar voice called my name. Charlie, who I had first met here last spring, and again in the fall, greeted me happily. ``I knew I'd see you here, dude! I knew it!''
Inside of two hours, six familiar faces greeted me. I knew none of them outside the Valley; outside its confines, all of us led completely different lives. Within its walls, I had shared experiences, equipment, alcohol, and food, had trusted some of them with my life. There is a culture of those who are drawn to the Valley, a raucous and illegitimate fellowship of the granite walls, and those who share it are always at home here, will always find kindred souls. It seems to me a connection to past climbers, past days, legendary climbs.
These friends, and new ones, would track my progress over the next days, wish me luck and would congratulate me upon my successful ascent, or commiserate with me if I failed (in the Mountain Room Bar, in either case, no doubt). But I allowed no thoughts of failure to enter my mind.
The next morning, I began the treks up the talus. My back would not let me carry monster loads, so I made four trips up with gear, food, and water for four days on the wall. And a little extra.
As I carried the loads up the now-familiar talus, my mind also returned to familiar, and deeply rutted, paths. To escape them, I allowed it to wander away completely. I saw myself as a simulacrum climbing the talus, body visible to mind as if from a great height. A raven might observe this lone soul struggling to carry a huge white haulbag to the base of a huge granite wall, each step painfully gaining a small altitude, a small distance, only to relinquish this burden, retrace those steps, and return with another. El Cap, which had before loomed over me, gotten larger with each step, now stayed the same size, shrunk. No route was too long for me now. I wanted a never-ending solo, a climb which would carry me up and away from everything.
Why was I doing this? I had not made it up El Cap with a partner, much less without. Two failed solo attempts made me question my drive, my motivation, my good sense. Though I had good excuses for bailing each time, I knew that, in my heart of hearts, I had been relieved to go down, to have that good reason.
Before, I had been in love with a woman, and I thought she was in love with me. Now that love was just a bitter memory, and its loss an ache I could not understand. I desired an experience that would burn a cleansing fire, leaving only an empty vessel, to be filled anew; ached for fear and exhaustion to replace longing and sadness, memories to replace memory.
The same drive that pushed me to get me out of small-town Texas, to quit a good job and get my Ph.D, to finish after seven years of increasingly weary struggle, would not let me rest in peace until I summitted El Cap. Having attempted it, having said I would attempt it, having even considered an attempt, I was now doomed to try until it got smaller or I grew to be its equal. I would not be rolling a rock up the slope, but myself. When I reached the the rock, my task would only have begun.
At the base of the Trip, I found lines fixed to pitches one, two, and five, two Japanese just starting, and three parties on the upper pitches. On my previous attempts, there had been no one around but me and the push team. But what's this? There's no one on Zodiac. No one at all. Flexibility seemed to be in order. That evening, despite my vow, I put the topo of Zodiac in my pocket. Just in case.
The next day, I found that the Japanese had fixed only one pitch in 10 hours of climbing. Thank god someone was slower than I. And they were nowhere to be seen. With four lines fixed to the first five pitches, I decided not to add my gear to the clusterfuck. Unfortunately, two fellows had come up late the previous evening and fixed the first pitch of Zodiac. But there was no one else around. One party ahead of me on Zodiac seemed like my best choice. They would almost certainly move faster than I.
So once again, for the third time, I started up the 'Zac. Teams were also starting up the Shortest Straw and Zenyatta Mondatta. Things went well for me. Though I waited on the ground until the party ahead of me was starting the second pitch, I caught up to them quickly. More waiting at the second belay, and I wondered if they would indeed be faster than me. I knocked off for the day around 4pm, having fixed to 3. I was pleased at having climbed so quickly. Matt and Dillon were going to continue on and biv on 4. That ought to get them well away from me.
I returned the next day with the last of my supplies. I packed the haulbag, jugged the lines, and blasted off. With the hauling, and waiting on Dillon and Matt, I only got to 6 by evening. No one was starting below me, so I knocked off early to enjoy my first night on the wall, and let Dillon and Matt get another pitch ahead of me. Aimee and Sean on ZM were happy, their mood infectious. I swung my legs over the edge of the portaledge and enjoyed the sunset over a can of cold ravioli.
I won't bore you with the details of each pitch. I've written a separate description of the pitch-by-pitch beta. I tried to climb clean. I had unspoken fantasies of being perhaps the first soloist to climb Zodiac clean, 25 years after Charley Porter's solo first ascent (I doubt that I would have been the first, but allow me my little fantasies). I made it to the 7th pitch clean, when I nailed above the Black Tower, not wanting to chance the fall onto the tower off three raggedy slung RURPs. After I lost my virginity, there seemed no point in trying to reclaim it, though I only nailed about a half-dozen times. Frankly, there were a couple of places, on P10 and P11, where I couldn't see how you could avoid nailing without a cheater stick or fixed gear that wasn't there for me. And a cheater stick is, well, cheating. I didn't bring one, and wouldn't use one.
I didn't take any falls on lead. Only one at all, when a pin I had placed the evening before popped when I weighted it the next morning. Differential temperature expansion of rock and iron.
I was sometimes scared, sometimes puzzled, mostly thirsty and hungry and tired. I didn't eat enough during the day; it just didn't occur to me to stop. I felt that I was climbing slowly, so I was always pressured to keep moving. One of the downsides of soloing is that you are always going, going, going. There doesn't seem to be time to look around, enjoy the surroundings, check out the weather, enjoy a sip of water or a bite.
A thousand feet up, Sean on ZM drew my attention to a pair of peregrine falcons gliding past us, close enough to hear the wind in their feathers. They in their ocean of sky, we on our sea of stone, brought together at the plane of intersection.
Sean, Aimee, and I moved at the same speed, and ended up at the same level each evening, so we would shout our evening and morning greetings to each other, share our feelings about a pitch, take pictures of each other. It almost felt wrong, like not soloing, but I was glad for the occasional company, the knowledge that I wasn't entirely alone. Even when out of sight, I could hear their progress as they tagged gear and discussed placements. ``Watch me here.'' ``Fuck!'' ``Could you tag up the #0 heads?'' ``Rock!''
My progress was quieter than theirs, with only me talking to myself, a constant stream of advice and criticism. ``Okay, tied in short, backed up, line fixed, haulbag ready to go.'' ``Jesus, Brent, you are such a fucking IDIOT.'' ``Okay, what's next here?.'' ``Come on, baby, be good to me now.''
I took to rubbing my good luck charm before stepping onto dicey placements, and it did its work. For reasons I couldn't begin to discern, I also wore a leather bracelet Hank had given me before my first solo attempt. Certainly there was no good fortune there.
I cajoled placements and cursed like a sailor. I sang to myself. Roger Miller (``King of the Road,'' of course), the Wallflowers (``come on try a little, nothing is forever, got to be something better than in the middle''), the Refreshments (``Well, I got the pistol, so I get the pesos. And that seems fair.'' ``Waiting for this coal-black, sun-cracked, numb-inside soul of mine to come alive.'' Gershwin's ``But Not for Me.''). And of course my favorite climbing tune, ``If I Only Had a Brain.''
Matt and Dillon bailed after P8, their heads not in it. They gave me water and encouragement, and cost me a couple of hours. That left me alone on Zodiac. The Shortest Straw team also bailed, leaving only myself, Aimee, and Sean on that part of the wall. Despite all the climbers around me going down, the thought of bailing never crossed my mind.
As I got to P8, a party of three came up fast behind me, and I offered to let them pass. Of course, they didn't move fast in front of me, and cost me a half-day. They made up for it by leaving me water and food higher up, and fixing the ninth pitch for me. I now regret that, because I could have climbed it in the time it took them to do the tenth. That, and not making a clean ascent, are my only regrets (and they are very minor ones) about this climb.
What do I remember? Far too many things to tell here. The Nipple pitch was way cool, but so were many others. Each had its own character. The bivies were great and exposed, with El Cap falling away below. Zodiac is immediately steep; anything you drop falls further from the base than you might imagine. Hauling at the manky P11 anchors was scary, but you can only be scared for so long, and if you don't die in the first 15 minutes, you relax into a state of what-the-hell acceptance of your fate. A similar feeling greeted me at the beginning of every pitch. After relaxing mentally while hauling and cleaning, the first few placements of each pitch would bring back the fear. But then it would fade, and the focus would return.
A thin crescent moon greeted the evenings, the same moon that had hung over Tahquitz the evening that Hank and I first climbed together. It sank early every evening, leaving a spectacular Milky Way in the moonless sky. Though I tried to stay awake every night until I saw a shooting star, something I've tried to do since I was a kid beneath the immense skies of West Texas, I was simply too exhausted to keep my eyes open, and dropped quickly each night into deep, dreamless sleep.
After days of unending movement, I finally took a break on the Peanut Ledge, a park bench in the sky. The wall fell away beneath my feet; El Cap swept up and off to the side. I leaned out and contemplated other routes, studying their features for the future. Climbers on the NA yelled at each other in the freshening wind. The sunny day turned a bit cool, a harbinger of coming change. But there in the sun, with 1800' of air under my feet on the Peanut, I was happy and warm. Twelve pitches up, four to go. I hung my legs over the ledge, drank the bonus water, ate lunch for the first time, and enjoyed an hour of simply drinking it all in. Aimee laughed at me.
``You're really digging the Peanut, Brent!''
``Is this a great ledge, or what!?''
``It's the best! You're really cruising this route, dude!''
``Yeah, I'm having fun.''
And I was. I was in the mode. Not a speed demon by any means, but I had done three-quarters of the route with no fuck-ups, no heart-stopping moments. Four pitches from the top, I felt great. No memories, thoughts of the ground, career, relationships, money, all gone. No thoughts of the future beyond the next pitch. Just the climb, each moment, each move. Each placement an end in itself, and the end of doubt. I knew now that I would succeed. I was ready to be clean, to shower, eat hot food, drink hot coffee, but I also longed for the climb to never end.
The cam-walk pitch was immense fun. #4 camalot after #4 camalot, each a totally bombproof placement, each more confidence-inspiring than the rivets some idiot had placed. The freshening wind kicked my aiders up around my ears. My tag line repeatedly blew straight up beside me as I hauled, then fell with an explosive bullwhip crack as the gusts reversed and regathered.
I could have topped out late that evening, but I bivied on P14 early, just to enjoy the view and the day and the climb. The weather was changing, but I thought I had time to finish before it got bad. I had plenty of food and water, and wanted to smoke my last cigar, eat my last Snickers bar and relax. I wished I had brought a flask of scotch. A celebration was called for. Aimee and Sean had the same thoughts as I, and we bivied at the same level, a rope-length horizontally distant. We once again shouted greetings and delighted in being so close to the top, yet still on the wall. They took some poseur pictures of me lounging in my ledge with a Cuban cigar. Another starry, clear night. This night I was elated enough to stay awake with my thoughts and watch the retreat of the moon. The stars took their unalloyed place in the valley.
I saw that finally someone else was on the route low. I had been alone on Zodiac for at least two days.
The next morning, the weather had clearly changed. The sky was tinged with an ominous red and the sun had a faint rainbow around it. A week of clear skies and light breezes gave way to lenticular clouds and gusts. I topped out at 4pm, once again slower than I expected. The top pitches were not giveaways, and the last was a pain to haul, the only difficult hauling on the route. And I was in no real hurry.
Finally, after two years, I summitted Zodiac. I felt no great relief, no ecstasy. I still had to get down, and I didn't know the descent. I carefully packed the haulbag full. It all fit, yay! Yeah, right. I picked it up, but after staggering three steps like a Stooge in the wind, I knew I wasn't carrying it anywhere. I quickly tossed out half the stuff, and started down to find the raps with my reduced, but still heavy, load. As turned to leave, I looked down and saw Hank's leather bracelet lying on the ground. I hadn't noticed that it had fallen off my wrist after wearing it constantly for a week; had it come off an hour earlier while still climbing, had I not looked down then, it would have been lost forever.
I found the raps about an hour before dark, and knew that I wasn't going to get down before dark. I wasn't keen on the idea of an unknown descent at night with a haulbag. My headlamp was dying, and the extra battery (``Good through January 2000'' - an unfunny joke) had not survived the fin-de-siecle. I really had no idea where I was going. Sleeping on top and getting off in the morning, despite being three days overdue at work, seemed a better plan than rapping into the increasing gloom. I ditched the bag at the chains and headed back up to the Zodiac summit.
Luckily, the half of the gear left at the top contained my bivy gear and food. I wish I could say it was forethought, but it was mostly luck. So I was set for one more night out. I ate the food left for me at the top, swigged water from the stash at the summit, for the first time in days not worried about running out, and crawled into my bag. No sooner had I done so, I felt rain drops on my bivy sack. I zipped up, and hoped, desired, prayed it would be over by daylight. The climb over, however, luck finally left me. It rained steadily through the night.
The day dawned as gray as the previous evening, and wetter. The sun toyed with the idea of breaking through, and I waited until noon before I gave up on the lying bastard. The rain never ceased, and a heavy mist rose from the valley. Between the mist and my wet glasses, the traverse across the slabs to the raps with the bag was... exhilarating. Manzanita is amazingly red in the rain. Though I didn't think I could get any wetter, or the bag any heavier, every time I brushed past (through?) another bush, its' leaves dumping water on me disabused me of those notions.
But this is where you came in.
After the climb, the heinous descent (twice!) became an exercise in stubbornness. Not even determination; just an inability to entertain any thought but to finish. Pain and suffering, wetness and cold were no longer factors. Sometime in the past week, I had attained a state of disembodiment from time; no past before the last pitch, no future beyond the next task, no imagination, no fear. I was still moving in that timeless world.
At the summit, I had felt no desire to ever climb again. My feet were sore and blistered from standing in aiders for six days, my hands stiff and tough. Both were leprous with calluses that would take weeks to peel. My hips were bruised, my neck and back sore and stiff. But the next evening, after a shower and a beer, I was in the Mountain Room Bar discussing advanced solo aid techniques with my newfound Canadian friends from the NA, and considering my next wall. Even though it's been done hundreds of times, I basked in the glow of having soloed Zodiac. I was a hardman, at least for one evening.
Did I feel differently afterwards, or now? Perhaps a temporary exorcism of doubt. Some of my friends and acquaintances now regard me as a hardman, but I know the truth. What I did took nothing more than determination; plenty of people out there do things that scare me witless. I have no illusions about my abilities. Pass the donuts, I'm a softbody.
I still do not understand how love goes away, have no special insight. The climb had not changed nor lessened my feelings about Hank, except that I was a week older, seven days further away. I had no more understanding than when I began, no epiphany. I had not been singed, much less consumed, by the fire I had sought.
Time is the only flame that burns with that intensity, and it leaves not even ashes when it goes out.
But El Cap no longer weighs on me (though South Seas still demands a resolution). There will be other, perhaps harder, walls for me. But El Capitan will never loom above me as it once did. It has resumed its normal dimensions, or perhaps I have grown to see it as it is.
© Brent Ware <email@example.com>
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