The Yosemite Point Buttress is a dusty creature, littered with fading webs of nylon. Her forgotten lair is a labyrinth that sags, muted under the sun. High up there, where ravens dare, something special waits for you. Many have come knocking, and of those who passed, they all found something new.
The riddle is the prize, and your penance is her test. Press on, where many before you turned and fled.
Fail, and be devoured.
The YPB chewed me up, and spat me out on top.
The idea spawned from a routine training session at Elliott Robinson’s personal dojo. Standard practice involved a few smokes, beer, and a bluetooth speaker playing something strange, like, “Coffee, God, and Cigarettes.” Between sips, we’d spar with his custom climbing walls, which were crafted with cement and dye. His Tuolumne-like problems offered a plethora of knobs and cracks. The real challenges though, were the wide ones.
Off-widths, as such cracks are called, demand a fearsome kung fu. Too wide for the fist, and too narrow for the hips, one must twist their limbs to climb them in bizarre and exhausting ways. Overworked climbers have been known to vomit in their voids, even soil themselves. Their larger cousins are the “chimneys,” where a climber can fit their entire body inside, and employ a similarly draining array of motions.
During one of my early bouts against “the wide,” I found myself on the ground, hunched and panting. Blood oozed from my elbows, ankles, and knees; my body and mind, debating. Body fought for abandoning off-widths outright, and Mind rebelled with fascination. Elliot suddenly materialized with a cell phone by his ear, yawning over funding and politics. Quietly, he stuck an elbow into the crack, brought up a knee, and pinned the phone against his shoulder. Then he started to float.
“Let’s move that meeting to Tuesday.”
“Looks like we’ll have to rewrite the proposal for the homeless shelter.”
“We can transfer some funds from administration if we have to.”
Monterey’s Director of Social Services was managing her welfare from within an off-width. He climbed down, and finished the call with a smile.
“It’s all about technique.”
There we sat, pondering our next adventure, listening to Ali Farka Toure, and cautiously flicking cigarettes over dry grass; inflated by a recent ascent of North Dome and Royal Arches. While the cold Mono winds blew proudly that February night, our days had now grown long in June; the forecasts called for warmth; nothing routine would do; we needed an adventure, and we needed it soon.
I woke up in a gravel driveway. The numbers on the clock irradiated “11:00 PM” in green, and we were stopping to rest in Mariposa. A song, weaving in harmony and haunting like a lullaby, put me back to sleep.
“Here, pick some music.” Elliott had graciously offered to drive.
“What was that song last night, with the harmony?”
“Oh yeah, Jonny Flynn and Laura Marling.”
“Got it,” I found it fast, “The Water.”
I leaned back in my chair to savor the next hour of sleep, and listened.
“All that I have is a river,
the river is always my home,
Lord, take me away, for I just cannot stay,
Or I’ll sink in my skin and my bones.”
We scrambled up the Sunnyside Bench Route’s 300-foot terraces, followed by an hour of ascending elevation through ledges and trees, and passed under the Lost Arrow Spire. Yosemite Falls, to the west, was a nuclear bomb in continuous detonation. I gawked at rim above; the valley wall is so massive here… and close. One feels like they are being watched; the ghosts of John Salathe and Warren Harding glower from the Arrow Chimney.
Between us and the skyline, was another 400 feet of scrambling in a steep gully and, ultimately, the official 14 pitches of the Yosemite Point Buttress. From afar, the standard approach was obvious, but up close, immensity can be distorting. Instead of an easy ravine scramble, we roped up beneath a series of steep dihedrals, large “open books” in the wall. The need for a rope here suggested we were off-route, but Elliott grinned.
“If you don’t care where you are, you’re never lost.”
Regardless, I felt a bit uneasy as I took the lead up our second false pitch. Two hundred feet off the ground, I paused on a small ledge, about the size of a large pizza. Up to this point, the climbing had been easy enough, but it felt good to be roped up. My last point of protection was a blue, “#3 Camelot,” twenty feet below. If I leapt from the wall, I would rocket by the cam, and for another twenty feet until it caught me. Along the way, I’d careen against the low-angle slab, bouncing several times before stopping: not a clean fall.
My gaze turned upwards. Above me, the gray dihedral swept to vertical, and the challenges began. As I pondered how to surpass this section, I looked to the right and towards the valley floor. A hundred feet away was a prominent gully, its terrain looked featured and welcoming, and was obviously the correct approach. Given the chance, I would have climbed towards it, but the wall between us was blank; we were committed to the open book.
“Damn,” I spoke quietly; Harding’s ghost was standing over my shoulder.
I moved to lie-back around a dull corner, pulled up, and slipped. My hands peeled off the edge, and I fell back to the ledge, sticking the landing like a bobblehead doll. Down below, the Blue #3 was laughing at me.
Unravelled, I abandoned the lead, and down-climbed to a better ledge. There, I turned to sit, and pulled up the rope until it was tight against Elliott.
He arrived a few minutes later, and I explained,
“It’s too scary up there.”
To my astonishment, he sized up the corner with intrigue. Head tilted back and biting his lip, he squinted, canines exposed. He hushed,
What followed was a pitch that only later, Elliott admits to being one of the scariest leads he has ever done.
I handed him the rack, and he merely started climbing. Dispatching the moves that spat me off, he continued up until the corner evolved into a shallow chimney. Shallow, as in it was barely a foot deep, and 18 inches wide: not quite a chimney, not quite an offwidth; just a groove. Worse yet, it flared outwards, hindering purchase for his limbs. Elliot chose to go right-side-in, bridging the gap with his elbow and palm. His hips held pressure against his knees, while his feet scissored for oppositional force. His left hand pawed back and forth, inanely.
Shift, shuffle, and scuffle.
Far above his gear, his last point of protection, it got quiet. If his body failed to exert correct pressure, and in the right sequence, he would peel out of the groove, and crater into the ledge below. Resolute as ever, he slithered on.
“Watch me,” he muttered.
Translation: “I’m a little scared, and I might be about to fall.”
“With what!?” I laughed, a nervous wreck.
But I really only held my breath.
A few moves up, and the chimney deepened, allowing him to get more of his body inside. While progress was still strenuous, he could lock into a pose, and rest between moves. Better still, a smaller crack appeared in the back, and he was able to insert a yellow #2 cam for protection. He clipped the rope to it, and assessed its quality with a frown. I caught him muttering, “Shitty.”
The chimney swallowed him whole, and he disappeared from view. All I could do was feed out slack, and hope for the best. I was still holding my breath when his voice drifted down, “off belay!”
I uncliped from the lead line, and the rope slithered up with Elliott’s pull, until it was tight against me.
As the follower, it was my duty to carry the backpack. Inside were two pairs of everything: jackets, headlamps, power bars, shoes, apples, water, and some turmeric. Not too heavy, but certainly bulky. By the end of the climb, I would have joyfully hurled the thing into space.
Following after Elliott, I passed the liebacks, and repeated the tenuous arm-bars in the shallow gap. Indeed, the movements were a struggle, and incurred more than a few grunts. The fissure opened up, and I slithered in.
Had I planned ahead, I would have hung the backpack below my harness. This would make it easier to move around inside the chimney. If needed, I could hang from the rope and move the bag, but I had two problems with the idea. First was my naive desire to forego assistance. Second was that, judging by the quality of rock, and the gear I was seeing, I didn’t trust whatever Elliott was anchored to.
Hence I tunneled in with the stowaway on my back. The chimney here was four feet wide, and flared. Climbing it required my back to be pressed against the wall, and my feet against the other, pushing with my palms behind my hips. With the backpack, this was erroneously difficult. Before long I was screaming with every push, and squirming with all my might.
The truth about wide cracks, is that they’re actually quite secure; it’s often easy to lock-off and rest. The killer, is the struggle of progress. Thrashing, one runs into trouble. Proper technique might be described as:
“Lock; scoot; shuffle; sink; breath; plan; shift,” and repeat, ad nauseam.
My technique was a bit more, “Lock; shuffle; scoot; lock; scoot; shuffle…”
Above me, the yellow #2 Camelot inched closer, so enticing… Pulling on it would grant me a few feet of progress, though Climbers consider this bad form. Pride took a back seat to pain, and I yarded on the cam. Shame never felt so good.
Panting; sweaty; thirsty; my heart beat was too fast. I stopped to collect myself by pushing against my feet with my shoulders. Breathing returned to normal, and the struggle continued, though this round, I paced myself. Elliot’s face slowly appeared, and I threw myself onto his ledge like a sea lion out of water.
“Good job,” he was being charitable.
“No, I had to pull on the #2.”
His eyes popped, “It held!”
After some rest, Elliot took the next lead up the corner, and thankfully the climbing eased. At the next belay, we were stumped; the dihedral above was steep and featureless. We looked around, and discovered a passage to the right, allowing us to move out onto the face, and head towards the gulley that- I believed- we should have been in the whole time.
An airy traverse followed around a large corner, and brought us to another ledge. To our bewilderment, we discovered two fixed nuts, small chockstones that had been left in the crack by other climbers. The origin of these nuts would remain a mystery that troubles me to this day.
Likely, someone had gone up the gully below, and climbed an erroneous crack to here, believing themselves to be on the YPB. Realizing their mistake, they would have left the nuts behind, using them as an anchor to rappel from. The other possibility, harder to swallow, is that someone did the exact same thing we had: climbing up the corners to the left, wriggling up the chimney, and traversing to here.
In the Colosseum of climbing, first ascents are held in high regard. While some seek short, difficult cracks by the ground, others strive to push long routes up major formations. By climbing to this ledge, Elliot and I may have been the first to climb a five-pitch variation of the standard approach to the YPB- or not, I may never truly know.
Using the mysterious nuts, we rappelled into the gully, hopeful that this would finally put us on-track, and gain the start of the official 14 pitches. Scrambling up the ravine involved a mix of third and fourth class: easy climbing where a rope is not considered necessary. After a challenging move to surpass a sizable chock-stone, we were deposited onto a large plateau, where the YPB surely began.
We extracted the topo, a rough sketch of the route, and poured it over like a treasure map: matching the features around us to the vague descriptions on paper.
“No way…” Our bewilderment was palpable.
To our confusion and relief, we were standing on top of the first official pitch of the YPB. This implied that the gully we had rappelled into; the gully that I had watched with envy during our entire off-route adventure; was still incorrect. The standard approach had been another two hundred feet down the hill, and to the right all along. We shook our heads and shrugged, ecstatic to be finally on-route, though this would not be our last time getting lost.
“‘X’ marks the spot!”
Our cryptic ledger instructed us to move the belay a hundred feet to the right, down an exposed ledge, and over to the base of an obvious off-width. Elliot went first, traipsing over slippery piles of leaves, and I followed on belay. He handed me the sling of gear, and I mined the topo for clues about my lead. Above us, the crack shot upwards for 70 feet, and was rated 5.8 in difficulty. As Elliott’s protege in the world-of-wide, I was excited to lead it. However, upon gauging the terrain above, I noted our lack of six-inch gear; our rack could only protect cracks up to five.
“Oh well, the climbing looks pretty secure.”
Left side in: lock the elbow, bridge the lower foot, and raise the knee…
Despite a few healthy gaps in protection, I felt fairly safe on the lead, and was in good spirits when I pulled onto the next ledge to belay from an oak tree, until welcomed by a familiar stink. A flurry of red ants scrambled to protest my arrival, and I hustled to establish a belay, anxious to avoid their wrath. As soon as Elliott arrived, I darted from the oak, and brushed a few off my shirt. The putrid stink of formic acid gave way to the lush odor of hot dirt. I gathered myself, and handed Elliott some gear. We were now at the base of the third official pitch, and the crux of the route. We took our time to decipher the hieroglyphic topo, which decoded as follows:
“Traverse down-and-right for thirty feet, vanish around a corner, and enter a 5.7 chimney. Ascend the chimney for thirty more feet, and do not place any gear; placing protection before-or-during the chimney will incur debilitating rope drag. The chimney will abruptly narrow, and become a 5.9 off-width crack. Place your first piece here. Grovel upwards for a nautical mile, and gain a ledge with a tree. Belay from here.”
Chipper as ever, Elliot slung the rack over his shoulder, and took off. Thirty feet later, he disappeared, and I spent the next twenty minutes paying out slack to my unseen hero.
“Off belay!” He echoed down. It didn’t seem too hard.
The rope pulled up snug, and I declared I was climbing. The traverse was fun, and since I could hang the backpack from my harness, so was the chimney. Then a new dilemma was born: because the chimney pinched so abruptly, the backpack wedged into the constriction while I tried to climb the offwidth that it became. I moved down to kick the bag out of the crack, and struggled to get up before it swung back in. Too slow; I tried again. Damnit, not quite… I repeated the motions: cranking on the offwidth with an armbar, abdominals in a twist, and lactic acid swirling in my core. Got it! I squirmed upwards with my ball and chain. Fatigue was my shackle, like a mammoth in tar. In ten feet, I was drained. Every move gained an inch, and lost two. Again, I cursed and wailed.
Elliot yanked up on the line, and I let go. A lifeless doll now hung from the rope. My arms dangled from my shoulders, with my head resting against the taught line. Then I noticed the sun. Damn, it’s hot. Is that just me? My breathing is so dry… my blood’s on fire… That fucking song is in my head.
“The water sustains me without even trying.”
“Elliott! I just… I need a minute.” I hung there, and could sense the sun moving across the sky; we didn’t have all day… I had get moving. Just another minute…
Eventually, I stuck an elbow into the crack, and squirmed my way up over half-an-hour’s worth of grunts and screams. I found Elliott comfortably situated on the trunk of an oak tree. There was nowhere for me to sit, so I crouched over my feet to rest. He handed me a bottle, and I sized up its contents in the sun. With eleven pitches to go, it held no confidence. I took a calculated guzzle, and handed it back with a wheeze,
“We’ll have to be careful with that.”
Elliott nodded his warm smile, and leaned back to relax. I coveted his spot while crouching under the cover of oak leaves. Sunlight trickled through, and minutes passed in quiet respite. I took another look at the hieroglyphs:
“Follow the next chimney/gully up for a ways, then escape right-onto the face for a 5.7 traverse; 50 feet to a ledge. Belay here.”
My turn. I assembled the rack and started up. Thankfully, the climbing was easy, and as the leader, I didn’t wear the bag. The gully went on, peppered with small ledges and knobs, until Elliot shouted that I was out of rope. Shit. I must have missed the traverse, oh well. I managed to establish a hanging belay for myself on two large cams, and Elliot climbed up until the point where the route moved right. From there, he cut out and down for about fifty feet and built himself an anchor on a good ledge.
“Okay, take her in real easy!”
Climbing down towards protection was unsettling, but I remembered I wasn’t carrying the backpack, and my cheeks felt a smirk. After regaining the route, and the rack, I continued to lead the next pitch, which traversed-right and horizontally along a heavily vegetated series of ledges dominated by manzanita. Tunneling through such a bushwack was a pill, stirring up clouds of dust and leaves; my teeth soon bore a healthy coat of grit. Eventually, I came to the eastern perimeter of the buttress: a massive corner where it met the greater white valley wall. I built an anchor here, and belayed Elliott over.
He accepted the gear, and swung the lead, heading up the next series of corners and chimneys. While manning the belay, I surveyed our environment with wonder, welded in a hollow stare. By now, we were a thousand feet above the valley floor, over a ledge system that made up the “Sunnyside Bench.” From there, a 300-foot series of cliffs spilled over and onto the stables by Search and Rescue. Further to the east, the enormous ridge of the Arrowhead Arete swept outwards. Its walls were a great series of columns and trees: a hanging pine forest in defiance of logic. I felt myself in a giant aquarium; a fly on the walls of a lost valley of gods. The sun had advanced to the west, casting us adrift in the massive shadow of the buttress that stretched towards Royal Arches. My mind hummed the tune of a song which I had yet to learn the words.
“Please help me build a small boat,
One that’ll ride on the flow,
Where the river runs deep and the larger fish creep,
I’m glad of what keeps me afloat.”
Elliot’s voice drifted down: I was now on belay, so I started to climb. A mild obstacle course of rock kept me occupied, until I noticed myself passing a large balcony to my left. Posted like a gravestone there, was a tall stump of a once-massive pine tree. The route was supposed to turn left, underneath it for a ways, before sweeping up again. Elliot had been lured into erroneous territory for a surplus hundred feet. Our aquarium was also a maze.
At the belay, I explained the situation. He looked up,
His eyes betrayed a mask of nonchalance. Indeed, the terrain above looked friendly; we could have climbed on from here, why would the route cut left? Somewhere above us, must have been a creature better left dormant.
Acquiring the rack from Elliot, I headed back down. Instead of reversing the entire corner, I managed to forge a new path directly towards the dead tree, then bypass it, by way of some terraced ledges above. The last half of this downward traverse was difficult to protect: not an issue for me, since I was essentially on top-rope. Elliott, however, would have to be careful when he followed; every time he reached for a piece of gear and removed it, he would be exposed to a “leader fall” until reaching the next piece. Easy climbing, but as I kicked and slapped each hold to test them, most responded with a hollow, “thung.”
Loose rock seemed to prevail as we climbed higher on the route, and we had taken note of this earlier, remarking it with a helpless shrug. Booby-traps: tread with care.
I came to a healthy bay tree on a cozy ledge and tied myself to its trunk, turning to sit with my feet over the edge. This station offered an expansive view to the east, towards Mt. Starr King. Below me, the cliffs fell cleanly for hundreds of feet. Elliott climbed down while I spent the time humming.
“Now deeper the water I sail, and faster the current I’m in.
But each night brings the stars, and the song in my heart
is a tune for the journeyman’s tale.”
“Right on,” Elliot had arrived. Preparing to lead, he glanced at the topo. Above us, was the famous “Rotten Chimney.”
“Should be fun,” He said wryly.
He disappeared above, I leaned back against the wall with a vacant stare, rested on Glacier Point, and slowly payed out rope. I heard a “crack!” and a chorus of rumbling as Elliot screamed.
“Rock! Rock! Rock!”
In the flash of a second, I leapt onto the ledge and huddled against the wall, clutching the rope; Elliott might be coming down too. My assailants drew closer, unseen, as every fiber of my being channelled a sea star. Judging by the thumping tones, there were at least four of them, and one was the size of a melon. Something whirred by my head, gravel and grains tapped my shoulder, and I noticed something strange. I felt nothing, inside; I was too tired to be scared. Thrusting against the wall was a knee-jerk reaction, and nothing more. I awaited the outcome with a solemn indifference. Years later, reading these words makes me cry.
The last one flew by, and I left me unscathed. I turned to see them continue their stampede down the wall. Not one, but two melons, and half a dozen apples. The sang their percussive tunes for hundreds of feet, and disappeared around the corner of the buttress. I stared, blankly; no need to sound an alarm.
There’s nobody down there.
I leaned back from the wall, and Elliot shouted down, “Zay, you alright?”
“I’m fine. What happened?”
“I tested a cam.”
The Rotten Chimney was a dark gallery in the halls of the macabre, and I admired its structure with grotesque intrigue. The walls were like sponges; with every push, my hand sank in a little. The texture was that of a million ball bearings, colored tan, and seemingly held together by static electricity. The slightest touch sent a trickle of beads down the chasm like a rainstick. Another appalling chimney followed, and I found myself beneath a huge boulder, wedged above and blocking my path. Judging by the rope, Elliot had surmounted it by climbing the outward side, requiring me to do the same. With a backpack on my shoulders, I bridged the gap with my legs, and scooted around the boulder with a massive drop below. Elliott had set his belay just above, and talked me through the moves.
“Where the hell are we?”
“I think we’re on The Pedestal.” It was hard to tell from the topo.
We read on, “Four pitches to the top. No more chimneys, no more offwidths.”
I smiled at this, and looked up. While another squeeze-chimney loomed over us, the topo instructed us to move left, onto the face, and follow a line of ancient, fixed pitons. We felt like hobbits on a quest, the chimney was a frozen troll in the sun, and I snickered at its hollow threats. We turned to the west.
“I don’t see any pitons.” One of us had said.
“They’re up there, somewhere.” Said the other.
Elliot agreed to lead the next two pitches since I was tired. Lifting the metal sling, he started off the ledge and, twenty feet out in space, he paused. Surveying for the promised pitons yielded nothing. He climbed a bit further and paused again. I leaned forward, praying he would find something.
Anything, I thought.
“Something isn’t right,” he said, and I sagged.
He climbed back to the ledge, and we hunched over our treasure map. Eyes darted back-and-forth from the ledger, and our environment was shifting. The valley walls began to glow in warning, and all around us, objects either shone brilliantly or died in obscurity. Above us, five-hundred feet of irradiated cliffs stretched between us and the sky.
While we were still on route, this wasn’t The Pedestal. Nay, we were short by a hundred feet. Shadows crept in ambush, and the monstrous chimney took new form in the twilight; we had to climb it. With a sigh of defeat, I nodded to Elliot, who graciously led on.
A distant shout rang in from the East, and it took me a minute to spot the tiny figures. Two climbers were on the summit of the Arrowhead Arete route, and were making their way across the exposed knife-edge to the West Arrowhead Chimney: an immense chasm which they would have to descend for hundreds of feet. Along the way, they faced a bounty of rappels, scrambles, and a long hike to the valley floor, all in the dark. They were going down, we were going up, and I couldn’t tell who had it worse.
I studied them like I hadn’t seen a human in years. Elliot called “off belay,” and I watched to see it catch their attention. One of them raised an arm over his eyes. No gestures were made; we stared across the void in apathetic solidarity.
Elliott called again, “Belay on!”
I turned to follow, and they ceased to exist.
There was no confusion on the Pedestal. An enormous balcony welcomed us, covered in sand and worthy of a palace. To my guess, a great spire once stood here like the Lost Arrow, and toppled in geologic time. Spacious and beautiful were its ruins, filling us with a sense of completion. Color had absconded from our world and left us with a rising breeze.
“We should bivy.” Elliot wasn’t wrong.
I looked at Half Dome. “Yeah… well, at least we should be comfortable. Look at all this sand, like a mattress!”
Elliot shook his head, pointing down into the notch, splitting the Pedestal from the Buttress, “We need to be in there.”
I peered over and saw polygons; no flat ledges, no sand. Only rocks, and piles of them. Shooting back at the sand pit, I pled, “Why?”
“It was eighty five degrees today, how cold could it get?”
My sensei spoke with history; he knew the beast that was coming for us.
No further argument. Luxury was abandoned, and we scrambled into the notch. Unconsolidated stones groaned beneath my feet as we dropped the backpack, and eviscerated it for valuables. Jackets, headlamps, and socks were distributed. I donned my puffy vest and looked at Elliott’s with contempt; his had sleeves. We sipped from a desperate supply of water, and I moved to urinate with a shiver. Under the light of the head torch, it glowed a golden brown. We took position, and hunkered down for the greatest night of my life.
The following is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“The winged sphinx of Boeotian Thebes, the most famous in legend, was said to have terrorized the people by demanding the answer to a riddle taught [to] her by the Muses… and devouring a man each time the riddle was answered incorrectly.”
Somewhere on a mountain, a sphinx found a pitiful young man and asked him a question,
“What the hell are you doing up here?”
He cried, “I don’t know!”
And was swallowed in darkness.
I did not sleep that night.
Every few minutes, I would try again to shift the rocks beneath me, seeking an arrangement that might offer relief. Yielding to the one under my shoulder, I moved it back under my spine. A larger problem soon developed. Despite our hiding, the wind had found us. Ruthless, it lashed us through the night; invading my clothes and assaulting my being. Through all the threads on my body, I shivered over my pile of rubble. Rest came in short bursts of seconds, during the critical moment when a gust lulled, and the jabbing stones were fresh. I was a fish out of water, dunked in for two seconds, and yanked out for ten. Elliot snored.
During one of my fitful shufflings, he lifted his head and asked if I was okay.
“Get over here.” He demanded that I take his spot against the wall.
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine.”
This new location allowed me to lie flat on my back, and I only had to shift every few minutes to dodge a jagged knob. Elliott piled the rope over my legs to produce some semblance of a blanket, and used his body to help shield me from the wind. My legs cramped up, and my inner thighs knotted in pain. Standing up or stretching was out of the question; I had to keep my legs together to conserve heat. I lay there with arms-crossed like a vampire, and took the pain. I spent the whole night shivering, shifting, cramping, and watching the stars move across the sky; a captive audience to the wind, and Elliott’s snoring.
I was thankful to have company when he got up. The stars had long-since faded and dawn had broken, but the wind still held court.
“Should we get moving?” I asked.
“Let’s get that sun to come up a bit, first.” Elliott shuddered as he got up to piss. No argument from me; shivering was a part of me now. We scrambled up to the east side of the Pedestal, and humorously cursed at the coming sun. The High Sierra peaks gleamed in the morning light, while the Yosemite Valley was a stubborn recluse in shadow.
“Come on, you bastard!”
Be careful what you wish for.
While we shivered in wait for our solar rays, Elliot held out a powerbar, and I waved it off. The thought of that sticky wad of chalk, rolling around in my mouth… never to dissolve… I’d rather climb another chimney.
“Not without water, and I don’t want to run out.”
“You need to eat,” he shook the bottle at me, and I accepted. Two gulps left.
I bit into the bar, and took a sip. The muscles in my jaw grew soar as my teeth-and-tongue kneaded the dough. Afterwards, I nibbled on some turmeric and savored the faint moisture it held.
Rays of sun beamed down at last, and quelled our shivering. With an optimistic hop, we moved back to the western side of The Pedestal, where the days climbing would resume. We looked over the edge. Here, the side of the column plummets a thousand feet or more. The exposure is sudden and unreal. To the west, Yosemite Falls raged on. Out into space, and trending out left, was a line of rusty pitons.
“Alrighty.” Elliott racked up like a seasoned pilot, clipping his seat-belt and flipping his dozens of switches.
We shook hands, and he departed over the void. He came to the first piton, to which he could clip the rope for protection, and stopped. It was broken.
“How about that,” he muttered.
Does he ever get scared?
He managed to slot a tiny, purple cam into the crack, next to the stump of the old pin, and clipped the rope to it. He paused, assessing it like a rosebush. Then he turned away, and climbed back to the ledge.
“Looks suspect,” he said, as if he didn’t want it to hear him.
Standing on the ledge, he grabbed the rope, now clipped into the cam, and gave it a few tugs; as hard as he could.
“Bomber,” He seemed excited as he climbed back out, following a line of rusty pegs into space. The crack shot upwards, and he made after it, disappearing around a bulge.
One down, three to go.
Following the traverse rattled me a bit; a fall would result in a pendulum into space. Relief came when the next piece of gear was directly above me. At the next belay, Elliott retrieved the gear, and continued up the next pitch. From there, a perfect crack split the face for a long ways, allowing secure handjams with fantastic exposure. To my chagrin, I was too tired to enjoy it.
It was hot again, too. Without warning, temperatures shot into the 80’s, and far as I cared, it might as well have been 100 degrees.
The crux of this pitch sits just under the belay, where the rock bulges out like a beachball. Surmounting it requires whit, and a little strength. I didn’t have much of either. As it drew near, I noticed Elliot crouching over his feet on the ledge above. Narrow and sloping, there was nowhere for him to sit. Instead of belaying me directly off the anchor, I was attached to his harness.
Lifting my head was tiresome. “Yeah?”
A moment passed while his words sank in, “Bad anchor?”
“Just don’t fall.”
“Okay.” I sighed.
I raised my left hand, and placed the palm on top of the bulge; my elbow pointed upwards to apply downward force. I reached out right with my other hand, and found a good edge on which to pull inward. Stepping off my left foot, I brought my right toe up to a notch, and went for it. Synchronized, my left hand pushed, my right hand pulled, and my left foot flailed around for anything, and found nothing. A dying whale on the bulge, I was stuck.
I reversed the move, and saw a better place for my foot, just a little higher… After a few breathes, I stepped, pushed and pulled, and found myself next to Elliot on his crammed ledge. His anchor was two small cams in obviously-unstable rock. Utilizing some gear from the last pitch, he managed to improve it a bit, but it still didn’t inspire confidence. The rock was uncooperative.
“Zay, will you lead the next pitch with the backpack? I’m pretty gassed.”
His image reflected mine. Breathing was labored, and deliberate. Every motion was an exercise in conservation. Despite our heat, there was no sweat. We hadn’t had any water since breakfast, and that was just a sip.
“You bet,” I lurched my head upwards, “But we gotta’ finish the water, man. I don’t think I do without it.”
I dug into the bag, and pulled it out: two gulps left; one for each of us. I tried not to stare as Elliott went first; the last thing we needed was a mutiny. I got what was left, and we took turns with the empty bottle. The droplets tickled our tongues.
Two pitches left, I gazed at the topo.
“Up-right; go left; zig-zag; right again, follow the gully; belay on the ledge.”
I looked up: to my right, a low angle corner was obvious to follow, but I couldn’t see any holds. To climb it, I’d have to rely on friction. If a foot slipped out, I’d slide back down and tumble over the edge; the anchor would rip out, and Elliott would be yanked off to join me on a final stab at flight with no second chances. Looking left, I saw that I could bypass the gulley by climbing prominent, loose knobs; twenty feet up to a ledge, step across a gap, and regain the route. Both options looked unprotectable.
Loose knobs, or grainy friction?
I called upon my origins; I learned to climb at Pinnacles National Park, where the art of knocking on holds to judge their integrity, is part of the adventure.
“You sure about that?” Said Elliott.
“I think so, yeah.”
I set off, knocking, slapping, and kicking everything. On the poorest holds, I’d allow myself a small amount of force, say, twenty pounds. By the time I was on the next ledge above Elliot, I had climbed twenty feet of 5.7 terrain, and still not placed any gear. I scooted along the ledge to the gap. It’s just a step-across.
I looked down to Elliott, the anchor, and the valley floor. The hibernation of fear had come to an end. Just this one move.
Clutching a good edge with my left hand, I leaned across the gap, extending my right hand, thumb-down and knuckles toward me; my fingertips pressed into a small chip in the wall.
Pulling against my left hand, I extended my right foot, kissing the other side. I repositioned my right hand, and grabbed a knob. All that was left was to trust it enough to release my left one, and swing over. Physically, the move was trivial. Psychologically? Devastating.
I let go, and stood on the other side. Riding a sudden wave of energy, I made my way up-and-right, cut left, and right again. At that moment, I could have drawn the topo from memory.
I came to a good ledge, and plugged some cams in a crack, joining them with a sling. Bomber.
“Elliott! Off belay!!” I stared with hunger at a large pine tree; one hundred feet above me; with an easy scramble between us. There, marked the end of the climb.
Hunger, and thirst. One pitch left.
Pulling the rope was exhausting, and I collapsed onto my perch when Elliot arrived. He didn’t even stop; he knew where to go, and went charging up the gully like an angry, tired elephant.
No sweeter words may ever grace the human race.
The tree was fat, and filled the air with comfort. We gathered our things, as well as ourselves, beneath its quiet sanctuary. We laughed between heavy breaths, and watched the shadows dance beneath the wiggling pine needles. Soft breezes kissed my cheeks, and I welcomed them gently. Looking out, our panoramic view of the High Sierra to Half Dome, and all the way to the Cathedral Spires was unbeatable; breathtaking.
We charged towards the river atop Yosemite falls, trail-be-damned.
Getting closer, I stripped myself of gear; throwing off the rope; wrestling out of the harness; and tearing off my clothes. At the water’s edge, I stood in my underwear. Across the river was a man, watching this unfold, and holding a large camera. To him, I must have been a wild animal: coyote or deer, or something in between. I jumped in, and the water went up to my waist. The shock spat me right out; it was freezing. Jesus! Frantic, I dropped to all fours, and submerged my head, inhaling as much liquid as I could. When I came up for air, the man had his camera trained on me.
Hours later, we ran down the Falls Trail; hardware jangling on our harnesses; and a bottle full of dirty water in tote. Someone stopped us, demanding to know what we had just climbed. We pointed over to the Yosemite Point Buttress, and told them.
“Now the land that I knew is a dream,
And the line on the distance grows faint.
So wide is my river, the horizon a sliver,
The artist has run out of paint.
The water sustains me without even trying,
The water can’t drown me, I’m done with my dying.”