Polar Arches (Yosemite)

“You ready for this?”

“Let’s find out.”

Tuesday started out like any other, for a climber. The shade under the trees bit frigidly, and the canopy dripped with snowmelt as I started up the Royal Arches climbing route in Yosemite Valley. My partner, Rachel Sechan, fed me rope as I slithered up the initial chimney. Running water threatened to send me slipping down the ice box and crater into the wet earth – thirty feet below – but eventually, a crack appeared in the damp granite, and I slotted in my first piece of pro, or point of protection. Rachel fed more rope as I clipped it to the device and slithered on. Up and in, around a tree, and surmounting a suspended boulder found me sitting on a comfortable ledge. The pitch was over.

“Off belay.”

Rachel unclipped, and I pulled up the remainder of the rope, until it was tight against her.

“That’s me,” she called.

“Belay on,” I responded.

“Climbing.”

“Climb.”

Grunting, she struggled to follow my line. The crevasse was notoriously smooth on the inside as the result of climbers rubbing the interior with their bodies – polished – and wet rock was the last thing Rachel Sechan needed as she squirmed up her first real chimney in the wild.

“Welcome to Yosemite,” I grinned as she threw herself onto my ledge, panting.

“I don’t know if this is such a good idea.” Rachel looked up the 1,700′ wall of granite with doubt, though this idea was hers in the first place. Sorta. She had demanded we climb the Royal Arches a week prior when I casually threw out our options over the phone. Now, she was having second thoughts.

“Price of admission,” I peered up the cliff, “The chimney is the most fucked up pitch; the rest of the route is nothing like it. Besides, we’ll be in the sun from now on.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

So it was. The next four hours were a lovely maze of cracks and rocky ledges, studded with trees, and basking in solar rays. Despite a slight chill, I removed my shirt to soak up the sun as we crawled our way for 1,700 feet up one of Yosemite’s most iconic routes and the trees below grew smaller with every “step.”

Four hours later, we arrived at the valley’s northern rim. Looking south, every ridge and tree glistened with frost in a deafening expanse of shadow, and I shuddered to think of myself cast into that world: trapped on some enormous cliff, like the Steck-Salathe. Everyone gets benighted on the Steck-Salathe.

“Now comes the true crux of Royal Arches,” I smirked.

“What’s that?” She really didn’t know.

“Getting down.”

To get off the Royal Arches, one has two choices. Historically, climbers would hike along the rim to the east, and descend an infamous ravine known as The North Dome Gully. As that route (dangerous even when dry) would surely be covered in snow, we chose to rappel. 

However, the “rap route” has its own perils. Rappelling, while being the “easiest part of climbing,” is insidiously perilous. Climbers get complacent – too casual – during what is otherwise a rather monotonous task. Descending a 2,000’ cliff with a 200’ rope requires just-too-many rappels.

As the more experienced climber, I elected to lead the way down. At each anchor, I would clip myself to some bolts, unclip from the rope, and call up to Rachel, “Off rappel!” After which she would come down.

Eventually, the forest floor became more distinguishable. The shadow of the south rim crept in, and rocky ledges floated upwards as we descended each rap. At the sixth rappel – not halfway down – the terrain kicked out. Instead of a dead-vertical face, a short series of ledges and ramps spilled over towards a final 300’ drop.

“Off rappel!” I shouted up to Rachel. Sixty feet below me was the first ledge. It stuck out a few feet, dropped six more, and a slightly larger ledge sat beneath it. Below that, the slabs descended a few hundred feet over terrain that appeared climbable. Down-climbable.

Rachel materialized, and clipped herself in. I fed one end of the rope through the anchor, and instinctively tied a knot in the end. To prevent rapping off the ends of the rope, and thereby falling to your death, climbers will knot both ends. In the event of negligence, the knots will jam in the ATC, or rappel device, thus averting catastrophe.

We untied the knot from the other end- so that it could be pulled through the upper anchor, and tugged the left-hand strand. Down came the rope, and it whipped past us with a loud snap. The new end rested on the ledge below.

“Looks like a back up knot won’t be necessary, “ I squinted, “We’re going to hit the ledge and downclimb the next section anyway.”

Again, I descended first. Rappelling can be quite pleasant; by keeping a loose grip on the rope, I sailed down the line in haste. As I approached the first ledge, I thought I might as well continue to the second, neglecting the fact that the knotless strand only touched the first one.

Pop.

The end of the rope slipped through my hands, and right through my belay device. In the flash of a second, I thought, Really? My foot hit the wall first. I flipped upside down, and bounced off my back on the second ledge. From there, my soon-to-be-corpse went careening down the slab towards the 300-foot drop. Six seconds later I was still sliding at what felt like 100 miles per hour, on my back, and head first. As warm granite grinded on my spine, and my hands dug inanely for something, I internalized the situation. You idiot. This is it; you’re going to die.

No screams. No curses. I could see only purple sky as I waited for the final drop. Suddenly, my legs spun around; I was upright, and I came to a stop. I jumped to my feet, and looked up to Rachel. The ledge from where I had fallen was now 80 feet above me.

“Zay! You alright!?”

Barring a few gashes and bruises, I replied, “I can’t fucking believe it. I’m okay.”

“What the hell happened!?”

“I rapped off the end of the fucking rope.”

I looked at my harness. The lone knot that I had tied was jammed against my ATC. When I fell, I started pulling the rope down with me. Rachel, who had no reason to be watching, noticed the rope racing through the anchor with a hiss. She looked down in time to see me sliding towards my death, and after a brief moment of confusion, she seized both ends of the rope with her hands. Initially, the friction was too great, and she burned her skin. She let go. Shaking out, she had only three seconds to try one more time, this time stomping on the rope with her foot while squeezing with her hands.

Had I been in a pure free fall, there is no chance I would have been saved. Too much momentum. Instead, I was sliding down a slab and clawing at the rock. The critical ingredients that saved my life were Rachel’s reflexes and calloused hands (she digs holes for a living).

After a little back and forth, Rachel continued to me while I moved over to a narrow ledge, and sat down to light a cigarette. Staring out over the empty void to Glacier Point, and down to the winding Merced River below, the adrenaline drained, and I wept. 

Rachel arrived, and assessed me for a concussion and shock. Somehow, I was fine. After one more cigarette, we made haste for the valley floor; the coming darkness would be no less unforgiving in light of what had just happened. An hour later, my feet landed in a deep puddle, back on solid ground. Trying to be funny, I declared the sumbersion to be the worst part of the day. We coiled the ropes and – five minutes later – wandered into orange lights, and through the dim parking lot of the Ahwahnee Hotel. Just another day.

As the headlights bounced off the other cars – illuminating the trunks of Ponderosa Pines – Rachel brough up the sound of the rope hissing through the anchor.

“I’m going to have nightmares about that sound.”

As it turns out, your life does not flash before your eyes. Not in the final moments. No, that comes later: the next day, when you find yourself hiding from passengers in the wheelhouse of the Pacifica, and Captain Danny Frank rests his hand on your shoulder as you weep. Glaring out over the immaculate sea, and a pod of dolphins by your side, you sob. How have I come to this? Why am I still alive? Why me, and not Gobright? Brad was my hero, and he fucking died, they way I should have. A thousand curses to myself, and a thousand more to the innocent clouds, who hover quietly over the frigid and ever-rolling swells of Monterey Bay.

I should be dead, whether as a result of Bipolar Disorder or by Fate, it doesn’t matter. Barring unrelenting tides of suicidal depression, the irrational decisions induced by mania, or by some tiny mistake: I remain, for now. However, something is happening as I write these very words. For the last six months, I have crawled my way out of an abyss, released from a mental institution for the fourth time in my life. The first three were for Manic Episodes. The latest was because I desperately wanted to die. Now the lows recede, and Royal Arches has triggered something within me. My mind is ablaze, and frantic hands scramble to record these feelings; these stories; these adventures, before it’s too late.

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