[2022 Author’s Note]
The following chapter was originally posted as a “trip report” on Supertopo.com. In its heyday, Supertopo was an online hangout for various notable climbers, with a heavy emphasis on Yosemite. When I first posted the story, it received acclaim from the community, even garnering praise from climbing legend and writer John “Largo” Long, and Wayne “Fossilclimber” Merry. Up until this story, I had essentially never written anything in my life. Hence, it is not my best work in terms of style. Additionally, the story is full of climbing jargon, which I beg the non-climbing reader to look past and to focus on the narrative. Let it also be known that we later discovered that the speed climbers who passed us on the wall were none other than legends Tim Klein and Jason Wells, who perished a month later on El Cap. Additionally, we had a lengthy exchange with Brad Gobright on the Changing Corners pitch, as he had rappelled down on us, and we talked about having to call YOSAR about the Spaniards. I never included it in the original story as I didn’t want people to speculate about what he was up to: a mute point, now. It was with this story that I discovered a love of writing, and I have elected to publish it – with minor edits – in its original state.
Rescues Daddy Issues
“We should go over systems sometime,” says Brett.
Brett is into big wall climbing; He started climbing in Yosemite while we were hoodlums at Mariposa County High. At the time, I was obsessed with Badger Pass. If there was no snow, I would be at the Mariposa Skate Park. If it was too hot, the river. With the exception of skating, Brett was also into these things.
Brett spent his thirtieth birthday in the middle of a solo-ascent of The Prow on Washington’s Column. To date, the biggest wall he has climbed is Lurking Fear, a nineteen pitch route up El Capitan. He’s also climbed a shit load of other things around the park, obviously. He loves long, adventure climbs. So do I.
While Lynn Hill was freeing The Nose, I taught myself how to swim by jumping off the diving board at the El Portal pool. I had never even been in the deep end. No floaties. Sink or swim.
At high school graduation, I was voted “biggest daredevil.” He was voted “most adventurous.” Eleven years later, I found out that while I remembered our silly accolades, Brett didn’t.
I’ve been climbing since April 29th, 2016. I know this date, because April 28th was the day my ex-girlfriend Alix and I first hiked at Pinnacles. April 29th was the day I wandered into Sanctuary Rock Gym, looking for someone to take me climbing one day, at the Pinnacles.
By now, my climbing resume includes Snake Dike; a few laps up the Manure Pile; a 13-hour February linkup of Royal Arches and Crest Jewel Direct; and a handful of the bigger multi-pitches up Machete Ridge at Pinnacles National Park. Big walls? Brett was my ticket in.
“Systems… yeah dude, I’m so down!”
Flash forward a few months, and we’ve practiced aid systems a few times in the park. I’ve bought a copy of Chris Mac’s “How To Bigwall Climb,” and read it about a dozen times. I’ve watched the complimenting videos a few dozen times more. I’ve drawn numerous diagrams of the leading-hauling-cleaning sequence, and practiced setting up Brett’s portaledge, even borrowing it so I could practice more at my house. I hung it from my ceiling and slept in it.
At Pinnacles, I set up Microtraxion self-belays so I could practice climbing C1, and I practiced hauling, jugging, and cleaning… all alone while tourists wandered by thinking “what the fuck is that guy doing?”
“I got a week off, first one in May,” I tell Brett.
“Nice man! We should go big,” He responds.
“How would you feel about an El Cap Route?” I propose.
He’s down. While I really wanted to do The Nose – like everyone and their mother – Brett thinks Triple Direct is a better option for us.
“Less pendulums. And by the time we cross into The Nose, most of the bailers will have done so.”
Brett also proposes the idea of skipping the Freeblast by just hauling up the Heart Lines and blasting off from Mammoth Terraces.
“No bragging rights, but it’s still 21 pitches, and you’re climbing 3,000 feet off the deck.”
Bigger than Lurking Fear, I guess.
I agree at first, but every few weeks I prod him a bit… “How would you feel about adding the Freeblast?.”
“We’ll see how well we’re doing with a little more training. We are going to be moving a lot slower than you think. I once belayed a guy who took five hours to lead a single pitch, and that was C1. Fatigue really messes you up.”
Eventually, he agrees to add the Freeblast. The plan is six days on the wall. Haul to Mammoth Terraces – 1,200 feet up the wall – return to the ground and climb up Freeblast the next day, joining our gear and spending four more days pushing for the summit. Ten gallons of water would be left on Mammoth, as well as four and a half days worth of food. A gallon of water per day, each, plus an extra day’s ration, just in case. The hauling would suck, but we would be prepared.
Wake up early. Drive into the park from ‘Posa. The day before, Brett rallied a few friends to help hike up and stash loads at the base while I was working in Monterey. I work with wild animals; my childhood obsession with Steve Irwin actually got me somewhere. All we have to do now is walk up with some extra stuff, plus all the food I bought for myself.
While we are retrieving the gear, Brett points at some trees. They are damaged, branches are severed, some hang by a thread of bark. The leaves are almost brown.
Many, many of the surrounding trees exhibit this trauma.
“It’s everywhere. There was some massive rockfall recently. Maybe a few months ago, judging by the color of the leaves. No one has said anything about it. It must have happened during one of the recent storms, or during the night, maybe.”
Brett is an arborist. I think that there must be some kind of job for someone who can study rockfall from damaged vegetation…
My eyes are drawn upwards. A vertical ocean of granite forces my neck to strain. El Capitan looms over us. Ravens soar high above. Swifts dart along the walls. I’m keeping my helmet on.
Back to work.
Eventually, we’re off. I “lead” up the lines and set up the hauling anchor. I’ve never hauled a true load before; just a few pounds in my backpack at Pinnacles. I weigh 150 lbs. My hopes of hauling with one-to-one mechanical advantage are crushed after a few moments of furious battle with the pig.
Brett showed me how to set up a two-to-one mechanical advantage pulley at his house, so I set it up, triple check it, and start hauling. First time ever hauling two-to-one. It’s horrible. Every foot of pull nets six inches of progress. It takes me roughly an hour to get the bag up. I’m worked.
I point out that the wall is swarming with these tiny red bugs. How many legs? Six? Eight?
“They must eat lichen,” I ponder.
“Yeah, those things are everywhere.” Says Brett.
Brett swings a lead up the next line. He sets up the pulley, one-to-one, and gives it a go. Just barely, he gets the bag to move. He weighs 200 lbs. I jug up next to the bag and try to help by pushing upwards every time he cranks on it.
“Don’t waste your energy man,” he says.
Eventually, a team materializes on the Muir Wall route, just a few hundred feet to the right. They are a few pitches off the ground, and they’re hauling off the deck. Ground up. Total badasses. I am ashamed. Here, these guys are doing a sick route with no umbilical cords, and we’re flying up and down the wall using fixed ropes and standing on the shoulders of those before us. No bragging rights indeed.
Six hours later, our bags are stashed on the Mammoth Terraces. We are beat. Helicopters are flying around the wall. Two of them. They land in the meadow, take off again, disappear around The Nose, and land again. This repeats itself for hours.
“You know what this might be?” says Brett, “I heard Hans Florine might be trying to take back the Speed Record.”
“Huh,” I grunt, “Maybe they’re filming something?”
We would later find out that Hans had been leading the Pancake Flake on the Nose, aided on a nut during the 5.11 section and blew it, hitting the triangular ledge below and breaking both legs.
We hang out on Mammoth for a while and eat lunch. Brett cracks open the sentence I knew was coming half way up the fixed lines.
“At this point, I think it’s probably best if we just jug back up the lines tomorrow and start climbing from here.”
Deep breath. He’s right. It’s not that we are moving slow (we are), it’s how worked we are going to be after the Freeblast, and how much more climbing will be ahead. I don’t get it, Elliot and I climbed Royal Arches and Crest Jewel Direct in a span of thirteen hours, about thirty pitches. Why am I so tired? Different kind of work, I guess. If we want to climb 3,000 feet off the ground this week, it’s what we’ll have to do. I’m crushed, but I’m also relieved. More time for error.
This decision would turn out to be the best one of the trip. But it would also have a deafening impact on what was to come.
Real climbing, coming soon. We left our rack of gear at the base when we started hauling yesterday because we had planned to climb the freeblast. Now we are just going to haul it up the wall.
Leaving the car, we see there’s another helicopter in the meadow, and a gang from YOSAR. We walk by with our heads down, not too keen on rubbernecking. Passing a lady who appears to be directing foot traffic, I look up and instantly recognize her. An old friend of my dad.
Dad was a ranger in the park during the nineties. He also worked at YOSAR, and was involved in a number of high profile incidents that are “well documented” in a certain book on incidents in the park. Despite having played a fairly significant role in a number of these tales, his name is not mentioned once.
When I bought the book and noticed he wasn’t mentioned in these stories, epic tales that he had told me years ago, I asked him, “Dude! Aren’t you pissed you get no credit?”
“I couldn’t care less.” He had said with appalling sincerity, and disgust.
And now I’m staring at one of his old friends and coworkers. I ask her if she recognizes me, and she says yes, but I don’t think she does. She hasn’t seen me in well over ten years. Either that, or she’s got a whole lot on her mind. She tells us Hans spent the night on the summit, and they just brought him down.
“Well, I’ll tell dad I saw you!” I say to her,
“Yeah okay,” she smiles, instantly turning her attention to somebody else across the street.
Off we go. Shit to haul. This time, it’s my turn to haul for the day. I’m timing everything. Five minutes to jug a line. Three minutes to set up, and 20 to 30 minutes to get the bag up. A lot faster than yesterday. Lighter bag.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be hauling two-to-one again in no time.”
I grunt a laugh, glancing across the valley towards Middle Cathedral. Upper Cathedral is starting to poke up from behind. God, that thing is beautiful.
Every so often, swifts rocket by our heads with their mini sonic booms. It’s amazing how close they come, and it’s fun to watch them hug the wall like proximity wingsuit flyers. It’s just as much fun to watch them turn and head out over the meadow, disappearing into space.
There’s a certain bird call, you know the one: a high pitch, rapid-fire whistling that crescendos down with pitch and intensity…
They do the same thing at Pinnacles.
The Muir Wall guys are pretty much where we left them last night. Three, four pitches up? And here we are again, flying up the fixed lines. Again, I feel embarrassed, cheating in the face of true hardmen. At some point, I stare at the Muir Wall Team. It looks like they are space hauling in tandem. A lot of gear, I wonder…
Suddenly there’s a “POP” and they all drop an inch with wide eyes. One of the pieces of their gear anchor blew. I don’t stare long and continue up the lines, and they go about fixing their anchor.
We re-acquaint ourselves with our gear atop mammoth terraces, have lunch, and loaf around for a long time. “There’s no way the Muir Wall guys are catching up anytime soon.”
Eventually, talk of climbing breaks the lunchtime silence. We agree to swing leads the whole way up. The first pitch of the day is to be mine; my first lead on a big wall.
Brett is a much stronger aid climber than I am. While I don’t call myself a strong free climber, I’m a little more inclined to it than he is. Still, I had recently watched him lead Sherrie’s Crack (10c) like a boss. 10c crack for me? Still scary. Yet up here, aid climbing is where he shines.
The first pitch is 10b “awkward fingers” to a ledge, where the leader must then lower to another ledge and set up the hauling. Thus far, I have led a total of two 5.10 cracks in the park.
I peer over to the ground. Holy shit, we’re already pretty high up here. A helicopter passes below us, like yesterday. But this time I don’t care why. We both gaze at a flying raven at eye level, close to the wall. The wind holds it in place until it veers off and submits to the currents, downward bound.
“I’ll probably just try to french-free it,” I say. “I’ll leave the aiders and approach shoes behind.”
I’ve never french freed before. In my very, very limited aid experience, you’re either stepping in ladders or you’re going all free. Contriving twilight zone strategies of pulling on gear from a free stance, fifi-ing if you have to, stepping on runners maybe… it’s all alien to me.
Sink or swim.
Brett gives me a fist bump and I head up the crack. I free climb everything, until reaching a strange overhung crack alongside a left facing dihedral. “Looks like french free to me.” I reach up high, plug a cam, yank it a few times, and grab the sucker with my hand. I have an adjustable fifi (home made by Brett). I extend it fully, hook the piece, and yank myself up, feet in the crack down low, one hand in the crack up high.
Huh, that works…
I repeat this motion once or twice again, before reaching good holds and free climbing the last bit to the top. I see I have to clip a bolt and lower down, to the right, onto the next ledge. First time for this…
“Lower slow! A little more! Alright!” … a moment later, “Lines fixed!”
Just like that, I’m stoked. I just led a pitch, way up on El Cap. I’m trying to stay focused… get the bag up here… task at hand… WOOP, SHIIT.
I drop the pulley.
It hits the ledge and starts sliding towards the void. I watch with horror, ready to scream, “ROCK!!!!!!!”
I shit you not, it stopped barely one inch before going over. One fucking inch. I slowly step over, crouch, and reach for it like it’s a salamander, the way I used to catch them in El Portal. The way dad taught me. Move too fast, and you’ll startle it.
I could have killed somebody, I’m an idiot. Hauling would have been impossible. Rookie move. I don’t deserve to be here.
A bird whips by my head.
I’m not telling anyone, not even Brett.
Despite the momentary horror I just experienced, the stoke comes back pretty fast. Before long, I’m set up. Brett releases the bag from the lower anchor, and off I go, hauling like a madman. I get the bag up and docked just before Brett lowers out down to my ledge.
“I got the bag docked and everything!”
“Brett, I gotta tell you something…” I admit what happened. He looks away.
“Yeah, well, that’s not happening again…”
I laugh, nervously. I look around at the Valley and notice a beautiful orange hue radiating off Middle and Lower Cathedral.
“Shit, the sun’s already going down.”
“It’s alright. You hauled ass on that last pitch. We just didn’t start ‘till hella late.”
We decide Brett will lead the next pitch and we’ll set up the portaledge in the dark and start climbing in the morning from there. That’s one thing I meant to practice, setting up the ledge in the dark. First time for that, I guess.
Right before I start to jug his lead, I notice the Muir Wall guys are setting up camp on Mammoth Terraces, two pitches below us. That’s strange, how’d they get up there so fast? I try to say hi, and one of them yells back,
“I’m trying to take a shit!”
Up I go.
It’s my first night in a portaledge. I smoke a few cigarettes, sip some whiskey, and down a cold can of Chef Boyardi. I peel open a can of sardines, and Brett watches with disgust as I suck down the juice before inhaling the more solid contents. I love fish.
At roughly 7:00am, I emerge from my chrysalis and light a cigarette, instantly reminded of where I am.
God… Damn… I think I see all the way to Merced.
Brett stirs in his bag. We start talking about breakfast when suddenly I notice someone coming up the pitch below us.
“Shit! It’s the Muir Wall guys!”
Spring into action. Fuck breakfast, we are totally hogging this anchor and we have no intention of getting in anyone’s way. While I’m stuffing my pack, I see that the guy is already twenty feet below us.
How the fuck are they moving so fast all the sudden!?
I call down to him, “Sorry man, we’re trying to get the ball rolling here… we’ll be out of your way in just a minute!!!”
The guy smiles. “It’s all good man, no worries. We don’t have any bags or nothin’.”
Brett and I look at eachother, confused.
“Just a little speed climbing today,” the guy says. “Mind if I stand on your ledge?”
Brett and I are instantly relieved. Speed climbers. God bless ‘em.
“Welcome aboard dude!”
We chit chat for a second. He and his friend are doing The Shield in a day. He says the Muir Wall team was eating breakfast when he passed them. Super nice guy, and he seems genuinely excited for us when we tell him we’re doing Triple Direct. He is dripping stoke.
In a time span of probably thirty seconds, we’ve had this conversation. He’s pulled up thirty feet of slack, clove hitched it to a single carabiner and clipped it to one of our anchor bolts, yelled, “fixed!” and taken off. One fucking bolt. No self belay. Soloing, on cam hooks. One after another. The dude does five hook moves in a row up the seam, sans belay, and has placed a single piece of protection by the time his follower arrives.
“Wanna put me on belay?” The leader asks, thirty feet above his single-bolt anchor.
“Jesus Christ!” The follower responds, and throws a huge grin our way, “this guys wants a belay, can you believe that?”
We laugh and banter with him for all of five minutes before he’s like, “Gotta go! Have fun on Triple D guys!”
I could almost hear my ears pop from the vacuum of space that they left in their wake.
We would later discover that the speed climbers were none other than Jason Wells and Tim Klein, two legendary Yosemite hardmen who were famous for being able to climb the entirety of El Capitan twice in a single day. Less than a month after our encounter, Wells and Klein died in a mysterious climbing accident, where they both fell – roped together – from 1,000 up El Capitan. Watching them pass us was like watching two heroes on their way to save the world.
Noise rises from the Muir Wall guys below. Portaledge bars are clanging around. We stuff some quick food in our mouths and follow suit.
First pitch of the day is my lead. C2. I’ve never led C2 before. I’ve done a little hook bouldering around Pinnacles, but I’ve never even really held a cam hook, let alone stuck one in a crack.
First time for this, sink or swim.
It’s funny how ironic a pitch can be. Words like “take off,” or “go for it” hide the fact that a hard pitch often starts – and may remain for its entirety – very slow. Rather, you are pulling a lever on a roller coaster ride that is far more psychological than it is action- packed. Yet, in my very slow way, I go for it. Two or three C1 placements up and I’m stumped. I’m trying to move fast, but efficiently, because I know the Muir Wall guys are coming and I really don’t want to slow anybody down. The only thing I’m scared of right now is dropping something.
I quickly see that I’m about to place my first cam hook. I just watched a guy do five of these in a row, and I’ve watched Chris Mac’s video about them probably twenty times. I reach up, place the camhook, look at the crack, judge the leverage, bounce it lightly, and gingerly step into the ladder. Climb the ladder, smooth and steady… fifi, look up… ah…. A good nut placement.
I get another decent piece in after my first-ever cam hook and look up for my next move. I look at my rack, down again, down to the valley floor, back over to Brett. Shit, he’s got company.
The Muir Wall team leader has arrived. We should have known that a single pitch free climbing and a pitch of straightforward C1 would take them no time at all, and now I’m in the middle of my first C2 lead and we are definitely going to slow them down. I check my watch, forty five minutes. I look at the crack, I’m halfway.
I hang there and we all three discuss the best course of action. We make it abundantly clear we don’t want to slow them down too much. I even offer to abandon the pitch and let them pass. We end up deciding that I will keep going, and link the next pitch.
Looks like I’m also doing my second ever C2 pitch today.
Still on the first pitch, I resort to placing another cam hook. My second ever. I climb the ladder, and see that another camhook is the best course of action, my third ever in total. And then another. Three in a row. “A first time for that!” I boast, verbally this time.
I manage to make up time on the second pitch by freeing about 20 feet of the chimney.
“Free climbing a chimney on the captain, baby!” I shout down, trying to insinuate that I’m moving as fast as possible.
While I’m in the chimney, I hear a rising buzz. I look up to see a large black wasp with orange wings about ten inches from my face. It’s not as big as the other tarantula hawks I’ve seen by the El Portal pool, but I also haven’t seen those ones since kindergarten. The second most painful sting in the insect class.
To quote wikipedia: “One researcher described the pain as ‘…immediate, excruciating, unrelenting pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.’”
They’re docile, don’t panic. I ignore it as best I can. Up I go, and it flies away.
Eventually, I reach the second belay, and fix the line. I shout, “Lines Fixed,” and soon I’m hauling. Great, I get to haul two pitches, and on a two-to-one. Brett joins me at the belay. Again, I have the bag docked. I’m worked.
As it turns out, one of the first things the guy said to Brett when he arrived was, “how much water do you guys have?”
Brett had responded with a vague, “four days.”
The Muir Wall team had brought basically half a gallon per-day each, and it was looking like that wouldn’t be enough.
Brett tells me, “I told him, ‘dude, the heart lines are right there. Why don’t you stash your gear and return with more water?’”
“Fuck that!” The guy said.
Suddenly we hear, from way down, “Hey guys! We’re bailing! Have fun on Triple D!!!”
I almost choked up. These guys were from the midwest, they drove all the way here for a ground up ascent of the Muir Wall, and now they’re bailing without even considering getting more water.
What the fuck? Oh well, that’s a load off our shoulders.
Out comes the topo. The next pitch is straightforward C1, followed by the Silverfish Corner, a gorgeous left-sweeping, slightly-overhung seam in a dihedral that runs C2 cam hooks for a long, clean line. I will lead the C1, we’ll set up the ledge there, and Brett will lead the Silverfish into the night, rapping down to the ledge after fixing the line for a jump start on tomorrow.
My C1 pitch goes uneventfully. Yay, three pitches of leading and hauling in a row. Yet, I’m actually stoked. I’m climbing on the captain. We set up the portaledge as the wall begins to glow.
“We’ll probably want our headlamps,” I suggest, with a laugh.
“Haha, yeah. Good idea.”
We soon have the ledge set up below the Silverfish. It’s a really cool spot, with a great view of the meadow and Cathedral Rocks. Another tarantula hawk lands on the wall, right next to us.
“What the hell is that?” Says Brett.
“It’s a tarantula hawk. They paralyze tarantulas and lay their eggs in them. They have the second most painful sting in the animal kingdom.” I boast.
“Well, I don’t want that thing crawling on my face at night…” Brett squishes it with a can of Sardines.
Time to climb. Brett takes off. Halfway up the pitch, the sun sets. Beautiful. He looks down at me, “First time belaying from a portaledge, huh?”
I’m huddled into a comfortable position.
“I wish I had a camera, you look bad ass right now. This sunset is insane.”
“You should see yourself.”
Steadily, Brett is swallowed by the black, becoming a white bubble in the silhouette of the headwall, high above. As soon as he shouts, “Off belay,” I spring into action. I want to surprise him by setting up the sleeping pads and sleeping bags before he returns.
He literally rapped right into his sleeping bag.
Every few hours, I wake up to silverfish, actual silverfish, crawling on my face. They are dropping in from above. I guess that’s why they call it the Silverfish Corner.
Early start. While skipping the freeblast puts us ahead of schedule, we are still behind our goal of five pitches a day. Today, there is no fucking around. I admire a millipede crawling down the wall. Ever present, are the tiny red bugs. There is a surprising amount of life up here.
We jug up the silverfish corner, and I admire Bretts gorgeous lead while he hauls the pigs above me.
The next pitch looks wild: a straight-right traversing bolt ladder, to a pendulum, to 5.9/C1, where the real exposure of El Capitan’s central prow begins to show. My lead, and my first pendulum.
I meant to practice them, but never got around to it. I know what I have to do. It’s better to not lower enough than to have to jug back up. Call for slack in increments.
Reach out right, clip the ladder, step over, retrieve the last ladder, fifi-ing is pointless, you can reach, time is of the essence. After six bolts, I decide that I better clip my rope to something soon. I leave a draw on the bolt, and soon the bolt ladder ends. Look down. Is that two thousand feet? Fifteen hundred? The wind is howling, biting with a fierce cold. I wish I had worn my soft-shell.
Time for my first pendulum.
“Lower slow! A little more! Stop!,” I shout. I run left, then run right, reaching out. Not quite…
“A little more!” This swing is greater, faster, and the trees moving below are a hair-bit disorienting. The wind is fucking cold.
“A little more… stop! Slack! Slack please!” Holy shit, I sound exactly like Ammon McNeely in that clip from “The Sharp End.”
I look up the 5.9 crack, then down at my shoes, and then further below to the meadow. The wind is howling. C1 it is. I make a handful of C1 moves, and eventually step out of my aiders and make one or two free moves before clipping a draw onto the anchor. Stoked.
Brett lowers out the bag, and re-aids the ladder before having to lower out and continue jugging up to me. I’m shivering my ass off. Brett retrieves my soft shell from the pig.
“Nice job man!”
“Thanks,” I smile, looking down to Middle Cathedral.
Brett leads the next pitch, a traverse, flawlessly. I lower myself out and soon I’m staring up at a stunning ocean of quartz crystals. I take off my jumars, I gotta climb this. Self belay it is.
Welcome to Crossroads.
We decide to have lunch here, it’s a long-ish ledge and we have to shuttle gear over to the start of my next lead. My first ever 5.9 offwidth.
Last night, I was totally stoked to lead this thing. I’ve been training hard for offwidths in Elliot’s backyard. He built two amazing home walls out of cement and dye to make it look like actual rock, with tuolumne style knobs, as well as a multitude of crack problems, including two offwidths: one that requires chicken-wings, and one that requires “leavittation.”
Now I’m nervous. Deep down, I’m actually freaking out. My first 5.9 offwidth? Here? What am I thinking??? I look down at the meadow, humans are now indistinguishable dots.
My plan was to free it. We didn’t bring the larger gear required to aid it. Now I’m having second thoughts.
Brett hands me a pack of gushers, and I pour the delicious treats into my mouth. Chewing away, I bite down on something hard, and instantly know what it is. Several months ago, I drove down to Mexico to perform a root canal, unable to afford American dentistry. Because I didn’t have enough time for them to develop the crown around the stump that they would leave behind, they placed a “temporary crown” and told me, “don’t chew gum.”
I knew this would happen sooner or later.
I pull the tooth out of my mouth and spit thick blood, instantly reminded of what climbing has done to me. Or rather, what I have been doing to myself. After taking up climbing, my relationship with Alix began to deteriorate rapidly. Admittedly, our relationship was already on its way out, but climbing sure as hell didn’t help. Not long before, I had asked her to marry me, and she said yes. She was smarter than a brain surgeon, and at the age of 25 years, she was already earning a six figure salary. My idea of adventure was sleeping in dirt. She wanted to bring an inflatable mattress. She wanted to play house, I wanted to go play outside.
We had a dog together, though I still get weekend visits.
The week off that I required to return to Mexico and fix my teeth? I’d rather go climbing. Elliot has tried to teach me the ways of balancing adventure and real life. In this, I am not doing so well. After a few minutes of deep thought, Brett snaps me back to reality.
“Yeah, let’s look at this crack.”
Staring up at the 5.9 wide crack I am about to lead, I am re-invigorated. It’s beautiful. So beautiful. I’m leading it for sure. And god damn it all, I’m doing it all free. My first 5.9 wide crack. Fifteen hundred feet off the deck.
I Shake my shoulders and grunt like a monkey. Time to sink or swim.
Off I go. The crack starts fairly easy. Good hands and good feet. Soon, I am pulling a few knee bars and chickenwing-ing up the chasm. I place my first-ever four inch cam and, a moment later, my first ever five inch. Suddenly, I’m staring up at a large disk of rock – weighing some 700 pounds – protruding from the ever widening crack and seemingly held in there by friction. A few strands of black rope have lashed it to the wall.
This is a first, and it’s not good.
It seems that my only way around it is to use it as a handhold, as gingerly as possible.
I slap it, carefully.
“DONG DONG DONG.” Oh god.
Pull down, not out.
I slide my hand into the gap between the loose block and the main wall. Instantly, I am reminded of that movie about the guy who trapped his arm under a shifting boulder, and how he had to cut his arm off to escape. This ought to be the safest way to utilize the death block. Using a good foot, I stand up, and am forced to pull down on the top of the cursed thing. I flick my rope around the back side of it.
“Are you sure about that?” Brett calls up from below.
“If it pulls and my rope is on this side, it’s cutting the rope for sure.”
Soon I am well above it, fully involved in chicken wings, wedging the knee, and bridging the lower foot.
I’m doing it.
I’m burning out.
I’m going to fall.
It’s not the exposure that scares me, it’s the simple human aversion to falling. I shoot a quick glance down to the death block. It’s not too far, and I could climb down to it and use it as a foot hold, but I want nothing to do with it. Instead I choose to focus, and snag a #5 cam from the rack – my second ever. I am slipping. Just a little more… I sink the cam as high into the crack as I can, and grab the piece – french free – holding on long enough to clip the rope and shout a word I’ve used only once before in such context, at the crux of Knob Job, my second ever 5.10 crack lead, only a few weeks prior. A word that I’ve despised, and told myself I would never say again.
I’ve taken whippers before, even some fifteen/twenty footers. But never on a cam. Always on a bolt. Despite being mostly bolted, Pinnacles is not a “sport climbing” destination. It is “traditionally bolted.” Loose rock and run outs dominate the Pinnacles, proud and true. But this is not Pinnacles. These are not bolts. Though I was raised in The Valley, this is no longer my home.
I hang, shameful and embarrassed. Ethics and style are so subjective, and who fucking cares? I’m climbing a badass line, and I’m getting up it. But the shame is there, all the same. This is what it means to me, to give up on something I was so stoked to do.
Oh well. Without any more aid, I get back to business. The rest of the crack is phenomenal, narrowing and splitting double hands and good feet. So good, in fact, that my foot gets completely stuck, and I have to consciously hold back panic, trying to free it. Next thing you know, I am fixing lines, stoked out of my gourd. Welcome to Camp 4. I spy a western fence lizard as he darts for a crack. Up here?
Welcome to The Nose.
Enter The Spaniards.
While Brett is cleaning, I notice a bright orange helmet pop around the corner below: it’s a team of three on The Nose. They seem to be about a pitch or two below us. They are yelling in spanish.
Brett reaches the anchor, and we decide that I will lead the next pitch. Like last night, we will set up the portaledge, and Brett will lead/fix the next pitch for the morning: The Great Roof.
I lead the next pitch: again, forgettably. By the time Brett is approaching the belay, I see he has a new rope, trailing below him.
“They want us to fix this pitch for them.”
Oh well, cool to be helping out, I think. From down below, one of the Spaniards is at Camp IV. “Roja Fija!” Red line fixed.
I instantly recognize the accent. These guys are from Spain. How cool is that? I take the opportunity to flex my spanish. My dad’s side of the family is from Mexico; my grandma retains a thick accent with pride. You’d never guess from my red hair. In highschool, they called me, “Manny Bustos” from a book called “The Crossing.”
“De donde son ustedes!?” I shout down to them.
They are shocked, and pleased to hear Spanish. Soon, we banter back and forth until I reach the limit of my tongue. They are three from Spain. One from Madrid, and two from Barcelona. For the two Barcelona blokes, The Nose is their first big wall. For “Madrid,” this is his first time climbing in Yosemite.
“This is my first Big Wall also!” I tell them.
“Que chido!” They say, waving the hang ten sign at me. Then Madrid goes on,
“Yosemite grades are so stiff! Even 5.6 is very hard! Very scary! We move very slow, aid everything! We sleep at Camp six tomorrow, and we climb to top next day!”
“How much water do you have?” We ask them.
Four gallons, three dudes, and two days… without trying to do math, my tired brain says, “Good luck with that.”
So here we are, we’ve fixed a line for them. The leader, Madrid, jugs up to our belay, and the chit chat continues.
Here’s the situation. We are at the base of the Great Roof pitch. The Barcelonas are at Camp 4 now. Their bag is a pitch below them. Madrid has jugged up our fixed line to us. They want to haul from our ledge, and pull their bag over to Camp 4, a pitch below.
“The bag is on cam hooks, it will come easy,” he smiles.
“Huh,” Brett and I wonder. “Right on.”
Their bag get stuck, instantly.
Eventually, Madrid has to rappel down to the bag, I volunteer to manage their hauling system, while the Barcelonas yank the tag line from Camp 4.
It’s a shitshow. Lots of yelling. Brett and I quietly make comments about their coordination. It takes a while for Madrid to free the bag. I haul and work with the Barcelonas, Madrid jugs and swings over to Camp 4.
The Great Roof isn’t happening tonight.
Another early start. Brett and I want to put a pitch or two between us and the Spaniards. By the time we have the ledge broken down, they are getting close to climbing as well.
“Zay! Can we climb the fix line now?”
I shout down, as clear and politely as I can, “Soon, Brett will be done with Great Roof. When bag is free, then you climb.”
Thumbs up and smiles from the Spaniards.
Brett leads the Great Roof uneventfully. As soon as the bag is lowered out, I give the all clear to the Spaniards, and start jugging up the corner. No lower outs for me: I am able to re-aid the roof without too much incident. Soon I am racking up for my next lead: The Pancake Flake.
A few nights ago, I had proclaimed in a drunken stupor, “I’m gonna’ free that bitch!”
“You know that the second half is 5.11, right?” Someone at Brett’s house had interjected.
“Really? Shit, well it looks like I’m gonna free the shit out of the first half!”
Here we are. The base of the Pancake Flake. “The exposure… is unreal,” to quote one Alex Honnold.
After Honnold soloed Freerider, I drove up to San Francisco and bought three new copies of Alone On The Wall for his signing. I had already lost my original copy a few months ago. I stood in line for two and a half hours. Honnold was only supposed to be there for one. My neighbors in line were like, “You drove from Monterey just for this???” I told them, “Yeah. ‘Dude’s the man!”
As I shook his hand, I said, “If you only sign one, sign this one…”
“For Mila,” the girl who first taught me climbing at Pinnacles.
The second copy, “For Elliot.”
He signed all three.
You’re the man, Alex.
Now it’s my lead. Again, the approach shoes are staying behind. I’ll take the lighter pocket aiders just in case.
This would be my third-ever attempt leading a 5.10 crack. My first was Church Bowl Tree, and my second was Knob Job. I had no delusions about the likelihood of french free climbing that was to come, but god damn, I’d give it my best shot.
I look down to the valley floor. Two thousand feet? Yeah, at least that by now. A clean fall at least! I can just barely make out the birds below. The swifts don’t seem to come this high.
“You ready for this?”
…and off I go. I’ve watched Honnold climb this thing a thousand times. The way he rotates his hips, bends at the waist, arms straight, controlled. The videos play over and over in my mind. I am in that moment.
My arms start to burn. Good holds. Don’t lean back, you fool. Arms straight. Suck yourself in. Twist those hips.
I’m starting to lose it.
At some point, I pull out a cam. I look down to see my last one probably ten feet below my shoes. I begin to tell myself that it’s okay if I resort to aid, but then I look up. Only two more moves and a good foothold to rest on.
Just a little more… Swim.
This repeats, over and over again, and soon I’m grabbing the halfway ledge. No aid. As I pull an exaggerated mantle over the ledge, I look down to the meadow. The trees have turned to moss. The wind howls, but it’s warm in the sun. I am a lizard.
I scream. Over and over again, like a howler monkey. I’ve never screamed like this before. I instantly realize I sound exactly like Dean Potter in that video of him free soloing Heaven.
A first time for this, I guess.
I’m slightly embarrassed to be making so much noise. But not enough to care. I’m fucking stoked out of my mind.
I look up at the rest of the crack. Thin and relentless. I don’t even consider free climbing. I pull the pocket aiders out of their tiny stuff-sacks. I love these things.
“Hey Brett!” I shout, “Where are the Spaniards?”
“He’s not even into the roof yet.”
“I’m going to smoke a cigarette!”
Smoke a few fat puffs, and admire the view while the lactic acid drains from my forearms. Hot damn, this is high. Check out the red bugs!
Kill the cig, and start climbing. Straight forward C1 leads me to a few mandatory free moves before I can clip the anchor. I am high as a kite. When Brett reaches the bag, he tells me “Dude, Madrid is aiding the roof in free shoes, and he’s not even attempting a single free move.”
I look down and see nothing but rock and air to the valley floor. Madrid is still in the roof.
Brett takes off up the next pitch, and soon I can make out shouting, maybe cheering, coming from the meadow below. I look down and wonder if any of those dots are our friends. A few of them had told us they would be watching from the meadow today. Was this them, perhaps? It must be.
Suddenly, my diaphragm spasms. My nose starts to burn, and my eyes begin to water. I am laughing, but I am crying. I don’t understand.
Then it hits me: tears of joy. I am so fuckking happy. I have never cried tears of joy before. I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy. Where I am, what we are doing, the weather, the scenery, the adventure…
I just led the Pancake Flake and now I’m crying tears of joy. A first indeed!
I gather myself and regain focus on Brett’s lead: ”C1+ awkward,” the topo says. Brett is making great progress, and indeed it looks awkward. He’s making strange, almost-offwidth moves to get up the flaring crack. Bridging the foot and lots of grunting.
I hear buzzing. A bumblebee flies in from the side to investigate the bright colors of the pig. I laugh, “You’re a long way from whatever you’re looking for!” He buzzes off.
As the topo describes, it’s better to haul from anchor farther up and left. He bypasses the first set of bolts, and makes some enthusiastic “WOO!!!” noises before I see the haul line flick out left, over the arette, and he shouts “Lines Fixed.”
Again, I find myself putting away the jumars, and self belaying on a grigri while free climbing some easy but wild face moves out left to gain the ledge with Brett.
“How was that lead???”
“That last bit was a little sketchy. But it was cool.”
I tell him about the bumblebee, and he laughs, “No way, that’s funny.”
The next pitch is mine. I am nervous. In his book, Hans talks about this one (pitch 25 of The Nose) being a notorious ankle-breaker due to an obvious fall potential onto a prominent ledge – should one of your pieces blow. I look at the supertopo, “don’t back clean.”
I head up some easy free climbing, and soon I am standing on this notorious ledge. A thin seam runs straight up the wall. To its right, the wall makes a huge left-hand dihedral, where a slightly wider crack continues up to the ledge. The Glowering Spot. I take a breath. It’s only C1.
I reach up, place a piece, reach up again with the aider. I retreat down until the daisy chain comes tight. Every movement of my hands is precise and methodical, pausing for brief milliseconds and mentally verifying the task of each finger. My first time daisy bounce testing.
The gear is bomber, a light bounce does the trick. Because my daisy is already tight to the piece above, I merely let go, retrieve my last aider, clip the rope through the piece, and hike up the new ladder. Don’t fifi in until you are waist level, don’t even look at the crack until fifi-ed in. Top step if it’s necessary.
I consider back cleaning, as the crack is unwavering in its size. I’m running out of options.
“Don’t back clean,” I remind myself, “figure it out.” I see that the next crack – one that I have to cross into – is of noticeably larger size than the one I’m in. I just have to get to that, and I can forget about tiny pro. Almost there. Next thing you know, I’m standing on the Glowering Spot. The rope is fixed, the bag is off the anchor.
I haven’t timed anything for a while. But not even forty five minutes could have passed between leaving the last belay and docking the bag at the Glowering Spot. I’m in the fucking zone.
Looking down, I see that the Spaniards have almost hauled up to the top of the Pancake Flake, a pitch and a half below us. A slice of the meadow is visible through the gully below.
Brett reaches the bag, and after a quick exchange of gear, he marches up towards Camp VI.
Eventually, I hear a shout from below.
“Zay!” It’s one of the Barcelonas, on lead, “did you haul here or did you go more left!?”
“Go more left, better hauling!”
“Which way do I go!?”
“Follow the easiest path!”
Ten minutes later, “Zay! There is no anchor here! Only one bolt!”
“No, that’s the lead bolt. The anchors are just to the left, look around!”
“No, there is nothing!” He shouts, with no small hint of accusation.
After a bit of back and forth, I shout down, “Stop! Look at me. See where I am pointing? Walk that way until the corner. Then look around.”
“There is nothing here!”
I shrug, and proceed to let him figure it out. Ten seconds later, he shouts, “Oh it’s right here! Sorry! Thank you!” It was literally right in front of him the whole time.
I count Brett’s back up knots, he is almost to Camp VI. I start to clean up the anchor, organizing my harness, preparing my jumars for the inevitable call.
Again, the Spaniards,
“Zay!” It’s Madrid, he is jugging up a free line while Barcelona A cleans and Barcelona B hauls.
“We need to get to Camp Six tonight! Can you fix lines for us???”
I look at their position, a full pitch below me. They are not halfway done hauling. I look at the intensifying orange glow of the setting sun. I see a new party has stacked up behind them. They have been waiting for a while to haul their bags, and after what has been a long wait, I see the new party begin to rappel down. I assume they are giving up on the Spaniards, hopefully just for the night.
I shout up to Brett about the situation.
“Do what you think is best,” he shouts down.
I make a decision.
“Madrid! Camp six will be crowded. We will haul there for the night, after we build the ledge, I will return to here (The Glowering Spot) and take one of your ropes up and fix it. You must get to here tonight. I will bring a rope down, but we need it for climbing in the morning. You bring rope here, and I will bring it up and fix it. You can climb rope in the morning. You just have to get here.”
A thumbs up and a thank you from the Spaniards.
While jugging up to Camp VI, one of my back up knots loops a flake in the crack, about 20 feet below the top. I instantly know what I have to do.
“God damn it, be right back.”
A while later, I’m pulling onto Camp VI. Twilight is upon us.
I tell Brett the plan. We start talking, a lot. These guys are a shit show. They’re going to keep asking us to fix lines for them. There’s no way they can get to top on their own. They don’t have enough water. No way can they bail from here. Should we call YOSAR? Do they really need it? Do more people even need to get involved? Should we just ditch them? No, that’s not right. There’s an obvious language barrier here, could that get us into trouble?
We agree that the only way we are helping these guys any more, is if they come with us to the top, and we fix every pitch for them. We won’t tell them that if things go south, we are going to ditch them, and call YOSAR.
I make a decision. “I’ll go talk to them, I’m on really good terms with them. I’ll rap the haul line, tell them what’s up, then I’ll bring up their rope.”
We decide to bring them half a gallon of water to help seal the deal.
“Yeah dude, I’m doing cool shit El Cap,” I say with a smile. A smile that, despite its sincere foundation, is very shaky. I don’t want Brett to trip out, not that he would. The dude is about as stoic as it gets. I just don’t want him to suspect anything is wrong with me, that I am so fucking tired. We are just having a good adventure, that’s all either of us need to know.
Cool, we get to help some Euros.
I rappel into the night.
In the early nineties, a large man jumped from Glacier Point in an ultimate protest against something wrong with his life. At the railing, he left a backpack with a prominent note,
“Below this hill lies a big big man. Big John.”
One of the items in his backpack was a journal. Documented in the journal were philosophical rants about God and Man.
“… I think there was something about a woman too…”
Obviously, someone had just committed suicide.
Dad was part of the party that rappelled down the 3,000 foot cliff to locate and recover the body, which had landed on a ledge 800 feet down.
“We knew we were getting close, because we kept finding bigger and bigger chunks of fat, like cubes.”
Eventually they found half of the body, which had split at the torso. Turns out, Big John was a big guy.
“So we’re coming down Glacier Point, and all I can think about is how bad the rock looks. It’s like cinder blocks stacked on top of each other. After finding the legs, we start wrestling these two giant halves of a man into the black bags for the helicopter to take off. All the sudden the radio cracks off from dispatch. It’s pizza day. They’re all like, ‘What do you guys want for Pizza?’ The younger guy with us…. I think it was Jason Torlano… kid was young but he was a total bad ass… well he just starts vomiting everywhere.”
Legend has it, he doesn’t eat pizza anymore.
When I showed Dad that story in the book, and how he isn’t mentioned, he pointed at one of the names and laughed, “Ha! That guy didn’t go down there! He stayed with the cars. How funny is that?”
He really doesn’t care.
This story quite literally weighs heavy on my mind as I descend from Camp VI.
A bubble of light comes into view, below the Glowering Spot. It’s one of the Barcelona’s, he’s been trying to lead up to the Glowering Spot, and he’s about twenty or thirty feet short.
“Oh my god! Thank you so much! I am so scared. Oh god, thank you!” He says.
“Are you safe right now? Can you wait a second?”
“Yes, I can stay here.”
“Hold on, I am going to get off this rope, and clip these bolts. When I do, I will give you the rope.”
“Yes, thank you!”
I safely clip into the anchor on the Glowering Spot, fix the last forty feet of slack from my line, and toss it down to him. I watch him clip his jumars and ladders and start jugging. I notice he is jugging slightly overhanging terrain, trying to coordinate each foot in a ladder. Not the best technique.
He joins me on the ledge, “thank you so much, we owe you many beers!”
“Clip here,” I tell him. “Now clip here.”
I tell him what’s going on.
“Here’s the deal, we don’t think you guys can make it to the top. We think you don’t have enough water. We want to give you some of our water, but we can not put ourselves at that risk. Something could happen to us. Going down is very hard from here. We will give you this water,” I slap the jug of water at my hip, “on one condition.”
“You’re coming with us. To the top. We will fix your ropes.”
“Yes, okay.” He nods, enthusiastically. “But you keep water, I think we have enough. If we need more we will ask you again.”
Very polite, cool, looks like he’s not just panicking.
“Tomorrow morning, wake up very early. Start hauling. I will take one of your ropes now to Camp Six, we need our haul line to start climbing in the morning. Wake up early. A las cinco.”
“Okay yes. Thank you. Many beers.”
Before reattaching myself to the haul line from which I have rappelled, I point at my back up knot, just below my gri gri.
“When I get to Camp Six, I will shout down. I need you to take out my back up knots. There is also one at the end.”
I take one of his ropes, and clip it to my haul loop. Now I’ve got a whole rope clipped to my harness, and the four pounds of water that he declined. How long is this pitch again? Oh yeah, two hundred feet. Up I go. You know, towards the stars.
Back on Camp six, I fix the new line, and call down for Barcelona A to remove my backup knots. He says they’re gone, and I start to retrieve my haul line. I pull up a few feet of rope, and it jams.
“Barcelona! Did you remove both knots!?”
“There was only one!”
“No! There were two! I’m going to lower some of the rope. Can you see my rope?”
“How about now?”
“I see no rope!”
God damnit. God fucking damnit.
“I’m over these guys.” I turn to Brett, “I think we might just call YOSAR.”
We have a quick conversation about it. We are still on the fence.
“We’ll see how I feel when I get back.”
Down I go again, back into the night. What time is it? I find the knot in the crack just above the Glowering Spot, at the end of my 200 foot rope. Of course. A little bit of back-and-forth frees it from its hold.
Up I go, again. God I’m tired. This is not good. These guys are trouble. So tired. I get to a small ledge about thirty or forty feet below Brett, and quietly call up to him,
“Hey man. I’m worked. I’m going to stand on this ledge for a while and call YOSAR. I need a breather.”
“Whatever you think is best man.”
“911 what is your emergency?”
“Hello, my name is Isaiah and I need to speak to Yosemite Search and Rescue.”
“What’s going on, man?”
I tell him our situation and the Spaniards’ situation. We talk back and forth, and I try to be as helpful and concise as possible.
“Okay Zay, I’m going to transfer your call to Yosemite Search and Rescue.”
“Okay cool, and what is your name sir?”
“[Laughs] No, but I know him. You know, his dad worked with us for a long time.”
“Do you know Rick Foulks?”
“Very well, actually.”
“That’s my dad.”
“You’re Isaiah Foulks! Your brother is Seth!”
We banter for a quick moment, and I say,
“You know something, this is my first big wall.”
“And you had to go and get yourself involved with this.”
“Well hey, Isaiah, when is a good time to call you back?
“Give me twenty minutes.”
“Okay, be careful.”
I hang up. I’m still tired, but I need to get moving. I should have had Brett present during the call, and I had better get him in on this next one.
Ten feet higher, the fatigue hits me. I think of where I am; how tired I am; I think of my dad; the stories; how I’ve spent my life wanting to be just like him; how I then didn’t want to be anything like him; and how it’s too late.
A long time ago, my mom had told me, with eyes drenched in sorrow, “You’re going to be just like your father.”
And this time, I’m the one crying.
I lose it. I’m sobbing. I can’t breathe. Brett hears me.
“Dude you okay?”
“It’s just… all this… I’m so tired.”
“Well, take your time dude. Come relax.”
I gather myself and pull onto the ledge.
Clip in. Double check. You’re fatigued, triple check. Sit down. Collapse. Breath. Heavy breathing.
I take a minute and tell Brett about my conversation with YOSAR. We go back and forth justifying our decision to call them and my phone rings again. Somebody else this time.
“Hello this is YOSAR, what’s going on?”
I start over. I try to tell him everything I can, but I’m having a hard time concentrating. So tired. I start to lose my train of thought…
“I’m sorry dude, I’m just so tired…”
“It’s alright man, take your time, I got all night.”
I start talking again, but soon I’m losing myself again. I start to get fuzzy. Next thing you know, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I start to cry.
Brett grabs the phone, “Hey sorry this is Brett.”
I’m instantly sobered by this sudden realization about how useless I am. I need to keep it together.
I listen to them talk back and forth. Basically the guys says, “You are under no obligation to help them. We love rescuing people. However, if you can fix the Changing Corners pitch for them, the climbing eases a lot after that. They could probably get up on their own from there. Remember, you have no obligation here. We’ll have a guy in the meadow tomorrow and he’ll be watching.”
“Thanks, we’ll try to fix changing corners. Bye”
I turn to Brett, “I’m sorry I’m being such a little bitch right now.”
“No way man. You’ve been busting your ass off. Fuck those guys down there. But I’m worried about you, I need you man. We gotta stay on our A-game.”
I give him a look of total concentration, and nod, “You got it dude, I’ll be good. I’m just sensitive to emotional bullshit.”
Brett hands me a can of Chef Boyardi, the last one. We had planned to share. We have lots of food, but we both love these things.
I pour the whole fucking thing into my mouth, the way a thirsty alcoholic would slam his first PBR in days. Within seconds, literally seconds, I’m back.
I look around, and almost laugh from the sudden clarity, “Holy shit, I was a mess a second ago. Crazy. I feel so much better, like fine.”
I even try to flaunt my “okay-ness” by cracking a few jokes. They don’t land so well.
“Well, I feel like calling my dad, see what he thinks.”
“Sure man go ahead.”
My phone rings. What time is it in Kauai? Dad answers, “Hello.”
“Got a minute?”
I tell him what’s going on. Before I finish my story, he interrupts, “Isaiah! Get – the fuck – away from these guys.”
“I know dad, I-”
“Isaiah, I’m not kidding! I was involved in a rescue on Camp Six – the very ledge you’re on right now. Twelve people piled onto the ledge in a winter storm. One guy was hypothermic, freaking out, and didn’t know where to clip in. So he unclipped another climber. Something shifted, and that guy fell. The only thing that saved his life was his reflexes. He grabbed the anchor with his hand and had to pull himself back onto the ledge.”
I manage to tell him the plan.
“Isaiah. Promise me. Tomorrow morning, as soon as you can, you get the fuck away from these guys. Don’t let ‘em near you. Don’t let ‘em touch your anchor.”
“Yeah dad, okay.”
We talk for a few moments longer, and I crack a joke just to demonstrate that I have my wits about me.
“Well dad, I better go to sleep. Bye.”
“Okay bye.” Click.
It’s funny how easy he is to get off the phone.
The last few minutes of our night almost feel like nothing has happened. We bullshit for a bit, and I chain smoke a few cigarettes, and we finish our bottle of whiskey… alas, no more whiskey… and we crash.
Just before passing out, Brett and I marvel at the giant, inverted triangle of a silhouette that Changing Corners creates, becoming a massive teepee of stars above us. I wonder if the strange chirping noises I hear are bats.
Our last early start. On que, on of the Spaniards, Barcelona B, is jugging up the line we have fixed for him. He is trailing a haul line and a microtraxion.
Well, at least they got up early like we told them.
He asks if he can set up for a haul, and we tell him to wait until we are all cleaned up.
“Stay right there.”
No argument from Barcelona B, he hangs out in his Jumars. No other words from us. After a while, I look at him, look at the topo, and I notice that below, there is an intermediate anchor… about twenty feet down. With another glance at the topo, I tell him, “If you haul to there, you should be able to haul the changing corners pitch also. That way you can get moving and not have to wait so much.”
Spanish words broadcast downward, echoes respond. Barcelona B raps down to the intermediate anchor.
I look to Brett, “How do we want to do this?” I’m obviously talking about our plan to ditch the Spaniards.
We will fix the Changing Corners, and after that, we will get above them and tell them that we called YOSAR and they advised us that this is the best thing to do. We’ll tell them that the rest of the climb is much easier, but if they still don’t think they can do it, there’s a guy in the meadow watching them. We’ll tell them help will come fast.
Then, we get the best news of the trip.
“Zay!” It’s Madrid. “Zay! I don’t think we need your ropes anymore! Yesterday, I have injury and can not lead. We move very slow. Today, I feel much better, I can lead now. We will move fast. I will climb the Changing Corners as well!”
Brett and I look at each other, our eyes are wide, with furrowed brows.
“Yes! Thank you so much for your help. When we get to valley floor, we will buy you many beers!”
“Okay!’ I give them a thumbs up and a big, fake grin. Turning to Brett, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
We are stoked. A huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders. I’m almost not pissed that last night’s shitshow was a complete waste of time.
If we had done the Freeblast, we would be behind these guys.
Brett is ready to lead the Changing Corners.
It couldn’t have taken him much more than thirty minutes. It felt like ten.
I get to Brett and the anchor. He seems mentally occupied. I prod, “you stoked man?
“Yeah dude, I just miss my wife and my dog.”
They’ve been together a total of ten years, and they still love the shit out of each other. She’s a climber too, and Brett has said that that has helped tremendously. I think of Alix, we were together 5 years. She is amazing, but not my kind of amazing. We fell apart.
Then I think of my friend Megan. She and I hooked up pretty fast after Alix and I split. I brought her climbing outside for her first time in Yosemite. She even likes the long, fucked up adventure climbs in Pinnacles. Yet for the past few months, I’ve been stringing her around like a total douchebag:
“I’m just not ready to settle down.”
I think of this for a minute before snapping back. Check the topo. 5.10d hands to 5.8 hands. Sheesh, 5.10d hand crack? That must be overhung…
I look up, yup, C1 for me. I’ll try to switch to free when I hit the 5.8 section, but I’m leaving the free shoes.
And up I go. The C1 is pretty tame, though I manage to get a #2 stuck. Brett’s cool about it, maybe a little annoyed (he retrieved it later).
The crack turns vertically, straight up. I’m wearing approach shoes, but I manage to move out of aid for a few moves before getting stumped. Keep the train moving… Aiders come back out…. one aid move and they’re back on my harness…. two free moves… one aid move… three free moves and I’m at the anchor.
Three pitches left.
Brett’s pitch. C1? C2? I don’t recall, but he moves fast.
The exposure is phenomenal. People in the meadow are simply not visible unless they’re moving. My vision is based on movement. I am a T-Rex.
I can see way, way over The Cathedrals. I decide that someday soon, I’m going to climb higher cathedral. Ooo… the spires too… I can see the central valley. Shit, I can see the coast ranges.
The wind is blowing. Not too strong. Just right.
“Hey Zay!” It’s Brett. “Right here, watch out for the block with the white taped X on it!!!”
I yell down to the Spaniards.
“When you get- to the top- of the next- pitch,- watch out- for the big- rock- with the white- letter X!!!”
By the way, when that thing goes, ladies and gentlemen, it has a clear shot straight down The Nose. It will wipe out numerous people, both on the wall and on the ground. It’s about 5 feet tall, and 2 feet by 2 feet square. A pillar. And oh yes, it will come down someday. Some freaked out climber will not be paying attention and dislodge it.
When I reach the death block, Brett reminds me, “Dude, be careful. I barely touched it, just to see, and it shifted.”
Instead of jugging next to it, I find it easier to again stow the jumars, self belay, and climb around it.
Two more pitches to the top.
My phone buzzes, it’s a text from Elliot:
No way, is he down there??? I look down, and yes, I hear cheering. I can’t tell the difference between people, bushes, trees, or grass. A textured blur, three thousand miles away.
I fire off a text back, “I’m about to lead.”
I found out later he wasn’t down there. Just some really, really good timing. But as far as I knew, he was down there.
Out comes the topo. This will be the last time I have to do so. Brett is to lead the penultimate pitch. The topo shows a 10c lieback, 70 feet up to a belay at the base of a bolt ladder.
I’m feeling bold. My fourth ever 5.10 crack lead, do I dare?
Sink or swim.
A fist bump from Brett, and I’m off. A few tenuous moves up a crack, and then I have to switch cracks to the left. I reach out, and feel that the crack isn’t just a crack, it’s like a flake: one that is best held from the left. I am on the right-hand side.
I reach out with my left hand, my right hand zealously clinging to the right-hand crack. Sticking my left foot out, I try to swing over and transfer my weight. As I try to settle into my new stance, I judge the incoming force on my left hand to be just too much. I will fall for sure.
I look down, three thousand feet.
Up a little higher… Maybe this will work… Transfer the weight… Consider aiding… No, Elliot might be watching, and I want to make him proud.
Lock off on the left hand, left foot out, weight my right foot, delicately take my right hand off the right-hand crack, shift it over, grab the left crack, ready to shift my right foot…
One, two, three…
I swing out left. I hold on tight while my right leg swings below me, and whips into the crack. Center of gravity achieved.
Three thousand and five feet… Go, go, go.
Hand over hand, the rest stances are not as abundant as the Pancake Flake.
I’m burning out. A little higher. Damn. I’m going to lose it.
I’m really going to lose it. Where’s my last pro? I look down. Not close enough for comfort. Focus, hold on… What is this, a 0.5?
That will work. Place it, look at it.
I make a decision.
Without grabbing the piece, I let go. Brett does his job, and the cam does its own. Is this still A0? You know what? I don’t care. Three thousand and ten feet.
Shake it out, okay go.
Hand over hand, pump rising, here it comes!
The bolt ladder?
Where is the anchor?
Where are the birds?
Only the wind responds.
We go back and forth, I look at the topo. A gear anchor? Hm… an intermediate belay?
“Do what you think is best!” Calls Brett.
I had actually really looked forward to lead this bolt ladder. Supertopo simply describes it as, “Steep!” It’s just as I imagined it. Amazing exposure, easy bolt laddering, in free shoes and pocket aiders.
Just as I’m in the middle of the headwall, I hear from below,
The Spaniards. I can’t even see them.
“Can you do us one more thing!?”
I pretend not to understand, “What!?”
“Can you do us one more thing!!??”
“Can’t talk!!! Climbing!!!”
I ditch the Spaniards.
Good luck, guys.
I find a two bolt anchor, fix the line, and start hauling. Last time for this.
Brett joins me at this belay. He busts out the topo. Super easy. Fist bump. Bolt ladder out right. The Clark Ranges are his background. I smoke a few cigarettes by the time the bag is free, and commence to re-aid the ladder. Eventually, the line goes straight up. I must reassemble my jumars, and start jugging.
Was that a squirrel?
I take one last look down to The Meadow, Cathedral Rocks, The Coast Ranges and now, The High Sierra.
I wave goodbye – to whoever is down there – disappear over the rim, and the meadow disappears below.
Brett and I are rejoined with a final fist bump. Let’s eat. We stuff our faces with beef jerky, and I use the jetboil to whip up a cup of coffee and a pack of rehydrated Biscuits and Gravy, With Sausage Bits.
Brett calls his wife, and I call my dad.
“I am so stoked for you boy! El Cap was something I could never do.”
After a few minutes, our call ends. I call Megan. We talk, she reflects the stoke. I don’t tell her yet, but I’m going to settle down. If she’ll have me, I am hers.
Suddenly, a voice from the rim.
I blurt, “Dude I want to go talk to him!”
Brett dismisses this, “Dude, let’s get the fuck out of here.”
We really don’t want to see the Spaniards, we know they’re right behind. But more obvious in Brett’s mind, is his wife and his dog.
I get the chance to talk to the climber after coming back for a lap of gear stashing. I catch him drinking our water. I smile, “Dude, drink up. We still have two gallons.”
A smile, “Thanks, I just need to kill this dry mouth.”
I ask him what route he just did. He says, “Oh, well, I just did Nose In A Day. Always wanted to do that one.”
I’m baffled. “Dude you’re a whole ‘nother league man! I just did my first big wall!” Like an eight year old.
Then I smile.
“How are the Spaniards doing?” I ask. “Did they ask you to fix a line?”
“Haha yeah, they did. I could tell those guys were a shit show. I asked them if they were ever going to climb a big wall again, and they all were like,
The following story was told to me by my mother:
In the early 90’s, my father was early into his career at YOSAR as a “technician.” That basically meant he was a paper pusher, and ordered pizzas for SARCACHE. He had only just gotten his EMT certification.
One day in the spring, a man had found himself stranded on a rock in the middle of The Cascades between Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. No one wanted to go in, as the spring runoff was very cold and turbulent.
“…because, you know, people don’t come out of that water…”
My father was a big wave surfer, and fairly comfortable with those conditions.
“… I don’t remember if it was a wetsuit or a boogie board, but he had one of those…”
A helicopter transported my father up the mountain, and using the ropes the team had prepared, he entered the water, and saved the man’s life.
In the end, both my father and the victim became hypothermic, and both rode in the helicopter to the valley floor.
For his actions, he was nominated for a Medal of Valor For Bravery. Years later, he became a “Swift Water Rescue Trainer” for YOSAR.
For reasons unknown, he never received the medal.
“A lot of people were pissed about it, even his coworkers. They thought he deserved the medal. But you know, YOSAR can be very elitist. Your dad was just a newbie.”
“… Some people want all the glory, but you know your dad.”
My father has never told me this story.
His name is Rick.