All of a sudden here we are, standing at the base of El Capitan. What the fuck am I
thinking. For the last month, or months -I can’t remember anymore- I have thought
of nothing but my death. The initial excitement I experienced at the prospect of
ascending the Captain had worn off shortly after we had agreed to travel to
Yosemite and from that point onward my confidence had been deteriorating. To be
honest I did not think I would even survive the weeks leading up to the trip, around every corner lurked some unknown that I thought would try and snuff me or even worse spare me and spoil the plan so I would have to live through the agony of a missed opportunity. Even if I make it to the legendary valley; Yosemite, how could some fresh skinned climbing Gumby like myself expect to survive on a big wall, the ropes are going to cut, the anchors will fail, I am going to die.
Rock, paper, scissors decides who gets the first pitch and Luke wins, eagerly tying in on the sharp end. He sets off up a crack in the golden granite as I crane my neck and attempt to find some scale in the wall towering over my head but find it too hard so I resign to looking at my feet as the late afternoon California sun beats down on me. As Luke secures himself at the first belay I organize myself and soon the rope is pulled tight on my harness signaling go time and I begin scrambling up to meet him. As we swap leads, leapfrogging our way up the lower angled apron of El Capitan the sun creeps behind the walls of the Valley and we are soon in the shade and then darkness. Our headlamps create cocoons of light for us to hide in, all we can see is the rock around us and it is suddenly easy to forget we are a thousand feet up. Luke is climbing efficiently and I feel myself fading as I sip the last drops of water from the bottle that is clipped to my harness and I curse myself for not drinking more while we still stood on horizontal ground. Each pitch I must lead takes every ounce of mental energy I can muster just to finish and I hope Luke cannot hear me as I whimper above him, desperately balancing my way between old pitons and bolts. I crave water at the belays, sucking at cigarettes to dull the ache of my cells drying up, shriveling into non-existence as I wait for the rope to come tight and guide me on. My soul is beaten and shredded by the time we reach the ledge, and our bags, and our water. I collapse on the ledge hugging a two liter bladder of cool H20 and suck on it’s teet like a starved calf until I have emptied it’s contents and begin to feel human once more. As I come out of my daze I help Luke prepare dinner and we share a cup of whiskey before passing out under the stars, above the trees.
Swifts whistle through the air surfing the wind above us as we awoke on our perch upon the “Heart Ledge”. The white and black birds with their swooping wings dance in the sky with their long wing tips, the curve of the feathers is a masterpiece of engineering and the birds do not hesitate to take advantage of their natural ability as they dive and dip along the contours of the cliff and then bank up and away, stalling for a second before catching a new current and whizzing back and then up, up, and away again. We share a bag of watery scrambled eggs and an energy bar. I notice that at times two birds will meet at the pinnacle of an arc and latch onto each other, pausing for a second as momentum carries them upwards before they begin to fall. Down and down they spin wildly, neither bird flinching until inches above the canopy of Manzanita bushes below, they separate, spreading their wings to joyfully escape the crushing embrace of gravity. I lean back on the rope securing me to the cliff and I wonder if the birds share the same fear I feel now as Luke and I fall upwards in our own dangerous dance, locked together at the waist by this nylon chord.
Luke charges up burly wide cracks all day. I fumble through my leads, making up for my incompetence by trying my best to organize the hundreds and hundreds of feet of rope, the clusterfuck of carabineers, cams, nuts, pins, hooks and slings and most importantly haul our pig. All that matters is the haul bag, or the Pig as we now know it, Without it we will have no food, whiskey, water or smokes and without we will not go up. I lean back on the pulley system we use to haul the pig and I hear it scraping along on the rock below me, a grating percussion to the cheery tinkles of gear on Luke’s harness as he jugs the rope and cleans the gear from the crack. The route we are following was visionary in it’s time: with the exception of 13 bolts used to link a small blank section, the entire route follow’s natural crack systems that lead directly to the summit, in comparison the first route up El Caps mighty south face required 125 bolts. A new precedent was set for clean, natural lines. It was no longer about simply reaching the summit, it was about style and this ushered in a new era of progression in Yosemite. I snap out of my daydream as the pig jams up in the pulley and Luke reaches the belay. He takes the rest of the gear from me and takes off up the last 30 meters of climbing to reach our camp. It is dark once again.
We chew espresso beans and ibuprofen for breakfast, our fingers are swollen and sore but we pack our things away and prepare for the day. Falling back into the motions I lead us to the top of a pinnacle of rock that appears to be detached from the wall, this platform in the sky takes my breath away all of sudden and I feel happier then I have ever known, and Luke and I share a little smoke before continuing onwards. We are working well together now, our rope systems becoming second nature along with the rest of the adjustments we have made to exist in the vertical and now it is our reality. As we reach a ledge aptly named “the block” I look up to see shimmering droplets of liquid free falling in the sky towards us. I am entranced by the expanding pattern of light and watch it pass by us and into the void below, I look to Luke with surprise and he laughs at me as he explains that it was no miracle, only piss. He chuckles his way up the pitch as I think deeply about whether or not it even matters if I just got peed on, I finally conclude that it does not as Luke works his way through the harder terrain easily and disappears out of view. His shouts come echoing down to me and I only catch snippet of what he says before I get yanked from my seat and slammed into the wall as the rope catches him. Now, much closer than before, he explains how he was off route and the crack had exploded from his body weight. We discuss what we should do as he dangles from the rope and I wait on the ledge, finally we agree that we will spend the night here and push to the summit in the morning. We string up our hammocks and crack the whiskey as the sun takes it’s time to set and we eat cold Indian food from bags with sporks and enjoy the thousands of feet of air below our feet.
Our final day we wake up early and crawl from our hammocks; salami, espresso beans and painkillers topped with some whiskey get us moving and soon we are packed. A short argument concerning who will get to use the last poop bag first and we are moving upwards once again, Luke leads as I take care of the bags and soon we are below the headwall. The belay is occupied by two Brit’s who share their freshly brewed real hot coffee with me(the first I’ve had in days) as I watch Luke climb towards the roofs. He falls but quickly continues on and soon I am with him below the overhangs. I retrieve the gear and move past him. The only way down is up, after all.
I move up the headwall crack, the roof is below my feet and the void below that and then I fall. Protection rips from the crack and I am tipping backwards until I stop abruptly, laid out horizontal bent backwards in my harness. I am below the roofs and I see stars, my ribs hurt and I look at Luke and ask him to take over, I can’t go on. He looks at me and shakes his head, dig deep he shouts and I am too scared to say anything else so I continue. We push up the headwall battling our demons as we go until we sit on the last ledge before the summit, hardly a meter wide but nearly thirty long the ledge offers some respite from the over hanging headwall and we munch trail mix before pushing on. The pitch is demanding and as I climb away from an old piton on wet holds I commit to the unknown and find myself clinging from a single hand hold, pulling rope up with the other hand looking at a large fall onto old gear at the top of the biggest cliff I have ever seen and then it all goes to shit and I am off the rock and plummeting to my doom. I have time to imagine the old piton exploding from the rock, the string of tiny gear below following suit until there is nothing between me and Luke and I will fall and fall and fall, until at the last second, I would have to spread my wings and skim the tree tops. But the old piton holds and the rope does not cut and I am still alive. Cursing myself and kicking the rock I try to pawn my responsibility off to Luke once again but he refuses. I curse Luke and his experience, he knows more, why was I up here, I was falling apart and he was still collected, I was scared and angry and as I began to breath again I saw the error of my ways hidden behind the fear. What kind of person would I be if I threw my friend into a fight that I had started, let alone a fight it seemed I was losing. I reached the old piton and relaxed, slumping in my harness I looked down, looked at my reflection in the void and suddenly knew the truth of the emptiness below me. I looked around at the rock, poked and prodded the next move and began piecing together the trickery that was necessary to continue up once again. I reach a ledge and throw my exhausted body into the routine of hauling the pig; Luke joins me and organizes himself for the next pitch. No longer thinking, I observe my body moving upwards, sliding jumars up the rope, passing Luke, suddenly climbing on big holds on low angle rock and then suddenly trees. I wish to look at the trees more but I am too busy building the last anchor, setting up the haul system for the last time, my ribs scream every time I lean back to pull the bags. Luke is on top now too and he helps me haul until us and the bags are all on top. It is over, or it has just begun but I look back over the lip at the thousands upon thousands of feet we have fought our way up and smile, and the void smiles back.