There’s no real good place to begin. I suppose when I was fifteen is as good a place as any. I visited Yosemite for the first time. We didn’t climb in the Valley. We climbed in the upper Tuolumne Meadows, but I knew I wanted to climb the huge granite cliffs of the glacier cut valley: Half Dome, Leaning Tower, El Capitan. The big walls.
I’m a comeback climber. I took twenty years off to help raise five kids with Emily. I did very little climbing during that time. But as the kids got older, the climbing snuck back in. Last year I had a break through and came to the Valley for a week and a half with Alison. (Which I wrote about here.) We scouted things out in case it seemed possible to come here with the whole family. During the intervening year, we fit the pieces of the puzzle, cobbled together a road trip and here we are. We’ve been on the road since Aug. 18. Ten weeks. About a month more to go. Everything before Yosemite (Squamish, City of Rocks, Zion) was to get ready for Yosemite.
The first morning after we arrived, Emily and I went to Camp 4, the camp ground where all the rock climbers in the Valley have gathered for decades. I wrote up my little index card with my name, experience, goals and phone number and tacked it to the board. Emily and I then started chatting with whoever else walked up to the board. Within an hour, we’d met JP and decided to meet the next morning and talk about a potential big wall. Upon sitting down, it took us about five minutes to decide on a route: Leaning Tower, West Face. It was on my short list and it was doable for big wall newbies like us. This was all coming together. My palms started sweating. We spent two days practicing hauling, aid climbing and setting up the portaledge while hanging from a single bolt in our harnesses. We would meet Sunday at 4pm and decide whether to camp that night at the bottom of the cliff or leave the next morning.
JP walked into campsite Sunday at 4pm and said, “We should go right now. I was just up at the base and there are already two parties lined up to go. Someone else could get in front of us.” Within an hour, we had the gear and the food in the car and we were off. We would be doing the approach—900 feet of elevation in half a mile—in the dark.
We were carrying 19 liters of water, two 70m ropes, food for 3.5 days, our sleeping gear and clothes and lot of climbing gear. It took us two loads up the mountainside, but by 10pm we were at the bivy. Two Swedes were already asleep in their bags, and two guys from Washington had squeezed into the tiny flat sleeping spot about the size of a NYC kitchen. JP and I stashed our gear in the woods and nestled into the remaining sliver of the tiny plateau. At 5:30am the Swedes alarm went off like a submarine about to dive. They were on point. They had already ferried their gear along the diagonal ledge out to the beginning of the route. The three foot wide ledge cut up as the mountain fell away below, meaning the actual roped climbing started 430’ up. And getting out there was tricky with all the gear that needed to be ferried across. JP and I stayed in our bags while the other parties worked. We had our place in line. They were our last few moments of relaxation for a long while.
Once the Washingtonians moved out, JP and I went to work. We trimmed out any remaining pieces of gear that felt superfluous and stashed it back in the woods. We began to ferry our gear out the ledge, shuffling forward with the line. We were on autopilot. No emotions. Just putting one foot in front of the other, moving upward. Once out as far as we could go, I pulled out the copy of Lord of the Rings JP had brought. Nothing to do but wait. Then word came down the line. The Swedes were moving slow. They’d been up there more than almost two hours, but still weren’t halfway up the pitch. This was bad news. Or good news. If they came down, we’d have one less party in front of us. Then word came along that the lead climber had lowered down off a single bolt. Were they regrouping or bailing? Half an hour later, we learned they were bailing. They’d gotten in over their heads. I felt bad for them. That had to be frustrating for them, but it was good for us. Less traffic along the route.
I went forward to inspect the route as the Washingtonians prepared to move their gear forward. The Swedes were discouraged, stumped and stopped. They were having trouble reversing all their forward momentum. I helped them get their haul bag (about 100 pounds) moved back along the exposed ledge so the Washingtonians could move forward. The Washingtonians tried a different approach. They wouldn’t haul the gear on their backs, they would lower out their haul bag and then hoist it up to the start of the route. In the process, their lines got snagged. JP and I helped them unsnarl and untangle the mess. In the end, they were also frustrated with themselves and the situation and kindly invited us to go ahead while they regrouped. We’d gone from third in the queue to head of the line.
JP and I ferried our gear to the base in small loads, packed our haul bag there, and headed up the rock, late in the day, around 4pm. It had been a full 24 hours since he walked into camp with the news. But now we were going vertical. JP took his time at the spot that had stumped the Swedes. He tried a few approaches, took a fall, but ultimately pulled through and moved up to the belay. The sun was setting, again.
The rock overhung at 110 degrees. The route went up and behind me, over my head. As I released the bags to be hauled up, they floated into the abyss behind me and spun in space as they slowly moved upward in tiny increments. I attached my ascenders to the line in front of me and started to move up. With each clip I removed from the line, the further and further I moved out into space as well. Eventually, I found myself spinning 360 degrees 500 feet above the ground from a 9mm line. I had no way to stop the spinning, so I just kept moving up. Again, no emotions. Autopilot. The gear was either going to hold, or not. No sense worrying about it. By the time I reached JP at the hanging belay, it was dark and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. We were 200’ off the ledge, 630’ off the ground, and we hung there in the darkness attached to three bolts drilled into the rock.
We could stay there and set up the portaledge. Or we could continue on in the dark up to the plush Awahnee Ledge. The ledge had been our original plan and would keep us on rhythm to get to our next bivy on time. “I’ve never lead in the dark,” I told JP. I wasn’t excited to learning now.
“We don’t have to go,” he replied in his Australian accent.
“Let’s think this through.” I was trying to be logical. “What’s the worst that could happen? I could lead up and get injured. Or it could just not feel right.” JP nodded. “Either way, you’d just lower me down to here.”
“Yeah,” he confirmed.
“Or we could get the ledge,” I speculated. That would be good.
“I hear leading in the dark is nice. It’s like you’re in your own little bubble.” I’d heard the same thing.
“How much leading in the dark have you done?” I asked.
“Some,” he hedged.
I was drained from the day-and-a-half of exertion to get to this point, but I didn’t revel in the idea of setting up a bivy in the dark in a spot that was off rhythm. If we didn’t get to the ledge tonight, we’d be on pace to spend an extra night on the wall. It was a toss up.
“Let’s give it a go,” I said. I took the gear from JP, adjusted my headlamp and moved up. For the next two and half hours, I went into a serene, quiet place where I simply set gear until it held, moved up on it, hung, set the next piece of gear, moved up and hung. JP’s headlamp disappeared below, and above was a blackness that held neither sun, moon nor stars. My whole world was within the tiny circle of my headlamp.
I snapped out of my zen state by a black fixed line that ran horizontal to the cliff. The ledge was ten feet above me. With two hundred feet of rope dragging down from my waist, I reached up, grabbed the fixed line and pulled myself onto the ledge. I was on the Awhanee Ledge. I worked my way left to the anchor bolts. This ledge was considered deluxe by climbing standards: about four feet wide at it widest and tapering down to nothing, it was about twenty feet long. I fixed the line so JP could jug up with his ascenders, and then I set to hauling the bags.
The angles of the route and the rock meant there was a lot of friction between me and the bags. Even with all four limbs pushing me away from the rock, I could barely budge the bags. I’d arrived but was now too exhausted to do what needed to be done next. Finally, I broke it down. “I can do ten pushes. Then rest.” I did ten pushes, then rested. Then I did it again. After several of these sets, I could hear the bags scraping the rock. They were moving closer. Ten more, then I rested. The friction lessened. The bags appeared in the light of my headlamp. Simultaneously, JP emerged over the lip of the cliff. We anchored everything together and pulled out the food and water. After drinking, I couldn’t eat. I tried a spoonful of the Campbell’s Chunky soup I’d popped open. The idea of eating made me nauseous. I rolled out my mat, laid down with a 1000’ drop twelve inches to my left and looked up at the stars.
“You can’t just fall asleep, mate. You gotta eat and get in your sleeping bag,” JP reasoned. I pulled out my bag, untied the leg loops from my harness—keeping my harness waist on snug—and slithered into my bag. I tried a few more bites of my soup but knew it wasn’t going to end well if I persisted. I set the can out on the tapering end of the ledge, past my sleeping bag, said good night to JP and closed my eyes. I fell asleep. Day 1 on the big wall was over.