I woke up and peered over the ledge. I could see the ground over 600’ feet below. I looked to my right along the ledge. JP was still asleep. I sat up in my sleeping bag and shifted sideways, my back against the cliff. I sat cross-legged, facing the valley, so my feet would not hang over the lip of the ledge. My appetite had returned. I reached to my left, picked up the open can of soup I’d set there and worked my way to the bottom with my small metal spoon.
The sky was hazy from the wild fires that burned to the north and west. At the base bivy we’d woken to find ashes on our sleeping bags. Although there was no layer of ash this morning, my throat was sore. We’d breathed in a lot of air in the last two nights and the day in between. I pulled my red bandana from the pocket of my puffy coat. I normally wore it across my forehead. This morning I tied it, bandit style, to cover my nose and mouth.
JP stirred and sat up, his hair wild, brown and curly. We looked at each other silently and smiled. We’d made it. Of all the groups at the base, we were the only ones on Awahnee Ledge.
“You feeling better?” JP asked.
“Yeah,” and I held up my empty can of soup. I felt good to have food in my belly.
We both went about the tasks of starting the day. I pushed my sleeping bag into its stuff sack. JP visited the slightly hidden end of the ledge and used one of the “go anywhere” toilet bags. We hydrated, took some pictures and put everything back in the haul bag. We reattached the leg loops on our harness and started to transfer the gear from the fixed line to our harness loops.
Our next stop was Guano Ledge, just 40’ or so to the right of the Awahnee Ledge. We would then continue up a diagonal crack system that went up right and then cut back left. JP would be leading these pitches and from the top he would haul the bags. We transferred ourselves, the gear and bags to Guano Ledge and JP started working his way up.
Once he reached the next belay, he took up the slack in the lead line and fixed it to the anchor. I then clipped my ascenders to the fixed line and started ascending the rope. We climbers like to call this ‘jugging’. I jugged up to the next belay.
It was nice to be climbing in the day light. We either wanted to top out today or make it to the overhang where we’d set up our portaledge and sleep. It all depended on our pace. We were new to all this, so we weren’t climbing that efficiently yet, which is another way of saying we were slow.
At the belay, I took the lead gear, arranged it to my preference, took a swig of water and headed up. JP had pulled out the bosun’s chair and was sitting comfortably hanging from a few bolts.
JP’s lead had taken him a few hours and mine was no different. In each case, we were linking two pitches into one. So they were longer segments, closer to 200’ for each of us.
The sun moved through the afternoon sky as I set a piece, clipped one of my aid ladders to it, bounced in it to test the piece, then--once I was ready to commit--weighted it fully. I repeated this process over and over again as I steadily moved further and further away from the Valley floor. I was grateful I’d led my pitches in the dark last night. It helped me break the ice with the exposure of what we were doing. At a certain point it makes no sense to be afraid of heights. The difference between 600’ and 1000’ becomes negligible. It was good to have the elevation under us.
I was getting better at this. I placed gear confidently, sometimes a cam, occasionally a stopper, every now and then a hook. I figured out each sequence, kept my ropes organized and as the sun got lower in the sky, I approached the low-angle slab below the big overhang.
If we weren’t going to top out, this was where we wanted to be. I fixed the line for JP, pulled the slack out of the haul bag line and started hauling the bags. It was such a relief to have the line dropping straight plum down the cliff, no zigzag friction to further wear me out. By the time JP reached the belay, it was nearly dark. We would be spending the night here. We both smiled at the prospect.
We’d never set the portaledge up in the dark, but thank goodness we’d practiced a couple times while hanging in our harnesses a few feet off the ground. Some practice was better than no practice. Very deliberately, we began the sequence to get the gear where we needed it. The next thirty minutes or so were spent pulling the ledge out of the bag, getting the poles slotted correctly, and then tensioning the canvas across the rectangular frame and balancing the ledge so it hung flat. Once set, we gingerly allowed ourselves to first stand, then kneel and then lay down on it. What heaven! In a sea of vertical, we had a flat, comfortable place to stand, sit and sleep. High fives!
We removed all the gear from our harnesses and clipped it to the anchor point above us. We then carefully pulled out our sleeping bags, set those up, ate some dinner and finally allowed ourselves to undo our harness leg loops as we prepared to sleep. After all day in the harness it felt amazing. “Floorgasm,” JP said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I had a mate who worked doing all kinds of work off the ground, cleaning windows of office buildings and stuff like that. When they got down for the day and got to take off their harnesses, that’s what they called it, ‘floorgasm’.” Made sense to me.
We sat there, our backs against the cliff, staring into the dark night before us, car headlights snaking their way through the Valley floor. The lights were soothing. We watched the stars come out, followed the satellites that worked their way across the sky and glimpsed the occasional shooting star.
It was time to use the bathroom. We chose the end of the portaledge away from the route to be the pee stance. We took turns kneeling on the outside edge of the portaledge and peeing off into the abyss below. It was a strange thing to pee and not hear the usual sound of urine hitting some surface, whether it be the porcelain or the water in the bowl. In that sense, it felt like we were in outer space.
JP put on some music on his phone; some kind of techno Eyptian belly-dancer music. It was nice to let something enter our minds besides the thoughts associated with the high stakes business of safely climbing something big. It was relaxing and soothing. We talked for a bit and then settled into silence. I slid into my bag, and slowly drifted into sleep.
I was up early. I’d slept comfortably. We’d drank a ton of water before going to bed, in hopes of compensating for all the sweating we’d done the day prior. I have to confess, in the middle of the night I had to pee again, but didn’t want to make a big deal about it. Getting up would shift the ledge and I didn’t want to disrupt JP. I was sleeping on the outside of the ledge, so I simply unzipped my sleeping bag, rolled over on my side and peed again into the abyss. Again, that strange silence. I went back to sleep and slept well until morning.
The sun was now hitting the far side of the Valley. I lay in bed, completely contented to feel the breeze blowing up the face of the cliff and past us, continuing on to the overhang above us. JP would be leading this section, but it was good to work through the puzzle in my own mind. Eventually he woke up. We had Clif bars and canned fruit for breakfast and started to get ready for the day’s work.
We crushed the fruit cans, consolidated our garbage, broke down the ledge, transferred the gear from the anchor to our harnesses and I set up for my next belay. I was so grateful we’d brought the bosun’s chair. Having gone to the top of the mast on our sailboat many times, using just my climbing harness, I now enjoyed the luxury of small 6”x18” wooden plank to sit on. It made all the difference. Once again, JP moved upward, steadily sorted out the puzzle of the route, and I set ensconced in my puffy coat, hood pulled up, slowly letting out rope and wishing him well in my mind. I was deeply content.
After a couple of hours, he reached the belay a couple hundred feet above and pulled up the slack on both lines. I now had to second some tricky—at least for me—territory. JP was ready to haul, so I released the bags into space. I lowered them out as gently as possible, using all of my lower-out line, but even then they swung out even further. They seemed so beautiful, hanging there, nearly 80’ out, like a Christmas tree ornament, spinning and ascending.
I pulled up past the roof of the overhang, worked my way back into the sun and continued upward, gradually improving and refining my process. After some time, having pulled through various roofs and worked my way around corners, I could hear JP’s voice above me. I could also see another party approaching hundreds of feet below. Others had persevered and were breaking through as well. After one last pendulum and move horizontally, I was able to pull up and join JP on the summit ledge. He was already eating.
We’d decided previously that, as soon as we topped out, we would eat all the food we didn’t want to carry out. And we would drink or dump any water we didn’t want to carry out. We went to work on that.
There was a short 40’ segment to the actual summit ridge, but this ledge was where the serious climbing ended. The rest was just a scramble. JP and I high-fived, hooted and hollered a bit, but mostly we just sat there in the sun, relieved and happy. We still had to get down, but at least we’d made it to the top, almost. As I brought up the first load to the ridge, it was like an epiphany. I’d forgotten we were climbing a tower, and once on top I could see 360 degrees. We’d been trapped in just one plane for three days. Now I could see El Capitan across the Valley, the backside of Cathedral Rock, and below us ran the small river that ended in Bridalveil Falls. It was beautiful. It was about 4pm and the sun was lowering in the October sky.
Over the next four hours we repelled I don’t know how many times. Maybe ten or twelve. I lost track. The portaledge was awkward and the haul bag was heavy. The sun set and once again we were moving in the dark.
We worked our way down the back side of Leaning Tower into a gulley. From there we repelled down the gulley and were now on a ledge a few hundred feet above the bivy ledge where we’d slept the first night. We believed our ropes reached the ground, but we weren’t 100% sure. We couldn’t see it with our own eyes because our headlamps weren’t strong enough to light that far into the darkness. I repelled down first, “riding the pig” as we say, meaning the haul bag was connected to the front of my harness. I kept an eye out for additional anchor points in case the ropes didn’t reach and we needed to set up yet another repel. But as I got lower, my headlamp beam reached the end of the ropes and I saw they were indeed touching the ground. The end was in sight.
I got to the bottom, took off my harness and immediately began unpacking the haul bag. JP was right behind me. What a relief to be back on soil. It was sloping steeply and tricky to balance, but we’d made it this far. Every incremental step felt like a major milestone: the base bivy with our first loads, the base of the actual climb after all the traffic, the Awhanee Ledge in the dark, the overhang with an actual portaledge to sleep on, the last ledge, the summit ridge, and now back to the ground. Like I always told my kids while sailing, “I never thought we’d make it this far.” But step by step, it all added up to a journey.
We dumped almost all our remaining water, repacked the bags with the heavy climbing gear stuffed in the bottom and started down. We quickly reached the base bivy. Two sleeping bags were filled with the guys intending to start the climb in the morning. We hated to disturb them but we needed to get some gear and garbage we’d stashed nearby. They woke up and were happy chat. They wanted info and advice and now—three days after being beginners—we were the veterans, at least on this route. We imparted our sage advice about how to best ferry gear to the base, link pitches, endorsed the bivy under the overhang and confirmed the integrity of the repel routes, and then shoved off. On the hike in, we gained 900’ of elevation over half a mile. We now had to descend that same elevation over the same distance. But this time in one trip, no ferrying stuff. True, we’d shed a lot of weight having eaten our food and drunk our water, but we still had everything else. And it was heavy.
I carried the haul bag. JP carried the portaledge and ropes. As we jangled our way down the hillside, I felt my legs slowly turning to jelly. I’d texted Emily to let her know we were down and that we were walking out in the dark, but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I seriously contemplated stopping several times and just pulling out my sleeping bag, knowing we could finish walking out in the morning. But JP didn’t stop, so I didn’t either.
Looking back, I think that was one of the reasons we succeeded. 70% of climbers bail on their first big wall attempt. And there were plenty of times we could have turned back: when there were two parties ahead of us, when we got a late start on the first pitches, when we had to climb in the dark. But neither of us would stop moving upward, no matter how slowly or incrementally. And when it all added up, we’d made it up and now almost all the way down.
I slowed my pace, moved deliberately, and strategically tried to crouch through the boulder fields in a way that used my arms as much as my legs. My legs were spent. But gradually the terrain flattened out. We were on the Valley floor. I could hear cars in the distance and the temperature dropped with the proximity to the river. The surface beneath our feet turned from cut boulders to a bed of pine needles. At last, I could see the parking lot. Someone in the lot had their headlights on, and we stumbled toward them.
Then I realized there were people running toward me. Then I heard voices, voices I recognized. “First try!" "You did it!” “Congratulations!” Emily and the kids had been waiting in the parking lot for hours, so they could be there the moment we appeared from the woods. In fact, they’d been there all day. I texted that morning to let Emily know we'd be down that afternoon or evening. She packed up the kids and headed over from our campsite to be in the parking lot by early afternoon. They didn’t know how long it would take us to get down, so they just waited for eight hours. At 8:15pm they gave up. We hadn't connected without cell service so she figured we’d decided to sleep at the summit and walk out in the morning. They were heading back to camp when her service picked up. I texted that we were down and walking out in the dark. They made an immediate u-turn and came back to the parking lot.
JP and I stumbled to remove the loads from our shoulders. I stripped off my sweat-soaked shirt and we posed for a couple of absurd flash photographs in the dark. My hair was dripping with perspiration. I’ve never run a marathon or had a baby—both things which Emily has done—but I kind of felt like it was approaching that realm.
Three and a half days earlier, we’d left our camp site and headed for this very parking lot to start the climb. We were here again, but now having gone to the top and down again. I could barely believe we’d done it.
And I was completely surprised by the welcome party. They gave us food and water and I slowly emerged from my exertion-induced malaise. JP went up the road and came back with his car. We gave him back his wallet and passport back, which Emily had been holding for safe keeping. We pulled out JP’s sleeping bag, parka and fresh clothes, so he could have a way to sleep that night. And then we parted ways. We’d sort everything else out the next day.
I got in the passenger seat, the kids piled in the back, and we headed back toward camp. It was over. It was done. And it could never be undone. I’d climbed a big wall.