First Solo Ascent of the Salathe Wall (AACJournal: 1972)

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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 3, 2006 - 11:47am PT
At Ken's (Chickenskinner) request, here is the article about my 1971 climb, writing a couple of months later. I was 21 years old. I thought that I had posted it here, but apparently only on rec.climbing some years ago.

The Salathe Wall Solo
by Peter Haan
Reprinted from: American Alpine Club Journal, 1972

With so much history and poppycock tales about the Salathe Wall, a solo of it might seem outrageous and desperate. But it wasn't that way at all. Climbing stories and the climbing imagination in their new hyperactivity and peculiar neediness brusquely race past the humble realities of rest places, large ledges, good protection and fun climbing, or in the "professional" or hard man arena, past climbing itself. When this modern trend, these fantasies, and gossip are contained in a little Yosemite Valley campground, covetousness and absurd slickness develop; an opaque fog gathers while the mud begins to form. It is no one's fault, this mud, but yours or mine if we sling it. So who, in 1972, can tell the way back or out to the clear and simple privacy of one's own climbing and love for the granite experience? Personal hardness or cynical pressure cannot render crystalline and geologic an indefinite smog of feckless rumor and struggle. The Valley climber is both the victor and victim of his brothers and an international theater of acclaim. A small bay of confusion and carefully silent jealousy often form behind him, as he becomes a part of that international theater and the first ascents prayer wheel. To pay attention to this reaction is to give it currency, and to open oneself to it, a grave injustice to one's passion. So we have to ignore everything but what is up there: one is always more skilled than almost anyone else wants one to be. Push off from all the articles, guides, ratings, reputations, fads, teachers, and even friends; in good sense do what ever you will. Thus my ascents or yours, as well as this article, are actually no one's business, especially since it seems inevitable that integrity and inspiration become identified nowadays in cheap dramatic terms with any problems (real o fabricated) to which my climbing or yours might be imagined by others as a kind of answer.

What is the moment when a climber or anyone steps out of his boring routine, risking his satisfaction to an ominous future and possible failure? I was in better shape than ever; I was prepared for intense climbing. And for me, it was inevitable that somehow I would have to attempt for better or for worse a resolution of the desire I had to develop friendship of solid and true character within thorny Camp Four and thus ratify climbing as a sufficiently rich life style. And it was in the cards that in searching for respect, understanding and meaning there that I would attempt first a rejection of the arena and then maybe its reconciliation. The Salathe Wall done solo would catch it off guard both kick it in the teeth and then bring that motley crew's respect, primitive as it might be. But also I, even more unrealistically, hoped for their love.

Beyond this basically petty and irrelevant realm of social pressures, there remained the intense and I suppose primordial desire to contact on however a temporary or make-believe basis an original human experience of persistent self-control and critical awareness that in turn leads to freedom and the elation or revelation of one's survival, of one's life hood and lust. This climb, which I had secretly, boyishly, thought of for five years was in complete disjunction with my experience. Since I had been basically a free climber for eight years, Yosemite’s big walls were not familiar to me. I had failed on several attempts of them, one a horror-filled solo, of Quarter Dome, North Face, and was quite awed by El Cap in particular. So with many needs and no formal credentials, I inspected this "Salathe Wall" of my fancies. But unlike other previous times, I examined the entire route spending hours on features of the pitches. I was bent on determining if the Salathe could be done solo; I knew this was not to be assumed. It was an ancient place; I knew it by the side lighting higher on the wall: orange dark red, and yellow ripples and horns visible half a mile below; rock that must have been above and untouched by more recent glaciations, unshorn, wilder than the correct stiff smoothness lower down. This was a place to hold me for a while in my fastlike resolutions.

Moderate low-angle slab climbing, unexposed at the start and I am slowly eased into graver consequences and more dramatic views. Worried that the heat, in spite of steady breezes might sabotage my whole effort, I carry extra water and heavy cans of fruit: I want the wall. But the expense is to my hands: soreness I have never known develops as the first day passes and nearly thwarts my entire adventure as I awakened the next morning to bloated fingers and burning skin; all this damned hauling. If only one could just climb---climb without bags, water, packs, shoes, rurps, ropes, porters, maps, oxygen, and radios---merely as an incandescent unfettered being given to ascension, upwardness, climbing would not have the trembling impact it has. Life without death, eternity, might be worse than life after death and I am laughing. After all, soloing, save from being away from other climbers, seems to be no step towards freedom in climb. God, that prusik knot and Jumar can drive me frantic sometimes. I lower myself laboriously down the line to the normally easy pendulum into Hollow Flake Crack. I attempt the pendulum; I am short. I take slack, prying loose the flesh-eating Jumar's bite on the rope and the prusik knot's death grip below it. I try penduluming again: I am short again. Again and again. Well it's only the second day, but no one would believe it took me five times to get that crack, I think, as I cranked off the heel and toe jams up to Hollow Flake Ledge. Sleeping here will be weird: it's right in the line of recent rock falls! Worrying will do nothing so I fix one pitch at dusk.

Days are passing and the wall is falling slowly away. My anxiety does not bubble off in joy but instead my climbing gets better, swifter; the Jumar-prusik self-belaying is executed more methodically and seems to become a skill in itself. The bivouac spots, the nesting places I make up this wall are more meaningful than most of the climbing I am doing. Reaching the end of the day and a place to take stock of the situation, to lie up against the wall childlike and tired. To wake to another blue morning, another day within days on this wall: this many days alone. Would this solitude be unbearable without El Cap?

If one needs people, one wouldn't be here. In fact a climber is by virtue of his respect for life and safety philosophically "for himself" on any climb, and often afterwards too, sadly. "Am I slipping?"; "Am I tired?"; "Is my foot properly placed?": all questions concerning minute conditions of oneself and the rock, and all these are logically, necessarily prior to those between partners, even in emergency. But I have no partner and it seems emotionally simpler this way at least up to now.

From Hollow Flake Ledge the wall steepens quickly to vertical or more. The Ear, a thick flake probably fifty feet through with a moderate by exposed bomb-bay chimney, and scanty protection challenges me now three leads into the day. Facing out with back against the wall, I nervously work along horizontally. Each move relaxes me more though, and, my God, there are giant holds in here! Coming around the corner is getting to be a problem...go slower. Fine, I am up, but now it's really steep. A giant 150 foot aid lead just above will be time-consuming and I've got to finish before night or I'll be doing that short 5.9 jam crack in the dark to dinner and sleep in the Alcove. This aid lead is the first of many other steeps ones like it but because it's the first, it's the worst. Exposure, strenuousness, anxiety about time, and fear grip me, as thankfully they will not again.

Inside the deep Alcove, I lie, eating and drinking everything I can afford to, the plan being for two more bivouacs. Is it the Fourth of July? A mad string of car lights is daubing along the Valley floor in the warm night air.

These last days. I am climbing; I am pushing upwards, rising in a cloud of new life; no one is up here; fifteen-foot roofs and 200 foot overhanging headwalls; not a soul is up here; I am alone. I say, "I am climbing the Salathe Wall...solo"; it means nothing because I am there: a climbing being, a simple force, nothing more and this is all really that should ever be important to us. A certain mind, two strong hands: I kind of love myself up here as the blond world of Yosemite granite holds me, but with no passion, none of its own. Much as any surfer feels that he has the voice of the wave, I sense having the body of this mountain: mineralized and transfigured into a 3000-foot wall, a man of granite a half-mile-high and a spirit as arid and vast. The awareness and critical attention I have to pay El Cap can invert to a passivity: I have committed myself to it; whatever it offers, I must take; whatever it is, I am. But at the same time I know and admit the real separation between us. The splintered wall, the pillow head of man.

Night is coming; I must reach Thank God Ledge. But now dark is here and I haven't a chance. A remaining headlamp lead up the 70-foot pitch of aid (is it really that short?) attracts me less than rest and a last radical fling of sleeping in a two point hammock strung from a single vertical crack slicing up the Headwall now over 2700 feet above the talus. My sleep comes and goes, drifting slowly through the night. I am finding peace, for tomorrow will be the end; only several leads remain but I know the last pitch could be a terrible solo problem.

The last day is the same warm fair summer day that all the others were. I relishingly climb on, untangling the incredible mess of equipment I made in my fatigue last night wanting quick release to sleep and reverie. Several mixed pitches and I've arrived at the low-angle apron below the summit lead, a short nailup to an overhanging narrowing squeeze crack that becomes hand jams. With greater effort than anywhere below (God this is 5.10!!) and a disturbing risk due to slack paid out in advance, these last feet are gained, and after rappelling, cleaning and hauling, the whole adventure has suddenly ended. Two laughing camp friends have come to greet me and help me off with all this gear. I can't recognize them...they are so dark and ordinary expressions on their faces seem as blank contortions. Well I know it's them....a rock is thrown just missing my head.

END
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Yosemite
Sep 3, 2006 - 12:08pm PT
Thanks Peter,

That was an awesome achievement and I still say "Burly". Was the jumar backing up the prusik?

Ken
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 3, 2006 - 12:14pm PT
Thanks K. Yeah the large prussick was above the jumar. Not a good outfit by present-day opinion, but it did work. I am sure that on a really big fall there was the possibility of tearing the perlon with the jumar though. Silent Partner etc techniques are the way to go now.
deuce4

Big Wall climber
the Southwest
Sep 3, 2006 - 12:25pm PT
Peter, you're not only a Hardman, but a gnarly Hardman!

cheers
WBraun

climber
Sep 3, 2006 - 08:18pm PT
Yep Peter

I remember it very clearly to this day when you were up there soloing that monster wall on El Cap. Bridwell and Klemens were saying Peter is soloing the Salathe.

That's with pins and way before any of the great modern gear they have now. The usual shoulder bruising loads as Roper described it in his little green book.

And it was hot, I was thinking, how does he do it. It sounded and seemed so hard to me back then.

It was a very good time in life back then ........
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Sep 3, 2006 - 08:33pm PT
Inspirational then and now.
yo

climber
The Eye of the Snail
Sep 3, 2006 - 09:28pm PT
Thank you, sir. Yeah, that's hard.





The Ear: WAY easier than you expect (since you expect to die.)

Hollow Flake: slightly easier than you expect.

The 5.9 squeeze above EC Tower: much worse than you expect.

The last 5.9 topout squeeze: worse than you could ever imagine by a factor of several infinities.

MisterE

Trad climber
One Place or Another
Feb 24, 2009 - 11:02pm PT
bump for a great tale
paul roehl

Boulder climber
california
Feb 24, 2009 - 11:24pm PT
...an astonishing achievement at an unexpected moment.
MisterE

Trad climber
One Place or Another
Feb 24, 2009 - 11:36pm PT
It amazed me when I bumped this that there were only 8 replies.

So many hidden gems - let's find them and give 'em the polish they deserve.
MisterE

Trad climber
One Place or Another
Feb 24, 2009 - 11:55pm PT
It's weird - maybe nobody else sees how much Peter creates the world around him in his stories - it is magical to me, bardic.

He's like a spirit of life that describes the living of it without pretense, but fantastical nonetheless.
dogtown

climber
Cheyenne,Wyoming
Feb 25, 2009 - 12:38am PT
Nicely done Peter, thanks.
neebee

Social climber
calif/texas
Feb 25, 2009 - 02:16am PT
hey there peter.... say, you got a great way of writing so as to make us feel how you felt up there, as to being:

alone...


great job...

i liked the:
is it the fourht of july down there

and the row of car-lights, too...
:)
PhilG

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Feb 25, 2009 - 05:27am PT
Peter,
I agree with Werner, that was such a mind blower back then. It was an effort and an accomplishment that seemed to launch a new perspective of what was possible in Yosemite.
Phil
survival

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Feb 25, 2009 - 06:13am PT
Jeez Peter, way to make us all look like P*ssies.....

Seriously, what a great post.
survival

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Feb 25, 2009 - 06:26am PT
More like poetry and a spiritual journey than a climbing story.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Feb 25, 2009 - 06:59am PT
Thanks loads, but don’t you characters ever sleep? Looking at the times at which you’ve been posting...

Anyway 38 years later, it turns out that solo was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. And I was so young. It is true that the equipment changes since then have made such ascents quite a bit more feasible. But no matter what, water still today weighs about 8 pounds a gallon, you know. Can’t do any better with that one. I guess I had about 40-50 lbs of it!

And yeah, it was really hot, Wern---a classic July heatwave. I think it was coasting around 100 degrees for the first couple of days. Cooler higher up of course. Being on the Freeblast slabs that first day and then the second over in the slabby Heart area took a tremendous amount of drive. The one giant canvas haul bag almost was impossible; so heavy, so primitive, so much friction over all that lower angle terrain....Ugh. All by myself.

To make it even more daunting, there was daily rockfall in the afternoons that was spraying the lower half of the wall from about La Escuela to Pine Line. You see one of those upper towers on the Heart Route of Chuck and Scott had fallen off, completely denuded the forest below the winter before---it looked horrible for years--- and still bits of the main event were being blown off here and there for months every day if there were afternoon breezes. That whole portion of El Cap was to most of us, unclimbable. It was a sniper zone, really.

I actually got hit by a small stone the first day. It was in the head, but only glancing. It bled but wasn’t too bad. Can you imagine my determination? I kept climbing. I had borrowed Richie Goldstone’s hard hat but wasn’t wearing it after awhile due to the three-digit heat. And was thinking that as I got closer to Mammoth Terraces I would be out of the line of fire. Also figuring that as I crossed the Heart to Hollow Flake, it would be early enough in the second day to avoid the daily afternoon blitzing. When I got to the famous Hollow Flake Ledge---what used to be a classic, perfect ledge--- I was impressed that it had been turned to a fractured ugly stack of unstable rock debris. It had received a direct hit from some part of that tower that had let go on the Heart. The predictability of the rockfall times was pretty tight so I knew that as I slept there more rockfall would be very unlikely for the period I was in that area. Above it, nothing had hit the route.

The voice I used to write the story way back then was partly shaped by RR coaching and reminding me that the real point of writing about the experience was not so much to once again report on the route which by then was well enough known (11th ascent) but to related the emotional and humans aspects of such an ascent. I might otherwise have issued a much more mundane view on the whole thing---like bad travel writing, you know. And so it took the form of a emotional and almost disturbingly personal reverie, quite in distinction to most climbing writing, especially back then. And a form that I still sort of use today in various ways.

best to you all, p.
survival

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Feb 25, 2009 - 08:05am PT
Keep using it Peter...it's a great voice.

Wow, rockfall tales/ Something we are often blissfully free of on El Cap. It was not until my 9th El Cap route, Excalibur, that I had a premonition and wore a helmet up there for the first time. A party above and right of us knocked a few stones down on our first day. That sealed my decision.

On the second or third day my partner who has done many walls with me dropped a giant cam from a full pitch above me. Beeline straight for my head as I tried to hide under that helmet. It hit the helmet, and glanced into my shoulder with enough force to spin me over in my gear. I hung there for a moment, thinking what a bad place this was to get hurt, as my shoulder went numb and a wave of nausea swept over me. Keith was screaming at me as to whether I was ok. I realized I would make it when I yelled for him to shut up and give me a moment to think about it!

It took a quarter sized piece of meat out of my shoulder but luckily it hit on muscle rather than directly to bone. This after glancing and slowing on the helmet, so we were able to carry on, even though my shoulder hurt like a motherF for a couple days....

My brushes with hardness.

Edit: Peter, what music was playing in your head in those days??
Largo

Sport climber
Venice, Ca
Feb 25, 2009 - 09:15am PT
I remember hearing about this solo ascent back when I was a newcommer to the Valley and I couldn't imagine myself being up on the Salathe headwall alone, leading and rapping to clean and all that jazz. Th idea scares the crap out of me . . .

JL
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Feb 25, 2009 - 10:21am PT
A marvellous adventure, and story! How long did the climb take altogether?
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