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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 3, 2009 - 12:59am PT
Being and Nothingness in the Gully
2/16/09 ed.11/2/09

Well before climbing gyms made it possible to stay inside and work on our art, we had actual seasons, and these were always outdoors surprisingly. I mean both the weather and the sports seasons. Yes that’s right, always outside; there used to be weather here in California. So come early March, depending on how the Valley weather patterns were posturing and how much of a snowpack was still hovering above, many of us knew it was time to get back in the trench, our pitched battle in Yosemite. As Terray’s Conquistadores of The Useless---and there was plenty of that Uselessness back then---we found that at the start of each season the little paper plates of our lives were really loaded down again. Gobbling up quick was the best plan.

It was daunting having to face off with The Useless once again and for yet another year when the granite got dry and warm enough to talk to it. Handling The Useless was pretty heady stuff; it was a dangerous isotope, a form of Nothingness which in the end has always been fatal; it tends to annihilate, you see.

One such early season on a kind of iffy afternoon Vandiver and I were cantering like wild horses up the Column Direct and North Dome South face routes unroped. The sky was changing color; later on we could see a cloud bank approaching when we got above the rim of the Valley on the Dome. The climbing was going quite well; this particular time we were not caught behind anyone as we would be the following year when Al Steck and Dick Long wouldn’t let us solo through their roped party while they struggled to extract Dick’s or Wilson’s old-fashioned mountain boot stuck in the lieback up high. They were hammering on it, tugging, bitching and so on for an hour as we hung out on sloping edges without benefit of anchors.

But this time the problem was---and it was a frequent problem for Vandiver and I--- we just couldn’t get started early enough because there was so much heavy lifting at the cafeteria that had come up, so many cups of coffee that had to get taken, all the beta, the data, the errata, the triviata to get pinned down before tying in, that to get going was actually pretty much secondary, frankly after-the-fact. Important times these. We apparently were in that nebulous fractious period between The Golden Age of American Rockclimbing and The Brave New World of American Rockclimbing and felt nameless. There was kind of a friskiness about many of us; we had no burdensome “Era” in which we were supposed to figure out the next logical step while we piggybacked the whole era thing around for a decade. Yes, it was kind of a demilitarized zone, but a period and not a section of geography.

We may now refer to this interregnum as The Mop-Up of American Rockclimbing, after Royal’s frequent dictum that after the late 1960’s we had reached the end of any future rock climbing such as had been when he was at the helm: “It’s all a mopping up operation now” he liked to declare back then, wine glass in hand. Leaving me with with what, I pondered, being twenty years younger than the Great One. So knowing not the name of our very own period or that we even had our own period, we were desperate to make our marks in the fog whatever it might end up being named---if in fact we would ever and even get our own name--- off we would often go so as not to actually usher in the cafeteria’s lunch crowd, still appearing in good form to only have breakfasted, albeit exiting by 11:30 at such point.

As usual we had absolutely no use for water, food or extra clothing as we swirled our way up the 18 pitches of the combined climbs. Such things weren’t the point at all, actually and it was always important to stay on topic. We might not even have owned “extra clothing”. The plan was always to bag the day’s work in about 2-3 hours and get back to the cafeteria of course where the real people were and the issues of our time pondered and then tabled for the next morning. From the outside, we must have looked like mere decorative koi or perhaps slow-moving features in someone’s terrarium; the euros had no trouble stealing our pet turtles many times for years to come. I guess in a way, we were euro-placeholders actually; we were safeguarding first ascents so the more talented euros could have them.

Except this time----realize this was one of many identical ascents we made of the two routes---we were coming down the longest way possible, around the western side of the North Dome, for some reason----maybe snow--- and arrived at the beginning of North Dome Gully in the dark. And dark it really became because by this point the clouds had really piled up, rain was threatening, the temperature had dropped about 25 degrees in two hours.

Exhausted of course from all the needless extra work, the early-season climbing, the grinding trail-finding, and constantly tedious hiking in the upper stretches of the gully and rim, our barely post-teenage patience was really running out. We could hardly see anything at all with the cloud cover and the only equipment we had was turtlenecks, pants and shoes. No lights. Frankly we were dressed like the city boys we ridiculed but in fact were.

We began to make the terrible error of attempting to descend way too early, imagining the immense east face of the Column below us had already been passed in a couple of minutes and we were magically ready to descend the talus, scree and pedestals that take you home, that latter section of course only taking a few minutes as well.

Wishing for it does not make it any more real however. Even some children know this. I think we might have been flirting with the concept that our magical thinking actually was sound and clever legerdemain and not illusion at all. Stroke-of-genius stuff you see.

As many say, climbing accidents seem most often to occur on easy ground and at the end of the day or climb. A certain amount of magical thinking, self-delusion really, usually is involved and that state of mind is why we lose people or they get injured. It’s the thinking that is killing people.

So there we were dead beat, blinded by the dark, awfully young as well 21 and 19, waddling around off route in the redoubtable North Dome Gully descent with some fantasies working about how we are only a short bit from the Valley floor, not maybe the two or more hours it would take with these conditions. And a storm that clearly is going to let loose very soon.

At one point, I started to check out what seems another little drop I am supposed to make off a boulder stuck in the slope and in what we think is still the climbers’ trail, jumping onto what I believe is a nice puffy pile of scree 5 feet below it and then walking onwards. Thinking that I am supposed to third-class just right here. I had already done a couple such maneuvers in the last few minutes and that’s what they were, nice soft landings, and what seemed to be the trail to home as we unknowingly edged more and more away from the actual route down, closer and closer to titanic cliffs.

Launching once again, I hit the scree but in the dark it turns out that it’s scree alright, but on a steep slab---they’re ball bearings. As I rocket down a slabby chute which I can kind of see, albeit from every point of the 360 degrees of each of my x and y-axis rotations, the scree really helping to get the show on the road, I feel incredible relief for the end of all effort. A state that neatly leapfrogs all more lengthy wasteful attempts at Nirvana.

How novel, I am glissading down a granite chute, how fun. Take 8 hours to climb the mountain, playfully glissade down it in 5 minutes, the sort of thinking we all knew well but which is generally associated with snow. Fabulous, too, a kind of a 4-star rolfing effect, just what I needed after a hard day climbing. Or perhaps more like a session under the bare feet of a very pissed-off aging racist Geisha girl. Such pleasure!

As the nanoseconds and particles flew by and I awoke to the reality that such a chute could only be located above the last part of the huge East Face, meaning a gigantic dropoff onto talus was coming up any second on this bus route, I spread myself out as rigidly as I could and started digging my limbs into the many-petaled surfaces down which I was so inventively stone-glissading. The flips and cartwheels ended and I seemed to be getting somewhere stopping going somewhere I knew not where. So to speak. The absolute release and pleasure of a complete and total letting go somehow got wastefully trashed in an effort to stop cartwheeling and jumping down the formation that hated me and would vomit me out onto a talus field somewhere hundreds of feet below.

So lucky me, I did come to a stop, still on the slabs which had lessened in angle. Not quite concussed, but truly stunned to say the least, I didn’t move partly because to have stopped hiking and climbing for the first time in many hours was one of life’s sweetest moments and partly because I could barely think and was in quite a lot of pain. Scrapes all over, some real cuts, and a hip joint that must have been seriously injured and which took months to recover from. That was the inventory as regular-guy thinking pulled up to the bar rail of my crazed midnight tavern bar fight.

Vandiver was screaming my name 75 feet above me. It was annoying, why can’t he mellow out and shut up? What is his problem? It would be great if I could just sleep here right now, I thought. So for the first three screams I couldn’t be bothered dealing with that noise that was squirting out of the dark above me. Given a fourth scream, and by this point once again part of the human race unfortunately, I answered and gave him the details, proud that I was not maimed for life, maybe. And shocked and honored by the horror and anguish in his voice.

He carefully worked his way down the chute on his hind legs and reached me in a few minutes. His concern abruptly scaled down from terror to the regular complacency we all entertain towards each other when totally disfigured by fatigue and hunger. But for a few moments he had thought that I had disappeared over what we now could see was a hideous dropoff maybe five feet further from my final stopping point. The racket I had made playing in the chute---realize this was decades before Bandaloop Dancers----had ended suddenly suggesting to him maybe I had then gone flying to my maker.

Appropriately, the storm began just about then. It rained and then it tried to snow but we seemed to be just about at the snowline so instead of fluffy crystals it was most often frigid drops that grew more and more constant. By this point our eyes had grown able to use the scant light filtering through the clouds. We found a few feet away a large boulder with a tiny overhanging part on its downside under which we spent the evening, perching and intwined on a bare dirt hummock. Livesey’s Japanese Film-makers’ Grass was nowhere in site.

For some ridiculous and wildly mislead reason I had some matches. Never mind that they were maybe 20 years old, untested and taken from an old house I had bought in Santa Cruz; they did work and so we completely denuded a sad little tree next to us as night wore on, developing several generations of unique and artful fires to keep from dying in the freezing exposure. When dawn came we could see Half Dome across from us and the snow line evilly level with us, varying up and down a bit just to drive the point home that we were idiots. It took a few painful hours getting back to the actual descent path and down to the Valley and our coffee at the cafeteria. These March rains had tapered for a few hours as we muddled downwards that morning but hung around still for a few more days allowing us to get back to the real Matters of State at the cafeteria.

Trad climber
Nov 3, 2009 - 01:40am PT
Holy Snikes, great story Peter! I think that gully has generated more then a few stories, but yours is a classic.
Lynne Leichtfuss

Sport climber
Will know soon
Nov 3, 2009 - 01:47am PT

Again I applaud your word craft. Dude, I'm sure you are gathering your text's up to publish....cause if not yo crazy. Lynne knows writing ...find someone to help you put together and publish. I have a few sources if needed.

Love your ...."Mop up of American Rock Climbing" and the phrase you used...."Blinded by the Dark" is a special one to lynnie the jesus follower. This phrase is used quite a few times in the New Part of the Bible.

Finally...."Gone flying to my maker", is a beautifully thought provoking few words.

Love to Yo Peter Haan, Lynnie

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Nov 3, 2009 - 02:43am PT
really nice story, thx!!

ß Î Ø T Ç H

. . . not !
Nov 3, 2009 - 02:46am PT
I think I posted to the first edition (2nd is rewrite?) .

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Nov 3, 2009 - 05:21am PT
Moma Mia!
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Nov 3, 2009 - 11:32am PT
I remember the original of this too. It's changed a lot, elaborated, with telltale signs of a still unnamed era -- part of the Nothingness point, don't you know. Those coffee cups are eternal, their clay poised in the sun-filtering end of the Cafeteria, and so are the groans of worked bodies shifting in straight-backed chairs, even as the specific klatch of that particular morning's coffee moment breathlessly expands its realm to smother all else.

Guess you really got me there, Peter.

The moments of waking up from delicious submission to functional terror in that scree gully -- I was bracing for them this time through. Was the first read too, actually, tipped off as the narrative thickens alongside the clouds and the twilight to bear down inexorably upon that point.

Nice, man. Your writing continues to draw out the emotional points within and between us.

Trad climber
San Leandro, Ca
Nov 3, 2009 - 12:31pm PT
Awesome stuff. At least you had a fire. Some of my fondest climbing memories involve spooning a small fire somewhere up on the rim, which inevitably I would have to stay awake with and nurse because my partners could actually sleep, the lucky bastardos that they always were.

Waist deep in 'gators and still grinnin'...
Nov 3, 2009 - 01:05pm PT

Remember the E-ticket rides at Disneyland? Always the scariest, hairiest, insanest-yet-surviveablest fun the Park could offer.

What you just shared was the Ultra E-ticket ride.

Great writing.
Glad you lived. ;-)

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