Greg Child 1987 AAJ Lost In America TR


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 23, 2008 - 02:19am PT
Lost in America*

GREG CHILD [url=""]AAJ 1987 p60[/url]

NIGHT HAD FALLEN. Randy Leavitt and I were high on the overhanging east face of El Capitan, at the end of a new route, setting up our last hanging bivouac. Behind us lay nine days of difficult climbing and 2700 feet of granite. As I sat on my porta-ledge I chanced to look over my shoulder.

“Christ! Look!”

Leavitt turned toward an exploding sky. In the west two white-hot pinpoints of light traversed the heavens, heading east. In their wake a silver tail trailed off for dozens of miles before dissipating to a lingering evanescent blue against the mauve dusk. The dots climbed into the upper atmosphere, then vanished, leaving ghostly contrails. It was an eerie conclusion to our climb.

“What the hell was that?’

Speculations: Comet, UFO, ICBM, WW3, LA and San Francisco up in smoke. We scanned the skies for mushroom clouds.

“What a pity to be vaporised now, just as we’re about to finish. Maybe we’d be the only survivors. We’d reach the top on scorched ropes and stumble out of the valley onto the plains. Cars melted to roads, roads glazed to earth. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to give a damn about our climb. We’d be lost in America.”

Later we would learn that this was a test of a Tomahawk Missile, self destructing in a ball of flame, but on that last night of our climb it fired our imaginations.


The beginning of this idea to climb a new route on El Cap began in the fall of 1984 and a meeting with Randy Leavitt in Yosemite.

Grasping the fin of his Cadillac like a handrail, he limped across the parking lot toward me. His dislocated knee crackled like a bowl of rice crispies as it dragged weary feet through thick drifts of pine needles piled against flat tires of long dead vans. He looked thinner for eight solitary days on Aurora, a route on El Cap created by Peter Mayfield and me back in 1981, unrepeated till Randy’s solo ascent. We shook hands. I asked about his knee. He had taken a short fall,

* This article was first published in Climbing of June 1986.

caught his foot in a sling, and hung upside down, like a cowboy fallen from a horse with his boot caught in the stirrup.

“Too bad about your route,” he said.

I agreed. I’d driven to California to complete an El Cap route I’d attempted twice before, to find that someone had done the jump on me. Not only had I lost a route but a name as well. Heart of Darkness, a fine Conradian piece of nomenclature heavy with intimations of soul searching in a sinister realm, as well as geologic applicability to boot, namely an arrow-straight line bisecting the jetblack diorite of the North American Wall, was now named Sheep Ranch of Wyoming, a gauche slap in the face nightmare of bestial images.

Sheep Ranch’s main protagonist, parachutist/climber Rob Slater, had snatched the route as his swan song before embarking on a high-powered career as a Wall Street broker. His sole regret in leaving Yosemite to seal this Faustian pact with money was forfeiting the chance to climb the sister-line to the Sheep Ranch, pre-named Iowa Pig Farm. I recalled a long-silent outcry by sage Royal Robbins against names like Tangerine Trip, Mescalito and Magic Mushroom due to their druggy connotations. What would he say about atrocities such as these?

After talk of climbs past we spoke of climbs future. Leavitt suggested a jaunt into the Arctic Circle, to Baffin Island, to climb some alpine monstrosity.

“Climb it, and . . . ?” I asked warily.

This is the problem with Leavitt. Not content to climb a steep wall he must parachute it as well. Its all part of the up-down fixation among these hybrids of climbing and BASE jumping, BASE jumpers being those who jump from Buildings, Antennae, Spans (bridges) and Edges (cliffs).

“You’d leave me on the summit, all alone?”
“You could jump too.”
“Thanks, but I don’t jump.”

He offered to teach me. I repeated I don’t jump. He suggested I toss the haulbags off and descend the back side solo. I countered that he’d be an airdrop for a polar bear and I’d get lonely. Impasse reached, I proposed an alternative: El Cap, via the second-last good new route.

“Where?” asked Leavitt, sceptically.

We spoke in the arcane tongues of climbing and unfolded our mental roadmaps of El Capitan. Flakes and chunks of rock were our landmarks on these blue highways.

“Between Tangerine Trip and Zenyatta Mendatta.”
“Next spring.”

* * * * *

Our correspondence that year agreed that this route would rewrite the book on big-wall climbing. With the combined experience of thirty walls we knew precisely what luxuries were needed. This hedonistic desire to attain unsurpassed levels of comfort on an overhanging environment accounts for the overkill wattage of our ghetto-blaster, pillows for porta-ledges, changes of underwear, shaving kit and pre-moistened towelettes, books, newspapers, gourmet food and other excesses totalling 400 pounds. If we were going to live on a rock for ten days we were going to do it in style.

Arriving to a Yosemite of thundering waterfalls and overcrowded, heavily policed campgrounds, we headed directly to the base of El Cap to fix the first pitch, mindfully avoiding the greatest single danger to the route, the Mountain Room Bar. Greater climbers than we had been sucked into this intellectual vacuum, to spend all their money on drink and talk nonsense for nights on end, only to see their ambitions and brains turn to mush. On those too-comfy stools, surrounded by empty bottles of over-priced beer and sneaky-strong cocktails, the timelessness of the valley stretches like Saran-wrap over the season, so that by the time the victim finally escapes this climate-controlled vortex, winter has set in and he kicks himself, wondering where went the dream.

Leavitt won the toss for first lead. He joyed to the therapeutic chime of hammered steel and dull thwack of copperheads, I could see it in his eyes. At a perfect ledge we fix a rope, haul our bags (we call them pigs), and rappel to the rattlesnake-crawling scree, gazing at a daunting sheet of rock above a swaying nylon strand hanging fifteen feet free of the wall for 150 feet of height. Every pitch as steep or steeper, each fifteen feet will join the next to total 250 feet of tilt from ground to summit, making retreat an unlikely possibility.

At dawn next day, we cut all ties with the ground, beginning our ten-day ascent. Only three days in the Valley and we are on the wall. We haven’t even seen the bar: An unheard of achievement.

My lead begins with a handcrack that fades to blank after sixty feet. A silver, bulging wall surrounds me, interrupted by occasional thin overlaps. Only 200 feet off the ground and already exposure consumes us. A few rivets reach overlapping onion-skin flakes. They expand as I hammer knifeblades underneath them. Too much hammering and the natural elasticity in the rock is lost, not enough and the piton won’t grip. Chouinard chrome-moly rings like a tuning fork as it slides between leaves of granite. Wait for the right note, stop hammering, clip in, step up. At rope’s end, in the middle of the featureless wall, I drill a bolt belay. All day for one pitch, a mere 150 feet, but that’s the pace. We name the pitch ‘The Big Country,” gateway to the vertical prairie. To haul the pigs through a pulley demands our combined weight and sweat. By nightfall we are spent, prostrate on porta-ledges. Leavitt slips a tape into the machine, constructs tuna sandwiches. The wind drops. Perfect acoustics.


The climbing rack for this route; a jangling juggernaut of scrap metal bristling with hooks, pitons, cabled devices, even masking tape to stick hooks to flakes as runners and to pad sharp edges from gnawing the rope.

Now, when it comes to the hardware of climbing, Leavitt combines a propensity for invention with the aquisitiveness of a bower bird, while on rock the compact, thoughtful Californian is a bantam-weight with yardbird reflexes. Incipient flakes on the third pitch gives him a chance to use his “Stars,” tiny pointed hatchet-pitons, a tenth the size of a RURP, with the fall-holding power of a paper-clip.

Then he spies something totally out of place on our virgin climb: a fixed nut twenty blank feet above us. Nausea overwhelms me. Has someone been here before? But no, relief, its part of the unfinished girdle traverse of El Cap. The only thing more abstract than climbing up a wall is to traverse it from one end to the other.

Leavitt snags the nut with his cheat-stick, a sectioned tent-pole with a hook on the end and a ladder of cabled loops attached to the hook. He clips up the cable and avoids an hour of drilling. We dub the pitch ‘The Astral Lassoo.”

Our bivouac that night hangs level with the great arch of the Tangerine Trip. Bats drop from its dark interior and we recall tales of tragedy, bad taste and black humour born beneath that arch. Shadowy and oppressive, it has the look of a bad place, where “things happen.” A severed rope, a death; a climber becomes unclipped from her Jumars, another death. Death cloaks a route with a sinister shroud, until fools eager to shatter the aura rushed in where angels feared to tread, and crossed the tainted arch clad in Ghostbuster T-shirts and devil masks procured from a Fresno magic store.

Next day we enter the brittle quartz of “The Badlands.” Hanging from hooks perched on crumbling flakes I reach an enormous detached scimitar of rock. To beat pitons into it would pry it from the face, slicing Leavitt and me from the wall like stalks of wheat felled by a scythe, so I slip nuts behind it, moving cautiously, slowly and silently as a man crossing a frozen lake.

The vibrating flake mesmerizes me. Serious climbing treads a thin line between recklessness and calculated risk, the path marked only by intuition, a capricious and often flawed instinct. Like a house of cards, every placement must be exact. The mind computes the right move, finds the way out, but only by pushing you deeper into it, until, in the end, the ice is so thin that there is no choice but to trust intuition. This bridge-burning paradox of willingly climbing into a hazardous situation that you are then forced to climb out of stinks of adrenalin. But intuition, or luck, holds out, and puts me at a hanging belay.

On the fourth day Leavitt drops a nut behind a distant flake with the cheaterstick, swings onto it and proceeds to meld copperheads into an arch. At its end the wall tilts back, abruptly turning from orange to moody black. Finding no crack he begins to hook upwards. Dead ended, he gingerly hooks back down. Bits of grit pop under the weight of his hooks and strike him in the eye. Treading his own patch of thin ice, he tries a hook traverse out right, but it too goes nowhere so he makes a belay.

“Too hard to hook. Maybe it has to be freeclimbed.”

He’s right. The sixth pitch runs it out thirty feet on 5.10 face, relents to fistcrack, then hits a ledge.

Hauling the pigs to this place is a cursed ordeal. The five bags have developed separate personalities and dangle entangled like a family of suckling hogs crowding the belly of an enormous central sow. The hog-mother and her cluster are herded onto the ledge. We name it “The Bay of Pigs.”

Leavitt throws his hip into an offwidth, levitates past a huge loose block and nails a sweeping arch. Belay. With daylight left, I put some time into the 8th pitch, an A4 + hook traverse to a blade crack that splits the blank wall. Now in the mode of doing 1.4 pitches a day we see the ground fall behind, the pines become pencils and the peregrine falcons, nesting far below, accept us as fact.

Hunting to feed their newly-hatched young, they rip the air in dives aimed at swallows and pigeons, smashing them in explosions of feathers, then catching their stunned prey mid-air. High pitched shrieks from the male signal a successful catch. The female rises on an updraft, collects the swallow from her mate’s talons, then accelerates with folded wings, pulling out of the 3000-foot dive to land light as a tuft of down on the rim of her eyrie to feed the catch to squawking offspring.

The eighth evening sees us on a foot-ledge beneath the headwall, a looming bulge that surpasses all else on El Cap for steepness. Leavitt peers down glassy eyed. I would have restrained him were he not clipped to the belay.

“What a place to jump!”
“But we’re only two-thirds of the way up. Don’t you need more height?’

He who had jumped off antennae low as 500 feet eyed me with pity, a poor uninitiate who had never known the rush of free-fall.

“It isn’t quantity, its quality. There are parts of El Cap worth jumping that are nowhere near the top. I’ve considered doing certain climbs just to reach these spots.” He meant grand ledges like El Cap Tower or The Continental Shelf, to name but two. The usual place to jump was atop the Dawn Wall, a sloping prow of rock that beckons one to the edge. And right at that hour was the best time to jump, when the evening stillness had set in and El Cap was saturated in soft light.

“Nothing beats seeing the landmarks of El Cap that you know as a climber rush past at 32 feet per second squared. You dive, spread your limbs and feel the acceleration build. Reaching terminal velocity is like hitting a pillow. You don’t go any faster. The illusion is to float, to fly, but you’re moving fast, and have to snap out of the trance to open your chute. There’s a crack as silk hits air, a pull upwards, and a slow ride to the ground. Free-fall: Thats where it’s at.

It. Quintessential. Definitive, yet undefined.

I felt the suction of the space below begin to pull like a current.

“It’s addictive, You get hooked. You forget fear. You feel immortal. That’s why I retired. I was getting too blase. Yeah, it gets under your skin, like a terrible rash that just has to be scratched. Slater calls it Bad Craziness.”

Then Leavitt told about the time he jumped into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the worst craziness I’d ever heard.

“Rob Slater and I planned to jump in, then climb out. While we were waiting for the wind to drop he mentioned that the buzz was wearing thin with jumping, so I suggested we try something different and jump hand in hand. Whenever you jump tandem you pre-plan to release, veer off in different directions, and for one person to open his chute before the other. To avoid collision.

“So Rob is flying in front and to my left, looking over his shoulder for my open chute while trying to track the right path, because it’s a narrow gorge with only one place to land. But he doesn’t see me. He just keeps looking over his shoulder, falling, falling. Split seconds pass. I open my chute, but he’s still falling, still trying to spot me. 300 feet above the ground he finally opens. Last thing I see before I land is Rob flying toward the cliffs. Gn the landing zone I look around, certain he’s dead, but there he is, landing safely, but on the wrong side of the Gunnison River. The river was a torrent. He nearly drowned getting over. All that happened in seconds. The story takes longer than the jump. We never did climb out...’

In all Leavitt’s hundreds of jumps he’d accumulated just a few minutes of free-fall. It was a very dangerous drug.

“If it wasn’t illegal to jump El Cap I’d still do it.”

His third jump from the Dawn Wall marked the end of his career. Arrested by Park Rangers for this victimless non-crime and crucified by the internal justice system of Yosemite, he languished in a Valley cell like some political prisoner of a regime against fun, and only escaped a lengthy prison term because a lawyer detected violations of his constitutional rights. But bureaucracy had won. No one was jumping anymore.

He stares at me. “Someday you gotta jump. You gotta.”

Next day Leavitt climbs to beneath the headwall and traverses right, jamming everything from Friends to blades into the crack until it blanks out before reaching the summit comers. As he drills through the headwall bulge toward these comers I hear a strangled shriek, feel a tug on the rope and look up to see him dangling. A snapped rivet hanger floats to the ground. Back up again he inches up the bottomless comer on RURPs, blade-tips and copperheads.

“If this pops . . .” he says shaky voiced, “Its fly or die . . .”

Darkness. He belays, I jumar. Sparks shower the face like flint asizzle as I clean the pitch. I pluck the final RURP out with my fingers. In the final eighty feet of his lead every placement was barely capable of supporting body weight. If one had popped he would have ripped the entire string and fallen 160 feet.

Another morning breaks and grows blustery as sunlight swamps the wall. Anticipating the summit, we break out the shaving cream, mount our sunglasses in front of us as mirrors and mow down a week’s stubble. Leavitt even changes his underwear. But the pitch is long and slow and consumes every one of our 35 bent and beaten blades. Beneath me the antenna of the radio glints in the sun while Leavitt thumbs through a week-old Wall Street Journal. The wind carries a San Jose traffic report up the wall. Rush hour and the freeway is jammed.

The comer stops twenty feet from Zenyatta Mendatta. I sink four bolts into the wall, belay. The line has ended, like a place of dead roads. Tomorrow we’ll swing into the last 300 feet of Zenyatta, and be off by night.

Leavitt teaches me as alpenglow saturates the High Sierra so close we could touch it. The shapes of Yosemite’s skyline stand like black cutouts on the horizon. The peregrine makes a last dive back to its nest, while below headlights map the valley loop. And far away a military mind presses a button and launches a Tomahawk missile that paves the sky with fire, annihilating the alpenglow and, in our blackest dreams, man himself.

Summary: An account of the first ascent of Lost in America, 5.10, A5, a 2700-foot route on El Capitan, climbed over ten days in May 1985 by Greg Child and Randy Leavitt.

Cardiff by the sea
Nov 23, 2008 - 10:49am PT
Thanks for posting these historic stories on the Captain Ed. I allways enjoyed Greg Childs writing. I have also had the pleasure of enjoying this route as well. The things that stand out about our ascent, is that it was a realitively early ascent maybe between 10th 12th (just a guess) and we climbed very early in the year (like march) basically having the Capitain to ourselfs. We actually only had the Captain to ourselfs after Steve Gerbading and Scott Stowe ran up the second ascent of Shortest Straw. The two big concerns was the 5.10 free pitch and the fly or die. My partner being a free climbing guru (imho) that he is took the free pitch leaving me the "fly or die" He also took the the offwidth pitch after the free pitch when I went snail eye. I remember nailing (the now gone) loose flake on the "fly or die" with pins shifting and moving and gravel falling out from behind it, then climbing 30' of thin heads above it. Adventure at it finest.

Thanks for bringing back the memory Ed.
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
Nov 23, 2008 - 07:08pm PT
I soloed Lost in America in June 2003 - lots of fun! Geez, I see from my notes I only spent seven nights on the wall - a veritable "Speed Ascent" by my yardstick. Now I understand why the Fly or Die pitch wasn't as hard as I had feared, although I did take a short fall when a hook popped. And I also know why they named it The Bay of Pigs. I remember watching Alex and Thomas go flying by up Zodiac several times as they were practising their speed ascent of the route. I also watched the lads down on El Cap bridge - they had strung up a slackline diagonally from the bridge to a tree, and it stayed up quite a while before [I assume] the rangers made 'em take it down. A really superb route that finishes on Zed-Em - one of my funnest solos, for sure.

I've read this article before, but it was great to read it again. My favourite part is how they decided to bring all the luxuries of home - very avante garde and a portent of things to come. But did they bring a solar-powered shower? {wink}

Cheers to Ed.

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
Nov 28, 2008 - 11:10pm PT
bump, a great share

Trad climber
Jan 9, 2009 - 07:24pm PT
"To beat pitons into it would pry it from the face, slicing Leavitt and me from the wall like stalks of wheat felled by a scythe, so I slip nuts behind it, moving cautiously, slowly and silently as a man crossing a frozen lake."

What a fantastic description!

Bump for a great read, thanks Ed!

Big Wall climber
Sedro Woolley, WA
Jan 9, 2009 - 08:25pm PT
“If this pops . . .” he says shaky voiced, “Its fly or die . . .”

Classic, Thanks Ed


fist clamp
Jan 9, 2009 - 09:29pm PT


Josh T. on the "Fly or Die" pitch. A very well done lead.


Trad climber
Mar 19, 2009 - 08:55pm PT


Trad climber
Mar 19, 2009 - 09:04pm PT

Trad climber
The pitch of Bagalaar above you
Jul 14, 2009 - 02:21am PT
Bump for the Ghostbust ascent.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jul 14, 2009 - 10:15am PT
Thanks Mr Ed. Nobody writes like the UKers, nobody. They simply have always been the best in this. Splendid. There isn’t a thing the rest of us can do about it but to sit at their feet!

So Mucci wants to bump for the Ghostbuster Ascent, begging the notion of a Whilllans-masks ascent, don’t you think---but I mean full-body masks---suits actually. Here below is the proposal, something shaped about like this--- the one on the right---the really playful one:

Scooter, here are your two photos, reimaged:

'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Ontario, Canada, eh?
Jul 14, 2009 - 11:53am PT
Let's see that photo of Whillans training for Annapurna, where he's crossing a rope traverse with a cigarette dangling from 'is mouth. All-Time Best Don Whillans line, uttered in amazement as a streaker ran across the stage during his slide show:

"Well I'll be buggered ...

... and so will 'e if I can catch 'im."

Jul 14, 2009 - 12:11pm PT
Re: Photo of Whillians and the Yogi

A week after arriving in Delhi, we were trekking toward Shivling along a branch of the Ganges River. Strange-looking mystics – gaunt, turbaned and toting iron tridents and brass pots of Ganges water – shared the trail with us, heading to the sacred source of the river. Whillians, rounding a bend, came face to face with a yogi. They stared at each other for a moment, then the yogi stretched out his palm for Whillians to drop a coin into, as it is the custom for men of means to give alms to those travelling along the paths to enlightenment.

“Hmm,” said Whillians (who was something of a guru of negative realism himself), “are you on some sort of sponsored walk?" Then he grasped the yogi’s hand and firmly shook it, utterly confounding the Indian.

By Greg Child

fist clamp
Jul 14, 2009 - 02:33pm PT
Peter- thanks for the image clean-up. They look much better.

Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Jul 14, 2009 - 02:37pm PT
"Nobody writes like the Brits, nobody." Something of a non sequitur, in that Greg is Australian, and many Australians are mortally insulted if you suggest they're British.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jul 14, 2009 - 02:50pm PT
Duly noted, Mighty Anders, but I shall edit to show "UK people" and restore the realm!
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