No one, unless you are from Monterey, CA. As the Director of Social Services, he was a very high profile character, often appearing in the local news. They burned him at the stake for taking custody away from neglectful parents, and they burned him again when they didn’t (and the children died). He constantly walked a razor’s edge of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
No one, unless you spend time at Sanctuary Rock Gym, where a handful of aspiring adventurists can often be heard sharing stories of great epics. Bushwacking, death marches, benightment, unplanned bivvies, excellent climbing, terrible climbing, ruining a brand-new 4x4 vehicle, first ascents, first free ascents, first ascents on lead…
… all of them, sharing stories about their adventures with Elliot Robinson.
The goal of my next few trip reports is two-fold: to spread a little of a local legend, and to spray about my personal experiences with him. I know Elliot couldn’t give two shits about being famous, and I have no delusions that my writings will actually make him so. If anything, these are just good stories, and if only a few people read them and enjoy them then I can say they were a success.
Logically, I should start from the beginning, to my first (and by far, most powerful) experience with Elliot…
Learning Kung Fu on Snake Dike.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I look over at Charles, the manager, to see if he notices. He does, and of all the things I expected him to shout…
“If anyone is interested there is a fifty year old bald man free soloing the crack machine in a business suit.”
...was not one of them.
Sure as sh#t, he had walked in in full business attire, suit, tie, slacks, and some nice f*#king shoes. In one hand was a chalk bag, and in the other was a pair of climbing shoes. He was met with some enthusiastic hello’s as he sat down, ripped off his business shoes, slipped into his climbing shoes, and walked straight up to the janky wooden crack machine of Sanctuary Rock Gym.
As I sat there, slack jaw, I instantly saw an opportunity. This guy is somebody.
When he came back down, I mustered up some courage and asked, “Can you show me how to do that?”
“Oh yeah! Come check this out! So you put your hands in like this, and your feet in like this…”
As the blood began to ink out from the back of my hands, we chit chat. To my delight, he seems absolutely stoked to talk to me about climbing. I quickly learn that he used to climb a lot in Yosemite, and even has a few first ascents, but has only just gotten back into climbing after taking almost twenty years off.
I tell him about myself, still in my chrysalis, having barely been climbing a year. I had only climbed in Pinnacles and, by far, the two biggest things I had done were Machete Direct and Son of Dawn Wall (both six pitches). I should also point out that my friend Liz basically guided me up Son of Dawn.
I had never climbed in Yosemite. I grew up in El Portal, but climbing entered my life way too late. I remember watching my dad and Ron Skelton climb the Dike Route on Pywiak dome when I was around five or six years old. This was a personal pilgrimage with daddy issues.
So we pull out our phones and add each other on Facebook.
Flash forward a few months, and two whale watching trips cancel, leaving me with two free days unexpectedly. After scratching my head for a minute, wondering how I’m going to rally a last minute partner for Pinnacles, I suddenly remember my conversation with Elliot. When I get home, I type up the following message and send it at 4:21PM:
“Hi Elliot! I was just talking about Yosemite with some friends today and then I remembered you saying something about wanting to do a day trip out there one of these days and I was WONDERING if you were interested in doing that still? I happen to have the next 2 days off, and a bunch of cash to burn on gasoline and coffee... and Degnan's Pizza! Or maybe Mariposa Pizza Factory... anyways I understand that tomorrow/monday would be very last minute... i assume the welfare thing is monday through friday for you??? anyways, i would love to break into the park one of these days and get on some real granite and see what the world is like outside of Pinnacles National Park! Please think of me next time you're itching to get out there I'll pay for gas, beer, and pizza. My number is 209XXXXXXX”
After sitting around the house for a bit, reading my Pinnacles guidebook, my phone buzzes. The text reads something like,
“Wow! I can’t believe I get service up here! I’m on the Diving Board of Halfdome right now. Gonna sleep here tonight and thinking about third classing Snake Dike tomorrow…”
Third classing? What the hell does that mean? Maybe that means there is an alternate route. By now, I’ve heard of Snake Dike and I understand it’s bad ass, so I prod…
“No way! That’s cool. I’d love to join you but I don’t want to crowd you guys.”
“It’s just me. Tell you what, a partner might actually be kinda nice. If you can get here tomorrow morning with a rope and six quickdraws, we can make it happen!”
I remember looking at my watch… somewhere around 6:30pm. Yosemite valley is 3 ½ to 4 hours away.
Once in a lifetime…
“Babe!” I call my girlfriend, Alix... “... this is something I have to do.”
I gather all the information I can. Free topo from Supertopo, approach beta, some mountainproject comments about the approach, gear…
… they say to bring cams. I don’t have any cams. But I do have a set of nuts and tricams that I bought of someone for hella-cheap. I’ll bring those just in case.
7:50pm, I’m out the door. I fire of a text to Elliot: I’m on my way.
As I’m cruising up Highway 1, admiring the sunset over the bay, Elliot responds with a picture of Half Dome from the diving board. The same sunset emblazons the Northwest Face. Under the picture, he types: “Motivation.”
I make it to Mariposa in 2 hours. I’m so psyched that I even decide to stop at the pizza factory for a quick beer and see if anyone I know is working.
Down the hatch, and down the hill.
11:30pm, I’m pulling over in El Portal for some rest. Three and a half hours, WITH stopping at the Pizza Factory for a beer! I crawl into the back of my truck, and finally experience the beaten-to-death-tale of struggling to sleep through excitement.
Three hours later, I wake up. It’s just after 3:00 AM. I know the approach is long, that it’s my first time, and that I’ll be carrying all the gear… best not to keep Elliot waiting! I drive into the park, and stop at Happy Isles. I pop open the back and grab my gear: Six draws, Six lockers, an ATC, a handful of slings, a set of nuts and tricams, and my fat f*#king 10.3mm 70M rope.
Having grown up here, I know where the Mist Trail starts, and I thank God for this fact as I walk through the darkness and find the sign.
3:50AM, I send Elliot a text: “I’m starting up the Mist Trail.”
It’s eerie. There is no one around, not a soul. The moon is a little more than half full, and this allows me to keep my headlamp off whenever the trees break. I haven’t been up the Mist Trail in almost ten years, and I am beside myself staring up at Illilouette Canyon.
Every few minutes, I hear the snap of a twig and look back expecting a mountain lion to punish me for hiking alone in the dark.
I try moving fast. Elliot would be waiting. But by the time I hit Vernal Falls Footbridge, I realize that I had only made it 0.8 miles and I was already pretty tired. Sh#t, “This is going to be a long day.”
As I gain the Vernal Falls footbridge, I find myself gazing in absolute wonder, and horror, at Vernal Falls.
This was the Spring of 2017. May 14th, to be exact. California had just received, by far, the most rain and snow from the previous winter that it had in well over 10 years… and Vernal Falls, was raging. Staring up at this moonlit avalanche, the words “intimidating” and “ominous” came to mind. The fall itself could barely be seen through the thick cloud of angry mist that guarded it.
As I made my way up the stone steps, mist turned to rain, turned to monsoon. I could not believe just how much water was flying around. Wet, and loud. Water collected along the steep walls of the narrow canyon and flooded its way back down. Water ran over my feet.
“If you die, dad would be pissed,” I said to myself, alone, at 4:30 in the morning. Dad was a ranger in the Park, and a swift-water-rescue trainer with YOSAR. Considering everything he had told me about how stupid people get themselves killed, I resolved that I was at least educated about how stupid I was being, and that I would proceed with caution. Fast, but as carefully as possible. One slip, one off-balance stumble, and the raging waters down my left side might as well be a black hole.
Word of advice, if you ever find yourself blinded by water droplets shining from your headlamp, take the headlamp off and hold if by your waist. I did not think of this as I resorted to just turning the f*#king thing off.
Now, I could go on and on about how epic the approach was for some first timer, all alone in the dark… but I suspect some readers might be thinking “are you going to climb or what!?”
So I’ll jump ahead, just a bit…
As I am finally making my way up the talus on the south side of half dome, I think about how insane it is, what I am doing. The sunrise was breathtaking, and here I am all alone scrambling out of the Yosemite Backcountry, up the top of a goddamned mountain.
I felt like I was in some Karate movie… some young grasshopper hiking up to the summit where I would find some old guru balancing on a rock upside down.
I was going to learn Kung Fu.
Finally, I see him. This small figure crouching over a cliff, staring down at me with a giant smile on his face that I could see even from three hundred feet below.
“I’m amazed!!!” He belows, “I can’t believe you came!!!”
After I finally join him, we hug and chat for a second.
“Anyone up here?” I ask.
“Nope, just us. Anyone coming?” -Elliot.
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Sweet! Let’s go check out the Diving Board!”
“Hang on,” I say.
I have a problem.
My knee hurts. A lot. I roll up my pants and see that it is swollen badly, and dark purple. I know right away what’s wrong. You see, I have a bad history of infections, and it appears a small abrasion from leader fall at Pinns has decided to pick today to fester.
“Do you have any ibuprofen?” I ask.
“You bet. I always bring ibuprofen.”
Lesson number one.
The diving board blows my mind, I’ve never been up here. I’ve never been this close to half dome. Looking at the Northwest Face from here, then down the valley… I stare at Royal Arches, North Dome, Mt Watkins, Glacier Point… I was seeing these formations as if I had never seen them in my life. I’ve never looked straight down and overhanging three thousand foot face without a handrail, I’ve never f*#king climbed here.
I have come to learn Kung Fu.
“So how do we want to do this?”
“I can lead the whole thing if you want.”
“I’m happy swinging leads.”
“Wanna take the first pitch?”
So that’s how we set it up. I will take pitches one and three, I’ll link five and six, and pitch eight. I was riding a wave of confidence that was founded on fatigue and ignorance… and perhaps a handful of ibuprofen.
I had never even placed any of these f*#king tricams.
After smoking a cigarette, Elliot points the way up. I confirm with the topo, and begin my climb. Cruising up the little corner, I find that Yosemite Granite is very, very different than Volcanic Breccia. Not just the texture, but there are cracks! Good cracks! This is fun.
At the roof, I place my first tricam, extending it with a double runner. After yanking it a few times and confirming I placed it exactly how some book told me to, I down climb some distance and perform my first ever friction traverse. How bizarre!
My friend Mila taught me how to climb at Pinns, and her words were echoing in my head:
“Trust the rubber.”
I move left and up, and surpass the roof. Almost two years later, I can’t remember if I placed another tricam… but I do remember being really, really, stoked at the anchor bolts.
Soon, up comes Elliot, happy as a clam. He swings the lead, moving out right, then up to the next anchor. Off belay. Belay’s on. Climbing…
Now I’m up, third pitch: The Crux. I know, I know, 5.7, big f*#king deal. But remember, this is my first climb in Yosemite, and we are talking friction climbing here!
I look down. Always look down, that’s why you climb. Already, the view is otherworldly. We aren’t just rock climbers, we are f*#king astronauts and we are going up the tallest goddamned mountain on Mars, baby!
Trust the rubber, a few fluttering breathes and heart beats later, and I’m the next anchor.
All smiles from Elliot, He swings his lead up the dike uneventfully. I begin to wonder how easy this is for him. Everything about his demeanor is like we are just hiking... with taking turns.
I’m on Mars.
He’s eating an ice cream bar on a warm day.
Soon I’m up the dike and ready to swing leads.
Now, I’ve had some experience with being run out on easy terrain, so I’d like to think that I handled myself pretty well…
But for, perhaps, the one guy reading this who HASN’T done Snake Dike, one of these pitches has some fifty to seventy five foot runouts.
5.4 climbing... 75 ft run-outs… somewhere those two stats blend together to create something that at least could be described as “a moderate experience.”
And soon, here I am, staring down fifty something feel to my last bolt, strangling this knobby dike, staring up and cursing the sun for blinding me.
Where is this f*#king bolt!?
I look down to Elliot, I’m a full pitch and a half above him. I yell something down to him about not being able to see the bolt… wondering if I missed it, and he yells up something like, “Just keep going!”
To better paint the scene, it is windy and it is cold. Both Elliot and I are still wearing our jackets and beanies. I welcome the warm protection that my backpack adds to my backside. All the peaks of the High Sierra that surround us now are blanketed in snow. I look down again…
Okay, looking down isn’t ALWAYS a good idea.
I’m not just imagining being on another world, I AM on one. I’m on f*#king Pluto. Everything is upside down. This rope isn’t going to catch a fall, there isn’t enough gravity! I’m floating upwards, and this rope is preventing me from drifting off into space.
As I float upwards, there it is. Such a pretty thing, shiny and chrome, just another ten feet. A little more… come on… don’t slip now!
“It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing…”
How can people talk so much sh#t on something so beautiful.
Okay, I swear to God, I wasn’t THAT scared. Pretty scared. Maybe a little gripped… okay I was scared… but I wasn’t incapacitated with fear or anything…
Before long, Elliot is hiking his way up the dike. I am feeling a little embarrassed, and I remember apologizing for that taking so long. He shrugs is off.
“It’s all good. You did fine.”
Off he goes. And soon I follow up the dike.
As I prepare to swing the next lead, I remember looking at the topo and being a little confused about which way to go. I can see where I need to get to, somewhere up and left about fifty feet or so.
“I think I can just punch it straight up on this friction slab here…”
“I think you should go right, then up and over.”
Lesson two, always listen to Elliot.
“Nah, I think I’ll be fine.”
I start to head up the blank, fiction slab. The higher I go, the steeper it gets. I feel like a spider trying to climb out of a bathtub.
Eventually, it is obvious that I can’t go any higher.
I look down to Elliot. He is at least thirty feet below me, with no gear between us. I look to the dike feature on my right, and conclude that I can not get to it directly from here. I need to downclimb.
If i wasn’t scared on the 75 ft runout, I was scared now. Downclimbing friction slab is terrifying. My breathing is so shaky it almost makes me fall. A shaky foot supports a lowering body mass, an even shakier foot reaches down. I test my weight transfer with a semi-intentional foot slide to judge the friction. I am losing faith in the rubber.
But down I went, just the same. Now I’m really embarrassed. This guy must be thinking, “this is the last time I ever bring a newbie on a climb like this.”
Like any stupid hominid, I say something with hollow confidence like, “Ah well, it looked so doable from here,” too insecure to just say flat out, “that was dumb. I should have listened.”
If he was annoyed, he did a great job hiding it.
Up and over I go, and soon I’m on a ledge. I feel like I should belay from here, but there are no bolts. I’m too stupid and uneducated to judge whether or not I can- or should- build an anchor. A quick conversation with Elliot concludes that that is probably the best spot to belay, indeed. I can just sit down and use my body as an anchor, and belay from my harness, bracing myself against a rock.
As he arrives, he gives me a “good job.” At this point, we just did eight pitches, but I don’t feel comfortable going unroped to the summit, based on the mini roof above us. We agree that the ledge is good enough that even if Elliot falls while leading, I can lean out right and the rope will hook over this smooth hump of rock… I will be safe, and hopefully the rope won’t break.
His confidence quiet positivity have no trouble convincing me that this is a sound plan.
Elliot grabs the gear, and heads up, placing a tricam in a crack. Barely a minute later, he calls off belay, and soon I follow him up.
By now, we can unrope. We do a little organization, and commence the death march up to the summit.
Now, the story doesn’t end there just yet. But I’ll wrap it up as quickly as I can.
There was snow over most of the summit.
This was my first time up half dome.
It was mother’s day, and in celebration, I wore a hawaiian shirt that she had made for me.
I called my mother and told her what I had done, and she laughed, “You know, your father likes to point out that he’s never gone up the cables; he’s only ridden in helicopters up there.”
The hike down was excruciating, even after taking another handful of ibuprofen, I needed to take a rest every hour.
Just passed Little Yosemite, we came upon a bear not thirty feet from us, and the FIRST thing I thought was not “Oh wow a bear!”
It was, “Oh sweet Jesus.” This means I could sit down for a while.
We made it back to the car sometime around 10pm, I had promised Alix that I would be back by Monday morning. It was Sunday night, and I left Monterey Saturday Night… a Snake Dike day trip…
I got to Mariposa around 11pm, and was so tired, and my leg hurt so bad. I pulled over to sleep in the back of my truck. I didn’t even think to call anyone, as most Mariposans are dead asleep by 10pm.
In the morning, I couldn’t bend my leg. The swelling and purple had grown from my knee, half way down to ankle.
I drove all the way to Monterey, and didn’t stop until I was at the hospital.
I went back to the E.R. two more times, every other day. Despite increasing the dosage of antibiotics, the infection continued to spread.
“Yeah, you’re spending the night.”
I spent two.
Sitting there, bored out of my mind for two days, hooked up to an I.V. of antibiotics… they changed the bag every hour or so.
Among the things I did to pass the time, I watched a certain youtube video probably twenty times.
“Of Choss And Lions,” with Cedar Wright, Alex Honnold, and Maury Birdwell.
In the video, there’s this song where Cedar and Maury charge this new line up a rock in Africa. It gets stuck in my head, and I can’t help but sing the two lines I know from the video while I’m in the shower…
To this day, whenever I hear that song I am instantly teleported to staring up at Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, down The Valley… hiking in the dark alone… climbing 75 feet above a bolt, kicking steps into the snow on the descent of Half Dome...
I found out the name of the song years later. It’s by a band called Alberta…
“I know, I know it aint’ no secret,
“That I, I always bite my nails
“Anytime I’m bored or when my reasons
“To get old knock me off the trail.
“So come on, we gotta keep on leavin’
“Or comin’, dependin’ on where it’s at.
“It aint nothin, it aint nothin I can’t deal with…
“I put my tie and suit on, again, I’m gonna take it off
“When I’m through and done.”