From the moment I first saw it, El Cap was the most powerful thing I had ever encountered. It’s a little less than three times the height of the Empire State Building but stating that fact doesn’t mean much until you walk under it for the first time. It just overpowers the mind, especially when I started to consider actually climbing it.
On the day of my first ascent of El Cap, Mark and I drove arrived in Yosemite at 5 a.m. I imagined that preparation for the climb would be a very serious undertaking. I thought we would lie out all our gear and go through a detailed checklist, down to rationing out the number of M & Ms we would take with us.
Instead, Mark just heaped a bunch of biners, ropes and other climbing gear into a backpack. I thought all this frantic activity was pretty much fun until after hiking the approach route we arrived at the base and discovered we had a big problem. In his hurry, Mark had forgotten he needed to provide me with climbing shoes, as I didn't own any good ones. Or maybe I was supposed to remember this? At any rate, there we were with four feet and two shoes.
Now, on a one-day ascent you try to slim down your gear to move as fast as possible but you never forget the climbing shoes (we were climbing the route free and didn't bring jumars). The only thing more crucial is the rope.
My first reaction was: “This is great news.” I was terrified by this 2000-foot wall and was hoping that something would go wrong so we wouldn’t actually have to climb it. Now it looked like my prayers had been answered.
Unfortunately Mark didn’t see it that way. He just looked up at the wall for a moment and said, “Since we have the same size foot, I guess I’ll tie the shoes to the trail rope and zip them back to you after I lead each pitch then lead some of the 5.7 pitches barefoot to save time.” Amazingly, this actually worked, and the first 1500 feet went smoothly.
With 500 feet to go, however, we ran into another problem. We didn’t bring nearly enough water. We ran dry right when the sun hit us and the wall began to bake. I started to feel sick but Mark just kept leading ahead. A few hundred feet from the top we found some water that had been left on a ledge. It was hot from being in the sun and had insects floating on the top, but we gladly drank from it. After eight hours and 2000 feet of climbing, we made it to the top. We were back down to the meadow at dusk.
It is hard for me to explain how much this climb changed me. It was an amazingly intense, raw and terrifying experience. The wall was vertical so there was often nothing but a thousand feet of air between my feet and the ground. From a place that high up, the 200-foot trees at the base look like little clumps of broccoli. And because we were climbing so hard with little water or food, I was having minor hallucinations. It was the most difficult and draining thing I had ever done in my life. And all I could think about was doing more of it.