Typing that last paragraph as I sit here by the beach, the epic on Washington Column six weeks behind me, brings back memories that really bum me out….so let's start with happier times.
6:00am on a Tuesday morning. Sunlight filters through my kitchen window as Adam pulls up in the driveway. I pour a strong black cup for him as he sits down amid the guidebooks strewn on the breakfast table in front of us. It's our quarterly “Alpine Stoke and Goal” meeting. We’re fresh off an autumn victory on Fairview Dome and feel like, late in our thirties, we are in the best climbing shape of our lives. We start talking about what we want to accomplish in the next year. Dream routes, fitness goals, our life schedules with wives and children. You know the routine. The usual suspects come up.
“Fishook Arete would be sick this spring,” I offer.
“The Swissy on Sill has always looked saucy too.”
Then Adam starts in…..Third Pillar of Dana, North Ridge of Lone Pine, Tenaya-Mathes link up, East Buttress of El Cap.
“El Cap huh?” I mumble and close my fingers tightly around the warm porcelain mug in my hands. “El Cap……” Adam gets quiet, knowing something profound is about to come out of my mouth.
“Ok, I’m gonna say it. So just shut up and let me talk man. Let me get this out. We’re 39 years old. I’ve been climbing for twenty years. You are the best friend and climbing partner a dude could ever have. You are perpetually stoked. You are loyal. You are strong and fearless on the stone. We are a strong team. We are not getting any younger and If we are ever, I mean ever going to climb El Capitan, we need to do it now. We are climbers man. With every fiber of our being we are rock climbers, and yeah, we have awesome adventures and crazy missions but to be a climber and never climb The Big Stone is like being a sailor and never going out into the open ocean. I want to know what its like up there man. I want to know if I have what it takes. I want to pull up the anchor and head into deep water with you by my side. How bout it man? We climb El Capitan before the clock strikes midnight on our fortieth year. We train, we learn, we practice and we get that mama done so that we can hold our heads high and call ourselves real climbers. What do you think? Will you climb into the boat with me? Will you batten down the hatches, set the course and steer us straight? Are you in for the long haul? If so, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
He exhales…..stares me straight in the eye, and like the partner that he is, fully knowing he knows nothing about big walls, hauling, jugging or aid climbing in general, says the three most beautiful words a man has ever said to me.
“I’m yer huckleberry.”
A strong handshake seals the deal.
We will climb El Capitan in the next two years. Our course is set. Our destiny cast in stone. We will do a Wall this year as a training goal, then go big in 2013.
The next few weeks fly by as we purchase gear, make a training plan and lurk the internet with searches like “How to climb a big wall” and “How to set up your aiders.” We buy a haul bag from some dude on Supertopo. I pet it fondly every time I walk by it in the garage. I have done one wall, more that ten years ago, Liberty Crack on Liberty Bell in The Early Winter Spires. So I know the basic system, but Adam is clueless and has a lot to learn. It’s a good thing he has me as the captain on this vessel.
Our initial training sesh in my garage does not go well. Apparently it's not "all coming right back to me." It’s not like riding a bike and I think we need help.
Enter Mr. Mark Hudon.
I’m not really sure where Mark entered the picture, but its been a fun ride ever since he did. I think it probably started with a couple comments here and there on Supertopo regarding my trip reports and or his. I think I pinged him on e-mail at some point about hauling or something, and a friendship was born. Until my wife actually met him, when I brought up the name Mark she would say things like…”Mark? He says that’s his name? You mean your internet lurker “friend” who you’ve never actually met. How do you know he’s not a 12 year old girl who lives in Fargo or a 75 year old inmate in Folsom Pennitentary?”
“Uh….cause do either of those two know how to set up one of these their sleep?”
So Mark became our chief motivator and educator. He became our Bigwall doctor and our mentor. First, he pimped us out on anchor set-up. Emails became more and more elaborate, texts poured in with intricate beta. We promised him we would keep our belays cluster free. We worked on the butterfly knot until we could both do it blindfolded. We obsessed over anchor components, knowing that we must be smooth and streamlined to succeed. No lie. This is the kind of stuff Adam would send me from work.
(Photo of equalized surgical tubing from the Hospital)
He sent me this one from one of his kid’s t-ball practices. What kind of a father works on his anchor skills at his son’s t-ball practice I ask you?
(photo of haul line butterfly on chain link fence)
The weeks flew by and we put this stuff to work in my garage and at the gym in Fresno.
We really started to figure stuff out. We sent progress texts to Hudon and he would cheer us on or point out flaws in our systems. Before work, we drove fast in the pre dawn mornings to work out on “aid boulders” just outside of town.
We bought lots of new toys...shiny, pretty things that were fun to hold and fondle and spread out on the garage gear table.
We sat down and made a “Road to The Captain” that included getting our systems dialed, getting fitter, climbing as much as possible and doing a wall in the Spring of 2012. Washington Column was the first wall of choice for lots of reasons. 1. Its full of gumbies. And we plan to embrace our slowness and not stress out about clogging up the route. 2. It has a fairly short approach and can be rapped as a descent. And 3, It’s a really cool line with loads of history and a cool actual summit. Badabing. put it on the books. May 2012.
One day, we hike up to check out the route and get our first glimpse of our destiny.
Bring it on. We can’t fail.
We get some winter morning training days in at our local crag, Tollhouse rock. Linking multi pitch routes to work on general climbing fitness.
We grab a Jan 1 ascent of Snake Dike.
We're fit. Our systems are clickin'. Things are falling into place
The Packing begins. I’ll admit, packing for a big wall is super fun. It feels like you’re headed to war. Or into space. I love obsessing over the details. Hudon sends us an “All things haulbag” pdf and we spread gear all over the garage floor.
One day, while at work, Mark and I are texting while I should be working. A common occurrence since we started this wall stuff. I hint that I wish he could come up The Column with us rather than waste his time on a silly, pounded out route like Iron Hawk. He texts back that we should buy an old GI Joe action figure and name it Mark and tote it up the wall in his honor. Right then and there the creative wheels start turning.
I’ll admit, I felt kinda strange sitting on my living room floor, taking the clothes off GI Joe, making him a new outfit (complete with duct tape harness slings, biners and alpine coil on his back) and talking to him while my wife paid bills next to me.
“Honey….how’s it going with your doll over there….you’ve been playing for an hour.” My wife says with a hint of concern in her voice.
“Uh…He’s an action figure? Not a doll. And he has a name, please. Its Mini Mark.” I say as I hold him up to show off my little creation.
“You mean, like your playpretend internet friend Mark? The one who’s so awesome and climbs El Cap all the time and roasts his own coffee but you’ve still not actually met nor have any proof that he actually exists? And now you’re making a doll in his image? Scott, this is getting creepy.”
One brisk spring morning, the UPS man drops off a little brown box.
"This box smells like heaven." He says, and makes an effort to hold onto it as I clutch it from his grasp. I tear into it, knowing exactly what it is.
Kinda like Christmas when you’re a kid, the day arrives before we know it. The bags are packed. The car is loaded. Mark has been on Iron Hawk for a few days now. Shredding it in style. We are stoked for him. His fans look on, people cheer from the bridge, the guy’s a rockstar. Supertopians wait with anticipation as he live feeds from the wall.
Nobody is going to gather to watch us on our wall. “Real” climbers actually avoid The Column. It has been free climbed. It has been speed climbed, siege climbed and you name it climbed and it hardly counts as a big wall in some hardmen’s books. But it’s a big deal to us. A really big deal. Adam and I have a different kind of fan club. Our kids gather around our ankles to hug us and our wives pack secret notes in our packs. They are our biggest fans. My wife, the biggest supporter of my passions and adventures since the day we met, gives me a big hug and says “Go get that big wall Big Boy.”
And then we’re Northbound outta Fresno with the wind blowin in our hair and Mumford and Sons blarin’ on the speakers up to 11. The NOAA website says its gonna be 98-99 degrees in the Valley this weekend but we are from Fresno. Fresnans don’t even sweat until its 108. 99 shouldn’t phase us. Which way does The South Face of The Column face? Who cares…..Lets roll!
We stop three times before we hit Wawona. He has a very, very small bladder.
We hit the Valley at full stride and I give a little honk to all the tourists at the Tunnel overlook, lettin’ know Micronut and Macronut are on the scene and ready to tear into The Column like a teenager into a bag of Cheetos. (I have no idea what that means, but its late as I type this and it sounds kinda cool…kind of aggressive. I’m leaving it in.) Minimark has been begging for a better view, so he crawls out onto the hood and straps himself on with a double bowline. ‘Cause “Back in my day all we used on El Cap was a double bowline wrapped around our waist.”
Minimark drinks in the view at 30 mph, happier than a yellow lab in the bed of a pick-up truck.
But we are here for business and we show it by pulling into the Ahwanee Hotel Valet Parking with authority. Touristas and well dressed adults stroll the courtyard as the sun sets to the west. I slam on the brakes, come to a screeching halt and we have a junk show spread on the ground before the engine goes quiet.
We are in a state of euphoric stoke as we quickly stuff the pig, aiming to get a load humped to the base before it gets dark. We will blast off burly early tomorrow morning in hopes of being the first on the route, but we want to dial in the approach to avoid snafus in the dark manana manana. Even the blood sucking hoards of skeeters cannot dampen our spirits. We are brave sailors heading into the unknown, warriors forging into unfamiliar land, we are battle ready and work hardened. Bring on the adventure!!!
I am sucking wind like a pregnant waterbuffalo within five minutes of starting the switchbacks. Sweat stings my eyes and my pulse is at a full redline. I cannot feel my fingers under the crushing load. Mark Hudon is a liar. Climbing bigwalls is not fun. I hate him. I hate his trip reports for tricking me into thinking this would somehow be great. I hate Adam for being ahead of me, I hate Yosemite for the steepness of its approaches. I hate mountains and backpacks and the pointy thing in my pack that is threatening to rupture my spleen.
“Going up” Says Adam, and I break from my pity party, tighten my load, and grind upward. We make good time though, and soon we are on the sandy, hummocky ledges below the route. Astroman rises above us.
The ghosts of the Stonemasters live up there, high above in the perfect cracks of that historic route. I think I can hear voices trickle down on the wind….I can hear Kauk whispering to me…”Keep it up Micronut…you guys are almost there, you’re stylin’ that approach bro…you guys look strong……”
The voice of John Long blows down from somewhere near the Harding slot…
“Sack up you whiner……keep truckin’ ladies…...what’d ya think, this would be fun?”
“Yes! Yes I did!” I holler up into the wind.
“What’s that Scott?” Adam asks from above me.
“Nothin” I mumble…be there in a sec.”
“Get up there at o’dark thirty and be the first party in line. After that, SIMPLY DO NOT COME DOWN!!!! The level of self loathing you will experience when you hit the ground after a bail will never pass for the rest of your life!”
We take a moment to sit there in the morning coolness and soak in the moment. It’s time. We bow our heads and Adam says a quick prayer aloud in grattitude for the times we’ve had getting here and for the adventure ahead. We give thanks for our wives and our health and ask that The Lord watches over our children in our absence. We pray for safety and for Him to reveal Himself in the beauty and grandeur and minutia of the magnificent terrain ahead.
“Wait man. I gotta take a leak.”
“Yeah…gimme a sec.”
Four minutes can seem like an eternity.
“Ok…On Belay! Hoooooweeee….GIT SUM!”
Adam styles the first 5.8 pitch so fast I take no photos. He is strong like bull and our system is dialed and he hauls the low angle slab so fast I can smell burning pork rinds as the pig flys upward. My jugging practice in the gym has paid off and I arrive without breakin a sweat.
High fives at the belay and we move the sack left 50 feet to the start of the next pitch, the first pure aid pitch. In a move I slightly regret later, We let the fellas below us move ahead and start up the pitch. They are aiming for and “in a day” ascent and have nothing to haul. Here is Adam and one of the (Montana I think) guys on the start of pitch 2.
The climbing is awesome, and I’m slowly moving upward, but man…I am really, really hot.
I start seeing little tiny black orbs in my periphery. Then the orbs coalesce and I have a tunnel vision of sorts for a few moments. I close my eyes and it goes away. I suckle the last few drops from my second Nalgene and plug some hand sized camalots into the final bulge. Its full survival mode for the last 20 feet and I have a stabbing, pinpoint headache at the base of my skull for about 90 seconds. My pulse is flying..maybe 120 or so but I am not breathing hard. The words “heat….str…oke” hiss from my crusty lips as I clip the anchors and hang there for a moment or two like a piece of beef jerky flapping at the belay.
Ouch. Mark Hudon…I loathe thee. Just thinking of his name however, must be pure magic, because “Bling!!” like a fairy godmother checking in her people, a text message vibrates in my pocket. Its from Hudon, up on Iron Hawk. No lie, you can’t make this stuff up. It says “Morning Boys, today is the big day! Kick Butt!”
I will rise to the occasion. Right now. I will man up and get this pig up here and we will keep going UP!
I can feel the life coming back into me. Mark has saved the day. Maybe he’s not all that bad of guy. In a trance, I set up a Super-Duper-Make-Mark-Hudon-Proud-Equalized-Butterflyknot-Belay-and-Haul-Setup.
Adam hustles up, jugging his first full pitch clean-up like a freakin’ Olympian and we are soon stylin in the sky. Bigwall style. Knuckle bump. Smiles all around.
Adam glides up pitch three, which seems a bit funky for the grade. He says the hauling is a real drag, and I stop a couple times on the follow to shove and manhandle the bag over little bulges and around gremlins that cling to her girthy gray belly.
(When I upload Paul Souza's Photos I'll Post them here. Thanks Paul for humping up and getting some cool telephoto shots of us on Pitch 3! )
We are pretty whacked by the time we reach Dinner Ledge…Adam learns the hard way that its pretty much a bummer if you set your haul pully below your nards. I’m still heat strokey and seeing little blue and green spots on the granite in front of me, but we are amped to be on Dinner, one of the most iconic ledges around. A couple dudes from Utah arrive shortly after us. It’s a snagglefest getting our ropes and kit over to the bivy proper, but we collapse in the shade, lay on our backs and grin like we hold the world in our hands. We gorge on water and snacks like we’ve been lost at sea for weeks. We wanted a voyage into deep water, and we’re feelin far from land now.
“Well done mate.”
“Well done chap. Well done”
We often talk with British accents on routes. I have no idea where or when it started, it just happens. And it feels right.
Mid Day: Dinner Ledge: "Welcome, Scott and Adam From Fresno"
Our plans to push higher are thwarted by my slow recovery that includes childbirth groaning and wailing as muscle cramps ripple through my body. An hour or so of food and drink and rest feel great though and we decide to take our time, chill and enjoy the evening. We will fix a few pitches tomorrow, rap, spend another night on Dinner, then punch it to the top on day three. Now, I know, this sounds like a really
slow way to climb this wall, but we are having a blast. And what is our alternative? Climb hard all day the next day, rap the route, probably into the night, descend to the car and go home? Who wants to go home? We’re having the adventure of a lifetime! We will stay adrift. Our stern is pointed into the wind and we are holding a steady pace. We will dine like champions tonight and leave the sight of shore for good. Our voyage has just begun.
Dinner Ledge is awesome. Frying pan flat and a view worth a million bucks. It feels sooooo good to take off shoes and hang out. You’re only three pitches up but man, it seems way far from the ground. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you climb so much up and right on the approach, and the routes three pitches actually bring you back left a good bit, which is a few hundred more feet off the ground. It has an exposed and airy vibe and we are diggin’ it. The SFIAD guys are coming off from a pitch above the Kor and the Utah fellas are hydrated, rested and ready to tackle the Kor.
While those guys work, we plan to chill out and put the “Dinner” in Dinner ledge.
Minimark is aware of our intentions to dine like rockstars, and though he has contributed little to todays events, he somehow expects to be at the front of the chow line. And he wont stop talking.
If there is one thing boys from Fresno take seriously, its our Mexican food.
With evening comes a cool breeze that blows through our veins and restores life to our weary bodies. We enjoy the lightshow on Half Dome and the surrounding formations. The hash granite grays of the day give way to splashes of orange, red and pink. Our world changes in front of us. The sky comes alive and we sit and admire the handiwork of the creator. Faint twinkles of the first stars begin to grow into radiant pinpoints on an ever darkening fabric. A massive full moon peeks up over the shoulder behind the vernal falls ampitheater. There is no place either of us would rather be. This is why we started this thing. To be here, on Dinner Ledge, with a hard days work under our belts, enjoying the splendor and massiveness of the space below and around us. Darkness spills into The Valley. Day one. In the books.
Day 2. Saturday. 6:00am
“Rise and shine sweetheart. The Kor Roof awaits.”
The jet boil comes to life like it has one purpose. This morning we will start the day in style.
“The best part of waking up…” I sing/mumble. “Is Hudon’s SFWC Blend in your cup.”
We’re firing on all cylinders as he charges up the 5.6 free climbing to the 5.8 face section under the roof. He stalls only briefly, placing a bit of a sketchy offset into the last fingerpod before the roof. He hollers down that it was spicy, but I hear a “click” of a big biner on the first bolt and he is in the business proper before 6:30 am.
Adam makes the Kor Roof look easy. This is his first full on aid pitch of his life and he’s goin’ “Ho man…sooo cool” and “Bam!” as he reaches high and moves through the bolts.
Later, somebody told me that they overheard Hans and Honnold talking in the deli that day and they were like….”Dude, did you see Micronut jugging that pitch…he was freakin’ flying. Like yeah…it was outta control. The dude was smashing it up there.”
I switch into re-aid mode, and move through the bolts, efficiently re-aiding each piece like we planned. Its solid and smooth and fun. I can feel the wind in my teeth. I can smell the history in the granite here inches in front of my nose. Kor and Fredericks, surmounting this wild obstacle, not knowing what was ahead. We have beta hounded and supertopoed this route to death, but for a moment I slip into their frame of mind and lose myself in the pleasure of the unknown. I move over the lip, admiring Adam’s placements, and switch back into ascender mode.
Then things get weird. Way weird. Somehow I get all funky and tight between two pieces with my fancy dancy Metolious “easy” dasies. I’m stuck. Like full on cinched up stuck. Both canary yellow daisies are tightened all the way up and are six inches from my zipper. I cant release the tension in the daisies to move to my right, or back down and left, and my feet are still below the roof, the lip of the roof crushing my pelvis. I wiggle and squirm and yard and thrust in very unattractive gestures, none of which help and are somehow are actually tightening the awkward noose I’ve cinched myself into. I would draw you a picture to help you envision this, but it would not be appropriate for young viewers. Its getting serious. I have images of SAR lowering in to get me. Over the rescuer’s headset I hear, “Uh, Werner, you need to see this, man (chuckle chuckle). The dude’s marooned himself like a dolphin in a net up here (chuckle), send me up some Crisco, a knife, and …….a camera.”
For a moment I hate Mark Hudon again. He is the reason I am up here tethered to this beast. He makes it all look so fun. He talks about sweet systems, efficiency, comfort on his nice portaledge. He ends up the star of Tom’s El Cap Reports. He texts and shoots video and takes pictures while he solos and cleans up tat on A4 routes. I’m sitting here on C1 terrain, tied up like a pole cat in a tree trap, sweating bullets and trying how to extricate myself from a self imposed birds nest of death. I vow to never speak to him again and to curse the ground beneath the routes he is on. I will unfriend him on Facebook as soon as I get down.
I say a brief prayer, do some strange bouncing/chickenwing thing and pull with all my might on both daisy releases simultaneously. Pop! I’m free. Oh sweet mother mary of mank I’m free. I re-aid past the next few pieces and am soon jugging smoothly up the steepening crack. All is well in bigwall land as I make it to the belay.
We actually have to do a bit of unclustering as the lead line blows down and out sideways in the raging wind and snags itself under the roof. Adam makes the rap to free it not once, but twice. But it doesn’t bother us, we are here to work. To do what it takes to move up this hing. To seek out new terrain and visit the seldom trodden summit where so many have tasted their first Bigwall success. We lean back in comfort at the organized belay, the rope is flaked. I’ll lead up and over the cool roof right above us as soon as I re-organize my aider/jug/biner set-up.
Saurday June 2 9:02am
Everything happens in an instant. Suddenly I’m screaming Rock!! Rock!! But my eyes notice that the thing hurtling toward the ground is no rock. It’s a swirling shiny webbing thing that is spiraling down and away from the wall. What? What-how-what the? Its both ascenders, clipped to Yates Wall Ladders with two big shiny locking biners. Gone.
(In the midst of briefly unclipping my jugs and aiders in an attempt to streamline things for leading, I was unsnarling some dyneema shoulder slings and click!...the big biner unsnapped and the things went windward.) The reality of what has just happened hits me like a fist from Tito Ortiz. In .75 seconds the trip comes to an end. Its 9:02 am and I want to vomit. I want to scream like a schoolgirl and pound my torn and sore fists against the belay and shake my head and cry. One silly, asinine mistake and we have failed. And it’s my stupid fault. We will go down now. All the way to the ground. And we all know there is nothing proud down there on the ground. I want to cry.
I sit quietly at the belay and apologize over and over to Adam, who is visibly bumming but trying to be a good partner. We discuss making aiders out of slings. Using prussiks to jug, the gri-gri, all kinds of ideas, but in the moment they all sound really really slow. Up there in the wind and the exposure and the shock of it all, there doesn’t really seem to be a great option other than down.
He says something like “It ain’t going nowhere man.” And I drop over the lip, away from the wall, into the wind.
We hit the ground pretty quickly and a “Da-Brim” sighting makes our day. I’ve actually never seen one in the wild.
The trip back to the car isn’t really worth discussing, other than it gave me time to reflect on the climb. Our first Big Wall attempt. A failure. And my fault. But I can live with it. One day, twenty years ago, I clung to the wall in lane six a pool at The Olympic Trials, quietly processing the fact that in an instant a lifetime of Olympic dreams was gone. Life moved on though, and the good stuff hadn’t even begun to take shape. I knew this would be the same. Adam’s and my climbing career is far from over. This little detour, this Big Wall thing, has just begun. We will be back. We will climb bigger walls. We’ll free climb in the High Sierras this summer and make plans around the coffee table and come back next season with a full on fire in our bellies.
For now, Pizza in our bellies feels astonishingly good.
We spend the rest of the day at the bridge, watching Mark up on Iron Hawk.
I said earlier Mark Hudon is a liar. He is. He told us climbing a big wall is great. He’s a liar because its better than that. Its hard to explain, but it is. And we owe this entire trip to Mark for lighting our fire and for keeping it stoked. I’ve climbed a lot of mountains, done a lifetime of great routes. Sport climbs in Alabama, Bouldering in The Milks, splitters at the Tennessee Wall, scary granite in North Carolina, snowy routes in the Sierras, sunny long routes in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Shuteye and Tuolumne. I am a fortunate man. But nothing compares to this Wall thing. Its really no fun most of the time. It hurts. Its dangerous. Stuff is heavy. Its slow. But man, it is really, really cool. So next fall, if you see us up on Lurking Fear, know for a fact that those two dudes from Fresno are going to the top. They’re ridin’ their big wall psyche all the way to the summit. They’ve got Big Wall fever. And they’ve got it bad.
Postscript: A couple weeks later, my wife and kids and I are having dinner with Mark, the big one, and some new friends (Cheyne and Jessica)the manure pile buttress campground. He and Cheyne are about to blast off on The Shortest Straw. We have cold fruit, sliced Tri-Tip sandwiches and warm pilaf piled on our plates. I explain our snafu above The Kor in detail. He mentions the shockingly simple way we could have kept going up. “All you guys had to do was use the haul line! Adam could have led on his set, then zipped the jugs and aiders down the line. Voila!” I’m stunned. In the heat on the moment, we never even thought of this as an option. Rookies. For a moment, I’m back up there, juggin’ the steep line under The Roof, and the moment is as real as it was then. I wish we could be back there, right now, ready to push into the unknown. All I can do though is think of Adam’s words from that day we bailed, “It ain’t goin’ nowhwere man,” He’s right. And I know it in my gut. So I reach over, gaze up and West to The Captain, and take another scoop of fruit salad and put it on my plate.
(p.s. If any of the dudes we shared time on this wall with chime in, I have lots of good photos of you guys. Drop me an e-mail )