My younger brother, Calder, however, has a different story. He’s always been a natural mountain man; going so far as to keep a pet goat as a teenager in our backyard (for pack mule training purposes) and sleeping on our front porch sans blankets (to “harden” himself for big-wall climbs.) In high school during the summers, Calder would migrate to Yosemite, where he lived in his beat-up VW bus and climbed for months on end. During his teenage years (early 90s), he climbed a dozen or so ascents up El Cap. Some of my fondest memories from this period is when I would visit him in “The Valley” during the summers. While I enjoyed hanging out with his Camp 4 clan of climber friends (including the legendary Chongo Chuck), I spent most my time hiking around, talking to my girlfriend on the pay phone, and listening to the locals "spray" at The Deli. While I did an occasional climb here and there, I was, by all accounts, extremely soft-core. The most extreme climb I ever did was a two-pitch 5.6 free climb (I had never done any aid climbing.)
Last year, I realized my youth was passing me by far too quickly. Although he had been “in retirement” for several years, I asked Calder if he’d be willing to take me up El Cap. He agreed—and we began planning our trip. The plan was for Calder to lead and for my best friend, Enoch, and I to haul everything behind him.
Our bodies weren’t what they used to be (whose are?), so we began the process by avidly prepping for our week on the rock. Calder was emphatic we brush-up on the basics, get in shape, and be mentally equipped to tackle El Cap. We received our list of equipment to purchase, which was extensive since we had no climbing gear to our names. We traded-in our copies of The New Yorker to read “How to Climb Big Walls” by John Long and John Middendorf. Instead of surfing the Web on our iPhones as we commuted into work each day, we practiced tying our knots. We also watched lots of YouTube videos (Chris McNamara personally taught me how to jumar here). We then took the most important step: we grew-out our beards, hoping that machoness would soon follow.
Since climbing NY skyscrapers is discouraged, we were at a loss for where to practice our jugging and hauling. We dropped some cash on a personal training session at the Gunks (upstate NY.) It was great; but also a long drive and a bit spendy. We then came-up with an ingenious plan: I had recently moved from Brooklyn to suburban New York (having maxed-out apartment living with three kids). Luckily, there’s a 100+ year old oak tree in my backyard with a branch extending about 60’ above the ground. Getting our climbing rope over the branch took some effort; but once up, we proceeded to jumar up and down the rope several times each weekend to the point where it felt we more or less knew what we were doing.
Enoch and I knew we were in good hands: Calder had recruited one of his long time Zion climbing partners, Nate Brown of Wilson WY, to be our fourth for the trip. Nate has done extensive big-wall climbing in Zion as well as lots of alpine climbing in the Tetons. He is confident, safe, and easy-to-hang-with (all attributes we wanted in our fourth). Though it had been seven years since Calder had done any serious wall climbs, Nate was still active—climbing whenever possible. We felt confident that if anyone could keep us geeks alive, it was Calder and Nate.
Calder and Nate chose Lost in America because it would be challenging enough for the them but also not certain death for us pixel pushers. It was out-of-the way enough that we wouldn't be holding anyone up. And the steepness would make it easier to haul our 400 lbs. load—and the overhang would help shield us from poor weather.
As seen in the below photos and YouTube clip, the climb was absolutely amazing. Truly life-changing. Inspirational. And so beautiful.
A couple of thoughts stand out from the trip:
• Porta ledge sleeping was definitely dicey. I opted for the “rock side” the first few nights. I then gradually worked my way into sleeping on the “outside edge” by the end of the trip.
• My brain needed a little 'warm-up' time each morning to be comfortable with the heights. The first pitch after breakfast always felt a little more dicey than the others.
• At night, we loved listening to tracks of Nate’s grandmother, Ruby, playing classical jazz and hymns on the piano.
• We Facebooked the journey from my iPhone. It was great having a real-time cheering squad from friends and family.
• Once we reached the top, I felt naked not being tied-into anything; although going to the bathroom without harness and rope was a real pleasure.
• El Cap is freaking massive. And amazing.
Enoch and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nate and Calder for joining us up El Cap. While parts of the climb were definitely nerve racking, we never felt like we were endangered or being reckless. The experience is something I'll treasure the rest of my life.
THE VIDEO REPORT
We took-along a Flip video camera. CLICK HERE to check the video highlights on YouTube.