Rediscovering the Valley
After my TR-hiatus, which had started after I had a “I hate spray and every written word on the web is some form of spray” - phase, I think that maybe, I can write something.
Yosemite is El Capitan - all other formations would always disappear in the mental map I drew when sitting in class, waiting for the day that I would get to the Valley and see everything in person. It takes a lot of money to go from Luxembourg to Yosemite, and a partner. I had a partner, but he went to the Valley with his friends, instead of his son, for good reason. At 55 kilos, and with the looks of a fourteen-year-old, I wasn’t an ideal wall partner. When I turned 18, I looked no different, but I had a partner my age but not size, and then another one, my age, my size, and so I decided to make the trip to see what Yosemite was all about.
The first route I did in the Valley was South-by-South-West, with Eli, and the only thing I remember is the view of El Capitan. Huge, blank, incredibly silent. If the only thing I’d been able to think when I first stood below it and looked up had been, “Oh Boy that’s bigger than it looked on the photos, it looks impossibly big”, I was now convinced that “impossibly” had been the right word. After climbing Butterballs the next day, Eli and I half-heartedly racked up to attempt to climb the Nose in a day. After all, we had no idea about big wall climbing, so starting at the bottom and trying to go to the top in a push seemed like the only feasible idea. We ended up checking the weather the day before we started, and changed plans. We would do the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse instead, escaping the heat into thunder free mountains. It was nice. I climbed the Nose with my good friend William 2 weeks later, when I got back to the Valley. William could only lead 5.8, but he’d taken a class at highschool where a wall climber had taught all the important knots and how to haul. We had a strategy, and once I had started up the route I’d dreamed about for many years, there was no stopping us. We topped out three days later. I could not have cared less about any other climb after that, I felt like from now on, every route I’d do was a bonus. When I’d first contemplated what I wanted from climbing, the Nose had been the uncontested number one goal.
But it doesn’t stop, and my dreams would soon involve portaledges and harder aid. Looking back on the years after, I am a little surprised. I got a taste of wall climbing. El Cap was everything. Climbing it with my dad was the next adventure. Then again with William, a complete epic up the Muir. And so on and so forth. I only ended up climbing Astroman in 2011, on my third trip to the Valley, because I had nothing else to do. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy it! Yet, it felt like I was doing something different than what I’d come for. Stoner’s, the other free route I did that summer, felt like a mediocre copy of the stuff that Europe is full of. What made that day so great was my partner - in many ways that climb and day had a bigger effect on my climbing life in the Valley than any other. Still, first, I didn’t know that yet, and second, I still thought that the real treasure of the Valley was El Cap. The main difference between El Cap and the other Valley formations, I thought, is that El Cap is unique. I’d never done the Rostrum …
When I came to the Valley in 2012, it was my fourth trip, and the first time that I didn’t feel the burning desire to climb El Cap. It was more of a routine thing. I had no partner, and I had just returned from Baffin Island. When PK bailed from our rather spontaneous plan of doing the Straw, I was relieved rather than disappointed. I felt unfit, and I wanted to be down in the Valley with my friends instead of up on the wall. The Valley had, over the course of 3 years, become the place that was home to many of my most valued friends, and the main reason I had not just let the plane take off without me, was that I knew that hanging out with Stu, Deputy and Everett and the others would be great whether I climbed anything or not. My failure to say this clearly resulted in Paul finding me another partner. I ended up climbing Native Son, and at the end of the trip, I made a quick dash up Half Dome, with jugs, and short fixing, and aiders. On both ascents, I was with phenomenally competent climbers. I didn’t know I was saying good bye to something yet, but the way Ben Doyle and I climbed Native Son should’ve given me a hint. We met for the first time in the meadow one afternoon. I’d never really considered climbing the route. We racked up at night, and four days later, we were back down. It had been a routine undertaking. The route was cool and some bits were hard, I was cooked anyway, the experience was as good as they get on aid walls with great partners, but my perception of it was unemotional. There had been no questions, and where there are no questions, there are rarely any answers. We knew we’d get up, we knew how we’d do it, we knew we wouldn’t have to be creative. Hadn’t we had a good time on the wall in each other’s company, it would’ve been entirely pointless from the start.
A year later, I was back in Yosemite. This report will be about that summer.
In order to go to Baffin, and to the Creek and the Black Canyon the years before, I had ditched three classes at school. One for each destination, each summer semester: Calculus II, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. I spent the entire summer semester of 2013 at school, or in the library, but generally inside. It was frustrating. Each class was cool, but all three at once were a bit more than I enjoyed. Ironically, I failed in the Calc II exam at the very end, and so I came to the Valley completely unfit, and knowing that I would have another exam in October.
As is so often the case for me, when I am the least prepared, I feel the most need to turn up the volume. It was the same thing when I wanted to push the Straw with PK. On the plane to LA, I had drawn a topo for the Jolly Roger, which I wanted to solo. It would be a climb full of question marks. An adventure. I wanted security, and for that wish, I went back to what I knew. Seeking adventure, I had always found myself finding it on big walls, and so I thought I could return, and find the same than before. Thank God that I am no longer alone when I arrive in the Valley by myself. I walked to my friend’s homes, and was greeted warmly. It was good. I felt much more at home than I had felt in a year.
The Jolly Roger idea got hurt somewhere there, and it died in the Meadow session with E that same day. It took him about three questions. I answered them, hesitantly, as I felt that I was soul searching without having directly addressed it. We leaned against the tree and looked up at the enormous, but familiar wall. Did it inspire me like it had five or six years ago? In the end it came down to not wishing to suffer alone on El Cap when I can be with my friends instead. Sounds simple and reasonable, right? It is.
Sometimes, the symmetries of fate are downright surprising. Within a few days, I realised that, actually, none of my friends were motivated to climb a wall. Most weren’t climbing anyway, because it was hot, as always in August. If anyone went climbing, it was to work on their free climbing. I did as if I cared, and had my mouth full of plans of walls, but my heart was far behind anyway. Still, a few people showed mercy, and took me climbing. Scott and I climbed the Rostrum. Talk about unique! What a beautiful day.
Three days later, E and I head up to Half Dome. The South Face is Yosemite’s most magic rock to me. This was only the second time we climbed together after Stoner’s. The route blew us away, it was quite the experience. 2 years had passed since my last granite slab climb, and after a few pitches, eight to be more precise, I started melting. The 5.10 pitches aren’t too terribly runout, but it could be enough to get hurt. I managed to find the only crumbly hold on the entire face, and promptly got insecure and fell. The fall was a bit hard, and only ten feet. Considering that on the pitches below there are 70 foot runouts on 5.8, it worried me that a ten-footer felt bumpy. I made a mental note to not climb up anything that I couldn’t down climb. Obviously my mind started playing tricks, and two pitches after, I had my first doubting moments - i down climbed about 15 feet, hung from the bolt, climbed back up, and back down, and we went down. I felt floating, it was actually a pretty good. Really groggy. We rapped and walked down. I took good care of my grogginess with M and a bottle of wine. It’s hard to say what exactly happened when then, but I was there, and I was climbing, and it all felt even better than before.
The old ghosts were still spooking around. I kept thinking about a push ascent on El Cap, and Scott and I did the Freeblast to have a look. We postponed our plans. A new idea emerged: N wanted to climb the best long 5.11’s in the Valley in a day, and was looking for someone to join him. In retrospect, the situation has something grotesque about it. My thoughts went something like this: “Um.. 19 pitches+12+8=39 pitches. Most of them 5.10, that is 6a+. Sounds not so bad. Maybe it’ll be pumpy at the end.That’s cool. Ha. I am in! I think I can lead the Harding Slot. It was easy last time, I fit inside well enough. ” Glorious underestimating of the task, and overestimating of self. Houleesh#t.
We started as it got light. I remember the green rope that quickly found its way upwards in the hands of Niels. I did my best to follow quickly. I’d never been on that part of El Cap, and I was surprised about the strange nature of the rock. Super featured, but slick… I had bought brand new climbing shoes specifically for this day, and boy they worked. It was almost noon when we topped out. We ran down quite quickly, which was a necessary evil - I almost fell off my bike on the way from Manure Pile to the Bridge as my legs cramped up. I can’t recall if I went for a swim or not, but I hope so.
We changed ropes, and armed with an old 45 meter rope and a couple cams, my legs made it to the base of the Enduro. As far as the cams go, all I can say is that I was happy I was on seconding duty for the day…
We both barely managed to not fall off on the Enduro, and ended up below the Harding Slot. Uh Oh.
I offered to C1 the entire pitch, in an hour, but that was all I could offer. I felt a bit lame.
Saying this was the same than saying you have to lead, that means, you have to offwidth the Slot. N did it well, no issues actually, and I felt a bit better. He moved up, that was it. I broke apart following, but it did not take an hour. My chest felt like bloody hell. The rest was standard fare, it was hard to tell if N had been along on the West Face, or if yet another clone was taking over on each anchor, and I pulled on more gear as the pitches passed by. Trouble came on the 5.9 fist pitch, where N had forgotten to place gear, and I got pumped like never before on 5.9. I flailed upwards, now rather well cooked.
We got down to the car just as it got dark. Dinner time at last! Entering the Village store was a surreal experience, though unfortunately not in a positive way at all. The buzzing, crazy lights, the bazillions of people, the shelves full of food, it was all over the top nuts. We both felt the same way about it, and it’s a bit puzzling that the store felt so strange that time, as we are more used to stores than to getting so tired while climbing.
We had dinner and ended the day with the Rostrum. By now, I felt like I was cycling. Jam, pull, jam, pull, you forgot you feet that’s why you’re so stretched out, jam, pull, jam, pull, about two-hundred-and-ninety times. The other ten times, it would have been stack, knee jam, stack, … we hadn’t brought a bigger piece than a 3. I fell half way up, and with rope stretch, I landed below the beginning of the wide part. While I had not fallen on the route yet, I was now obviously going out of business on the off-width. I took the jug I’d clipped to my harness at the car, and helped myself to the anchor. N had linked a few pitches (we’d switched ropes again) and I so I climbed the sweetest pitch of the route, resisting further jumaring. We topped out to see an incredible moonlit Valley. It was insanely atmospheric. We let it sink in for a while…
I spent the next day at Stu beach. The weather was perfect, and maybe the temps would go below 90 soon. I don’t think the smoke was there quite yet. The first day, I felt like I’d spent a few cycles inside a washing machine, the second day, I resorted to chocolate milk and pain killers, and the third day, Max, a friend from Innsbruck, came. With only three days before my dad would show up, and the Straw still not done, we decided to give it a go. If you’re thinking, that’s weird, yeah, I know. It sucked big time. Max was not too excited either, and we went down. The best thing had been the beer that we shared at the bridge before heading up.
We tried the Empire at the Mecca, which is a really cool sport climb that should be done more often! It’d be much more inviting if chalked up. It took us a while to figure out that you actually have to do an all points off dyno… We should’ve asked Stu before spending half an hour on that move.
The smoke became more and more annoying, and so we decided to leave the Valley. With my dad, who was not keen on missing his promised ZM ascent, we drove the Needles. We hiked in that same day, and climbed Atlantis. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever been so positively surprised by a route or area. The granite there is made for free climbing (I never taught I would think that, considering rock isn’t made), the temperatures were perfect, and the climbing is beyond poetic reach for me.
A few days later, we ended our stay with a bigger climb, and got our asses kicked. For a bit, we considered to forgo the Warlock for a redpoint try on Pyromania, but we luckily took the sane decision. (We’d spend half a day to get the rope up Pyromania, and had gotten well scared.) The Romantic Warrior is only rated 12b, but on the crux pitch, and the one above, we both couldn’t even do all the moves. It was also scary enough on many smaller wires, and really exciting. It probably gets repetitive, but we had a grand time, hopefully we can go back one day and do better. What else can I say about the route? It’s a lot of dihedrals, and your calves get pumped. The best 5.7 on Earth is on this route. It’s also probably the best 5.12 Grade III I have ever seen.
We drove to San Francisco the next day, past endless farms, into a city of apparently endless partying. We started the day at the Mission, listened to a bunch of Punk Rock, and woke up at Ocean Beach.
Another night, and we’d had our share of the city. M was back in the Valley, and the East Buttress of Middle seemed like the perfect idea. On the cat walk, I couldn’t convince Max that it is normal and okay to descend from there. The mountaineer at heart that he is had to see what the summit was like. It is actually the coolest summit I have been on in the Valley. It is lonely, almost pristine, the views are, again, beyond poetic reach, and it also started raining. We found shelter and called our friend Bud, because we had no idea how to get down. He did not know anything either, except that it was easy from the top of Higher. We’d hoped for some magic advice, but our options seemed limited. We hiked to the top of Higher, and descended from there, now in strong winds and rain.The air was smoky, and soon the sky turned purple. It also got dark. Of course, M was the only one who had a headlamp, or something to drink, or food. I had brought my DSLR for good measure..
Max was really psyched to do Half Dome. After a day of egg eating, we got up early and climbed the Regular like we would do in Cham or the Dolomites. It was a lot of fun to just climb everything, without worrying about much stuff. We farted a lot though. It must have been the eggs! Based on his Alpine experience, Max was worried that no one will let us pass without tying knots in our ropes, but I told him that we’re in America. Apart from the bolt ladders, we freed everything with one fall on the last zig zag. It’s funny how I felt myself trying hard to properly climb the route, something I’d never cared about on a climb of this type. I’d kept telling Max about the pitch on which you climb out of the hole, and he appreciated that little spot as much as I do, even with the backpack.
The Innsbruck Trio was complete in Camp 4 when Jorg pulled up at the Lot in the morning, two days later. He was in the Valley, he was psyched, and his partners were tired, but game. Sort of, that is. Max and Jorg know none of the stories of the climbing in the Valley, they don’t know which routes have what reputations. Jorg wanted to go climbing, and as it was almost noon, I suggested the Dagger. The approach is short, and it is a good pitch. Plus it’s a cool spot. Jorg flicked through the guidebook, and found something. Short approach, he said, easy climbing, looks cool! I was like, what, thinking, maybe Serenity Crack. DNB, on Middle Cathedral Rock. I was not excited.
It was a democratic decision, and Max was convinced by the fact that the approach was so short. He agreed to skip the summit this time. I tagged along, telling Cheyne to stay close to his phone. I’m not sure if he or I knew whether I was kidding or not.. This time, I took a headlamp and a jacket. Jorg led the first block, and my intestine trouble was more of a problem than the climbing. He complained about the smell at the anchors and enjoyed the climbing. Jorg is a lead climbing world champion, and also climbs like one. Max made quick work of the chimneys above. When we were back at the car, I felt stupid for being too impressed by stories.The only small ego victory was that Jorg and Max agreed that the descent would’ve sucked in the dark.
But would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve don’t care…
To celebrate Max’ farewell and Jorg’s Ahoi, we climbed the Nose two days later. I’d had this thing about not climbing the Nose again because the experience had been so good the first time, but I decided to take the risk. It was cool after all, because the way we did, and how I perceived it, was so different from the first time. After the DNB, my authority was a bit less strong. Jorg insisted on double ropes, and a 5 mil tag line for hauling a small pack. My objections were ignored! I think we spent half of the time on the route at anchors, which would be 7 hours of just sorting ropes. That is optimistic. A few friends in the meadow encouraged us as we climbed the bolt ladder at dusk. This time, it was dark on the descent, and I thought it was funny being the only one who knows the way down. Ha.
I only have one photo, because I was busy unkinking ropes:)
After a short surfing and general good time session with M and Max, I returned to Valley. It was crazy how obsessed Jorg was. It was infectious, but only when I was back in the Valley. While I was at the beach in Pacifica, trying to not always fall off the board with my friends, Jorg carried all our sh#t up to the top of the Footstool. All we had to do when I arrived was get a pizza and bivy there. Getting started on El Cap had never been easier.
El Nino was an eye opener. It felt like the Nose again. Jorg led everything on his second try that was 5.12+ or harder, and we swapped leads on most of the rest. The bivies on this route are amazing, as is the route. It is really well made, with incredibly fun climbing and alright protection. Seeing Jorg climb the Royal Arch at 7 in the morning was quite impressive. The pitches after that, leading to the Cyclops eye, blew us away.
The Black Cave must be one of the coolest 13a pitches anywhere. Because it is a bit runout, I cleaned it with my jugs. With only the old slings clipped on the pins, that was a little funny for my still-breathing-stomach.
I was super excited, and it is awesome how supportive Jorg was when he watched me struggle on my pitches. Even the 5.11 pitches on that route are hard and a bit frightening. Everything is suddenly so exposed, when you’re free climbing up there, and wondering where the route goes.
We topped out on our third day, which was also the nicest one. First, I got to do the Dolphin Chimney, which is the coolest single pitch I have ever climbed. A) It is on El Cap, B) there are a lot of handjams, C) it has a roof and a chimney at the same time that face out towards the Leaning Tower, 1800 feet above the ground, and D) there is insanely exposed, steep climbing on positive crimps to the anchor.
Then came the Eismeer, which almost stopped Jorg from freeing the route. After some up and down, he stuck the dyno. It had gotten cold and really windy. We quickly headed up the remaining easy terrain and as we were at the car, full on rain started.
I left the next day. I feel like there is a second El Cap in the Valley now, which I can discover, and I am looking forward to seeing more of it.