Muir Wall A2 5.9
Trip ReportSolo on the Muir: via the YOSAR finish
Time to think is a rarity in the modern world. Busy work schedules and increasing use of technology have worked incessantly to diminish our time for free thought and self-reflection. Big wall aid climbing is a great release from the busy schedule of the world. While our partners slave away on the next pitch we can indulge in the hours long belays, with nothing to do but to think: inner reflection at its best. Solo climbing provides a different release. The days are spent in full motion, the mind in sharp focus on each maneuver: meditation through action. This is the type of meditation that I prefer. Always moving, working towards the next goal, my mind is at ease most in these moments.
The idea to solo the Muir Wall on El Capitan grew slowly in my mind over the past few years. First was the thought to solo El Cap in my lifetime. Then the idea started to take form, and soon I was looking through Yosemite Big Walls reading route histories, descriptions, and looking at topos in detail. The Muir stood out as a possible solo option: not too crowded, not too technically difficult, a proud line on the center of the formation, and impeccable history. Soon, I thought that someday I might try to solo El Cap via the Muir Wall. Still, it was all theoretical. I had never climbed El Capitan; indeed I had never even been to the valley.
The moment of commitment came just days before my trip was to start. I was sitting in the airport in Bozeman Montana, reading Royal Robbins AAJ article on soloing the Muir when my mind made the commitment. I had just spent a week in Montana doing emergency repairs for work. A week I was supposed to be in the Valley. This following a month of originally unscheduled work in Southern California. Again, time I was to be in the valley (a blessing in disguise given the wet May Yosemite had this year). These most recent delays getting to the valley were, in my mind, simply the last few obstacles in the way of finally getting to Yosemite to climb. I am not sure exactly why Yosemite has been so hard to reach. Living in Western Colorado was hardly a legitimate physical barrier, the valley being an easy day’s drive for two. Between relationships, school, commitments to friends, work, and relationships (did I already mention that one?), and the same issues with potential partners, Yosemite trips had fizzled before getting off the ground time and time again. All the while Yosemite, and El Capitan in particular, had been built up in my mind, the ultimate destination and the ultimate goal.
By early 2011 all of the previous issues that had disrupted my Yosemite trips were stripped away. I had been divorced, was well finished with school, and had thoroughly neglected my friendships. I had taken a job on the road and had worked hard the previous 18 months in order to get time off in the late spring. So it was that I found myself with five weeks in June and July to climb in Yosemite and the Sierra. By the time my flight brought me back to L.A. I was packing for El Cap. I had waited long enough; the time was now. Eight days’ worth of supplies, gear, ropes, and hardware were carefully packed in the bags, and within an hour of first entering the valley, I was humping loads to the base of the Captain. After a 20 minute wait for some Euros on Moby Dick I was climbing my first pitch of Yosemite granite.
“You climb to top solo?”
After a day and a half climbing, I had reached the top of pitch eight, and a gathering storm threatened several days of rain. I bunked my gear and swung over to the fixed Heart Ledge rappels. Three days of rest gave me time to decide if I was going to commit to the route. I had been moving slightly slower than planned, but all in all my systems were working quite well. I decided to head back up on the wall with two additional days of supplies.
After more climbing, a short rain storm ended the first day back on the wall. The extended forecast had said about 20% that day followed by excellent conditions for the following week. Soon I was climbing the pitches that are shared with the Triple Direct, having a ball, and following closely behind a party of three. A very wet night on Grey ledges (take note: if any water is running down the Shield headwall it lands right on Grey) preceded more excellent climbing and the divergence of the Triple Direct from the Muir. Now I was on to the upper pitches of the Muir and was starting to feel truly alone; no one else on the remainder of the route. Relishing in the experience I decided to take a rest day atop pitch 23: the first crux. There was a decent stance on a slab I used to set up and eat. I had enough supplies and the weather looked great for several more days. The past several days had been great, falling into the rhythm of solo climbing, sleeping well, and finding a peace I had been missing for quite a while.
On Sunday, June 12, I went through the morning routine and got ready to lead Pitch 24, a classic thin nutting dihedral that climbed at C2 on the topo to a C3 or A2 bulge. I began the pitch with a 00 C3, and then began nutting, placing two small DMM nuts. I then made a cam hook placement up to a yellow HB brass nut. Bouncing the nut resulted in some shift, but confidence in the nuts body weight ability. Then I placed a green HB brass, more shifting, but it seemed fairly solid. I was getting close to a fixed Alien. I decided to place a cam hook to gain the fixed piece. As I tested the hook, several things went wrong in quick succession. The hook popped and I shifted onto the green HB with my fi-fi, shock loading and pulling it out of the crack. The next HB nut popped as well, and I was gaining speed. My left foot hit the slab after I had fallen about 20 feet, and I continued to fall about a body length as I crumpled onto the slab.
I waited a few minutes without moving. “Give the pain a minute to settle in,” I thought. After a few minutes I did a quick scan for pain. My left ankle hurt, with 4 out of 10 on the pain scale. Nothing else seemed to hurt. My head and spine seamed alright and I was able to move my neck with no pain. I stood up on the slab with my right foot, and gingerly weighted my left foot. Instant blinding pain shot up my leg. “Well….sh#t.” Luckily (I suppose) I had fallen to the belay. I went back in direct and took off the gear rack. I dug out my day supplies bag and reached for the Ibuprofen and my cell phone. I checked my watch 8:45 a.m. I had an overwhelming desire to talk to someone, at least to make someone else aware of my situation. I flipped on the phone, two bars, nice. I called out to my oldest friend, climbing partner, and emergency contact, Jesse. “What’s this?” The phone wouldn’t dial out. I tried 5, 10, a dozen times. I cursed the phone “two bars!!” I screamed at it, I pleaded with it, I begged it, and finally it dialed out. I had to hold the phone in a specific position for it to work. Jesse answered the phone in his usual friendly tone.
“Hey man, I’m in trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just took a ledge fall, and I think I broke my ankle.”
Jesse helped me work through the situation, and we discussed the options. How quickly I had given up on the self-reliance of a solo ascent once a real problem reared its head. I could try and rappel the Muir. With the last few pitches being overhanging, and several traversing pitches to regain Grey Ledges, I would have to down aid quite a bit. I also thought about how tantalizingly close the Nose had been down in the grey bands. Could I somehow rappel over to the Nose? Or, failing that, climb up, across the Triple Direct pitches to gain the fixed rappels on the Nose? I wasn’t sure. In either case, making the rappels happen with the use of only one leg was going to be difficult and painful. The last option was to call YOSAR for a rescue. At the time, I did not want to consider this option. I was in the mentality of being a self-reliant climber, “I got myself into this, and I’m going to get myself out of it.” Jesse suggested we at least call YOSAR and make them aware of the situation. Perhaps they would know the best rappel route from where I was on the wall. To save my phone we decided that Jesse would call them and get a hold of me afterwards. I would call Jesse back in an hour if I did not hear from him.
I started breaking down my haul bags, pulling out all my water in preparation to jettison most of it, and packing away a lot of gear I wouldn’t need now that I couldn’t continue the route. When I was nearing the end of this process, I heard my phone ringing. It was Jack from YOSAR. After a quick assessment with an EMT over the phone, we started discussing the situation. Down aiding was definitely going to be necessary to bail. In the end, Jack asked me to stay put and call them back in two hours. They would have a look at where I was and determine what actions were possible.
I set up my portaledge, and decided to have a closer look at my foot and ankle. I gingerly removed my shoes and socks and placed my feet next to each other. It was obvious within moments that my left ankle had a significant deformity, doing an s-bend towards the inside. However, I could move my toes and circulation looked good. I began to think more seriously about a YOSAR rescue. If they could get me easily from the top, it might be a good option. I was still feeling like I should attempt to self-rescue. But doubts started to seriously enter my mind for the first time. If I couldn’t pull off the self-rescue, I was going to need YOSAR’s help anyways. The pain in my ankle was increasing. What if it became too much and I lost concentration, or began rushing the rappels? The chances of something else going wrong were beginning to look likely.
I called Jack back at the YOSAR office. From where I was they could perform a rescue from the summit. Jack then put it to me. If I felt confident that I could self-rescue, I should, if not, YOSAR would begin mounting a rescue from the summit of El Cap. He also pointed out to me that if I got in trouble lower down on the wall, a rescue would only become more complicated for them. “I’ll wait here for a rescue.” The decision was made easily, almost without conscious effort. Jack then asked me if I had supplies left. I had three days of food and water left, which was good, because a more effective rescue effort could be mounted the next day. My heart sank just a bit, but I knew my situation was stable, and I had the supplies to make it through to the next day. It was 11:30 a.m.
As soon as I got off the phone, my mind started swirling. I was going to have to wait at least another 24 hours for rescue. I looked at the pitch above me. I felt failure and embarrassment. How had I fallen on this pitch, it’s only C2? Another 24 hours sitting looking at the spot where the accident had occurred. I wanted to escape the place. “I should have self-rescued,” I thought. “I could have made it, damn it!” I wanted to keep moving. I knew that if I stopped moving, I would have to confront the reality of everything that had happened that morning. I cursed myself, I cursed El Cap, and I cursed Yvon Chouinard, TM Herbert, and Royal Robbins. I cursed climbing, cam hooks, and small nuts. I cursed myself again. I ate and drank. I got out my bivy gear and set up for the long wait. I wrapped my power-stretch around my foot and ankle for compression, and splinted it using my wall hammer and athletic tape. I took every action I could think of. Then I ran out of things to do.
Now I had time to think.
My internal dialogue started admonishing me for all the mistakes I had made. “You should have bounce tested better. You should have gone for another nut, instead of trying to go fast and use a cam hook. You should have… You should have…” The dialogue went deeper pointing out mistakes, now years distant, which had led to this failure. I had sacrificed too much to get here. My marriage had fallen apart. I’d lost all but my most patient and forgiving friends. I’d taken a job on the road, sacrificing any chance of meaningful relationships or friendships. All so I could climb more. All so I could do the big climbs I had dreamt of. And now I had failed in climbing one of my main objectives. Furthermore, I had failed to maintain my self-reliance. I had called for a rescue. Other people, good people, people more valuable than me, were going to be put at risk to save me. I had launched onto the route determined to climb El Cap, and to have the effort be all mine. I wanted to own the outcome, success or failure. And I couldn’t even do that. I was a failure in climbing, and in life.
Hours passed, and my mind kept dwelling on the same thoughts. Eventually, I gained some composure. I realized that I did fully own the outcome of the climb. The actions and decisions that had led to this had been all mine. I apologized to Herbert and Chouinard for thinking I could so easily climb their route. I apologized to Robbins for thinking I could solo the route as he had (in much bolder style). I apologized to El Capitan, and to myself. I admitted to myself that a rescue was always a possible outcome of the climb. The minute I stepped onto the rock, only four things could have happened: success, bail, rescue, or death. No matter how remote I thought the possibilities of the latter two options were, I had accepted all four when I decided to solo El Capitan. The fact that others were going to be put at risk to assist me was still hard to accept.
I began to ponder the question no climber should ask themselves. “Why do I climb?” When other people ask me why, I have no trouble answering. It’s fun, freedom, a challenge, etc… But I know, as we all do, that those explanations are superficial. I arrived at the conclusion that the real reason I climb is that it is the only thing in my life that makes sense. Once I discovered climbing everything complicated in my life was neglected to near ruin or total disaster. I began seriously wondering if it was worth it. Then I thought back to the previous few days of climbing, moving up El Capitan, living on the wall, finding peace through action. Despite two wet nights, the bleeding fingers, and mental and physical fatigue, I could not think of a time that I was happier. Was it worth it?
The night passed slowly, as every time I moved, my ankle would wake me up. At some point after midnight, I rolled over and looked out at the valley below. The moon was nearly full, and the wall above and below me, as well as the Cathedrals, were illuminated. Despite the accident, the pain, and the doubts about my actions and decisions, I marveled at the sheer beauty of my position and surroundings.
In the half waking state of the morning I heard a woman’s voice close by. I sat up and looked around. Were there other climbers coming up the Muir? I had heard a few shouts from climbers on other routes in the previous days, but this voice was talking and I could hear it although not quite make out what she was saying. They had to be close. In what she was saying I made out two things, “Matt….911.” I realized with a jolt that she was talking to me from the valley with a loudspeaker. “Matt Seymour, if you can hear me raise one hand to acknowledge.” The hand goes up. “If your phone still works dial 9-1-1.” Soon I was on the phone with Jack again. The rescue was mobilizing; they would reach me around noon.
I broke down all my gear into the haul bags except my ledge. The bulge at the top of the pitch obscured my view of the summit, leaving me wondering where the YOSAR team might be, and when they might reach me. I was obsessing about breaking down my ledge before they got to me. I didn’t want to inconvenience them any more than necessary. At some point, I was looking out at the valley and casually looked up to see someone about 50 feet above me being lowered to my position. I got up and broke down my ledge.
“Yes, I am Matt.”
He threw a rope to me and I clipped it to an anchor bolt. Soon he pulled in to my position.
“Hey I’m Matt,” I extend my hand.
“Jesse,” he takes my hand and shakes it.
We often seek to have our successes define our image. We want to see ourselves, and want others to see us, in our best moments. However, it is our failures that often truly shape us. Warren Harding climbed The Nose in part because he missed out on the first accent of Half Dome. It is these times that force us to grow. We accept limitations, or gain the determination to overcome them, only after we find out where they are. I failed to climb El Capitan this time; epic fail in fact. But in the two weeks since the accident has happened I have had time to think. I have learned more about myself, my motivations, and my goals than I have in a long time. Our failures can define us in positive ways, just as much as our successes. In the past few years, I have become very well-defined. My name is Matthew Seymour, and I am a rock climber.
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