I first met Elliott bouldering at the Golden Dawn Gate Wall in Berkeley one day. We discovered that we had a mutual friend in HJ, and talking led to the suggestion that we head to the Valley some weekend and do a few routes. Amid thin moves punctuated by Elliott’s phrases like, “horringus”, “Way Gingus” and “Flingus”, I gathered that he was up for it, though clearly I’d be needing a dictionary of sorts. We stopped at his car to exchange phone numbers and he waded through gobs of garbage to get his address book. For some reason he was quite proud of his address book. I guess he held it to be some kind of evidence which substantiated a well-organized lifestyle.
Later that week, despite dire weather predictions of a big wet system stalling on Yosemite for the weekend, we decided to take our chances and make the trip. Friday night we packed my stuff into his car and drove off. Elliott kept me occupied by having me calculate his miles per gallon for the last five fill-ups from information which was illegibly scrawled on matchbook covers and chalk wrappers. After this task, I settled down to a beer while he relaxed with a huge cup of coffee and some wildly electric-colored donuts. The rest of the trip passed without consequence as conversation concerned itself with the usual slandering of climbers better than us. We hit the Valley sometime after 1 a.m.
The road construction past El Cap meadows, and more recently the rockfall near Rixon’s Pinacle, necessitated the re-routing of outgoing traffic past Middle Cathedral. This inadvertently created one of the most amusing roadside entertainments since eating roadkill (or road pizza, if you’re from Montana). Large orange pylons had been placed along this stretch of road to mark two-way travel and become bumper fodder for caffeine wired drivers. The feeling of wild reckless abandon while driving down the wrong side of the road hitting twenty of these small orange sentinels (a personal record) defies description. Nor is this the only manner by which to put down these mute surrogate rangers. Other methods include, picking up the first available pylon and batting down the rest, or simply running them over and dragging them along until the smell of burning rubber from under the car becomes toxic enough to warrant their removal.
After having hit the requisite number of pylons (with both doors), we slept at a site Elliott’s friends were staying at. At 4 a.m. or so we were driven into the cramped Rabbit by a slushy rain as we both forgot a tent.
The next morning we woke up to a nasty grey drizzle. My neck felt like I had performed “Leavittation” with my head due to the uncomfortable Rabbit bivvy. My first cognizant thoughts turned to coffee and we ended up in the Four Seasons for breakfast. Motivation was about as low as the cloud cover but we discussed route possibilities. The funny thing was, the more coffee we drank the more inspired we became. And we drank a lot.
We figured we should be able to squeeze something in despite the weather. Justification for climbing in the rain came by way of Scotland where, we reasoned, they do this sort of thing all the time. Quickly discarding Astroman or Pegasus as options, we settled on the Kor-Beck route on Middle Cathedral. Why we even considered a twelve pitch route on a day like this I’ll never know. However, this choice did have the obvious advantage of enabling us to squeeze in a few more pylon kills. After several more cups of coffee we set off.
We started climbing by noon or so by which time it had begun to snow lightly. This was the exotic dimension we were both psyched for, a little adventure brought to the typically secure climbing routine of the Valley.
I led off the first pitch just as two guys with puzzled looks sat down on a wet rock at the base of the climb to witness the spectacle. I figured if there’s one thing more feeble than climbing a dismal route in the snow, it’s watching someone else climb a dismal route under these conditions. This made me feel a little better about our undertaking. Elliott took over the next lead as our fans abandoned us. They seemed a little disappointed over not having witnessed any skidders.
Although the route was wet, the moderate cracks were easy enough to deal with. We made fairly rapid progress up the first five pitches. The storm however, had increased in intensity and with our clothing completely soaked, our fingers and toes would get really cold while belaying. I would space out on belay watching the cloud ceiling drop and enjoy the sense of remoteness and isolation I felt while shouts of, “This is full-on, way burliest”, would drift down. Big time Alaska points were being racked up as conditions deteriorated. Nevertheless, at no time did we need to resort to aid.
When I led of the seventh pitch, the snow had finally begun to accumulate in substantial amounts on the route. In many places I would have to brush snow off the face and out of the cracks with my gloveless hands before I could continue. Small avalanches rumbling down the face every so often would clean snow off the rock saving me the trouble. Reaching the ledge at the top of the pitch I opted to belay instead of traversing off right as the snow was piled high there and the footing was insecure to say the least. I was ready to give up at this point; it was after 4:30, darkening rapidly, I was soaked, and my fingers and toes were frozen. Elliott, however, figured it would be safer to finish the route than rappel at night. I had a hard time figuring how climbing four more pitches, scrambling across the Kat Walk, and rappelling down the Cathedral Gully in total darkness and heavy snow would be safer. But since Elliott had been stuck out overnight on several other climbs, I guessed he had more experience in these matters and we continued on.
The next pitch turned out to be one of the wildest leads I’ve ever had the good fortune to belay. That is to say, I was relieved that I didn’t have to lead it myself. Up went Elliot into the gathering gloom. Desperate moves and tenuous pro characterized the first forty feet, above which he disappeared into the fog. I tucked my head into my jacket, packed a little shelf for myself in the snow, and began to run in place in an effort to keep my feet warm. Every so often I would hear a muffled, “Watch me!”, and so I would dutifully gaze heavenward into the greyness (a useless gesture but performed out of habit) and check to see if the rope was still in my numb hands.
Unbelievably he stuck it out and after about forty minutes he made it to the belay. This meant only one thing, I would have to clean the pitch. With the pack on my back and fingers and toes that felt no sensation at the tips I flailed madly. In an attempt to calm myself, I gained a marginal stance on a small ledge but promptly slipped off sending me again into windmill mode. By the time I managed to get to the belay, I was hating life. I arranged myself at the belay, flung off the pack, and put on my dry Lava Domes in a desperate attempt to restore feeling to my toes. I told Elliott there was no way I could lead the next pitch so I readied to belay him once more. I watched with an oddly detached sense of amusement as he treaded up the blank slabs only to slide back the ten feet or so to the ledge while bringing down a modest slab avalanche of snow. Elliott looked wildly possessed as he tried to claw his way up the featureless snow covered section of rock. After three of these attempts, I reeled the frantic Elliott back to the belay. At this point I think he realized the merit and rationality of descent.
While Elliott calmed down and warmed his hands, I found suitable anchors to rappel from. I got out our only headlamp and started down. Unfortunately, the lamp had no headband so the first one down had to rap with it in his teeth. So now even my teeth were getting cold. The first rappel was an endless tangle of knots, snow and the occasional manzanita bush. I cursed the memory of Kip Stone’s perpetually kinked and tangled ropes and somehow held him personally responsible. I thought that seven more rappels like this would be a nightmare. And so it was. I skidded all over the snowed-up face completely out of control on the iced-up ropes. I got to a ledge, tied in somewhere, and shivered as Elliott came down as gracefully as I had. Problems continued on the next pitch as I inadvertently went past the proper belay and ended up tossing a sling around a dead branch and clipping into that. I was in a shallow dihedral now and when Elliott came down it served to funnel all the snow down on to me. It buried me up to my shoulders and I wondered how dead that dead branch was, now holding the additional weight of approximately one ton of snow.
Elliott took over leading the next several rappels so I could relax a bit and let my brain go on autopilot for a while. Following the next rap, the heel of my shoe got caught on a rock and was pulled off my foot. I was amazed it stuck in the snow at an impossible angle preventing the ultimate footwear whipper. With a quick lunge, I was able to grab it before it fell. Wiping the snow off my sock, I tied the shoe a little tighter this time and headed down. Judging from the amount of noise just off to our left, significant amounts of snow were constantly being flushed down the gully between us and the Sacherer-Fredricks Route. Hearing those loud rumblings so close to us was somewhat disconcerting, but we were relatively safe out on the rib that forms the Kor-Beck Route.
Elliott continued to do a fine job of leading down and placing decent anchors with fingers that were stiff with the cold. I followed unavoidably bringing down mountains of snow that had nowhere to go but straight down onto the rappel stance. That’s gratitude for you. With my own clumsy hands I accidently dropped a Friend and sadly watched it disappear into the darkness. Seventy-five feet lower on the same rappel, I miraculously spied a tiny bit of red sling sticking out of the snow on a small sloping ledge. I elatedly clipped the prodigal #1 ½ back into the gear sling. “Clean living pays off”, I thought to myself. This little bit of good fortune picked my spirits up a wee bit and I continued to the belay. This feeling was short lived, however, as I arrived at the belay I saw that we would be rapping off two Friends next.
Elliott was getting pretty tired so I took over going down first and setting up rappel anchors. This gave him a chance to warm up. The sound of the snowplow on the Valley floor told us that we didn’t have that far to go. With a profound sense of loss I bid an almost tearful farewell to the gear that served me so well in the past, promising to return in the near future. Two more rappels brought us forty feet shy of the ground. I suggested we leave the ropes in place and high-tail it to the car. An incredulous Elliott turned to me with a look of shock and disbelief, shook his head, and simply said, “Poor style”. Of course, he was completely right. I was ashamed of myself for even suggesting it and apologized for my temporary lack of self-control. We hauled the ropes down and recklessly slid the 5.6 face to the ground. With huge grins on our faces, we congratulated ourselves for our mild epic and postholed through the snow to the car. We made it to the car by 10 p.m., nearly four and a half hours after starting our descent.
Once inside the car my only thoughts were concerned with getting on dry clothes and getting warm. I rummaged around in the back of the car only to be interrupted by a frantic, “Get the door! Get the door!” I turned around anticipating some kind of fatal accident in progress but instead saw an orange pylon approaching rapidly on my right. I was just able to get a piece of it with my door. I certainly had to admire Elliott for his presence of mind.
Back in the Mountain Room Bar we gained instant celebrity status (for stupidity I imagine, but didn’t ask). Elliott went to town re-enacting the details of the whole affair since he seemed to know everyone there. I sat down near the fireplace, sipped a hot drink, and, smiling to myself, thought, “That wasn’t SO bad; might even consider doing another route with him again sometime.
The next morning