The trickling sensation of fear and anticipation moved slowly through my body in the days leading up to the climb. Every thing I had done to this point would not compare in shear scale, where we were headed was in my mind the “Mount Everest of rock walls”. Driving into the Yosemite valley I thought back again to the days of my youth, where a wide eyed 12 year old sat in the back of his parents car staring up at the towering El Capitan in amazement… at that point I would have never believed I would one day scale that very wall.
The team was as follows, Shay and I would swap leads all the way up, Ben Cohen would provide ground support keeping a watchful eye from other various walls in the valley, and the Ukulele would provide morale while we climbed. The target… the 3000 ft shear granite wall which stood proudly over the surrounding monuments of nature, known by Native Americans as “To-tock-ah-noo-lah” meaning “the Chief”, this was the captain, or… “El Capitan”! Once thought of as “the impossible climb” the route has become one of the most well known symbols of “big wall” climbing. The first ascent by the visionary Warren Harding et al. entailed 47 days of intense climbing over a period of 18 months, literally into the unknown. Now well established, and with modern gear the route would take us just over 3 days, but these three days were to be filled with some of the most mentally and physically grueling experiences of my life, and worst of all, unknown to us the whole thing would be on display for the crowds below via high powered telescopes.
Exhaustion settled in early on the wall. After passing the “Gate Keeper-esq” lower 4 pitches of climbing our tender hands were scorn with the beginning signs of manliness, the hard granite rock polishing away our preconceptions and notions of glory. It quickly became clear that our misplaced belief in our climbing physical superiority were absolutely ridiculous in the face of this monster rock. Reaching “Dolt tower” at around 6pm the daunting task began to set in.
“this is the point where most parties bail right?” I asked Shay as he came up to the belay.
“yeah….” Shay replied between heavy breaths.
“…. I get it!” was my only response, then we pushed on.
At around 9:30 pm we reached our first “camp” a medium sized ledge at the top of a jutting formation known as “El Cap Tower” about 1/3rd of the way up the face. We quickly forced ourselves to eat some caned food and take a few gulps of precious water, then carefully positioned ourselves on the precarious camp for a few hours of sleep before the whole suffering would begin again.
The morning came with dreadful anticipation at 7 am. On the wall you pack out EVERYTHING that you take up. Furthermore there is nowhere to hide for any thing you have to do… there just aren’t a lot of discrete places you can take care of “business”. But who really cares, its just your climbing partner who has to suffer through the awkward moments of natural body functions right? Wrong! Later we learned that over the course of 3 days some 100+ tourists took turns from the valley floor watching the ENTIRE experience through the lens of a high powered telescope… c’est la vie. After a quick song on the ukulele we started what would be a 19+ hour day of constant climbing.
Shay moved confidently up the scary chimney behind the feature known as the “Texas flake”, then I went up the back of the large boot like formation to the bolts where Shay would have to lower almost a full rope length then start swinging back and fourth in the infamous section known as the “King Swing” pitch. Here he would have to run back and fourth (while hanging sideways) at full speed along the vertical wall then at the perfect moment dive for a tiny crack on the far left of our position and try to start climbing it before being pulled back by the weight of gravity and the ropes which pulled backwards at a 45 deg angle. We sat at the top of the boot for a few moments, exchanging gear, trying to prepare mentally for the inevitable task which lay in front. Emotions ran high, and im not sure what happened up there, but … it was later told to us that from the ground a group of 30 some tourists had been watching through the scope and on one occasion a young woman from Japan declared,
“I think… yes… THEIR HOLDING HANDS!!!”
Which was followed by another comment from another onlooker,
“do you think they will kiss next?!?”
Although I hold strong to my original statement that we were exchanging gear and NOT holding hands, who knows… we were scared out of minds, and thinking of our “mommies” and maybe some tearful hand holding slipped in.
After an INCREDIBLE diving catch (preceded by a hilarious tumbling failure) Shay pulled us through the King Swing on his SECOND TRY!
It was late in the day due to some shinanigans with a stuck rope and as night began to fall I moved slowly up the “Great Roof”. This impressive expanding feature juts out of the wall with an arching grace resembling the beautiful mural covered ceilings of the many Renaissance Churches which pepper the ancient cities of old. Once the gate keeper of the “Free Nose” (doing the climb without ‘aid gear’) Lynn Hill was the first person (man or woman) to complete this section “clean” in 1993, a feat which afterwards remained unrepeated for over 10 years. I on the other hand did what EVERYone else does (with the exception of 3 others in the world) and took advantage of the numerous fixed pitons and nuts to ungracefully yank my way up the section. Regardless by 10:30pm I was at the top of the roof, that was when I heard,
I looked down with fearful anticipation, ” WHAT!?!?!”, I yelled.
“i read the topo wrong… we have 2 more pitches to climb before ‘camp V’…” Shay stated in a defeated monotone voice…
We had no choice, the only way down was up… and we pushed on till 2:30 am to get to our tiny hanging camp 2/3rds of the way up. We forced some food down, rapped some rope loops around our legs, cinched up our anchor points and fell asleep on our downward/outward sloping 3ft by 10 ft ledge.
The final morning began at 7:30 am, this is when something great happened. While digging to the bottom of the haul bag we came across an entire extra GALLON of water that we had forgotten about!!! This meant no more drinking NASTY MOLD FILLED water that we found lying around in sun bleached coke bottles at the sides of random belays. With another, happier song on the Uke we moved forward for the final push. Shay moved up the “Changing Corners” section quickly as I sat below at the belay looking at the sprawling valley below. Tiny cars drove along the road, a helicopter flew far below, and people peered up as I unabashedly relieved myself over the edge of the 3000 foot cliff. Then out of nowhere…..
Before I could do anything the rope was taught and yanking me up the anchor. I looked up, heart pounding to see Shay hanging upside down about 100 ft up, gear clinking back and fourth.
“ARE YOU OK!??!”, I screamed.
“I think so…, I just took a 25ft fall…” he stated in a dazzled voice… then he righted himself, looked down at me and said… “what do you do when you fall of the horse?… you get BACK ON!!!” and he jugged up the rope and got right back into the tiny aid crack which lead up and out of view. In a crackly voice he asked me to “sing him a song” then pushed through to the top of the pitch (where we might have held hands again).
What had happened was that a tiny DMM offset Nut, which he was weighting with a full high step on the etriers (ladder like webbing), blew out of the granite unexpectedly sending him on a heart stopping ride. Regardless he jumped right back on and pushed through.
We climbed hard that last day, leaving everything left in us on the rock. At 10:30 pm with crackling shouts of glory and tears in each of our eyes we found ourselves at the top of EL CAP!!! Yet the initial glory was quickly replaced with the crashing reality of what had just taken place…. we were defeated… even though we had gotten to the top, every inch of our bodies were destroyed. I’m still not sure if we climbed El Cap or if El Cap climbed us, but one thing is for sure… a mountain like that injects humility into your every bone…
Yet after half an hours rest, and next to a small campfire on the summit, humility gave way to glory again and we sat basking in the revelation of our greatest achievement to date. The ukulele was engaged as we reflected on the three days past, we had climbed 31 pitches, slept for a combined total of 14 hours, and lost 6 pounds in weight each over 3 days… Surely Micheal Phelps could kiss our asses now!
A Tribute to Michael Phelps…
* Text written by Albert Yu-Min Lin