Yosemite Valley. El Capitan. Salathe Wall. The Ear.
Numerous variations of that phrase left my mouth more times than I care to recall while I climbed behind “The Ear””. An aptly named rock formation, it is artfully featured about 1,800 feet up the face of El Capitan, and appears to constantly eavesdrop on every creature in Yosemite Valley…
…except on that day.
That day there was no way that The Ear could even hear the blare of an occasional car horn over my violent mutterings and free-flowing curses. It wasn’t out of anger that I spouted those profanities; it was due to the fact that I was at least 40-50 feet above my last piece of protection and if I fell, I would fall onto any number of ledges below…like a pinball that is haphazardly pulled by gravity towards its final resting place. Needless to say, I was scared out of my f@#king mind.
Back in 1958, the first ascent of El Capitan (via “The Nose”) sparked a “Golden Age” of climbing in Yosemite that led to many of today’s classic big wall routes. Throughout the 1960s, local climbers lived in Camp 4 and pioneered these climbs up the granite monolith of El Cap, which watches over the Valley floor to this day. The Salathe Wall, first climbed in 1961, is considered to be second only to The Nose in its popularity, classic style, and all-around big wall beauty.
Over 50 years after that first ascent, Josh and I were preparing to climb the Salathe Wall, a 35 pitch route (about 3500 feet) up the southwest face of El Capitan. We had been planning this trip for almost a year and our excitement was at a fever pitch now that the time was finally here. We had meticulously checked our packing list numerous times to see if there was any way we could reasonably lighten our load since we knew lugging a 60 pound haul bag up El Cap would expend precious energy and slow us down.
Any climber that had crossed our paths over the past year and even whispered the words Salathe Wall had been peppered with questions of tips and advice, a couple of which really paid off during our climb. With our year-long preparations finally complete, we settled down in the birthplace of big wall climbing and attempted to sleep before our climb.
The inside of “The Ear” is commonly described as having a Bombay shape, or what is essentially an upside down “V”. What this means for climbers is that they can’t climb away from the most dangerous part of the pitch (the opening to the abyss below) because above them the climb narrows to about 3-5 inches. If you can picture a tiny person climbing from behind an earlobe towards the outer part of that ear, then you can somewhat picture what the climb is like. The intrepid souls that decide to brave this climbing crucible have to do this without any substantial climbing gear protection, risking life or lots of broken limbs.
(If you see the picture below, you can see what the pitch looks like. That last piece of protection at the lip was my last piece. If you look close you can see me hidden in the shadows above.)
(Now, there is climbing gear that allows for some mitigation of this risk, but it was climbing gear that we didn’t have with us…much to my chagrin.)
What this meant for me was that I had to traverse the middle ground of this upside down “V” looking for tiny edges to grab and small ledges to put my feet on while hoping that I didn’t slip or grab the wrong one. In fact, I was trying so desperately to stay away from the opening below that I couldn’t even turn my head to look around due to how narrow the space was up higher. I would have to ease myself down just enough to look behind me, or even just to look at my feet, and then turn my head back around and slide back up into the unwelcoming space above that was trying to spit me out.
Never once in my climbing career have I actually feared for my life while on a climb…
…except on that day.
As I thrutched my way along behind The Ear, I did my best to stay as focused as possible. After what felt like an eternity of feeling around for good ledges in the direction I needed to go, I found an edge that I could actually hang on to. It was not what I wanted, but I had no other choice. I had to move onward and leave the tenuous comfort of my current stance or inevitably fall from exhaustion.
With my back against one wall and my hands pressed out against the other (similar to how one might climb up a chimney), I slowly crimped (fingertip grab) a small edge out to my left and began to shift my body weight. Looking like a mime behind a glass wall, I slid my left foot outward towards what looked like a long 1/2-inch ledge that might be good enough for me to shift onto. And it was. I released a drawn-out breath between pursed lips as I prepared to move my right hand. However, I was wedged so tightly in this space that I couldn’t turn my shoulders.
I had to slowly drop my right hand down to my waist and windmill it back up towards my left hand, akin to a slow and deliberate Peter Townsend style guitar strum.
Last, I needed to move my right foot over and hopefully move on towards safer climbing. I began to move and – BOOM! – my foot slipped and my body started to follow…
Time slowed and my heart skipped a beat as it tried to leap from my chest to somewhere safer than behind my sternum.
Every basic human instinct in me was screaming that I was about to die…
I’ve never truly had a freak out moment while climbing and this time was surprisingly no exception. I would later reflect on this moment and be amazed at how, when you have absolutely no choice but to keep moving, then you do. It’s just that simple. I don’t know too many climbers who have been in situations similar to what I experienced (mostly because its best to avoid them at all cost), but it gives you a whole new perspective on what your limits truly are.
I also noticed that my life didn’t flash before my eyes.
My left foot skipped off the tiny edge it was on and tried to follow my right foot down towards the distant valley floor. I don’t recall what I said to El Cap at that moment, it probably wasn’t nice.
But I hung on.
As adrenaline consumed my entire being, I was able to keep my body tense enough to quickly get my feet back on to that long 1/2-inch ledge. I did my best to control my breathing and refocus because even though I had saved myself from being spit out of that shadowy nook, I wasn’t done yet.
I continued as I had before, slowly looking for the next holds to shift my hands to, with my feet meticulously following along their tiny, long ledge. As I finally reached the outer part of The Ear, larger hand holds appeared above me, allowing me to grab onto something substantial as well as place gear to protect a dreaded fall. It felt like I had been encapsulated in this dark space for hours but it had probably been closer to 15 or 20 minutes. I was done! As I belly flopped onto the ledge above, there was another climbing duo taking off ahead of us (doing a variant of our climb) and the guy closest to me just looked over with a knowing, wry smirk. He must have heard my obscenities that were meant for El Cap.
I’m sure he understood.
I set up our anchors and Josh promptly jugged the line up to my new ledge. (Jugging is ascending a line so you don’t have to re-climb a pitch.) He congratulated me on a pitch well done and laughingly stated that he was glad he didn’t have to climb it. (He had just climbed the Hollow Flake earlier: much more difficult than what I had done, but I appreciated his modesty,) I said thanks and told him that I’d never climb that pitch again.
I still feel that way.