Your life won’t flash before your eyes

Yosemite Valley. El Capitan. My foot had just slipped…

Yosemite Valley. El Capitan. Salathe Wall. The Ear.
“F@#k this.”

mountain

“F@#k!!!”

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.

Image via iamountaineers.org

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.

sunset in Yosemite Valley

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.

image via Guitarworld.com

Again, success!

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…

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

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.


image via switchbacktravel.com

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.

mountain

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.

Salathe Headwall Pitch…a couple hundred feet above The Ear

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.

Ever.

I still feel that way.

Atop the summit of El Capitan, Josh and I are happy to be done climbing, at for least a little while.

Links of the Week (10/28/2019)

Heady stuff this week.

What’s it really like to be an editor at Climbing? I just picture you guys out on the rock all day, doing pitches, testing free gear, hanging with pros, traveling to the latest, greatest crag, snapping photos for the Gram, and then maybe checking your email every now and then. But what’s it really like—are you guys more desk jockeys or rock jocks?

​I’ve wondered the same thing.

Ask an Editor: What’s It Really Like to Be an Editor at Climbing Magazine?

It usually takes more time to convince people that your technology has changed the world than it does to invent a world-changing technology. This is easy to overlook because we implicitly assume a technology began around the time we started using it. But most were created years, even decades, before they caught on.

Another fantastic article from the CollaborativeFund.

Why New Technology is a Hard Sell

After much discussion, they decided that a key component of the mind is: “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational, that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.” It’s not catchy. But it is interesting, and with meaningful implications.

The most immediately shocking element of this definition is that our mind extends beyond our physical selves. In other words, our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.

​While this is venturing waaaay in to the realm of uninteresting for most people…I find this kind of stuff fascinating.

Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain, or even your body

Yvon Chouinard, billionaire founder of outdoor apparel firm Patagonia, has traditionally shied away from politics. But things have changed for the rock-climbing, fly-fishing outdoorsman since Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office

This is a man (and a company) with conviction. 🤘🏻

Patagonia’s Billionaire Founder To Give Away The Millions His Company Saved From Trump’s Tax Cuts To Save The Planet

Links of the Week (10/14/2019)

If you only click on one of these links to read…make it the last one. Amazing article.

Apple released the latest iPhone and by most reports its a dramatic leap forward in terms of battery life, screen quality, and all around performance. Of course, what most people care about is how well it takes photos and shoots video. To prove that this is a device that can compete with dedicated cameras, filmmaker Matteo Bartoli took his new iPhone 11 to Sequoia National Park and captured the landscapes there using the new ultra-wide angle lens.

​Wow.

Video: Sequoia National Park Captured by iPhone 11 — The Adventure Blog

Earlier this year, Squamish County proposed Bylaw No. 2679, containing regulations that would prohibit all overnight camping, whether in a tent or a vehicle, in public spaces. It allows for two exempt areas more than seven miles outside town, down 4×4 roads; anyone caught camping outside these zones could be fined up to $10,000.

For van dwellers, many of whom are unable to drive down 4×4 roads, the bylaw effectively negates why they live in their vehicles.

Never thought that the #Vanlife would have negative side effects. Or at least as seen by the general population.

No Parking: How Squamish Regulations May Reshape #Vanlife

I didn’t fasten a seat belt on a plane until I was 18. Since the Nineties, though, I’ve been clocking up the air miles. I’ve walked in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia and the foothills of the Himalayas, run in Kenya, cycled in the Hamptons and the Catskills, taken trains across Australia and Cuba and small boats on rivers in New York and Nicaragua – but in each case the journey began and ended with a flight (if not several flights)

I’ll be honest, this article (while bringing up a good discussion) felt a little disingenuous to me. Perhaps it was because of this opener…essentially a “look at my cool travel resume” paragraph. However, I do applaud her environmental change of heart and the facts she brings up about air travel and carbon emissions is very interesting.

I’m a travel writer, but I’m not going to fly any more

What are the other Big Things – the great-grandparents – of important topics today that we need to study if we want to understand what’s happening in the world?

Nothing is as influential as World War II has been. But there are a few other Big Things worth paying attention to, because they’re the root influencer of so many other topics.

If you like reading or talking about the big picture on “how it all works” type topics…you will find this fascinating. GREAT article.

Three Big Things: The Most Important Forces Shaping the World

Tommy Caldwell Interview

A couple years ago I stumbled across this Tommy Caldwell interview and at first glance it seemed pretty standard. “How has Dawn Wall changed your life….What was the attention like…..What did the President say when he called?”. But then I found a couple insightful nuggets that I thought were different.

Tommy Caldwell mentioned how important good partners are and how friendships usually develop from them:

The mountains just have an amazing way of creating these lifelong friendships that I haven’t figured out how to do outside of climbing, really. Sometimes I look at other people and I think, “How do people become friends? How do you become close without going on these adventures together?” I don’t even really understand that because [in the climbing world] it happens in this so much more intense way.

​I also like this question. It really shows how much a part of TC that Yosemite really is.

If you could have brought up any historical figure or inspiration to you, who would that have been?

Nobody’s ever asked me that. That would have been a trip! It would have been cool to have somebody like Tom Frost up there – he’s always been a big Yosemite legend and it would have been cool to experience El Cap through his eyes a little bit, because he was there when the wall was first being climbed in those very first years. Warren Harding would have been amazing, because he was just so good at partying up there and he loved the environment. For whatever reason, my mind goes toward the people who know Yosemite really well. I would want to learn more about El Cap from their vision.

​Nice and quick read with some great photos.

Off the Wall: Tommy Caldwell

NASA Admits Climate Change Occurs due to Earth’s Orbit, Not Fossil Fuels

Huh…

“For more than 60 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has known that the changes occurring to planetary weather patterns are completely natural and normal.”

I saw this headline and opener and thought…yeah right. Yet, after just a quick read through this, it makes sense – even to someone who was a former political science major.

“If we had to sum the whole thing up in one simple phrase, it would be this: The biggest factor influencing weather and climate patterns on earth is the sun, period. Depending on the earth’s position to the sun at any given time, climate conditions are going to vary dramatically, and even create drastic abnormalities that defy everything that humans thought they knew about how the earth worked.”

🤔

NASA admits that climate change occurs because of changes in Earth’s solar orbit, and NOT because of SUVs and fossil fuels

Perhaps This is Why We Climb…

Such a beautiful climbing quote…

So it happens that the wealthier and more advance a society, the more fanatic its interest in certain kinds of sport. Civilization’s trajectory is to curve back upon itself – naturally? Helplessly? – like the mythical snake biting its own tail and to take up with passion the outward signs and gestures of “savagery.” While it is plausible that emotionally effete men and women may require ever more extreme experiences to arouse them, it is perhaps the case too that the desire is not merely to mimic but, magically, to be brute, primitive, instinctive, and therefore innocent. One might then be a person for whom the contest is not mere self-destructive play but life itself; and the world, not in spectacular and irrevocable decline, but new, fresh, vital, terrifying and exhilarating by turns, a place of wonders.

—Joyce Carol Oats

I believe that quote speaks straight from the part of my soul that yearns to climb and could never tell me why.

This is in the introduction of the book El Capitan: Historic Feats and Radical Routes. I don’t remember when I bought this book but this quote is the most perfect opening to a climbing book I’ve ever read.

Climbing Half Dome: A Regular Man’s Oddessy

There was something surreal about being 1700 feet off the ground and bathed in the glow of the earth’s nightlight.

There was something surreal about being 1700 feet off the ground and bathed in the glow of the earth’s nightlight.

A few years ago I went out to try and climb the iconic monolith that overlooks Yosemite Valley … Half Dome. This monument to the beauty of nature and constant reminder of how small we are, adorns California drivers licenses, tourist t-shirts, and family vacation photos around the world.

Now what I’m talking about is not the 16 mile (round trip) hike that thousands of vacationers attempt each year. My undertaking was more akin to a mortal man’s attempt of a seemingly herculean task – a multi-day climb up the granite, vertical, northwest face of Half Dome. Something that only a small group of masochistic adventurers attempt each year. (or for those demigods of the climbing world who can climb it in just a few hours – climb multiple times a year) One needs a fair amount of experience before even attempting such a labour, suffice it to say, I worked towards this for quite a few years.

half dome route
half dome route

My partner for this Homeric journey was Eric; a climbing buddy of mine from San Diego who himself had been climbing for quite some time and had this on his to-do list. We actually attempted this very climb back in May 2010 and came down due to a still fresh back injury of Eric’s that flared up. In retrospect, it was probably the Fates looking out for us as there was still snow adorning the summit of Half Dome which would have made summiting and coming down quite dangerous.

Enough of the preamble and on to our epic.

We met in Fresno outside of what some might call a ‘trading post’ for adventurers; aka REI. We got our gear together in my Jeep and promptly rode off towards the climbing mecca of Yosemite Valley. A couple hours later we were on the Valley floor and our climbing banter was in full force and our excitement was palpable.

“I’m stoked to finally get this done!”
“We should definitely make it to 11 on the first day”
“Big Sandy is gonna be awesome!”

If you had dropped into our conversation then and didn’t know what we were talking about, you would probably think we were just babbling idiots speaking Greek…but we didn’t care. We were about to climb Half Dome!

We parked my Jeep as close to the trailhead as allowed, got our last provisions together, sorted gear one last time, and settled in to try and catch a few hours of sleep before our early start.

Day One

Where we had parked is where everyone who hikes Half Dome has to park, and many folks get a VERY early start to try and summit by sunrise. What this meant for us was that we caught about every headlight from every car pulling into the parking lot at midnight, 1am, 2am, etc. These Half Dome pilgrims were excited about their journey as much as we were about ours, and their anxious chatter wasn’t exactly conducive to sleep; therefore, we decided to just get up and go at about 3am. So off we went.

start
start

The hike was pretty intense as there are fixed lines that need to be climbed and you ascend about 3,000 feet from the Valley floor to the base of the climb. It also took us a while to find the trail in the dark, and we had to manage by waiting till it started getting light out and eventually made it to the base of the climb at about 9:30am.

We took a breather and without giving ourselves a chance to look back, we took off.

It took us a while to get into a groove, but we got into a slow rhythm and made it to the top of pitch 6 by about 6pm. (that’s about 600 feet) We weren’t moving as fast as we would have liked, but we had worked this into our flexible schedule, so we decided to take it easy since we were traveling heavy with water, food, and more climbing gear than we’d have on a normal climb. We settled in for the evening and enjoyed a sunset view worthy of two adventurers who were at peace in their element. We were happy with what had transpired thus far and blissfully unaware of the events and labours to come.

Day Two

The next day we started early as we hoped to reach pitch 17, more affectionately known as Big Sandy Ledge. This is a popular place for climbers to stop and sleep for the night as it provides ample room for multiple people…but we had 1,100 feet to climb to get there. So we ate, packed up, took care of some business, and started climbing again.

The previous evening we had noticed some fellow climbers gathering at the base and thought/hoped that these were guys who would try to climb it ‘In a Day’. Climbing Half Dome ‘In a Day’ is popular with stronger climbers as this is a great way to check this route of the personal tick list, and doing it this way cuts out a lot of logistics and hassle. You just have to be really strong, relatively fast, and yell “Hercules, Hercules!” all the way. (ok, that last part isn’t necessary)

As fate would have it, there were two teams that came flying up behind us on seemingly winged shoes. One team American and one Austrian. They were both climbing it in a day (the americans trying for a blazing 5 hours), so we sat by and let them pass us. Now in my past Yosemite climbs, whenever I let other seemingly faster parties pass me it has always turned out to be a bad call and I’ve ended up waiting to climb for an extra 3-5 hours for my generosities. However, this time it was actually a good call and we only got held back about an hour and the two parties disappeared above us before too long (they even took our picture). Eric and I got back into our groove and before too long we were atop Pitch 11 and getting ready to climb some chimneys.

Eric dispatched a quick aid pitch once he figured out the start and I was jumaring (climbing term for using mechanical ascenders to climb a rope) up behind him before too long. Then came my turn to climb over 200 feet of chimney climbing. While these pitches were labeled 5.7-5.9 (relatively easy in climbing terms), they did not feel ‘relatively easy’. Nonetheless, I wanted to keep moving and with an occasional curse word, I managed to use almost our whole 70 meter rope to link all the chimney climbing. While I’m guessing that Eric was glad that I climbed it and not him, I know he didn’t like jumaring up the chimneys as that can be quite the feat with a pack on your back. (In the picture he’s just glad to be done)

(side note: these chimney parts of the climb no longer exist. they fell off in a rock fall a couple years ago)

At this point the sun was beginning to set and we still had 150-200 feet to climb to Big Sandy. So Eric took off to make the most of the sunlight.

Once it gets dark, climbing (especially Big Wall climbing) slows waaaaaay down. You have to look for where you’re going multiple times before you go there and you have to be extra careful because any fall can turn into a quick cluster at night. As we were about to find out.

Just before we were supposed to start the pitch to Big Sandy – we got off route. Our topo (climber’s map) even showed the off route, but we were in the dark. We couldn’t tell if we were at the right spot. Eric climbed for about an hour or so and as he got higher he realized that we had to be off route. So he down climbed and we took stock of our situation. It was past midnight, and we both hadn’t eaten since our lunch about 8 hours earlier. We had already started to run out of water (I had actually cramped to the point of my muscles freezing a few times during my last pitch), only had about a quart of water left, and had a whole day of climbing and hiking ahead of us. As we had only slept for a couple hours the past two nights, we decided to eat and try to bivy atop pitch 16; just one pitch away from our days goal. Bummer.

Little did we know that if we had read one of our route descriptions that we had in our pack, we only needed to descend just a bit and head to our right to find our route up to Big Sandy. But we were a little out of it and hadn’t thought of that. So we tried to settle in to sleep on our barely park bench sized rock ledge.

Let me just say that I was essentially sitting in a narrow granite trough that I couldn’t even sit up straight in. No laying down for me. Eric was able to contort his body to lay on his side if he dangled his feet off the ledge. Sort of.

As the moon slowly crept over the Valley from behind Half dome I got colder and colder, and more and more miserable. I wasn’t sleeping at all. Eric tried to pretend that he was, but he couldn’t even fool himself. I’m not sure how long we sat there as I fell into a semi-hallucinatory state of mind/sleeplessness. Eventually I realized I had to move and warm up, so I woke Eric out of his ‘sleep’ and told him that we needed to climb. He promptly agreed and we slowly got ready.

Day Three

Finally ready, we explored down and to the right and instantly saw where we needed to go. Eric made his way over and I set off at a snails pace on the pitch to our previous day’s goal. We had a full moon that night and it was intensely bright, so once I started climbing I actually enjoyed the climbing.

There was something surreal about being 1700 feet off the ground and bathed in the glow of the earth’s nightlight. I crawled upward, cramping occasionally, but making my way; and before too long I was standing on Big Sandy! The moon had left and daylight was upon us, so that meant it was about 5:30am. Happy to be atop pitch 17 and to see some sunlight, Eric raced up to Big Sandy to enjoy the copious amount of room that it affords.

We relaxed for about an hour and a half, ate some breakfast, and took a 20 minute nap. At this point, our want to get off the rock overpowered our desire to sleep, so we pressed onward. Only 500 more feet!

(above is a zoomed in look at what is known as the Diving Board at the summit of Half Dome)

As Eric was leading the infamous Zig-Zags he suddenly exclaimed “Oh no!” and I saw a whole carabiner of our small climbing nuts falling. They fell in slow motion as we both couldn’t reach them and the realization that this climb was about to get significantly harder flashed through our heads. But all of a sudden…thunk! The carabiner of nuts had landed on the last ledge of Big Sandy!! I breathed a huge sigh of relief and told Eric that I could get them up to him. Disaster averted. Eric finished his pitch and I crawled up our rope to him. One more pitch to Thank God Ledge. (i’ll explain)

We were the tortoise and the day’s light was the hare as we plodded along in our dehydrated, zombie-like state. I finally reached Thank God Ledge and gave a loud hoot as everyone who physically prepares for this climb knows they must also mentally prepare for Thank God Ledge. And it was Eric’s lead.

As you can see from the picture, Thank God Ledge is a 2 foot wide ledge that narrows to about 8 inches, dares you to try and walk across, and constantly reminds you that you are now 2000 feet off the ground as you inch across.

Eric psyched himself up to lead this brain tingling pitch and with some “you got this dude!” and “this is your last hard pitch!” from me, he started.

Eric took his time crossing, but he did it well and made it to his last hurdle on this climb. A Yosemite 5.8 chimney. He had to work on this last section for a while as it can’t be aided and he actually took off his leader pack and climbing rack to make the move…and he made it! With Herculean effort, he grunted his way to the anchors and gave a huge sigh of relief.

At the same time I saw a little black rectangle fly out from the chimney and go skydiving down below.

“Rock!” (a courtesy all climbers yell when something falls)

I knew what it was right away…Eric’s camera…not a rock. He had kept it strapped to him during the chimney climb and the rock had scraped it right off and spit it out in spite of his success. Lucky (sort of) for Eric, the only pictures he lost were pictures of me.

Wanting to wrap up this climb, I hurried across the ledge as fast as I could and made my way to Eric. I took right off on the last pitch or so of climbing with a quick bolt ladder and couple surprisingly tricky tension traverse moves and we were scrambling to the top at 6pm! Yes, it had taken us about 10 hours to do 5 or so pitches. We were exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, super tired…and really, really happy.

There was a group of guys up top that gave us some water and chatted with us for a while as they tried to comprehend what we had just done. (as did we) We made some quick phone calls to our loved ones to let them know we were safe and then booked it off the top of Half Dome to try and make the most of the daylight that was left

Just like Hercules wasn’t done until he completed his 12th labour, we had our 12th trial still ahead of us. We had to hike 8+ miles down to the Valley floor and back to the car. Eric took the pack with all our gear in it because he has that ‘old man strength’ from years of mountaineering and we booked it down. We stopped for water half way down to replenish our screaming muscles and finally finished at 2:30am at the Jeep. Our personal Odyssey was complete. We made it out of Yosemite Valley that night to our respective resting spots and promptly passed out.

(the moon rising on our hike)

As I look back on it, a few years removed now, most of the misery has faded. Climbers often say “I’ll never do this again”…but time tends to be very forgiving and eventually we look back fondly and laugh about stories like this. The world will always need those mortal men reaching for the seemingly impossible.

Maybe that means there’s something wrong with us…and I’m ok with that.