Heading into Yosemite was a process that I had been dreading. It’s big and the logistics are (or have always seemed to me) to be very complicated. You can’t just find a patch of dirt out of the way and throw down and sleep–or pull your car off and park. There are enough rangers and LEOs (law enforcement officers) on patrol at any given moment of the day or night that it does not have a welcoming feeling but rather a cold exterior that doesn’t care about your visit or your goals, but rather just wants you to pay up, stay in line and not make any noise.

Middle Cathedral, El Cap's "little" cousin, just across the way.

Couple that with a convoluted network of roads (relatively speaking, based on having visited more than half of the national parks which are generally straightforward to navigate) which have several one way sections and the most gigantic cliffs looming above you…well, its a pretty intimidating place! My first reaction was literally this: Oh…Shit…

I thought that I had prepared myself to see El Cap and how massive it was. When it came into view I immediately regretted having told everyone that I intended to climb it. Go up THAT?! Are you MAD? I knew that it was too late to back out or make excuses. I decided to at least haul some of our gear to the base of the route and hope for a surge of inspiration or courage.

A clear shot of El Cap on the left and the valley beyond...

I shut out the voices in my head and just got ready to get after it. My blood sugar had been very good, so that was one thing that wasn’t cause for angst. We had most of our stuff packed up but we still had to make a few last minute adjustments. We decided to pack all of our gear up to the base of the route and then spend the night bivvied there.

Yosemite big walls! Get some!
Packing up for the first trip to the base of our route
somewhat packed.

A few details about what we brought:

  • Clothing (including jackets for the night, and shell layers in case of wind or rain)
  • Sleeping bags (no pads)
  • 20 ltr of water
  • Food for 3 days plus snacks and emergency rations
  • 2 Ropes (one lead line, one static haul line)
  • Cameras
  • Solar gear to recharge cameras
  • Porta-ledge and fly
  • Climbing gear, harnesses, helmets etc
  • cell phone
  • head lamps, batteries,
  • Blood glucose meter, glucagon kit, test strips, insulin, Dexcom CGM
  • Mp3 Player

Sounds like not that much, right? Well it was about 130 lbs total. Basically we needed enough to climb, and then live on the wall for several days. To be fair, we may have had too much stuff–in fact I’m sure we had too much, looking back now. It is a tricky process, to learn how much to bring on a wall because too much stuff will slow you WAY down. To little stuff will leave you dangerously exposed to thirst, hunger and the elements. Being that neither of us usually climb multi day routes our estimation was a bit off, and we erred on the side of caution and had more than we probably needed.

We decided to approach with our gear in two trips, figuring that carrying less weight on multiple laps would make more sense since we had never tried the approach before, and it should be safer since there was about 150 feet of exposed 4th class climbing along the approach. Roughly translated, 4th class terrain is steep enough that if you slip, you won’t stop falling for a good ways(serious injury or death). Also, it was late in the afternoon and would be dark soon enough that we wanted to play it safe and not have huge amounts of additional weight on for the approach.

As we departed the car, a pivotal moment occurred. We had been told that bears were a big problem in Yosemite. The customary procedure is to put food items in a container (like a cooler) and then place said cooler in a bear proof storage container (Bear-Box) which the park provides at various locations. By removing food items from cars, bear-break-ins have been greatly reduced. The problem for us was that I had 6 months worth of Clif Bars with me as well as a lot of grains and beans and items that I felt would not attract ursine attention. I felt confident that if I placed an enormous stash of Clif Bars in a publicly accessible Bear Box, that they would surely be stolen. It’s unfortunate, but Yosemite has a reputation for people stealing gear and food as well as bears, so secure hiding places are really tough to come by. Also, there was very little room for any additional food in the Bear Boxes, so there was no way we could fit all of our provisions in there even if we felt it was safe to do so.

I figured that the turtle top compartment should be safe enough since bears can’t see through it and peep the contents. Also, with the Clif Bars being wrapped (unopened) and then sealed in an airtight snapware bin, I figured we would be able to get away with it. Thus we cast off, and left the Dragon Wagon behind.

I have said before that there is often climbing that has to happen before the climbing. I cannot overstate how significant the approach is with a climb of this magnitude. Most people are familiar with the Nose route on El Cap. That is the longest, proudest line on the formation. It also has the shortest, easiest approach. But our route was not even near the Nose and the approach was significantly longer and more involved. We were attempting Lurking Fear which is shorter than the Nose (which we assumed would mean easier climbing) but is tucked away on the west face of El Cap–a solid 45 minute uphill hike even without any pack weight.

We did that approach twice that night, and we had all our gear at the base of the route. There were a couple of parties ahead of us, but we figured it would be ok since we weren’t in a rush and just wanted to take our time. That night, sleep was…hard to come by. Sleeping on the ground with no sleeping pad is COLD. The earth sucks the heat right out of you and you can feel every rock and pebble digging into your flesh, wedging between your ribs as you try and find a comfortable position. Waking up the next morning I was moving pretty slowly. I got our gear racked up and sorted for the climb while Steve ran down to the car to throw away some garbage that we didn’t want to carry up the wall with us.

I watched Steve climb back up the approach and I was super proud of myself for getting everything organized and ready. This was it! It was really happening! We were about to embark up El Cap!

“Dude. Your car is gone”.

Nothing could have prepared me for that news. My car is literally my home and contains everything I own.

“Gone?!”

“Gone. Either someone stole it or maybe it got towed.”

My world melted down into a little puddle around my feet. Suddenly the looming rock face above me didn’t have a grip on my mind. I was reeling at the thought that camera equipment, my wallet, my clothes, my food, my shoes, my computer, the hard drives with all of the footage from the entire project…could all have just vanished. I tried not to panic. I reeled my mind back in and bolted down the approach trail back to the road. I almost slipped and fell several times but I recovered. I was nearing the road and bracing myself for the chaos. I put my foot down less than 12 inches from a rattlesnake. It buzzed and I jumped. I shouted a smorgasbord of curses loudly and repeatedly. I know that such language is nothing my parents taught me, but under the circumstances I felt like it was warranted. It struck at me but missed…I think it was either a warning strike or perhaps its body was pinned under the rock that I had stepped down on. I didn’t stop to verify the details of the situation.

The morning was off to a poor start. I felt like I was participating in some cosmic practical joke–like some omnipotent hand was repeatedly pounding the “smite” button on a supercomputer and then laughing at my situation.

After getting out to the road it became apparent that indeed, my car, the beloved Dragon Wagon was gone. I searched on my hands and knees to find traces in the dirt that would indicate how and why it departed. I found several bits of Clif Bar wrappers and I knew what had to have happened. We made our way on foot and via the park shuttle to the visitor center where we located the impound lot. The car was there and largely intact, but had sustained significant damage to the turtle top. Getting the car out of impound and back in my possession took the better part of that day and was made less pleasant due to the fact that I was almost entirely unable to communicate with Stefanie who was freaking out once I was able to explain that the car was gone but unable to say quite where it went.

Looked like the bear hammered on or climbed on the top...
And then cleverly picked the lock...
Evidence of the culprit!
Not wanting to have another encounter with a bear, we took ALL food out of the car and found some Bear Boxes that were a bit further away and cached the food there.

At last, we were ready to climb. We headed up back up the approach and started up the first pitch. We saw a bunch of bags dangling from the anchor above us but we thought it would be feasible to work around them. This was completely incorrect. After all of the days drama and doing the approach again, getting up the first pitch proved to be futile as there was no space for us to set up a haul system. I came back down and was totally deflated. We decided to step away for a day and just do some bouldering and let things decompress. Of course before doing that we had to hang our bags about 30 feet up the route so no bears could get to our bags full of food–we actually had chased a bear away from the base of the climb earlier.

We descended to find that we couldn’t camp in the valley because there was no room at the campsites (which there hadn’t been for days). We couldn’t take our food out of the park because it would have created a huge amount of work to pack it all out for a night and then re-stash it upon entry into the park. Being forced to separate from your food supply is a big stressor for a diabetic. Complicated logistics were the story of this leg of the journey.

We ultimately took a little bit of it (food) with us and drove out of the park…an hour down the road to a spot where we could camp. The next morning we came back in, ate and took our leisure–we realized that repeating the drive in and out of the park again for the next night would wind up slowing us way down for an early start the following morning so…we did the approach that night and slept again at the base of Lurking Fear. The route ahead of us was relatively clear and we were ready to go. I promised myself and anyone who would listen, this would be my last time going up this cursed approach.