With vehicular and wildlife drama behind us, we awoke ready to climb. We each had some reservations about the fact that we were pretty frazzled mentally and a bit haggard physically going into this climb–but we knew that there would be no better chance to climb than simply going for it now. More delays would only sap the motivation necessary to get on the wall.
At the end of the day, despite what pictures may indicate, bigwall climbing is just a lot of hard work. As you get better, you ostensibly get smarter as well as stronger. You learn to get further with less effort expended through repetition, efficiency and various rigging tricks–mechanical advantage systems and the like. Organization is key since as you climb up, you have a lot of items (including yourselves) that need to be anchored and that need to move in strategic order. Once a system is weighted, “fixing” or “rearranging” becomes a colossal headache.
This “chess game” is played even on shorter routes, but the fact that you are not hauling so much stuff makes it a lot easier to correct errors. Your gear basically becomes a third partner who is unable to move up or down and requires constant supervision and micromanagement. In light of this fact, it is always a struggle between wanting to be comfortable (bringing more stuff) and wanting to move fast at all costs (going light). There is a sliding scale that allows you to safely carry less gear if you can move fast enough to make it not matter.
We went heavy. Figured we would not be moving fast. That premonition was right on the money. Initially the first pitch went fast. As did the second. We led out in blocks–each person leads 2-3 pitches at time before switching roles. This helps you stay in the zone when you are on lead, not having to go back and forth between leading and following. Also, on lead, it usually takes a pitch to get momentum and to get in a rhythm, which is conducive to greater efficiency.
Steve had the first block (pitches 1-3) and I took the next three pitches after that. As he neared the top of the second pitch I realized that our exuberance had caused us to forget to bring the haul line up. Without going into considerable detail, that was an error that cost a good bit of time. The third pitch had some tricky moves that also slowed our roll. I followed up and at the top of the third pitch, it was my lead. My blood sugar looked good–around 130 and steady.
I took over the rack and got moving. Initially there was a bolt and then two hook moves–which can be spicy because hooks aren’t fixed pieces of gear that can actually arrest a fall–they just allow enough purchase to move a few feet up. After moving through that section right off the anchor, I settled in and started plugging in gear and moving up. The sun began to creep onto the rock face in the early afternoon and soon I was fully in the heat of the day. It was hot. I was moving a lot slower than I realized. Every time I looked up at the next set of anchors it seemed that they hadn’t gotten any closer.
Eventually I finished leading pitch 4 and I hauled up our gear while Steve followed up. I was beginning to cramp up from dehydration and we had both put a significant dent in our water supply. I had some doubts about the sanity of our quest, but we agreed to go up one more pitch and then stop for the evening. More slow moving, cramping, upward progress. We were 5 pitches up and it was the end of our first day on the wall. With a total of 19 pitches to complete the route we knew we were way off pace and burning through the water supply.
When Steve arrived at the anchors, I was kind of freaking out. It was nearly dark and we still had to set up the porta-ledge. This presented a particularly heinous challenge since there were no ledges to stand on at any of the belays, this one being no exception. Imagine setting up a tent that requires immense oppositional tension while dangling in the dusk 700 feet off the ground. No way to use your feet to really stabilize your body to twist or push off–and you are tethered in so your movement is highly restricted. We had both been hanging most of the day and the prospect of spending the night hanging was more than I could accept.
We tried for a solid hour to get the ledge set up and it kept failing. I couldnt apply enough oppositional tension to snap the bars together. I was about to give up…but that wasn’t an option so I tried one last time, with all I had in me and click it snapped together. We were on our way to having a place to sleep for the night! I was exhausted but relieved. The sense of panic was subsiding as we finally assembled our small horizontal living space and pulled some food and gear out of the bag. I checked my sugar again and it was a touch low. Not bad low, but low enough that I could eat a little food without having to shoot up any insulin.
I kept running up against the fact that I was unable to get down if something went wrong. Our gear and ropes had turned into a righteous clusterf*ck (this is a technical term, I assure you, not simply a pejorative) as our setup for the night had been hurried and far from meticulous. Even if our setup had been as neat and tidy as can be, the weight of our haul bag would have been a huge complication. We were up there. Committed.
Then again…it was bloody comfortable on that ledge once it was set up. The position was spectacular and we could see the twinkle of other headlamps from the 15- or so other parties on other routes on the formation. It was like little islands in the sky, inhabited by small groups of climbers and we were navigating the seas of granite, hoping to join their party. There was life up here that resembled life on the ground but yet it was its own entity and completely removed from everything familiar. It was a beautiful thing–a precious glimpse of a highly valued and rare bit of life that straddled the line between art and hard labor.
Sounds like a line maybe but as I live and breathe, it’s dead honest truth. As I lay on the portaledge and watched the stars wheel overhead I knew that this endeavor was only a fleeting thing, that we were not destined to continue further. The reality was that we had moved too slowly and consumed too much water. Pushing on further left us exposed to running out of water in the middle of the wall, unable to go up and further from being able to descend. Steve and I discussed the options and weighed the pros and cons. We both agreed that it was important to make accurate estimations of our situation given our lack of experience pushing ourselves in this type of situation.
After a brief back and forth, we knew descending would be the right thing to do. We decided to pass the night and hang out in the morning to enjoy the fruit of our labor as long as possible before beginning our retreat in the late morning.
A seemingly neverending series of tie-ins and anchor points…
Enjoying the morning shade
Climbing is fun but its also serious. Honestly it’s usually a lot more fun once you’re back on the ground.
It was fun making breakfast on a 4×8 foot space dangling over the abyss. By fun I mean something other than fun.
Looking up. Not a lot there to stand on…
After a harrowing descent that involved rappelling literally down onto the stopper knots of our lines while swinging across the face to secure the next anchor and having to tend the heavy haul bag all the way down, we faced the hateful descent back down the approach and out to the car. We had ferried our gear TO the route in 2 trips. I decided that we would make the descent in 1 trip. I had run out of patience and I wanted to be back down at the car and on to a simpler place without bears and with free camping where climbing could be simple…I also wanted to talk to and see Stefanie. Two out of three would have to suffice…
I was pretty overwhelmed once back on the ground. NOW what to do? The climb that I had based my whole trip around was done with. It sort of felt like I lost the North arrow on my compass.
So we just started picking all the gear apart
But not before shooting up a unit or two of insulin to cover a solid quart of coconut water. No sense carrying it back down and I was parched!
I wont try and tell you how I felt about the next several hours of my life, but I can say that it was dangerous and frustrating bringing everything back down in one trip but we made it. We were done with El Cap, for now at least. Something that grand and horrifying never really gets out of your system once you let it in. I am planning and training for round 2 in the fall.