El Cap Report 05/17/08

Ordeal in the Sun 
 By Tom Evans 
In a weak moment, I decided to take my friend, Dave Turner, up on his offer to take me up El Capitan, one of the greatest rock faces in the world and the centerpiece of climbing in Yosemite National Park. My fate was sealed as others conspired to make sure it happened, in the hope, no doubt, that I would be smacked down hard by the Captain himself. Unfortunately, Dave had his C rack of gear here, the better one’s being down in South America. So we had to borrow some stuff and thanks to SAR Andy I got to use his double portaledge. Thanks Andy! I dragged out my "old climbing gear" to make up the difference in hardware. As we organized gear in the parking lot, an assortment of friends wandered up to watch the sort out. Amazement soon spread as people got to see stuff not used by climbers in years and barely modern. Some even photographed the proceedings! By noon Thursday we were down at the Cap hiking to be base of Lurking Fear. Brazilian Nick and Dave did the heavy lifting as phase one was to get our stuff to the base of the climb. The odds of me even making it to the base were running 3 to 2 against by the Bridge rats, hoping to get a chance to slander the slanderer! However, the hike went well and I did indeed make it to the base.

Unfortunately, we arrived to find a conga line, with a party of three, a party of two, and a solo just starting, ahead of us. Not good. The sun had reached the face by then and the heat was intense. So much so, we decided to wait until the sun went over the rim to start fixing a couple of pitches. We immediately realized that our 9.5 gallons of water was not going to do the job and considered sending Nick down to get three more gallons.... but Nick was scrounging around and lo and behold scored 5 gallons of "bailer water", which is the best kind, as no work is required to get it up to the base. However, the water was marked by its leaver, Peter, as 10/07 vintage, fortunately it was store bought water in plastic jugs! I opened one and it was ok. We also found a serviceable butt board to replace the ancient Chouinard two point fabric one that I had gotten in 1966. So Nick could stay until the sun went away and we all lounged and drank the water, passing the afternoon.
The sun departed and we racked up to start fixing pitches. Dave is so fast that he soon had the first done so I jugged up, cleaning it. I immediately noticed that, at almost 64 years of age, and 70 pounds overweight, the steep "jugging" (climbing the rope using Jumar clamping devices) was not so easy as it once was. But after a time I got the hang of it and after fixing two it started getting dark, so we came down. At the base, our friend John O’Connor, who had hiked a load of stuff to the Lost Arrow earlier for a photographer, came up in the evening to spend some time with us. He told me to close my eyes and when I did he pulled out a 6 pack of Cobras! Now that’s a friend! Thanks John!! We talked the rest of the evening away and settled in for the night. The party of 2 above had climbed in the heat hauling a huge bag up to the third pitch. The party of three was higher. The solo had merged with the party of two and was to hitch hike the route, keeping a pitch away but not leading at all... he would have made Chongo proud. We figured he would bail as he wasn't lead climbing but the lad hung on and kept going.
I noticed a rattling noise around 4:30 a.m. and thought a squirrel was in the suspended haul bag. I jumped up and opened the top and there was a ring tailed cat working its way through our food! Dave and John got up and investigated too. Dave took a flash pic of it in the bottom of the bag which startled the creature, before we dumped it out... Bagels were eaten and other things warranted a dump on them to mark their "new owner". We got up reasonably early and started the route in earnest.
I had to go up first as Dave got the bags ready to haul. Jugging 300ft off the deck was not easy for me and I huffed and puffed up the fixed line to the start of the third pitch. Bobo was right behind me and we were soon set for the haul from the ground. Dave, who is a hauler with vast experience, set the protraction (a pulley device) and started moving the bags up. About 35ft up they jammed under a large flake and there was nothing to be done save go down and clear them. Dave went down and dealt with the situation and soon they were moving right along. His protraction was an old one and soon started making some bad sounds, like bearings grinding. It wouldn't lock the load off and then started to shred my new 220ft static line! Not good. We had no reserve pulley... in fact we had no reserve anything on this low budget climb. After a time he got the thing to work in a crude way and the bags arrived shortly thereafter. So we were on the route and ready to get it done. The team of two and its solo hitch hiker were clear of the next belay so Dave lead off on the Window Pane flake that rose above us. The plan was for Dave to do most of the leading and if things went right I would get selected pitches probably in the morning or evening after the portaledges were out.
I remembered this pitch from 22 years ago when Charley Honsinger, a bump skier from Colorado, and I were over here to do it at this same time of year. Charley was new to walls and back then I was the man with the plan. We did well but by the 5th pitch it was so cold and windy that we were shaking uncontrollably and couldn't get warm. We came down in the coldest conditions I had experienced on the Cap. I wanted to avenge that bail but never came back. So I guess that was another reason for wanting to do this climb.
Dave lead upward in his rapid style of placing and back cleaning gear. With his reach the 6’4” Dave, just flew up the pitch. He left just a few pieces of gear in and hopefully they would be within reach of my much shorter arms. He disappeared past the flake, did a pendulum out to the left and quickly climbed to the belay. I let out the bags and proceeded to clean the pitch of its skimpy gear. The temperature was perfect for climbing in a t-shirt and I was starting to have some fun. It was kind of strange being back on ElCap again, after so long. The last time I climbed to the top was on Zodiac, in 1995. I got to where the flake curved over left, to the horizontal and quickly realized that the lad had back cleaned too much and I was not going to be able to reach from one piece to the next. I had no gear on me to put between the pieces as I used to do in this situation. The gear couldn't be left there as we needed it higher and of course it was expensive. So I kicked out a few steps to the left and turned, running right so I could get back to the piece in the crack. A little short... so I kicked it again and raced over in a nice pendulum and at the max reach I jammed a hand in the crack and stabbed a foot down low, grabbed the piece, a medium sized cam, and yanked it out. As I did I let go and just wheeled out of there, flying from under the roof. Dave saw me flying and let out a monkey call and yelled down that I was getting dangerous up here!! I did that in a smaller way a couple more times and was soon lowering over to the crack and climbing to the belay. That was fun!
As you get older it is not uncommon to want to feel again the feelings of wonder and anticipation that you felt toward things in your younger days. One reason I was doing this climb was to revisit my past and feel again the feelings I had when I climbed walls, so long ago. I would close my eyes for a moment, and sense the cool air, smell the granite, and feel the warmth of the sun on my body. I could once again look down the sweep of granite and feel those old feelings again. I could imagine that it was 30 years ago and my life lay ahead, instead of behind me. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling when you have so much to remember. This was going to be just what I needed to close out this part of my life. Part of growing old is graciously giving up things you can no longer partake of and being on ElCap is one of those things. So I am here for a drive down memory lane if you will... a last long look.. trying to see if I can capture, if only for a time, that person I used to be and will never be again. When I see the old slides of me climbing I feel like I am not that exact person anymore but more like a friend from long ago... familiar in many ways but no longer existing. I expected to be dealing with fear now, as I am not hardened to these conditions, but that is not the case. I am enjoying all of it and am completely comfortable.
At the belay Dave had things set up in his usual way. Of course Dave's way was not my way. So I thought I should ask a few questions to learn the "why" of his way. Well, that seemed to produce a little friction between us right off. Probably because I asked questions in a slightly confrontational way. Like: "Yo Dave, The next pitch goes out right and you hauled the bag up on the left side of the belay and tied it in there, so it will drag over me when I lower it out. I always thought that you should look at the next pitch and haul it on the side that it was going to be released on. Why didn't you do that?" MMMmmm. Dave thought about that one for a second and replied... "Ah... it doesn't make any difference". Mmmm “Ok Dave.” Then I went into how his belay was set up and pretty soon my very good friend, whom I consider to be like the brother I never had, had a change in tone and a little frown on his face. But that passed and soon he was off on the next pitch, one I had led, so long ago. I worked the ropes and tried to keep the belay in order while he climbed. Unfortunately, our low budget ascent didn't include rope bags, and the ropes were full on 11mm and 65 and 70 meters in length. That was a lot of rope weight to deal with and I certainly didn't want it hanging off Dave's harness. So I had to pull it up and just let out what he needed. Dave has never heard of the words, "slack" or "up rope", instead jerking the rope frantically when he needed it. Amazingly, he always seemed to do that just as I was trying to bring up more rope and set it up to be fed to him. Plus, I was new to the Grigri belay and with my arthritic hands had trouble pulling the rope through the device. In short, we were new to the partnership and, like all others in similar situations, had to adjust to each other. But since Dave is "the man" I was sort of expected to adapt to him and not the other way around! Still all things considered, we were starting to get things smoothed out and I certainly enjoyed watching him do his work on lead. The sun was on us by 11am and the temperature was rising.
Dave finished the lead and I got the bag sent out, tore down the belay and was off cleaning in a fair time, if not fast, steady. I jugged and cleaned and remembered when I was there, years ago, on that lead, in the freezing wind and cold, in deep shadows. It was different now. Angle had steepened and I was hanging from my harness a lot of the time. Dave had viciously back cleaned and most of the pieces were gone from the pitch, a practice he did throughout the climb. If he fell there would be hell to pay... but of course he didn't ever fall! So cleaning was easy, due to his consideration. But the one thing he couldn't do was make the jugging easier for me. One of the bad, bad things about being overweight, or fat, if you will, is that my old harness didn't exactly fit anymore. So when I weighted it, it would push up into my diaphragm and restrict my ability to breathe. So, what was strenuous, due to my extra pounds, was made more so by my reduced lung capacity. Thus, I made a series of grunts and moans that must have sounded like I was in the throes of death. Dave did have a somewhat alarmed look on his face when I finally arrived at the belay.
The sun now pounded down on us and the temperature soared as the wind died out. The sky was hazy with heat and the once fresh air quickly turned stale. I was dying for water and had some at the belay with Dave’s admonishment to go easy, as we would need it higher. The climbers above us were moving off and the hitch hiker had cleared the next belay. I was panting but Dave was fine and he led off on a really sweet left leaning crack. The afternoon was dragging on and the heat continued to do its work on both of us. The glare was horrendous. I tried to watch Dave above me but the sun was burning down in my face and I just couldn't keep looking up. Another nice lead for Dave. We got the cleaning and hauling done and were at the top of the 5th pitch by around 5 in the afternoon.
The teams above were not off the next belay yet, so we waited. By now the heat and glare were almost unbearable and we went to the water to get some relief, but even after a drink we would soon be just as thirsty as before. The sun was scorching hot and it must have been even hotter for Dave, as he had black synthetic pants and an olive drab synthetic shirt on. We were stuck at that hanging belay, completely exposed to the sun, and soon were just falling asleep from the heat. The teams above finally cleared the belay but we were so weak that it was now impossible for us to climb. So we decided to wait until the sun dropped down below the rim at 7p.m. The minutes dragged on and on and we were really suffering, while trying to conserve water. I have never been so miserable on a climb. How the climbers above continued in this heat I could not imagine. We stopped talking to each other and just moaned and groaned about how hot it was.... the time passed slowly but it passed. The shade line crept up the wall and soon passed over us. The relief was instantaneous and Dave was soon ready to get the next pitch done. The crack rose beautifully to the left and then straight up to the belay. Dave took off and was back cleaning like a madman and after a time I just said... "hey Dave, how about leaving something in?" So he left a piece in every now and then saying, “this ones for you Tom!” He disappeared over a bulge and soon came the "off belay" call I was waiting for. I got off that belay in record time and cleaned the pitch. But the heat had done its’ damage and I was not really recovered. I cleaned the few pieces Dave had left on the lower part and just jugged and jugged. But I could only do a few sweeps at a time and had to hang on the rope and rest, gasping for air. Soon Dave and the belay came into view and he was fast at work getting the portaledges set up. I dragged up the last few feet to the belay and collapsed onto my portaledge. Dave tossed me some water and I was saved!!
The bivy was a clusterfuck, with Dave resorting to what Coiler calls, "clipity clipity", a condition where things are just clipped into anything without any organization. I soon succumbed to the clipities myself and my side was a mess as well. I didn't care and would deal with it later. Dave busted out the tunes and we were soon recovering from the worst afternoon I had ever spent climbing. We were relaxed now and could joke about our "differences" over the day. Whenever Dave would be a little short with me I would tell him that he was my "Geid" (pronounced like a Frenchmen would say "guide") and as such was to maintain a respectful attitude toward me at all times. Otherwise, I would deduct $50 from his bonus for every infraction. From then on whenever he would yell at me to not touch anything, or to do what I was told, I would respond with, “Ok Geid, that will cost you $100!” We enjoyed the coolness of the evening and kind of let the suffering of the afternoon fall from the conversation. We felt confident again and started looking forward to another day of great climbing on the Captain. The route was much nicer than I had remembered it to be, with some really nice cracks and interesting features. But all that said, we were tired and by dark had stopped talking and went to sleep for the night. I awoke occasionally and enjoyed the nearly full moon and the views of the Ribbon Falls amphitheater, whose roar was our constant companion on the route. I thought about the other nights I had spent on the wall over the years. Some nights were spent in fear, awaiting the upcoming battle at dawn, and others in quiet reflection of this unique place. The night passed pleasantly enough even though I was aching from exertions I had not trained to do. My ego was writing checks that my body couldn't cash!
Dawn came and the teams above slept in a long time, thus delaying our start. Secretly I didn't mind as I could use the time to get organized and rest even more. We were to do a traverse with a couple of big lower-outs first thing and I reviewed how I was going to do all that. Dave was lounging, listening to tunes. After a time we just had to get the bivy broken down so we went to work. I must say I was amazed, and would be throughout the climb, at how quickly he could reorganize the belay! It didn't matter how cluttered things were, as it was just 10 minutes and things were ready to go. By then I had stopped complaining and spent my time trying to catch him disrespecting me. “AaaHa Geid! That will be a $50 deduction from your bonus, soon you will be paying me!” We were having fun for sure and this was the climb I was hoping for when I signed on!
Soon Dave was on the traverse out to the right and made short work of it... I even lowered out without any problem and was soon at the belay. The cool shade was refreshing and we were again making good time. Above rose a long, wide, crack that was 10c or something like that, but we had little gear to fit it, so Dave decided to leap-frog aid it. I pleaded with him to take some of my perfectly good, but admittedly, museum quality gear, to protect the pitch. I sang its virtues and he succumbed to my song. Off he went and about 30ft up came over a little roof where the running out would begin. "Ok Tom, I am going to use one of your pieces of shitty gear to start this run out." In went a green 3 inch cam and off to the races went Bobo. He stopped about 10 ft higher and set up the two pieces he would be rotating up the long pitch. Just as he resumed climbing I heard a scraping sound and out fell that piece of gear I had talked him into taking up!! Dave looked down and let out a string of slanderous remarks about my gear and heritage, in particular. I pointed at him and said "you can't afford to make such remarks Geid!" At about 50 ft above his last piece he let out a whoop and said that this was really cool and for me to look out for the 100 footer that was coming my way! We were having a good time and were still in the cool shade. He ended the pitch and by the time I cleaned it he had run it out over 100 ft above his last piece. I shutter to think what would have been the results if he had come off and gone for a 200 footer. But he didn't and that was all that mattered. Well, something else did matter and it was now with us. As I topped the bulge about 100 ft below him, cleaning, the sun came over the edge and hit us for the first time. We had a breeze and it was early so we didn't think much of it.
The view upward and downward was impressive and the other teams came into view, as they readied to start the so called, “Grand Traverse.” The hitch hiker was in his place at the rear of the line too. I finished cleaning and arrived at the belay in better condition than at the end of the other pitches, yesterday afternoon. The next pitch went up a lower angle crack to the Pillar of Despair, some 110 ft higher. I was looking forward to the lower angle as it would take the strain off my waist, as I wouldn't have to hang off the rope from my harness. Dave got organized and moved off quickly. I was doing pretty well at managing the ropes and the systems in general and we were enjoying ourselves. This was probably going to be my last climb on ElCap and it was going to be a nice farewell for me. Dave moved along in his usual manner. We had the minimum rack but Bobo is an improviser and managed to make weird stuff work. I think it actually make the climbing more fun for him as it was not technical enough with a full rack. Toward the end of the pitch the conditions changed for the worse. The breeze stopped and the suns angle increased its intensity, and suddenly the temperature soared. It just kept climbing and climbing higher in the sky. I could feel the rays on my back getting stronger and stronger, burning right through my shirt. The water was in the bag and not available to me now, so I would have to wait until I reached the belay to get another drink.
Dave finished the lead and hauled the bag as I cleaned in the stifling heat. The bag was stuck in the slings of some protection and I had to get up there to clean up the mess and sort it out. I was sweating, my face felt on fire and I was huffing and puffing for air. My optimism was fading rapidly as it was just after noon and already it was as hot as the worst part of yesterday and would only get hotter. It was soon a struggle just to clean the few pieces he had left as pro. By the time I was nearing the belay I was down to my last expendable energy and it was all I could do to make the few feet up to the Pillar of Despair. The belay on top of this, aptly named, pillar was not a ledge but an uneven and pointed ramp offering little comfort. The sun had us now... there was no place to hide for 1000 ft. up or down. The teams above were slowly moving out on the traverse and would take most of the afternoon to get everyone across. Once established on the pillar we took a break for some water. Food was out of the question in this heat. After 20 minutes it became clear that we were not going to be able to climb the next pitch in the present conditions. So we tried the best we could to present a minimal surface area to the sun, which was relentlessly bombarding us with brutal radiation.
We were trapped again and a feeling of near panic and dread spread over me. I cussed myself, "Stupid, how could you be so stupid? You knew the weather was going to be even hotter each day... why didn't you bail yesterday evening? Foolish pride and now look at you now, Stupid!" Dave rigged the butt board and sat down on it and hunched down with his head between his legs to keep the sun off it. His clothing was soaking up the heat even worse than mine and although he is younger, stronger, in better shape than I, he too was unable to do much of anything. All we had the energy to do was sit there and moan about how hot it was... and it was only a little after 1 in the afternoon with a full 6 hours until the sun went down. I went for the water and promised myself I would only take one pull, but it was 4 pulls until I could stop myself. Dave once again said to go easy and he was drinking even less than I was. It was a catch 22 situation. If we drank the water we needed to keep from heat exhaustion, then we would not have water day after tomorrow when we would be in just as bad a shape. If we didn't drink then we might never get to the day after tomorrow!
I had an idea and suggested to Dave, who was semiconscious and withdrawn, meditating to try to keep his mind off the heat, that we put up the portaledge over our heads and use it as a shade to keep the rays off . He murmured something about it being too much trouble but after I kept insisting he finally came around and opened his Black Diamond portaledge and hung it above us. It covered him pretty well and the upper part of me. We felt immediate relief and were no longer increasing in body temperature. He slumped back down into his chair and lapsed onto his own little world. We were silent. I had to stand on the point of the ramp and shift from one foot to the other and then hang in my harness and after a time do it all again, over and over. I looked out and up and watched the teams above slowly make their way upward. How could they even move in this heat? I couldn't believe it. Choppers were flying by and I thought that someone had called them for us and we would be saved shortly. Not the case, as there was a rescue of a fallen climber over on the Nose route. We had no cell phone and our little radio was not reaching anyone.
I noticed I had trouble focusing on the team above no matter how hard I worked my eyes and I found it difficult to do even the simplest task. I eventually just gave up and went as blank as I could. Dave had stopped sweating and was unresponsive. The experts will tell you that we were already passing into heat exhaustion and that we would be lucky to get out of this one. One has to be aware of the symptoms even before they are manifested so corrective action can be taken. But we were so feeble that we couldn't think clearly enough to see it coming on before it was too late!! I was able to stay in the situation only because I had to stand the entire time and kept shifting around. I thought about how foolish we were to be suckered into this trap. We should have gone down immediately but of course that was impossible as we were not able to do anything more complicated than breathing and resting, and rappelling is dangerous even when you are in control of your faculties. The afternoon dragged on and on. We even made a little "farewell loved ones” video, as sort of gallows humor, but it had an element of truth we both recognized. Time moves no matter what and finally the time came when the shadow slowly crept our way. By around 7 p.m. our salvation arrived and we finished our penance. The shade brought immediate relief, and we stirred again. I looked over at Dave and said "It’s my call Dave, we are going down in the morning and are going to bivy here." I told him I had worked all my life and had a family and was reaping the rewards of a life well spent and that I was not willing to risk it any further just to get to the top of some rock. My family and his would never forgive us if we kept foolishly going on. He looked at me with his bloodshot eyes and replied "Are you sure?" "yes" I said. He said "then pass me that 3 liter bottle of water, we can drink all we want now!"
So it was that we settled in for the night and tomorrow I would get my life back, a wonderful life that I had foolishly let myself get suckered into almost giving up, just to say I climbed another route on ElCap. We had a quiet evening on the portaledges, drinking and eating all we wanted. The night passed in a deep sleep for me and in the morning we went down and reached the ground without any particular difficulty. Coming across the ElCap Bridge I did the, “walk of shame”, as others had done but I was happy because for me it was the "walk of life".