I should have known better than to ask what happened to his leg. Curiosity and the cat, and so on. Anyone crazy enough to be bouldering in a cast is probably best left alone. But I’m nosy, so I asked. “Oh, I took a leader fall on some ice,” he shrugged, proving that he was, in fact, crazy. I backed away slowly and went back to my cozy, well-padded gym problems.
The good lord provided me with a fairly decrepit long-term memory, so the next time I ran into him at the gym, almost a year later, I let him strike up a conversation with me. He was looking relatively intact, so I agreed to venture out of the Mission Cliffs bouldering cave and into the exciting world of toproping. After a month or two of this, he decided it was time for me to venture “outside” – to experience “real climbing” on “actual rock”.
The good lord also provided me with below-average intelligence, apparently, because I readily agreed, and soon found myself on a week-long expedition to Yosemite. After a few easy pitches at Five Open Books, I was feeling pretty damn good about myself. Sure, my feet hurt a little in my two-sizes-too-small gym shoes, but I felt like a Real Climber. We had a look at Yosemite falls and then walked down the sandy, well-defined hiker’s trail back to Camp 4.
“I think we’ll try something a little longer tomorrow” he said. “How does that sound?” It sounded fabulous. With Selaginella firmly under my belt, I felt totally prepared for a few pitches of burly 5.8 offwidth and sustained lieback cracks. As we headed up the approach to Braille Book, on Higher Cathedral Rock, I felt slightly less prepared. He was carrying all of our gear and leaping up the talus like a mountain goat; I was carrying the rope and breathing like an asthmatic at 15,000 feet. We got to the base of HCR and I flung the rope across the nearest rock, sat back on my haunches, and had myself a well-deserved energy gel. He unpacked the topo map and began searching for the first pitch.
I should have started worrying when he asked my opinion about where the route started, but I was so glad to be sitting down that I snatched up the map and nodded wisely as I sized up the array of rock formations in front of me. I agreed that his interpretation was as good as any, and he racked up and started climbing. The first belay, at a small tree, seemed a bit shorter than 70 feet, and the gully system that led to the next pitch looked a lot easier than 5.5, but there were climbers a few pitches ahead of us who looked like they were enjoying themselves and it seemed reasonable that the topo could be a bit off.
A few pitches later, we caught up to the party in front of us. My kind leader (MKL) had stopped and set up a belay just after a fairly exposed traverse, on the advice of the belayer above us: “You’d better stop there; this belay really sucks.” We leaned back to split an energy bar and talk about how awesome the climb had been to that point. I was fairly sure that we were on our fourth or fifth pitch, but it looked like we had a lot more than a pitch or two to go. MKL seemed to concur: “I think we might be off route.” I off-handedly mentioned that it wouldn’t hurt to ask the people above us, since we didn’t have anything else to do while we were waiting, and so MKL shouted up, “Can I ask a dumb question?” The belayer above us clearly didn’t anticipate the next question, because he shouted back something along the lines of “There are no dumb questions; what did you want to know?”
“What route are we on?” “Northeast Buttress.” “What’s it go at?” “5.9” “How many pitches?” “Eleven.” Just then an energy bar or something sailed out from a chimney high above our heads and plummeted to the ground. “OH GOD” shouted the leader above us. After a bit more grunting and heaving, the other team’s second started to climb and we moved up to the next belay. It certainly did really suck. MKL disappeared, and I sat back to drink in the absolutely incredible view. Thirty minutes later, the view was still incredible, but I was increasingly less able to appreciate it. “MOTHER OF GOD!” gasped MKL. I looked up just in time to see a Clif Bar sail past my face and down the route. Now I was starting to worry.
A few minutes later, after MKL had put me on belay, I looked up into my first squeeze chimney. Two thoughts occurred: “There must be some special technique for climbing these things” and “I wonder what that is.” After a long and painful struggle, which involved lots of desperate knee-smearing, I found myself with my knees wedged up against my chin and my feet at chest level, four feet from the top of the chimney. I had a nut jammed in my spine and a nut tool biting into my inner thigh, and I was desperately fumbling my hands against the rock- above me, below me, outside the chimney, in a crack in the back… I managed to scrape my back up a few inches, then work my feet up, and I slapped for daylight with everything I had. “SWEET JESUS!” I hauled myself up and tied in to the anchor with shaking hands.
Most of the rest of the pitches passed in a blur. There was a gorgeous splitter crack around pitch 8, but I don’t remember much else. It must have been obliterated by the same region of the brain responsible for blocking out the pain of childbirth. It was starting to get dark, and I was almost out of water and well out of food. As I saw MKL finally slip past the first of the trees that marked the summit, I began to perk up. “Okay, one more pitch, I can do this. If I hurry, we can make it back down to the pack before it gets dark.” Unfortunately, as MKL was prone to say in the days that followed, this was the climb that kept on giving, and this pitch wasn’t any easier than the ones that had preceded it. Halfway up, as I rested my cheek on the rapidly cooling granite, it occurred to me that those trees at the top looked a lot farther away than they had when I was belaying. I started to ask whether we were on the last pitch, and realized that I couldn’t risk the utter loss of morale if we weren’t.
It was a good thing I didn’t ask, because when I finally reached MKL we were still a pitch away from the finish. I struggled up the final pitch as best I could and when I made it to safety, MKL was all business. No clever remarks, no triumphant pictures of me glowering victoriously across the valley – he took off at a trot towards the sandy walkoff. I gulped the last of my water, packed up the rope, and followed after him. It was the time of day referred to by poets as “the gloaming”, but I wasn’t feeling particularly poetic. But, as I looked down towards the valley floor, 1,200 feet straight down from where I was standing, I was still optimistic that we’d be able to make it back to the pack (and the headlamp) before total darkness set in (see “below-average intelligence"). I’m told there’s an excellent walkoff trail, but I definitely didn’t find it. I clambered over shrubs and down huge slabs of rock as fast as I could, only barely within shouting distance of MKL. We made it to the boulder field just as the last vestiges of daylight disappeared, hastily split a Clif Bar and the last of our water, and then set off (to the skier's left) to retrieve our pack and car keys.
That was the 100% the wrong decision. After three hours of bushwhacking and desperate scrambles up and down slopes of scree, during which I almost killed MKL with a large and easily dislodged rock, we gave up any hope of retrieving the pack (and our extra water!) and decided to head back for Camp 4. Our strategy by this point was very simple: head downhill. Head towards the sweet, sweet headlights rolling down the valley loop road. Head straight for the Merced River and plunge into it, drinking it dry. We finally hit a hiker’s trail around 2:30 and made it to the road. The fit of my approach shoes, which was a bit small to begin with, was in no way improved by the massive swelling my feet had undergone over the course of 13 or so pitches in my bouldering-appropriate climbing shoes. I took them off and walked the last mile or two back to our campsite in my socks.
MKL informed me, as the nearly full moon illuminated the face of El Captain, that “epic” climbs are those on which the party returns after sunrise the following day. I await our next trip with baited breath.