I am 60 feet up in an oak tree on a brush-infested ridge in Sequoia National Park. That is about as specific as I can get on our location.
Pat, Kenn Kenega and I have spent the last 3 1/2 hours struggling upward through shoulder-high poison oak; burrs and foxtails matting in our hair; filthy sweat and tears leaving tracks through the dirt and poison oak oil on our skin until absorbed by the tangle of crud coating us.
Pat and Kenn are somewhere below. I lost sight of them about an hour ago while crawling through a particularly thick jungle of poison oak and buckbrush.
I brush off yet another tick, this one lovingly exploring the tender spot behind my left ear.
From my lookout in the tree, I can see not a thing that would give us any clue as to where we are, or where we want to be, if only we knew where that was.
As the cursing, thrashed pair arrive below, I descend through the heat (mindful of how little water we have remaining) to a desperate conference amid the tangle of sticker-bushes on the ridge top: Pat thinks we may be on the wrong mountain entirely. We both agree that, if we are on the right ridge, we're at least 2,000 feet too high. We all three agree that we're doomed.
Our excellent approach instructions simply indicated follow the old Castle Rocks Trail (faint in 1983) for 4-5 miles to rocky gullies. Since we never found that trail, we are not even sure in what direction we should be headed.
Doomed. The trip is a bust.
We agree to have lunch in about another hour of thrashing, and to decide then, when and how to retreat.
Conference over, we hoist sweat-soaked packs and stumble upwards into the brush, to find the Castle Rocks trail 50 yards away.
The route from here is a clear, easy contour through miles of forest to a gully with clear, sweet water and a rock chute leading up through the granite towers to the climb of our lives (still wading through poison oak though.)
Sunset: We lounge at a campsite scratched out of the jumbled rocks in the throat of the gully, finally able to relax. The incredible tower rises behind us into the evening sky as a vast molten-glowing disc sinks into the far ridges of Kings Canyon National Park. In the gloom, we finish a pot of Chicken-Mushroom Ramen laced with real mushrooms, real chicken, and soy sauce carried in for the occasion. Stars appear far above in the darkening sky and below, the middle fork of the Kaweah River briefly flashes silver from deep in the valley as darkness settles gently over California.
In a cool pre-dawn three climbers are arranging gear, sorting ropes, shoes and harnesses, cursing the ants that have crept into the packs during the night. Cups of Espresso or tea in hand, they each munch their own personal breakfasts, striving for an economy of movement. Every motion and thought this morning is focused on the climb ahead, and on returning to this rocky, tiny campsite before dark. As they begin to pick their way up the tilted rubble-chute above, one of the climbers bends over and retches.
9 am: Above me the rock is slightly overhanging as I jam up a dihedral capped by a roof. Forty feet below, Pat and Kenn sit on a ledge, worrying and watching as I work my way up the corner.
The roof: 40-year-old bolt beside a #3 Friend.The slings below swing outrageously away from the rock as a wild, barn-door layback takes me up onto crystal knobs in the middle of a vertical crackless wall. I balance and breathe, fiddle with protection, immerse my hands repeatedly in chalk, and study the moves above.
Finally I am ready, and dive up a sidepull, highstepping into a featured chute, nothing left but easy moves into the sky.
The best compliment a second can pay to a leader, without falling on a pitch, is to pull over the crux shaking like a leaf, glasses steamed, snot coming out of his nose. When Kenn pays me this tribute as he com[pletes the 5.11b roof, I am honored. Pat, not to be outdone, falls at the crux.
More leads; pitch after pitch of incredibly steep solid rock leaqpfrog us up into the blue sky.
I want to lead the 5.8, but Kenn takes over the lead at the bottom of a shallow, off-vertical 5.11 seam. Shaking and sweating, we watch him struggle desperately to place sparse protection in the worthless flare. Unsure of his pro, he takes a 15-foot fall to test his top piece. It holds.
More confident now, Kenn tries the moves a few more times, to finally pull through the crux into easy cracks and Lichen below the summit.
Pat tackles the last pitch, 5.10, with a rude power move off of a fingerlock into a bush and we are through the difficulties, lounging in the sun atop the most incredible peak any of us have ever climbed.
Rapelling off. 3 raps down, I slow onto the ledge where, a minute ago, Pat started screaming. He is still screaming. Eyes wide, he holds up a mess of slings through the eye of a rusty, loose piton he removed by hand. One of our rappel anchors. I start screaming with him. When Kenn arrives, he joins in.
Sunset -- the incredible tower rises behind us into the night, an incomprehensible black dagger-thrust of stone. Below, as darkness settles yet again over California, the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River and the swimming holes of Paradise Creek flash molten gold deep in the valley, reflecting the peace of the evening sky.