The pitch ahead of me is usually the eighth one... Tobias and I have taken five very long rope-lengths to get here... I combined the second and third pitches in order to bypass the ant-tree belay, and Tobias combined the sixth and seventh pitches to put us here.
And where is "here?" 1987. El Capitan. East Buttress Route. When Pat and I arrived at this location on our first attempt in 1978, we saw the face as a smooth, blank, hold-less vertical wall, the crack double-overhanging and horribly wide. The climb as an adventure in the extreme, witnessed by the 30-foot fall I took on the first pitch and the 40-foot air fall Pat took on pitch 8.
I am full of fear... almost visibly shaking... the adrenaline has run a strong current through my blood all morning: This pitch stopped Pat and I, on aid, in 1978. And I am here to free climb it. I look at the "smooth, blank, holdless vertical wall..." I look close. Yes... a crack, offset away from me, several feet out.... thin, sharp secure edges for toes and chalked fingertips. I marvel at the power in those fingers, the kinesthetic awareness is a sharp, searing focus: Knowing what I can and cannot do here, what will work, what will almost work (avoid that: it means temptation to risk, and if that road is taken too casually, death) and what is out of the question.
I move out onto the face, clamping over thin holds, smearing rubber, to the offset crack. But wait. In my fear and desire to make this face go, I have moved away from the security of the wide crack. The grassy, bottomed, thin seam above is dirty... a sure sign I have moved out too low. My last protection is secure but on a double runner far away in the corner due to the anticipated traverse... a fall could mean a nasty pendulum into the wall on my right and possible broken bones.
Someone asked me once "but how do you know that this hold or that combination of moves will work? How can you feel whether or not if you stand on a certain small edge, you will slip or stay?" The words run through my brain like notes of a catchy tune...
I don't know, now.
The moves behind me are irreversible. What do I know will work?
Foot edge, there. I cross my hands on the last secure flake, and feel the start of the sequence. Yes, it will work... I've never done this move on a wall before... but thousands of times while working my way through talus fields on hundreds of hikes, climbs, and romps in the high country. I begin to shake, and back to the thin, grassy crack i go, hopping from one foot to the other, to rest the calves, shaking out first one arm, then the other. Slip in two tiny wired stoppers. Clip a "soft" air voyager to limit the force on the shallow pieces. Safer now. Breathe.
I step out right, cross hands like before, like the 30 times I've rehearsed it in my head while hopping about out on the face, give a tiny jump, like the delicate, controlled half-pirouette of a dancer, and switch feet on the final edge. My body falls, sideways to the right, left foot still on the edge, right hand reaching out, reaching.... slapping the wall, slowing me, stopping me, and I am bridged between my left big toe and the palm of my right hand. Slip left hand in crack, pivot, right foot below right hand, stem, jam, and I am back in the wide crack.
Ten feet higher I see the true traverse left out of the wide crack... simple compared to the sorcery below. A fantastic, delicate mantle out on the edge of reality puts me face-to-face with a bolt.
Looking up, Tobias must have been thinking how hard that mantle would be while wearing a day pack, for about that time he shouted up that I had forgotten the haul line...
The rest of the route was, is, and always will be beautiful, enjoyable, "Vantastik" as Tobias said, climbing.... but that one pitch, that pitch that stopped Pat and I....
I've climbed harder moves, more difficult sequences, more exposed walls, even a few "death routes" like Ballet in Joshua Tree... but this pitch... my fear. Alone and afraid. A barrier. My fear, within me. Inside I am still the same person that stopped Pat's 40-foot fall here. My eyes have grown. The can see the holds, my hands have learned, and my feet, they know what to do with the holds. But in some ways, I don't know this climber. One who will, when all is done, climb this route (once the most formidable climb i could imagine myself doing) in less than 6 hours. Who is this person?
And which was the greater adventure? The first, aborted attempt on this sweeping line? The successful 2-day, 4-man aid ascent the following year with Pat and the 'Gunkies?
Or now, 8 years later? The first time Tobias and I climbed together was the first pitch of this route. This was T's first rock climb in America. How would he climb?
On the second pitch, a large piton was driven into the best, usable hole. Thus, I thought, was my justification for grabbing nylon, yarding on it full force. Then: what if this is the only move I aid on the whole climb? I will hate myself. I backed down. A single finger, touching granite only, not nylon, not steel, and a fierce moment of power and fear and I was through the move without aid. Tobias beamed at me, said "OK!" It was like he was pounding me on the back, in joy, but I was still on 5.9 rock and his hands on the belay rope, keeping me safe and alive.
Above, on the ninth pitch, Tobias is heading too far to the left. Stop and belay there, I say. "Ich Komme!" I say.
Yes, it is as I thought. We traverse right here, wildly right over white flakes onto the most fantastic, knobby face you will ever climb. Up.
Up over the top, then down to the car. Who is this climber? I wonder as I throw the rack of stoppers and friends in the trunk.