Late October, 2001:
At the far end of the Valley, the last of the sunset's alpenglow
slowly fades from the face of Half Dome. Across the way, and closer,
the corners and crack systems on the Sentinel briefly flare into
red-gold, as I clip the anchors at the top, thus completing the third
ascent of Tempest on El Capitan. Half a year of planning, logistics,
and sometimes superhuman effort have resulted in
this simple, insignificant act.
Fifty feet above me, at the top of the slabs, Marco stands by the
anchor tree filming my last gear-entangled moves over the rim of El Cap.
Below, Tom McMillan and Valerio Folco sip a Guiness at the penultimate
anchor. The wall, for me at least, has ended. I could simply walk
away at this point, leaving Valerio, Marco, and Tom to deal with the
last hauls, with the transport of 500+ pounds of gear off the summit
of the Captain.
With a backup anchor finally in place, I radio "Jug line is Fixed.
We're there." then run up the fixed slab lines to check the anchor
Em then radios her congratulations, and informs me that she has just
reached the summit of the Captain via the Falls Trail. Our
support/load ferrying team is nearly complete.
In deepening twilight I rap back down to the rim, suddenly
experiencing the nauseating exposure characteristic of stepping to the
edge of a 3,000 foot drop. Far, far below, the headlights and
taillights at El Cap meadow look like tiny replicas on a child's toy
landscape in a darkened room. Valerio reaches the rim anchor, and we
discuss hauling strategy, he in Italian and I in English,
communicating with gestures and simple phrases as we have for the past
two weeks. He disappears up the slab lines as the daylight fades to a
dim memory in the western sky.
Flipping on my headlamp, I set up for the first haul, backing up
anchors yet again, adding redundancy never needed during the past nine
days. We've come so far, let's not screw up now. Bone-deep weariness
sets in, and superstitions about the last pitch of El Cap.
But we're too thorough to die, this time. And too careful to dislodge
rocks that would kill someone at the base of this sucking abyss.
Slowly the mess is sorted out, the tangles of rope coiling around
loose rim rock unleashed into the night, drawn up and carefully
stacked at the tree, haul bags disappearing up into the darkness as
Valerio and Marco do the slab hauls fast as I can muscle the pigs into
Tom waits patiently below, freeing each bag in turn. On the radio, Em
reports that she is unable to locate us in the dark: "Lions and Tigers
and Bears, Oh My!"
The last bag is free of the anchors. A pause as Tom requests me to
send down an end of our sturdiest rope to back up his system. That
done, Tom starts to clean the pitch in the darkness, plucking out
beaks with his fingers, cleaning copperheads with a gentle tug. I
scamper up the slabs yet again, deposit more gear at the anchor tree,
shrug into a parka against the evening chill, and rap back down to the
anchors to accompany Tom as he completes the cleaning. I know from
past efforts that in the darkness, cleaning the last pitch of a
multi-day wall can be a very lonely and spooky experience. And so I
sit on the brink of the chasm, watching Tom's anchors, occasionally
offering words of encouragement. After nine days on the wall, we are
all so very ready for the climb to be over.
Tom arrives, again a tangle and a bustle of ropes, beaks, cams and
rope bags, and I send him up the slabs, staying below to clean the
last of the anchors we shared on this wall. I having been both the
head and the tail end of our long caterpillar of disorganization
finally heave myself up over the darkened rim, to the tree that
represents our salvation from the wall, our release from the prison of
our ambition, freedom from the mandatory company of each other's
presence. The thread that comprises our team is unravelling.
I arrive at the tree. No Em. Tell the others I am heading out to try
to guide her back. It's been more than an hour since she reached the
summit, normally a short 10 minute hike from our current location. I'm
worried. My three companions seem oblivious.
Fifteen minutes later, Em and I establish voice contact. I see her
headlamp far across the slabs, a bobbing mote in the dark gloom, while
I can still see the headlamps of the rest of the team below me, at
the top of the route. Almost home. Just head back down to the rim,
grab some bivy gear, and find camp. Em and I stumble back down the
steepening slabs toward the top of the route.
As we do so, the lights of the team, down at the rim, start moving.
Away from the brink of the abyss.
I try the radio. No response.
Where are they going? Should we go down to the gear while we can still
find it, and lose touch with the team, or shall we follow the
headlamps? Without lights at the top of the route, we'll likely never
find the gear in the dark if we wander too far. Beyond the edge below
I feel a ravenous sucking void in my mind, a well of darkness from
which I have so recently crawled. I don't want to be stumbling around
down there at the mouth of the Beast.
Like children chasing phantoms deeper into swampland, we follow the
dim jack-o-lanterns of my wall brethren as they wander away from us,
uphill. I now have no way to locate my bivy gear.
"Where are they going?" Em asks.
"yes. welcome to the climb."
Finally we establish voice contact:
The game ends at a bivy fire, and we are reunited with the rest of the
I am hammered beyond belief.
Over beers, smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels (delivered to us by
Em,) I ask "What were you guys doing?"
"Well, we didn't know where you were, so we just headed to the bivy."
"did you try calling on the radio?"
"Uh, no, we turned the radios off."
"Uh, did any of you by any chance bring up my sleeping bag?"
"No. Are you going to go back down and get it?"
(Involuntary shudder) "Back down where? I have no idea where the gear
is. And no, I'm not going wandering around the edge of El Cap at night
looking for it. I've had enough for one day." Em and I huddle beneath
her single thin Husky 8000 sleeping bag, and shiver the night away.
Tom and his wife Linda (who has just hiked up from the Valley floor)
disappear down the East Ledges, picking up the remaining ropes and
gear from the anchors on the way down. Valerio and Marco each take
maximum they feel they can carry then head out. Em loses it, sobbing,
convinced that there's no way the two of us can physically handle what
is left. V & M return briefly and take a few more items ("already I
have over 50 kilos!!!"), then disappear down the Falls trail.
When all that fits is strapped and garlanded onto our backs, and the
remains stuffed into a hand-carried plastic bucket, the loads are
bone-crushing. Hunched over like troglodytes, stopping to rest every
50 feet, we stagger two miles to the Eagle Peak saddle, where, unable
to continue, we drop our burdens behind a boulder. Em passes out in
the dirt and pine needles while I split the loads, and cache half of
each. With now only 60-70 lbs each, we face the next 6 miles with
guarded enthusiasm, knowing our job will not be complete until yet
another day of spine-crushing loads has passed.
The following day, Em and I return to Eagle Peak to carry down the
last of the gear, but the effort seems both excruciating and futile, a
final, empty gesture to a castle that the team built in the sky; a
castle that will soon be washed away by the tide of our lives.
Will Valerio, Tom and I ever meet again as a team to build yet another
castle in the sky? I doubt it. But stranger things have happened.
Water passes under the burning bridges, unseen smoke stains the night
stars. We turn corners down labrynthine corridors, rarely looking
back, but often questioning. Certainty is as elusive and ephemeral as
the steam drifting from the ashes of the summit fire. El Capitan is
soon obscured in the rear-view mirror by the mixed conifer forest of
the Pohono Quarry.
Early November, 2001:
This morning finds me deep in post-wall depression in a cluttered
office, paper cup of cold company coffee beside the keyboard, wishing
I was back there on the summit of the Captain, chasing lights in the
night, playing Marco Polo and shivering the night away, suffering even
in our triumph of survival.
Brutus of Wyde,
Old Climbers' Home