During the summer of 1969 I lived on the outskirts of San Francisco with my family. It was the summer of love, and San Francisco was the epicenter of the music scene, yet my parents never once took me to the Fillmore or any shows of Jefferson Airplane, the Dead or their kind. Instead, they spent a few of my Dad’s precious days off for a trip to the magnificent valley of Yosemite. I remember standing at the banks of Mirror Lake, with the high cliffs of Half Dome reflected in the clear sunlit waters. I remember the power of the waterfalls and the magnificence of the trees. I remember returning that winter with a small metal saucer sled and sliding down deep piles of snow. I don’t remember the cliffs, the climbers or the crowds, though, but then again I was only four years old at the time.
I didn’t return to that magical place until thirty years later. Of course I’d read about it: Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Galen Rowell, but theirs was a foreign world, pitons, hammers, artificial climbing, sleeping suspended above all as storms swept past. It was a world I never thought that I’d enter. Sure, Cannon Cliff, Gothics, and the Grand Teton all had a magnetic pull but they were different, weren’t so steep or foreboding.
I don’t remember how it came up, a random conversation at work maybe, but somehow I found myself planning a trip with a friend, Steven, to attempt three of the Valley's greatest climbs during a two week spell. Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, and the Salathe Wall were to be the primary objectives. We’d try to fit in a few smaller climbs as well if the opportunity arose but if those didn’t work out it would be okay. Since we’d never done any aid climbing beyond pulling on a couple slings, we sought out the Sphinx Crack, hard lines in Boulder Canyon, Big Rock Candy Mountain even, until we felt that we knew the basics.
Then, it was time to leave, departing Denver early, passing the sun splashed rocks of Glenwood Canyon in the early morning, and then continuing out through the vast extent of Utah as the day drifted on. I remember noticing the smudge of clouds on the horizon somewhere in there. “It looks like that time we went to the Tetons and it snowed two feet,” I said pretending that it was a joke but knowing in my heart there was more to it. Wheeler Peak, great expanses of salt with their dust devils and so many unknown ranges passed beyond until finally we reached the famed waters of Mono Lake, then much later that magical valley. Steven knew two of the rangers and they’d been kind enough to invite us to their home for a few days when we weren’t hanging from the cliffs, so we pulled in, said hi briefly then hit the beds after sixteen hours of driving.
Clouds Fog and the Northwest Face
It was snowing when we awoke, big lazy flakes drifting down to the Valley floor, so we ate a casual breakfast then walked slowly to a climbing shop somewhere there in the heart of the Valley. A fellow shopper was from Gunnison and knew many of the same people as Steven so they talked amiably for a time while I browsed nonchalantly. There was something unsettling though, a sense that all might not end well. I remember having a premonition of death but quickly shoved the thought aside, hoping that it was nothing beyond jitters in anticipation of the upcoming climbs.
The first Bivy
The next day, the snows had been replaced by rain and we decided to set out for the base of Half Dome by the circuitous route to its south, camping after a few miles where the trail turned to climb the peak. The next morning, I mostly remember the forests and their magnificent sequoya. The packs were heavy and the weather still miserable. Several climbers from Briton had turned up missing, as they’d buried themselves deep in a crack to get out of the weather near the summit of the North West Face. When conditions improved slightly, they made a bid for the summit only a couple pitches higher but were stopped by slick verglas and had to be pulled from the face only a hundred feet shy of the route’s end.
A climber just below Big Sandy Ledges
There was ice clattering from the cliff when we reached its base, but we decided to fix a pitch then settle in for the night at a small bivy spot in a nearby grove of trees. Occasionally, we heard a sharp metallic clang from a lonely climber finishing a new route somewhere far out on the right side of the face. We never saw him but later in the comfort of our homes we read about his exploits. I don’t think that I could do that in the cold all by my lonesome but somehow he persevered. The North West Face of Half Dome is deeply shaded in the morning but it was finally clear when we awoke the following morning to start on our very first grade VI route. Like several other climbs, I’d poured over the passages in Fifty Classic Climbs until the book’s binding hung ragged. I’d read that article of Rowell’s ascent years earlier, and heard many other descriptions as well.
My memories of that first day were different, somehow: cracks drooling with a steady stream of moisture, thick fog quickly skittering past and enveloping the face. Another group passed us intent on making the climb in a single day. One of them had stood on the summit of Everest only two weeks earlier and was just passing through. Then I heard the whoosh whoosh whoosh of some rock plunging from the heights. I was leading and standing on exposed pedestal but had nowhere to hide. I could hear that it was in a direct line with me, and knew that my skull stood little chance if the strike was direct. Maybe I should have looked up and then leapt to the side if it was on a collision course, I’m not sure, but instead I just cowered as close to the cliff as possible as it closed in then swept past only a few feet behind. Soon the Everest climber rappelled past. He hadn’t knocked the rock down, he swore. It came from high above spooking them as well. We chatted for a few minutes then they descended below as we traversed across to the bivy.
Clouds swirled around us. There was a smattering of rain and a chilly breeze and we had half a mind to join the others in retreat but then sun began reaching through, alighting the face brilliantly as we finished some cold but satisfying meal.
Thank God Ledge
The rest of the ascent was surreal. The Robbins Traverse was wet and daunting. I’d never before attempted a pendulum but what a place to learn! On the pitch above, my placement slipped out of the crack but I guess that’s what the rope is for, and we soon reached the massive chimney system in the center of the cliff. Two other Colorado climbers joined us at the Big Sandy Ledges that evening. They were from the same town as Steven, actually. Then, we passed all of those pitches so sacred in the annals of climbing: the Zig Zags, Thank God Ledge, and finally that pitch where an early attempt to free the face fell a single move short.
We’d had a tube for our waste clipped to the bottom of our haul bag with a loop of duct tape. The system had worked well, but when I pulled the bag up this final time and it flopped over onto the flat summit the tape broke free, balancing the tube of poop precariously at the very edge of the cliff. Thankful that we hadn’t splattered or killed one of the parties lower on the route, we quickly secured it then returned to the floor of the valley as the day drifted into night. Steven’s ranger friend met us at the base of the cables and even carried some of our gear back down. Then, there were giant slugs, trees looming out of the darkness and finally a warm bed in which to rest.
Thoughts of El Capitan
Steven said that he was done, needed a break for at least a few days before contemplating anything like the Salathe, so we took it easy and rested. One day we had lunch with the family of his friends at the posh Ahwahnee Hotel Restaurant. Another, we wended our way up the Royal Arches route. It was nice but a little too much of El Capitan was visible from its flanks, and I stewed with introspection. As much as I’d enjoyed Half Dome, and as spectacular as the route was it hadn’t been my primary goal of the trip. “What if we attempt the Nose instead?” I offered sometime that night. The climbing isn’t quite as hard and it is such a magnificent line. The woman who we were staying with’s son, Mike, offered to drive us to the base of the cliff one evening to reconnoiter. He happened to be an astonishing climber even though he was still a day from his high school graduation. Earlier that spring he’d belayed Tommy Caldwell on his free ascent of the Salathe, and easily scampered up 5.11. For half an hour, maybe even longer, we looked up at this, perhaps the world’s most magnificent rock for climbing before Steven finally broke the silence. “I just can’t do it Rob.”
The impact was shattering. This was the cliff that I’d really come so far to climb. A place that I’d never foreseen reaching yet for a few precious months almost seemed a possibility.
Arriving at El Cap Tower
“Well, I’ll do it with you.” We were driving back to the house now, and Mike’s simple phrase turned everything around yet again. He had to negotiate the attempt with his mother but she graciously gave the approval for the ascent so long as we descended back to the ground after climbing to the Sickle Ledge, so that he could get at least one good night’s sleep after his graduation parties.
The Stovepipe Cracks
We all went to Mike’s graduation, then as promised arose late, joining the queue at the base of the Nose sometime during the mid-morning and managing the four pitches to the ledge before dinner. Then, after a restless night in a comfortable bed, we were at it again, jumaring to our high point in the dark, with the face looming so high above. One of the parties from the previous day had called it quits, another realizing that we were faster was kind enough to let us pass so by eight or so in the morning we set out towards the Stovepipe Cracks with only a single group over a thousand feet above.
Mike had brought a cell phone; he was supposed to keep in touch with his family, and let me make a quick call to my wife thousands of miles away visiting her parents in New York. After a simple “Hi,” and maybe a sentence or two more the phone went dead and we were left watching the birds sweeping past hunting some insects as prey. All day, the rangers had been searching the Merced River for the body of a BASE jumper who’d jumped into the swift currents to elude pursuit.
The Great Roof
Soon, though, there were other emergency personnel rushing past, ambulances, helicopters, maybe even fire trucks all vanishing around the bend in the direction of Half Dome. At about that time my wife was watching some show on the television and one of those scrolls of letters came on the bottom of the screen, alerting her that some Colorado climber had just been killed in a rockslide in Yosemite. Frantic, she called the park but they wouldn’t release the name. Sensing desperation, they finally agreed to reveal that it wasn’t me but a man from Gunnison. He died a hero, they say, clinging to the belay to keep his partner safe even as a rock shattered his skull.
We knew nothing of this and continued climbing the next morning ever higher into the sky. By some quirk of luck, I seemed to lead every pitch with a pendulum, while Mike drew the sustained difficult aid leads. I guess that isn’t bad, though; the King Swing was certainly an adventure! Again, I thought of the history, all those famous stretches immortalized in the annals of mountaineering; the views and panoramas featured in so many photographs of Ansel Adams, and clipping those bolts put in by Warren Harding on his final night on the wall. Then it was over and we were descending seemingly forever back into the depths of the valley.
Ruminations of an aging man
That was ten years ago, and I’ve only done a few major rockclimbs since then. Maybe that’s because of my children or perhaps because of the death of a close friend and her partner two years later in that same magical valley. Or maybe it’s because I seem to shift focus from time to time. In my youth I was a fanatic at soccer, then hiking those 4000 foot summits of the Northeast. I spent a decade surmounting many of the nation’s greatest cliffs, and more recently have been doing some running; ultramarathons and the like. Perhaps though, it relates to the quality of that magnificent route. It might be the world’s greatest rockclimb, that’s a matter of preference, but it was more substantial than anything that I ever dreamed of attempting. I think that it was Woody Allen who said that half of life was just showing up, and that seemed to be the case here. So, I have to thank Steven for his initial vision and Mike for spontaneously volunteering to accompany me. Actually, it’s the only climb that I’ve ever done with him but sometimes life is like that.