Just twelve months before, Jim Hooker and I had crouched on the summit of Thunderbolt Peak with our friend Doug Smith and eagerly gazed across to Mount Sill. Jim and I had eaten and digested every word in the guide book describing the Swiss Arete, the classic arching buttress separating the east face of Sill from the ice filled couloir to the north. Now, in early September of 1979 we were traversing the Sill Glacier under the great east face carrying two ropes, a rack of assorted chocks, wedges, stoppers, carabiners, and hoops of colorful webbing. The gear clanging out a chiming ring, in step with our footfalls carrying us across the downward angled acres of ice, was an exciting and ominous song. Our packs were filled with small amounts of food and water, 35-mm cameras and lenses, our EB rock shoes, sweaters, Gore-Tex anoraks, and a few odds and ends.
Jim and I were somewhat of a ragtag climbing team. We hadn’t made the dawn wake-up call that morning, and were feeling the altitude and fatigue of hauling our carcasses and heavy packs up the last four thousand vertical feet of rock and bush. I’m not going to try to portray Jim and I as great mountaineers and rock climbers. We were regular semi crazed working guys from Napa Valley who had always loved the mountains and had been climbing for about five years. We didn’t proudly bound up the approach along the south fork of Big Pine Creek with great confidence and determination. We were determined, but pretty nervous and somewhat lacking in experience. Jim and I had some difficult and uncomfortable times together in the two and a half days of hiking up into our base camp. He brooded a lot and seemed to withdraw into himself. I was no help. I didn’t have a family then and I usually parlayed this existential angst and melancholy I lived with into some need for risk and excitement. Jim and I were and are the best of friends and I think he was divided between being grateful for being part of the great adventure and pissed at me for getting him into such dangerous surroundings. But at night around the campfire we shared a pipe and laughed and tried to breath some levity into what seemed like a mad dash up the knife edge between glory and calamity.
It was early afternoon before we finished the traverse across the glacier and came upon a one hundred-foot rock wall guarding the way up to the saddle below the north couloir. We were in a hurry and anxious to get on the mountain so we remained un-roped and free climbed up into the saddle. The moves were no harder than 5.5 but the exposure was a little nervous making. Finally we stood atop a field of exfoliated gray granite and looked up upon Mount Sill, the Swiss Arete and the ice filled North Couloir which rose like a great slide about fifteen hundred feet up to the notch. The Arete rose up in a daunting grand buttress getting ever steeper as it approached the summit, and finally merging into the east face. Jim and I sat on a boulder and looked upon the planned afternoon’s work. We both felt exhausted. I kept thinking, "I don’t want to move from this spot, but Jeez, we have come so far to stop now". I felt like I had one of those hangovers that were designed in the late 60’s. I looked deep into myself for some kind of will to go on and climb this monster.
We made some tea, ate a couple of energy bars, and gave each other a pep talk. By now it was probably around 2 p.m. I kept thinking that to back down now and go home without climbing the mountain would be a disappointment lasting a lifetime. Jim’s grumbling and facial expressions spoke of the same ambivalence and exhaustion. "Let’s just do a pitch and see how it feels", I said.
We worked our way up the soft ice in the afternoon sun, blasting down out of a deep blue sky. It was fairly easy to kick steps in the ice which was riddled with sun-pockets, some quite deep. The ice filled gully ran up between a lesser peak and ridge, and Mount Sill on the left, and reflected the glowing sky like a great white radiator. When the ice became too steep to proceed without crampons we stepped onto a small ledge of rock at the bottom of the ridge that was the base of the arete. We exchanged our hiking boots for rock shoes, rearranged our packs and began to work our way up low fifth class moves still un-roped. The surroundings were so fantastic and as we crested the side of the ridge and crawled up and stood upon the backbone of the Swiss Arete I fully understood the term ‘Alpine setting’. The other side of the arete dropped off several hundred feet to the Sill Glacier and gave us a grand view of the east face rising up perhaps one thousand feet above us. The Palisades rose up in sharp dark gray spires to the north and south of us. We were filled with a new energy and enthusiasm and quickly arranged our gear, set up a belay, and roped up. I led the first pitch, which was quite simple, and kept snapping pictures whenever I had a descent place to stop. Jim expressed irritation at me for stopping to change lenses and shoot. I yelled down to him with a gleeful smile that he would appreciate the pictures for years to come. My prediction has come true.
Jim led the second pitch, which steepened into some harder moves and charged his body and brain with endorphins, as the first had mine. When I followed at the end of the rope and met him on the belay ledge we grabbed each other in a hug, beaming and extolling our fortune to be in such a wonderful place. Our fatigue had evaporated and we had become electrified vertical ballet dancers performing for an audience of gods. The sky spread across the heavens and below our tenuous perch on that glorious spine of rock, the miles that we had come were laid out in miniature all the way down to the Owens valley and across to the White Mountains bordering Nevada.
I took the honor of leading the next pitch. Somewhere about a hundred feet up from Jim I made a delicate move above a small ledge, slipped off a small nub and got slapped in the face with the hand of cold hard granite. I peeled down five feet to a sudden stop. That was a wake-up call. I stood there for a moment breathing hard and felt the sting on my face. I could hear the voice in my head as if it were the mountain talking to me, "You can dance with me, Richard, but don’t treat me with arrogance. Be humble and pay attention to the moment". My attitude experienced a sudden paradigm shift and I saw how small I was. The mountain and her energy were huge and alive.
I finished the pitch carefully. Soon Jim and I stood together again on a small ledge and took in the awesome surroundings. The sun had slipped behind the mountain quite some time before and we had no watch to know the time. A great shadow cast from the mountain slowly crept across the hundreds of acres of granite, glacier and lakes below us. The summit above emitted a glow from the sun as it swept to the west and backlit unseen peaks beyond Mount Sill. Delicate spotted green lichen inhabited indentations in the speckled granite. A vast quiet and absence of others filled the atmosphere. The air was perfectly still, beginning to cool rapidly and thin of oxygen. Our breathing was the only sound as we took time to absorb our whereabouts in this place.
We didn’t have much time to quietly ponder our position in the universe. It was getting late in the day and we had to focus our efforts to reach the top. Another pitch up, which ended in some tricky vertical rock and we, one by one, emerged into the sunlight. We stood on the summit, the goal, the culmination of a tremendous effort that was more than just the assertion of our wills, but also by some dynamic power that was lent to us by that mysterious outside force. The view on top was breath taking. The sun was low in the sky and before it were dozens of lesser peaks carpeting the Sierras to the west. We looked south and picked out Mount Whitney and it’s surrounding mountains. Simple utterances came from us like ‘wow’ and ‘oh my God’. We looked into each other’s eyes and laughed at our good fortune to have reached the pinnacle of this pilgrimage of spirit, mind and body. We were definitely high in many ways. The shadow of Mount Sill crept slowly across the Owens valley ten thousand feet below us. The whole East Side of the Pacific Crest was awash in a graying light.
I took several photographs; one looking straight down at the North couloir which had topped out about six hundred feet below us. I set up my camera on a rock and Jim and I posed in our matching blue anoraks as I squeezed off a couple of shots with a pneumatic remote. The light was yellow gold and ideal for photos but it meant that the sun was rapidly setting. I thought how nice it would be to have some bivouac gear and just call it a day. But we did not and we were concerned about staying for too long at the altitude, which was 14,153 feet.
The sun was setting as we made ready for our first rappel. With two ropes spliced together we were able to descend down 165 feet at a time. Jim and I were spent emotionally, mentally and physically and I had to call forth with a tremendous effort the will to think clearly and safely. The first descent down the wall was at about a seventy-degree angle. There was some loose rock and we carefully guided ourselves down as rapidly as possible to a safe ledge. Jim led off with the next rappel and I soon followed. We were using webbing looped around rock outcroppings as anchors and making sure that the knot splice was not pulled through the webbing as we retrieved the rope. We tied a large knot in the bottom of the ropes to assure that we wouldn’t rappel off the end like we had heard of exhausted climbers doing.
At the bottom of the second rappel we balanced on a ledge that was about 10 inches wide. I had just finished the second leg of our descent. The wall was nearly vertical at this point and there was another three hundred feet of air below our perch to the top of the couloir. The evening had set in and the gray sky shown several twinkling stars. I still had the rope fed through my rappel brake and I was to the right of Jim fumbling with gear with one hand as I clung to the rock with the other. Jim was pulling down the rope as I was looking for a good crack to place a wedge for an anchor. I was talking to myself in incomplete sentences through a haze of total exhaustion struggling to concentrate on what I was doing. I just wanted to lay down and close my eyes. The light was failing and I repeatedly insisted to myself that I stay alert and focus my eyes on the details of my anchor placement.
Jim had been quiet and we were both pretty scared. Suddenly Jim’s yell broke the silence, "Rock!" I looked up the wall into the fading light and saw a boulder fifteen feet above me heading right for my face. I smashed myself against the wall turning my head and feet side-ways to offer as little flesh as possible. The large rock ripped the rear pocket half off my jeans as it skimmed my butt and crashed against the outer corner of the ledge as it continued down to the ice below. I quickly looked up again to see if anything else was coming. Nothing. The boulder bounced twice as it sped down to its final place of rest at the top of the ice. "My God, Richard, are you all right?" Jim looked at me with a face I had never seen on him before. I looked down to the couloir and imagined my shattered body falling three hundred feet to the top of the steep ice and then painting a red streak down fifteen hundred feet of white to the bottom of the couloir all the while taking the rope with me. Jim would have been the one to suffer. I’m sure I would have been killed instantly by the falling rock. Jim would have followed my bloody trajectory and been left stranded without rope on an impossible down-climb in the dark.
I don’t remember what I said to Jim when I finally responded. "Thank you very much for saving my life" had to be in there somewhere. The terror had cast me into a transcendental state of consciousness in which I was outside my body, straddling a fence that separated life and death. I was no longer afraid. I was in a state of grace and totally happy. Death held no fear for me. In fact, it looked beautiful. Yet my will to live was powerful and compelling. The whole experience - the falling rock, the fact that Jim saw it, his quick warning, the fact that I was centered in its path, my instantaneous life-saving reaction on this precarious ledge, this darkening hyper-natural setting. It all fit together like some divine choreography. I understood that a greater hand than mine was in control here – I was certain of it. More certain than I have ever been of anything else in my life.
Jim traversed over to me as we both balanced on the ledge unprotected by our metal and nylon gadgets. He placed a small stopper in the only tapering crack he could find and said, "let’s get the fuck out of here!" He set up the rappel, hooked the rope into his brake and went down. That small wire stopper looked awfully innocuous but I knew it was strong and as long as the pull on it was down it should hold. Jim took the gear rack with him as he slid down the rope and I had to accept the fact that although the anchor had been set in haste it was the only piece available and it was getting quite dark very fast. I felt some divine protection backing up the anchor anyway. I followed Jim down to the next ledge and the fourth rappel was short and at a lower angle.
Soon we were standing on the ice at the top of the couloir. I looked back up along the 600-foot face we had just come down and there was a sense that it was a special territory for me. A place where I had been given a life changing experience. A chance to start over. It was now a black mass in the darkness barely lit by the stars. The shapes around us were black rock, gray ice and charcoal colored sky and the stars became more abundant as we contemplated our next move. We were concerned about spending the night at that altitude in the thin air and facing mountain sickness. We decided to rappel down the ice.
We had two small flashlights with us. I set up the rope holding the light in my mouth and thinking how nice a head- lamp would be. My exhaustion was ebbing and I felt renewed energy. A great calmness had permeated my being and I felt no fear. I felt in charge yet quite enmeshed in a precarious endeavor. I hooked my break into the rope and backed down the ice, which sloped down at a forty-five degree angle. The ice was slippery and hard-packed. The small flashlight created a sphere of light just in front of me and all else was darkness. I came to the end of the rope and stopped my descent just before the knot came up to my brake. I looked around directing the light across the ice and over to the rock ledge to my right. It was about twenty-five feet away. I leaned back on the rope, placed my boots flat against the ice and ran sideways toward the ledge. I lost traction and slipped back about ten feet from the rock. I ran back the other direction hanging in a pendulum below one hundred and sixty feet of rope. I got enough distance and height to give me the needed swing to make the rock. I grabbed on to a small hold but lost my grip and swung back across the ice in the opposite direction. I got to my feet half way through my next pendulum and ran further across and higher up the ice. The next running swing across and I was on solid rock and soon found a ledge to sit on.
"Off rappel", I yelled up to the small moving light above me. Soon Jim was coming down the ice in the pitch-blackness and it was a wild sight to see his form with the light in his mouth descending down ice as night surrounded us. "This is totally crazy", I mumbled to myself. " We’re going to die doing this".
Jim soon came to the bottom of the rope and I yelled over to him and shown the light. It was so silent that we could have had a quiet conversation but yelling seemed more appropriate than talk. Jim made a couple of pendulums across the ice and I held out my hand to grab him up to the ledge. We sat together on that rock shelf breathing hard. The two miniature flashlights gave off an indirect shadowy luminescence. I grabbed Jim by the arm to make a strong point. "We are staying right here for the night", I commanded. "We’re going to die or get very hurt if we continue in the dark". Jim agreed with everything that was left in him.
We arranged a Spartan bivouac sitting on our ropes and huddled together in the cold dark night. Our small rock seat was carved into a tilting windowless skyscraper. The stars stretching across the sky in a brilliant dome dimly lit our world. We were alone and utterly isolated. 10,000 feet below in the town of Lone Pine, life went on. The lights moving back and forth in lines told us that the regular Friday night activities continued, that people were warm and cozy in their cars and homes with no idea of our existence. We felt that we were looking down on earth and its human conditions from a very remote world and knew that the way back was long and difficult.
A waning crescent moon slowly rose into the sky from some obscure horizon beyond the White Mountains. Jim and I sat there for hours in silence watching it creep across the heavens. We stole catnaps, waking to shift our weight and resettle into the least uncomfortable position we could find, and then dozing again in some foggy oblivion. The night was long and the moon crept higher as if resistant to move. We watched it as our only telltale to the hours left of our stay there.
Finally, after a century long night, some color appeared on the eastern horizon. We watched quietly with dull minds from small openings in our hooded shelters. The sky slowly changed from charcoal gray, through purples and dark blues, to brilliant hot colors. The sun broke free and shot its first warm beams at us and increased by the second. We reluctantly came alive like reptiles in a shell and slowly broke out of our paralysis.
Jim and I arranged another rappel moving like geriatrics wandering back to our rooms in a convalescent hospital. We backed down another 150 feet of ice, gathered up the ropes and spent the rest of the morning down-climbing, crawling and walking back to our base camp. Finally stumbling into our temporary home, we indulged ourselves in a hot meal and coffee followed by dessert and a warm pipe. We spent the afternoon lounging on our Thermorest pads, reading and sharing memories. The one memory of that falling rock still sends shivers through me today. One of the first things I did when I got home was buy a helmet.