Life in the Slow Lane
Trip Report by Nurse Ratchet & Brutus of Wyde
Monday, June 18, 2002 -- Brutus of Wyde and Nurse Ratchet are driving
"the cave" west over the narrow, winding Highway 1 to Muir Beach, to
watch the sun set over the Pacific. Suddenly there's a loud roar
beside them and a flash of sickeningly neon green. Within milliseconds
a small sports car has crossed the double yellow line, passed them,
and disappeared around the blind curve ahead.
"What could they possibly be thinking?" screams Nurse Ratchet, hands
gripping the steering wheel in righteous anger. "That's illegal! And
dangerous!... what could possibly be that important?"
"Speed. When you own a lime-green Porsche, you're not required to
think. And nothing is more important than maximum speed." Brutus gazes
wistfully after the sports car, now almost out of sight.
Five weeks earlier, the journey started with another Muir...
FIFTEEN DAYS ON EL CAPITAN
Monday, May 14 -- Piles of gear, boxes of canned goods, MRE food,
clothing for everything from an arctic winter to a desert heat wave,
guidebooks, laminated topos, haul bags, carefully waterproofed
portaledge, aiders, jugs, soda bottles slung and wrapped in duct
tape...all are double- and triple-checked and crammed into the Cave,
ready to launch on the second annual Oakland Old Climbers Home road
trip. But the single most precious item that was loaded into the truck
was TIME. Five weeks of it.
Five weeks with just one destination: Yosemite Valley. (A strange
destination for a road trip, it being just a short 4-hour drive from
the OCH... but special circumstances prevailed: the recently approved
Yosemite Valley Plan would soon change forever the ability to easily
come and go to Yosemite. Brutus and Ratchet were convinced that it was
now or never to get the full Valley climbing experience.)
Five weeks with just one goal: to climb El Capitan. Other climbs were
on the list, but El Cap was the one "must-do" for the trip. Brutus had
been there, done that, many times. But Nurse Ratchet never had; she
had heard endless stories at the OCH about the Nose on El Cap: the
ultimate climber's goal; and she craved more than anything a ride on
the Big Stone. She had wheedled and cajoled Brutus until he agreed to
be her partner and rope gun for the adventure. "Twist my arm!"
Time was also essential to reach the goal. Not so much for the climb
itself (little did they know how long it would really take!) but with
FIVE WEEKS they had a long hit list of Valley classics they planned to
tick off, getting honed and toned and trimming off the flabby layers
of winter insulation while waiting for the perfect weather window for
El Cap. Brutus knew from harsh experience that either rain, snowstorms
or searing heat could stalk climbers on the Big Stone in the merry
month of May.
There was another time factor as well. Ratchet's biological clock was
ticking, loudly. She had watched other friends crest the half-century
mark and start to coast downhill into more comfortable pursuits like
hiking, golf and Caribbean cruises, and it struck terror into her
heart. She wanted to tackle the Big Stone before it was too late.
The plan was hatched on the way home from Mt. Waddington and the
Tetons the previous summer. Soon after, big wall training began. Since
Brutus had injured his shoulder arm-wrestling for a beer, and was
unable to climb, he sent Ratchet clipping up traversing sport routes
in the gym, clipping across beams in the Old Climbers' Home, out for
training with the famous guru Karl Baba of Wawona. (The first climb he
sent her up on was Moby Dick Center. Prophetic of things to come.)
Throughout the spring, while the shoulder injury continued to hold
Brutus in injured reserve, he kept the whip in one hand and the
Gri-Gri in the other while Ratchet toiled her way up more bolt ladders
in the gym and aid pitches in Zion. Then came a Nose rehearsal with
Karl Baba, climbing the first few pitches of the Nose.
Karl reported back to Brutus at the end of the day, with gentle
diplomacy, "Ratchet knows the moves...but she's so d*mned slow!" The
Babameister shook his head at his eager but autistic student. "So,
grasshopper, you want to climb the Nose! Have you considered maybe
something shorter, less committing? What about a climb that's shorter,
more aid, less free climbing, less crowded? And shorter?"
Blinded by her obsession with the soaring perfection of the Big Stone,
Ratchet refused to accept a lesser goal. But some doubts started to
creep in about her ability to keep up the pace on the Nose...crowd
control would be a real issue...with parties on every pitch, it's move
fast or be trampled...besides, Brutus had already climbed the Nose,
many years ago, and it would be more interesting for him to do
something new. One night, while thumbing through McNamara's Supertopo
guide, something made them stop at the description of Muir Wall: "the
least crowded route of its grade on El Cap." Hmm...
Neither Brutus nor Ratchet was willing to speak the name of the route
out loud for fear of a jinx, but they started preparing laminated
topos and studying the gear list. Still, because they knew that walls
have a way of dictating their own terms, they kept their options open
and told the other folks at the OCH that they were "going to do some
more aid practice." Also, Brutus was convinced that Ratchet needed one
good Grade V warm-up wall to prepare for the Big Stone.
The Prow repeatedly surfaced as the perfect choice, but Ratchet feared
from past experience that the Prow, with its bouldery approach and
hideous descent, would sap strength and energy, without time to
recuperate before the 5 weeks were gone. So another plan slowly
The first 10 pitches of Muir Wall end at Heart Ledges. From there an
easy rappel back to the ground is possible via the fixed ropes on
Salathe. Beta from the Baba, who had just done the lower pitches of
the Muir, revealed that the fixed ropes were in place, and in good
condition. The upper 23 pitches present the major challenges of the
route, and easily qualify as a Grade VI. Ratchet and Brutus would do
the lower section as a warm-up Grade V, rap down to rest, re-assess,
re-supply, then jug up and climb the upper wall in a second push.
Perfect strategy for a geezer ascent: chop up the challenge into
Nurse Ratchet recollects…
The mantras for the trip:
Quickly. Fastly Safely Fastly.
Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough.
Boris Goodenough and Justin Case
Tuesday May 15 -- We share a campsite in Lower Pines campsite with
Maggie and Sadie, who arrive late in the afternoon after a successful
climb of Snake Dike. They've had a great day and are still high from
the climb. They are having barbecued steak for dinner to celebrate,
and Brutus makes incredible barbecued salmon. Maggie's belated
birthday cake, which we prepare on-site, is a tower of angel food,
strawberries and whipped cream. We wait and hope that Karl and Chris
will show up, they don't, but nevertheless we eat, drink and laugh
long into the night. The next morning we must apologize for our
rowdiness to the nice couple in the RV next door. They don't mind.
Their son is a climber. They understand.
Wednesday May 16 -- Today we had planned to climb Nutcracker with
Maggie and Sadie, but their quads are screaming from their Half Dome
day, and they decide to take it easy
Brutus and I spend the day sorting gear, visiting the climbing shop
for some last-minute retail therapy (most of our purchases duplicate
what we already have stashed in the truck, but we can't find
everything in the piles, and we don't dare take a chance of having
left essential items back home). We ransack the village store for
Gatorade, cheese, canned soups and fruit.
Pack haul bags. Fill water jugs, carefully measuring just the right
amount of Gatorade mix into each duct-taped 2-liter bottle.
Thursday May 17 -- Launch. 1st 2 pitches in one. Met the Norwegians at
the top of Moby Dick, they have the jump on us by 15 minutes. God they
are slow! Slept. Rapped down for pizza. Returned 5 pm. Ratchet's lead.
God she's slow! Had to rap off from intermediate belay halfway up P3.
Back to the ground to sleep.
Friday May 18 -- Jug up to our high point. Surprise! No sign of the
Norwegians above us (later we found out Tad was feeling sick so they
decided to take a day off). Not knowing whether or not they would show
up, we tried to move fast, sensing that this might be a chance to pull
ahead of them. I started cautiously up from my high point on P3, then
tried to start stretching out the placements as I moved up.
The mantra Brutus has given me for this climb repeats itself over and
over: "Quickly, Fastly, Safely Fastly..." and I try to move from one
placement to the next without hesitation. Reaching high to place an HB
offset in a flared slot, I can't clearly see it it's good. "Testing!"
It holds, I step up.
"POINK!!!! The nut pops as soon as a slight outward pull changes its
precarious grip on the flare. The piece below thankfully stops my
downward plunge, but not before the rope has seared a brand of
dishonor onto my wrist. (Funny how long rope burns take to heal...)
The mantra wavers; I keep repeating it, but fear now morphs it into
"Quiiic-c-kly...Safely...Fastll-ly-y...Safely (please don't pop,
please don't pop)" and I have to downshift into second gear. I hate it
when that happens.
Brutus, back on the comfy belay ledge and around the 2-pendulum
corners, later said he was unaware of my fall. But he was well aware
of the passing of time before I radioed "off belay" and he was
obviously going for making up time as he raced up the next pitch like
a greyhound, backcleaning and hopscotching gear so hardly anything was
left behind for me to clean. Cool, until I got to the roof traverse.
Fortunately, some leaver slings allowed me to lower out from a fixed
Thank goodness for all that time practicing lowering out from
hideously traversing bolt routes in the gym... this would be a key
skill required over and over on this route. Changeover. I rack up, the
Norwegian high point anchor about 30 fit above us as I start leading
P5, unaware of what has been brewing in the sky above us for the last
hour. But Brutus knows. "Uh, Em, there might be some clouds moving in.
Try to move fast."
Blip. .... what's that? blip, blip... is it starting to rain? Blap
BlapBLAPBLAP...yikes! Hail! Oh My GAWD! Look at that waterfall!!! Get
raingear on! We're getting drenched! Set up an anchor, lower down, Rap
off! Jeez jee--e--z this water is c-c-c-cold. Careful to thread the
ropes, check the backup, one more rap and we're on the ground, like
two drenched terriers, looking up at waterfalls cascading down the
face that just a few hours ago was baking in the sun. Safe, for now,
we hustle back to the truck, kick off our wet gear and drive to the
warm plastic embrace of the pizza parlor at Curry Village. By sunset
it's dry again.
Saturday May 19 -- Up early, trying to get a head start to complete
the pitch that would allow us to pass the Norwegians...good, no sign
of them at the base...uh-oh. Rats. Here they come. Guess we'll have to
let them go ahead.
Embarrassed at our failed attempt to pass, which has resulted in our
gear on top of theirs, we offer our apologies for kluging their gear
and their belay. Work it out. Go get showers then come back later in
the day to finish P5. Let's do P6, too, it's still early! Nope, can't
you see the Norwegian leader is just getting to the next
belay...they'll be hours before they clean the next pitch.
Arg. We will need to leave our gear at the ugly encampment of Scott
B's "fixed" portaledge. What a mess. But with the start of P6 in our
reach, we decide to cast off with Howdy IId and the portaledge in tow
in the morning, haul the gear up onto the wall to keep our place in
line, and cast off the next day.
Unlike our Scandinavian friends, who started hauling from the base of
the route, Brutus had cleverly deduced that with 3 ropes, by using the
belay anchors on Dorn Direct, we could haul to the start of P6 pretty
much straight up, avoiding the long lowering out that would be
otherwise be required between P5 and P6.
The extra day would allow the Scandinavians time to either pull ahead
and commit to the upper wall, or to bail. Either way, the way ahead
would be clear for us.
Sunday, May 20 -- As planned, the day was spent hauling on Dorn and
replacing a few bolts: Brutus stopped at the second anchor to pull out
one of the old rusty bolts by hand and replace it with a new 3/8"
bolt. The hauling goes well, in spite of a small hang-up of the bag on
the first set of roofs. Brutus's advice to raise and lower the bag by
small amounts, "bouncing" it over the edge, finally works. I smile.
Small successes mean a lot in a day filled with Sisyphean labors.
Monday May 21 -- Howdy sits atop P3 of Dorn waiting for us. We jug up
our fixed ropes. Despite the awkwardness of leading past Scott's ledge
and gear, Brutus knocks off P6 in record time, trailing the haul line
which is connected to Howdy, hanging from a hook. I follow at a
somewhat more pedestrian pace, then we bring up the pig. The next two
pitches also go smoothly, and by late afternoon we are setting up the
portaledge at P8.
Feeling that we are finally "launched" for real is terrific. As we
pull out dinner fixings from the haul bag, Brutus jumps in alarm. A
tiny gray and white spotted frog (wearing his best granite camouflage
gear) has taken a shine to Brutus and is glued to his arm. As we both
stare in amusement, it appears to settle in, with no intention of
moving. Brutus gently shoos him away, but no go. Froggie knows a good
gig when he sees it! But we didn't bank on a threesome for this climb,
so after taking a few candid camera photos which we know won't turn
out, we gently move him into the mossy crack beside us. He stays for a
while before he fades away into the granite background.
Tuesday May 22 -- Another short day. Swinging leads as we had for all
these lower pitches, my lead took hours and Brutus's was over in a
flash, and we arrived at Heart Ledges as the heat of the day was
starting to really sink in. From the freezer into the fire in 3 days!
We tucked ourselves back into the shade of the belay ledge, drank a
couple liters of Gatorade, ate a quick lunch, secured our rack and
haulbag to leave behind, and prepared to traverse over to the fixed
ropes on Heart just as a face appeared over the edge of the ledge
above us. For the last two days we have been alone on a side road, but
now we have merged onto a major freeway with no traffic control.
Excited to have just finished Free Blast in half a day, the Mexican
beams with enthusiasm and informs us that they will return tomorrow to
continue on the Triple Direct. His enthusiasm in infectious and we
wish him good speed.
Another party heading up Salathe Wall is rapping down from Mammoth
Terraces. [Obviously not locals, we later learned they were from Hong
Kong and planned to do Salathe. We let them rap on down but told them
they were welcome to a ride back to Camp 4 if they were still waiting
when we got down to the truck. ]
Wednesday May 23 -- We sleep in the next morning, but the rest of our
"rest day" is spent packing and repacking for the second push. Our
hands are like lobster claws, aching from the hauling and jugging;
they refuse to function and we can barely feel our fingers. We would
love to take another rest day...a rest week... but with Memorial Day
weekend approaching we are afraid to lose our place in line. Ratchet
also secretly fears for the wealth of rack, ropes ascenders and aiders
left hanging in the alcove. How long can we leave our life savings
sitting up there before someone climbs by and considers our gear booty
free for the taking? We set our alarm for first light and drop into a
Thursday May 24 -- Today we launch! Ratchet is excited but Brutus
still harbors doubts about their ability to take on the upper wall. He
reminds her that they're just "going up there to check it out" and
they can still fix pitches and come back down before committing to the
much more difficult upper section.
Brutus starts up the fixed lines, jugging and then hauling Brownie.
Ratchet brings up the rear, jugging looking like a circus clown with a
skirt of water jugs bobbing around her waist. There are no other
parties in sight, but we expect to see company soon, so we hurry to
re-pack the bags and start up to Mammoth Terraces. Brutus remembers
the first pitch, up broken corners and ledges, as having loose rock
and ugly hauling, so he chivalrously offers to lead it. (We could just
jug the fixed line, but we are fresh from our rest day and still
clinging to some sense of ethics.) No argument from Ratchet!
The lead goes quickly and soon the hard part— the hauling— begins. The
2 bags are at their heaviest, and are like sullen children, refusing
to budge when presented with the slightest obstacle. Like parents, we
coax and cajole until we can finally heave their fat little butts up
to the belay stance. But it's just more ugly groove full of loose
blocks and a twisted stump. Having just packed the pups, we must now
unpack them and ferry loads up and across a series of blocks and
ledges to the far side of Mammoth Terraces.
Fixing a line across the Terraces, we do the tedious traverse
countless times until we have transferred everything to a jumbled pile
at the spot where we expect to bivy. It's time-consuming because every
piece that we transfer must be kept clipped in to the rope any time we
are not actually holding it. Tedious, but there is nothing here that
is "extra." Every item is essential for either comfort, safety or
survival, and nothing can be allowed to roll away , blow away or be
forgotten. Finally the transfer is done, not an elegant pile, but good
enough for now.
As we labor, we notice a propane barbeque grill on the ledge. Brutus
begins to seriously consider rappelling to the base to get chicken and
beer, spending the Memorial Day weekend 1,000 feet off the ground in
style. Only the hordes of climbers swarming up the Captain from below
persuade him to reconsider.
It is almost sunset and we wearily lay out our pads and sleeping bags
on the flattest spots we can find, crawl into the bags still tied in
to our anchors and are asleep almost immediately.
Friday May 25 -- The daily routine that we will follow for the next
week begins: wake up just before first light when the birds start
chirping. Massage the hands until they are willing to function. Get
dressed. Breakfast. Take a dump. Pack the bags. Put on the rack. Get
the leader on Gri-Gri.
I take the sharp end and move slowly up the 5.2 corner, Justin Case at
my shoulder, searching the low angle flared grooves for non-existent
gear placements (anyone else would just walk up it confidently).
Brutus sighs, wary of what this forebodes. "Jeezuz, just get your butt
As the rock steepens I step into the familiar stirrups of the aiders
and continue to plod along, with the occasional daring high step
thrown in just to maintain some appearance of credibility, and finally
pull over the last steep edge onto another blocky terrace. "Em to
Bruce" I'm at an anchor, but it's not the marked belay. Should I bring
you up to here?"
"Bruce to Em, No, keep going and see if you can make it to the big
ledge on the other side."
"OK" I cross the terrace to a fixed bolt, and looking down at the
rappel/pendulum to next ledge about 30' below, radio down "How much
Brutus gives the right answer: "About 40 feet."
I pull up all the slack, fix the rope to the bolt, and then rappel
down to the ledge. Then hauling the 2 bags up to the ledge takes time
as Brutus must traverse back and free each of them, then help maneuver
them over corners and edges. Finally B jugs up to the fixed point and
raps down to the ledge.
"Uh-oh. I think we may have some company soon." Brutus starts to
re-rack for his lead, but in minutes the leader of the first of a
series of teams pulls up over the steep edge.
"Jeez, that was the stiffest 5.9 move I've ever done! How did you do
" Well, I aided it. Didn't seem that bad."
"Oh. I thought you led it free. Otherwise I never would have tried
I wince from the obviously sexist comment. The next pitch is up a thin
seam and there is no alternate route. "Hey, my partner and I, we're
really fast. We just did Jolly Rodger. We're doing The Shield. Mind if
The next bivy is Grey Ledges, a broken series of ledges with only two
really good spots to sleep, and several marginal ones. Bruce knows
this bivy well from past experience. We cut a deal: we will let them
pass if they agree to leave us the best bivy spots. We watch their
leader start up the pitch.
Fast is a relative term, and relative to us, he is not moving
particularly fast. So B and I wait, feeling a bit annoyed, and as the
sun moves higher in the sky and starts to crank up the heat we take
turns curling up in the tiny patch of shade that B creates by
stringing up a rope bag over our belay spot. At least we have a good
ledge to rest on, and we chat with the belayer of the team we have let
pass. "Listen, you guys are not exactly burning rubber here. At this
pace, we're not going to be able to make the bivy before dark. We need
He assures us that his buddy is just getting his lead head turned on,
and they will definitely speed up. Riiiight. Meanwhile, more company:
another climber has appeared on the blocks above us. It's clear that
we need to vacate this belay soon. Eventually we strike a new deal: At
the next belay, the team we have let past will trail our haul line,
and fix it at the next anchor. We will jug the fixed line. This way
both teams can make it to Grey Ledges by nightfall.
In the meantime, the next team has pulled up beside us on the belay
ledge. There is a flash of recognition. Bruce? BRUCE??? The second of
this team is Rich Travis, a friend and climbing partner of Brutus's
from years back and co-conspirator in numerous crazy adventures such
as a 48-hour round trip from the SF Bay Area to climb Oregon's Mt.
Hood in winter. Small world! We can talk only long enough to find out
he and his partner Randy are doing Triple Direct, which shares P10-18
with Muir Wall. They'll be close to us for a while, so we're glad at
least that one of them is a friend. Then it's time for B to lead Pitch
B leads up quickly, fastly, safely, fastly (far more so than the team
ahead). Sigh. So much for being polite. B is finished hauling by the
time R gets to the belay, then they wait some more while the second of
the Pep Boys finishes cleaning the pitches above... they have linked
P14 and 15 into one long 60m pitch, so since they are now trailing our
rope, we have no choice but to do the same. Just as well, since by now
it's getting to be late afternoon. Funny how time goes faster on a
Jug, haul, jug, haul. Arriving at Grey Ledges, Ratchet finds the Pep
Boys are regretting the deal they cut. The first ledge is obviously
looking mighty fine to them as a bivy spot, and they point to the
higher anchors and whine that they don't have enough rope to reach
them. Ratchet takes a finger to the rope tautly stringing from her
anchor down to Bruce, and plucks it like a guitar string. "Well, duh.
I don't have enough rope left either. A deal's a deal."
The 2 weary lads look at each other, then back at R with disgust.
"Your lead, man" one says to the other.
By the time B reaches the ledge, the Pep Boys have decided the upper
ledges are too poor to sleep on (we knew that!) and are busy setting
up their portaledge. Brutus gazes longingly back down at the wide,
dark slot of a pitch we have both jugged past. "HNhhhhh, hnnnhhhhh,
hhhnnhhhhh..." there's nothing sadder than a OW master deprived of his
suffering...But all's fair in love and walls...
In the darkness we finish dinner, and sit side by side for a few
minutes watching an endless stream of cars pour into Yosemite Valley
for the Memorial Day weekend. "You know, we're really lucky. This is
one of the few places we can legally camp, in Yosemite, on Memorial
Day weekend, with neither reservations nor a wilderness permit. My
only regret is that we're not going to be spending this weekend
drinking beer and barbequing chicken at Mammoth Terraces." with these
thoughts, Brutus jugs up into the night to his 18-inch wide ledge.
Saturday, May 26 -- Because of the pressure of the other teams, B and
I have made the decision that we've made so many times in the past.
Until we reach P18, where the Muir takes off from triple Direct, B
will take over the leading in order to move faster. God, this haunts
me! How much I wish it could be different, and we could continue to
swing leads as we had done on the first 10 pitches. It seems
especially unfair to B, as he must now take on all the hauling duty.
But I am slow, and there's no way around it. Your lead, B.
By the time we're ready to go, the Pep Boys are only 50 feet up P16.
Again we wait for them to vacate the belay before we start the pitch.
It's clear that they rather overestimated their abilities, and to us
the passing deal is seeming less and less fair. But too late to
All along we have been using the Talkabout radios to communicate, and
today they will prove their value many times over. Lowering out and
hauling bag on P18 is one of the cruxes of this pitch, which traverses
60 horizontal feet and gains only 10 feet up and around a corner.
Managing the haul bags is equally challenging for the leader and the
second. The second must lower out the bag across the traverse, then
let it free to swing across flakes on the face. If the bag gets stuck,
there's no way the second can reach it to help, and there's also no
way the leader can see what it's stuck on so he can know how to free
B once watched a team spend 8 hours on this pitch, unable to move
because the bag was stuck, and completely unable to communicate
because of the distance between them and the wind. He carefully
explains to me exactly the steps to follow. I do it. (Hard work to
body haul!) One bag makes it across, then the second gets stuck, but
with the Talkabouts we are able to delicately work a series of
pull-up, pull backwards, pull-ups to inch Howdy up and over the flake.
Hurray! We are both relieved that the problem has been resolved so
By this time yet another team has arrived, and has moved ahead of Rich
and Randy. These two are both faster and more aggressive (but politely
so) in passing. It turns out that they are "Team Mexico" we met on
Mammoth Terraces at the end of our "warm-up climb." B coaches me to
allow them to set up a belay using two of the 5 bolts I am clipped to.
Their friendly enthusiasm make them pleasant neighbors.
Pitch 19 finally signals the spot where we leave the freeway and set
off on our own path. The mossy grit in the crack immediately signals
that this is the path less traveled. Up until now we've been on terra
cognita. Now the adventure begins in earnest. Without ever discussing
it, we have been chased up the wall by the teams barking at our heels,
past the point of no return. As Bruce says, there's only two ways off
from here: "Your lead, or my lead."
B leads steadily but a bit more slowly up this pitch. It's tricky,
with some narrow dirty slots and loose flakes. When I join him at the
next belay, we check my watch. This ledge is our planned bivy, and we
had hoped to fix the next pitch or two tonight, but as the shadows
deepen we decide to just set up camp. The 1x4 ledge shown on the topo
is more diagonal than horizontal, so we are more than happy to be able
to deploy the portaledge as our oasis.
Sunday, May 27 -- At last. My lead. 5.7 free climbing starts with an
easy, blocky traverse (cool!) but quickly gets desperate as the wall
steepens and the holds diminish. I lunge with one hand to reach a
promising-looking hold and find the top of it sloping and slick. With
the hand oozing off, I scream, "Oh schtupp... Damn it! Damn it!" and
frantically fish for a piece of gear that can offer me salvation. At
the last minute, I cram in a tiny Alien, scramble my feet against
non-existent holds on the slick face below, and grunt my way up to the
good hold above. Whew!
I unclip the aiders from my harness, plug in a piece above me, clip in
with my daisy, and sag my weight carefully onto it. "Testing!" and I
am happily back in the aider stirrups again. The topo says "one 5.10
move" but I am more than happy to aid the next 20 feet until I'm just
below the belay ledge, with good holds for both hands and feet. A
couple of moves and I'm at the belay. Cool!
But my elation quickly subsides when I check my watch and find that
this short pitch, one of the easiest on the route, has taken me two
hours to lead. Sigh. There's no time to spend moping over it, though.
I have two fat piggies to negotiate through the blocks and small roofs
below me, and I set to work while B jugs and cleans the pitch.
The next pitch starts up a wet tangle of flowers and mosses, into
another dark wide slot. Topo says "5.10 squeeze or C1+" This has
Brutus of Wyde written all over it. "Your lead, B."
This pitch reminded me of much of the climbing on Magic Mushroom: A
flared overhanging slot where 5.10 chimney moves are required to even
aid the thing. Eventually I exit the gullet into the 5.12 layback
moves to the anchors. C1 to me.
Nurse Ratchet resumes the tale
The next belay is where the Shaft (a 7-pitch "variation" put up by
Scott Cosgrove and Kurt Smith in 94 during an epic 54-day siege
attempt to free-climb the Muir Wall) departs from our route. Unlike
the previous belays with their ancient rusted bolts and fixed pins
supplemented by one or two newer stainless bolts, here we see a column
of beefy new bolts marching out of sight up and around a corner to the
If we listened closely, we might hear echoes of the whining drone of
the power drill that set these bolts, and resulted in Cosgrove and
Smith receiving the shaft from the Park Service when they reached the
rim and were arrested for illegal use of power equipment in a National
Park. (Pretty ironic, if you consider that Yosemite Village is a small
city with every modern convenience...) The original belay, at a
marginal ledge stance, depends on gear in the crack above and below
it, and the first of the new bolts is a good 8' to the right, but it's
shiny sturdiness is so alluring that B leads up the start of the next
pitch and pendulums back down in order to clip it. Ethics be damned.
Our first priority is a safe belay.
Next pitch is C1, and I think I might be able to handle it, but we
have far to go today, and after a brief conference, B continues
leading. I'm back on 2nd string. We are entering the incredible,
laser-cut, sweeping dihedrals that distinguish the upper part of the
Muir Wall, and I'm just happy to be here. Sigh.
Pitch 22: Chris Mac's SuperTopo says Muir Wall goes hammerless until
P23, but B uses two pin placements. This, too distinguishes the Muir:
it is a nailing route. With endless offset stopper placements up a
consistently thin corner, the two pin placements primarily for good
protection since he was backcleaning almost the entire pitch...
Pitch 23, The pendulum pitch: after placing a new bolt at the belay,
Bruce uses the remaining daylight to fix most of the next pitch, a
steep and complex series of nailing problems including a pendulum.
Chris' Supertopo calls this pitch the first crux, rating it A2. Me?
when I place 7 or 8 tied-off blades and arrows in a row, I start
getting the feeling of A3. But then, I'm an old school aid rating
Ratchet resumes the tale
Memorial Day, May 28 -- I clean the last piece from the belay, take a
deep breath, and unclip from the bolt. Can you spell
E-X-P-O-S-U-R-E??? I could not have felt more naked if I was walking
down Polk Street at 3 am in my birthday suit. I swing out over the
void, further than I could have thought possible, and look up at the
rope, stretched like a spider's silken thread, leading out of sight
over an edge far, far, far above me, and every nerve clenched in
terror. Never have I been so conscious of how my entire life depended
on this single piece of gear.
Carefully, I start jugging. STOP! NO SWINGING! C-c-c-areful...
slowly...safely...c-c-c-carefully.... safely... inch-by-inch I try to
peristalsize upwards without causing any movement of the rope over the
edge above. Trust. It's all about trust. Trusting the system. Trusting
Brutus's anchor. Trusting the gear. Trusting myself to set up every
piece in the system correctly.
I check and double-check each locking 'biner, and stop frequently to
adjust my tie-in- short knot. I think about the rope. I had pleaded to
buy a brand new Edelweiss Stratos 11mil, but Brutus refused...it would
be way too heavy. No way. God I wanted that beefy 11 mil now! Instead
here I was with my life hanging from a measly 10.2 mm Sterling
Marathon. Bought used. Over the Internet. As I send up little prayers
for strength, serenity, and survival and continue jugging I think,
"it's all about trust. Sue Hopkins (the seller of the rope) seems like
such a nice lady. Doesn't she do some kind of medical work? She seems
really knowledgeable. A good person. She wouldn't sell a bad rope,
would she? Trust. Gotta trust. She REALLY seems like a good person..."
Pitch 24 takes Brutus most of the day. Even though we've only climbed
1.3 pitches today, Rather than start up 25, we opt for good anchors
(Bruce places 2 bolts) and a good nights sleep. Tomorrow is another
"crux" pitch. Lets see... at 1.3 pitches per day, the 33-pitch wall
should take. Hmmm. maybe we should have planned on more than 5
Tuesday, May 29 -- Pitch 25, although more technical (Brutus again
wanders into the range of Wimp 3 with a string of stacked blades and
tied off arrows culminating in a beak placement before the cheat to
the anchors) goes faster than 24. At the anchors, the Shaft rejoins
the Muir for a pitch before launching left to Chickenhead Ledge and
the Magic Mushroom finish. The next pitch crosses a serrated
knife-blade of granite. Bruce must rappel and clean the upper half of
the pitch to keep the fixed line away from this death flake.
Pitch 26 ends at a bivy ledge. An inventory tells us that we have
enough food and water to last us another year or so on the wall. The
wall is starting to blur into our only reality. It is hard to remember
a life on the ground. Time passes in snapshot images, as we immerse in
"Em, your lead!"
Wednesday, May 30 -- Brutus finishes Pitch 27
Pitch 28 Lowe balls for an entire pitch up a thin endless dihedral.
Wha?? Send up the #5 camalot?? Okay...
Pitch 29, only 80 feet long, ends at a museum of rusted bolt trash.
Bruce places one last fattie bolt here, and we again turn in early.
Thursday, May 31 -- Pitch 30: Stacked pins off balance, hooking and
belay. We abandon the haul bags here. Later, after finishing the last
few traversing pitches, we will rappel back down from directly above
to retrieve them.
31: More penjis. Loose block. Our escape beckons above.
32: One last series of wild aid placements leads to the third class
slabs, and the summit.
I step off the edge of El Cap, nauseated by the 3,000 feet of
exposure, hanging by a single 9mm static line, twisting slowly in the
air, the valley and the roofs of the Monolith rotating past my field
of view. An eternity, and I finally can reach out and touch the haul
bags we left at 30 so long ago.
As Em hauls the last bag off the anchors, the sun once again touches
Friday, June 1 -- Morning on the summit of El Capitan. We commute down
the fixed lines to where the haul bags were abandoned last night,
tediously ferrying loads up to camp. After a breakfast of peaches,
baked beans, and tuna, we take a bath with the last of our extra
water, and hoist the loads for the death-march descent down Falls
Trail. Eventually we split the loads and cache half our gear, then
stumble down the last of the trail, reaching the Valley floor at 8 pm,
and the store (and beer) at 2 minutes to 9.
Saturday June 2 -- It's not over yet. We hike back up Falls Trail to
Eagle Peak saddle and our gear cache. Collect the last of our
belongings, and descend yet again. On the way down, around 2 pm., we
meet Bill Wright, who, with a party of four, is descending from
climbing the Lost Arrow Tip, having started that morning. It's a rest
day for them.
Sunday June 3 – It's finally over. We brunch at the Awahnee Hotel,
spending hours in gluttony, gulping champaigne, smoked trout, shrimp,
fresh fruit, and all manner of luxurious delicacies, until we can
barely waddle out to the cave.
Monday, June 18, 2002 -- The Rat in Ratchet has been fed. Feasted on
the sweet success of Big wall climbing, and tasted the acid taste of
abject fear along the way.
As Brutus and Ratchet wriggle their sore muscles into the embrace of
warm sand and watch the sun set over the peaceful waves, she turns to
him, props herself on one shoulder, and announces: "I'm hungry! What's