Climbers on The Nose of El Capitan

Climbers on The Nose of El Capitan

“I don’t want to do it.  I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

I knew what he meant, probably better than he did himself.  I think I knew that this would happen, or at least strongly suspected.  I knew when we were so slow leaving the city.  I knew from the way he had withdrawn into his cell phone, texting with his wife.

I don’t have a lot of free time.  With two kids under the age of six, adult time is a precious commodity.  My wife and I now argue about who gets to work, and who has to watch the kids.  We both work from home, and the extra time that is supposed to free up goes to reducing day care expenses as much as increasing our productivity.  So a trip to Yosemite, alone with my former climbing partner was a huge withdrawal from my free time account:  I’d be paying this back for months.

It wasn’t like when Dan and I lived in San Francisco.  Back then, over a decade ago now, a trip to the Valley was almost casual.  Once the snows had melted, we were more likely than not to at least try to get to “The Valley” once a month.  We were no Stone-Masters, just climbers who Identified more as “Trad” climbers than gym climbers or sport climbers.  Unlike our fellow gym rats, we treated the two to three evenings we spent in the gym each weekend as training for the real thing:  real rock, traditional gear, multi-pitch climbing on Sierra stone.

I had started climbing in earnest the beginning of my Junior Year at West Point. The inspiration had come at the end of my Sophomore year.  Eric Walker, one of the strongest climbers in the Mountaineering club was in my company, and acted as an inspiration, but it was really blond haired, blocky Jamie Hoskins, that talked me into it.  Jamie had taken me to “Dean’s Wall” a retaining wall next to the Dean’s office, for some “buildering.” I got to the top of the not very tall wall in my running shoes, and fell the 8 feet to the ground, rolling when I hit the soft grass and avoiding any injury.  This fall, which so mirrored one I had taken in the woods behind my house climbing with my Cousin Christopher, is tagged in my memory as the start of my climbing career.

So, the following Academic year, I joined Jamie and Eric, and many other soon-to-be close friends in the basement of Pershing Barracks, while Coach Ned Crosley berated us about climbing.  As a civilian instructor in the Department of Physical Hazing, Coach was capable of teaching any physical activity.  Most of us had taken some portion of our Plebe (Freshman) gymnastics course with him.  As  Senior, I’d take  a two week skiing course that, despite a lifetime of skiing, was the real begging of me skiing correctly.  A snap shot of coach can be summed up from the intro to that skiing course:

Coach starts of in his halting, dramatic, voice, almost but not quite crossing the line to sardonic disgust.  “How many of you…know how to ski?”  he asks.  A handful of hands go up, including mine.  “Put your hands down.  None of you know how to ski.”  We drop.  Coach has his audience now.  As cadets, fully used to the discpline of the academy, we were always attentive (unless we were falling asleep), with that mix of fear and pride that our instructors inspired in us.  But coach has a stage presence unmatched by almost all instructors, crafted from years of instructing cadets.  “Of…a hundred thousand skiers…how many are experts?  Lets say…ten thousand.  None of you…are in that Ten Thousand.”

My first trip to the Gunks, the climbing  Mecca of the North East, was a one day affair that started with a slice of apple pie and coffee at 5:30 in the morning, in order to make it to a 5:45 Trip Section Formation in Central Area.  We loaded up in a van, drove the 45 minutes North to New Paltz, and stopped for a quick breakfast.  I was paired up with a local climber, my introduction to the odd social reality of the sport that you put your life in the hands of someone you met hours, or maybe even minutes before.  We climbed “Madam Grunenbaum’s Wulst”  a 5.7 upon which I committed the indecorous act of hanging on the rope not once but twice.  “What happened?”  asked my experienced climbing partner, a techie that had moved from working at the Poughkeepsie IBM compound to the more modest scale but satisfying “Desktop Publishing” industry.  “I got tired.”  I replied.  I had been climbing less than a month, and had not yet developed neither the technique nor the muscles required for the sport.

Climbing became my escape from West Point.  A year after my introduction I climbed Cannon, my first serious multipitch climb, up the Whitney-Gilman Ridge.  At the end of the School Year, I climbed Cannon again with Mike Peloquin and Paul Campagna.  Despite all my experiences at West Point, I felt closer to those others in the climbing club that I climbed with than I ever did to members of the other groups in which I circled.

For the next several years I was an Infantry Officer.  When people ask me what I did during this time, I respond either “Painted my face green and rolled around in the mud”  or  “Paperwork.”  While I continued to climb, it was harder to get away to do it.  Still, it provided a change from ordinary life, from Army life, and a way to set my self apart.  Climbing is an Ego game, just like West Point is an Ego game:  people look at you differently.  You seem like a special breed, willing and capable of doing things that mere mortals dare not.  As my Army Career floundered, climbing helped keep my self esteem in place.  As I left the Army, and transitioned to civilian life, climbing took an even more central role.

Mission Cliffs Climbing Gym sits in edge of the Mission District of San Francisco nearest to Potrero Hill.  The tech bubble that fueled the city ensured that weeknights saw long lines for each climb.  I went from casual climber to obsessed.  My days were spent at a professional programming job, my nights at the gym.  For the first time in my life I was responsible for nothing but my own satisfaction.  Climbing filled the void left by the Army, overflowed that void, and became my social life, physical fitness regime, and psychological therapy.  It was through the climbing gym that I met Dan Albert.

Like me, Dan was an East Coast Jew transplanted to San Francisco.  As a bonds trader, he worked crazy hours, up at 4 and finished with work by mid afternoon.  He’d only recently started climbing, but the gym made us all strong climbers, at least physically, in a short period of time.  We met through a mutual friend, and quickly settled into a routine of hunting out all of the local places:  Pinnacles, 3 hours to the South, Calistoga far to the north, Tahoe, Truckee, and, the Jerusalem of Climbing, Yosemite.  It was in Yosemite, on “The Nutcracker” that Dan did his first lead climb, and took his first lead fall.

The dynamic between climbing partners is strange, much like the dynamic that makes up a marriage.  You have to enjoy each others company, but that is not sufficient.  You have to trust each other.  But, most of all, you should complement each other and inspire each other.  Dan read the Yosemite climbing guide the way a Born Again Christian reads the New Testament.  He knew about routes that had been done once, that were hidden, that would likely never be repeated.  I was the stronger climber, if only mentally.  Taller, heavier, and driven with the echos of my Army Officer alter-ego, I was the one that would be able to finish a run out pitch.  Dan was better at route finding.  When I lead the way, we got lost just heading to the Crag:  we ended up busting brush to get to the Manure Pile Buttress, the most over-climbed crag in Yosemite that was a two minute walk from a huge parking lot.

Our combined judgment was not always much better.  At the end of the summer, we climbed the “Kor-Beck.” route on Middle Cathedral.  Despite the guide book ensuring us that only the first five pitches were enjoyable, and that most parties rappelled after this, we climbed it with a single rope, and the intention of making it all the way to the top, 11 pitches off the ground.  We made it to eight before the sun set.  I wanted to rappel, but the single rope we had precluded it, and Dan wisely refused.  So, we  spent a cold night on a dirty but large ledge.  I had an extra layer of clothing with me, and was able to get a modicum of sleep during the night.  My rest was interrupted occasionally by the jumping jacks that Dan used to keep warm.

As we sat on the ledge that night, we looked across the Valley at El Capitan.  The biggest unbroken piece of rock in the country.  3600 feet of uninterrupted granite.  As the light of the sun faded, a constellation of headlamps appeared on the various routes.  Zodiac, Pacific Ocean and North American walls, Salathe Wall, The Shield.  And most of all, the Nose.  There were more lights on the Nose than all of the other routes combined.  The longest line up the wall.  The Nose is iconic of rock climbing.  It is 31 pitches long. The Nose is  one of the few big wall routes that was nominally a free climbing route although only a handful of star climbers have ever climbed it free.  John Long wrote about sitting on Middle Cathedral while looking at El Cap and discussing the desire to climb it.  I don’t know if either of us had read that section of the “Big Walls” book yet, but the combination of Long’s description and our own experience of sitting on the ledge mixed in my head for a long time.

In the morning, once the sun hit and warmed us, we finished the climb and started the long retreat across the Kat walk and the chasm between Middle and Upper Cathedral.  The length of this descent made it quite clear just how foolishly we had overestimated our abilities.  We would have been foolish to do that descent in the dark with nothing but my mini-mag light.

The ordeal served us in good stead a couple years later when we climbed the “East Buttress of Middle Cathedral.”  The popularity of the route ensured that we would be queued up behind several other parties all the way up.  Ruth Bender, the third of our Group from San Francisco, was climbing with George Bell, a familiar face from the climbing gym. Dan continually slowed our ascent, making sure that Ruth and George were always in site.  His concern and diligence, offsetting my impatience, ensured that, when the sun set and the rain came in, George and Ruth were not left behind.  I finished the final pitch, a shallow gully that collected the drizzling rain, and reached the top at 6:30.  We shuttled up Dan and Ruth, as well as the pair of former Marines that were the last party of the Day.  Dan and I were better prepared than the rest.  We were the only two that knew the descent.  We both had headlamps:  of the others, on George had one as well.  The Marines had small radios.  None of us had rain gear.   Over the next several hours, we lead the way across the Kat walk to the chasm.  The rain increased.  The three rappels spread out in the chasm were nothing during the day, but at night they were spooky.  They were not hanging rappels, but rather a walk down rock too steep to scramble.  The first rap acted as a channel, collecting rain water, so we were basically rappelling through a stream.  The rain killed the batteries of our headlamps, and we pillaged the batteries our of the radios to make it down.  We hit the ground at one PM. I still have the T-Shirt George lent me as I had now dry clothes of my own.

That “Epic” was the high water mark of our climbing together.  I got involved with the girl I am now married to, and Dan got involved with some one else that climbed.   I joined a consulting firm during the dot-com bubble and started working significantly longer hours.  Dan lost his job, and never found another that he actually liked.  We stilled climbed together occasionally, but not as regularly.

During our time at the climbing gym, our circle of friends had expanded significantly.  Our mutual friend Hahn met Aaron Cooley,  the man she would later marry.  Aaron and I were both techies, both worked with Java, and were at similar levels of climbing ability.  Aaron had probably the same degree of experience as I did at the time, but with one major difference:  Aaron was into aid climbing.  Coach has instilled the Free climbers ethic in us:  bottom-up, using gear only to prevent a fall that would cause death or injury.  Aid climbing took that ethic and tossed it aside.  Gear was for making upward progress.  The pitons of the early days had been replaced by the same tools that I used for traditional climbing, augmented with hooks that, while they wouldn’t catch a fall, would allow you purchase in order move upwards on the wall.  He suggested we do a big wall together, and further suggested “The Leaning Tower.”  As far as aid goes, the Leaning tower was logical choice.  At 10 Pitches, it was a relatively short big wall, but it required full blown aid.  There was a little bit of Trad Climbing, but we’d ignore that and go aid all the way.  There are ledges that you can sleep on, but we’d bring a port-a-ledge and sleep on that instead.

I got the first lead.  I think Aaron was smart enough to know that a fearful climber was better doing than watching.  I took to the aid naturally enough:  it was really just like placing trad gear.  I did manage to take a couple falls, including one that seemed to last forever, but was really only about 20 feet total.  Aaron followed, and we set up the Port-a-ledge at the top of the second pitch.

That night, I slept poorly.  I dreamed I kicked apart the port-a-ledge.  I dreamed I fell over the side and was hanging by my daisy-chain sling.  I was scared.  We managed to make it to the top of the fourth pitch the following day, but I insisted that we rappel to the 4th, where there was a huge ledge.  Actually, there were two ledges.  The first was where people slept, and it had four people on it.  The second, “Guano Ledge”, was sloping and covered with guano.  We couldn’t sleep on it, but I was able to stand on it to eat, clean up, and get my bearings.  We hung the port-a-ledge over the edge and I slept soundly.  It took another day to finish, with some wild climbing.  Instead of risking the rappel at night, I talked Aaron into setting up the ledge at the top, where we finished the last of our food, and had a really pleasant night sleep.  As we lay in the port-a-ledge, Aaron asked me “How long do you think it will be until Hahn expects me to ask her to marry me?”  I laughed, and thought to myself “I wonder how long it will be until Jess expects me to ask her to marry me.”

The answer was roughly 8 more months.

My next foray into Aid climbing did not go so smoothly.  The climb was “Zodiac,” a classic second step on the way to big-wall domination.  Ascending the rightmost edge of El Capitan,  Zodiac was not significantly longer than the Leaning Tower, but for some reason it freaked me out.  Perhaps it was the persona of The Captain.  Perhaps it was the steepness.  Although the Tower leaned, out, such that you could not rappel back to the ground, you couldn’t see the exposure from the ground.  Zodiac was dead vertical, and it was a lot of hanging belays all the way up.  Again, I took the first lead, and again I took a long lead fall.  The difference this time was that Aaron, eager to get climbing, made the mistake of suggesting I lower and let him finish the pitch.  I made the mistake of accepting.  Aaron had not trouble, and quickly finished the lead.  I ascended the rope to clean the pitch. With each step, I thought about the bolts I was hanging on, that I would be hanging on for the entire time.  Despite knowing that bolts are safer than the trad gear I routinely fell on, despite my long history of hanging belays, I lost my head.  I demanded that we lower off.  We slept on the Port-a-ledge at the base.  During the nigh, a bear tried to get into our haul bag, and we spent a good part of the night scaring it off, hanging the haul bag higher, and getting little sleep.  I never regained my composure, and I abandoned Aaron.  This was his “Bachelor Wall,”  the last thing he was going to do before getting married, and he was determined to finish it.  He soloed the wall, meeting up with another soloist about half way up, and finished the wall.  I took a bus and then a train back to San Francisco.  I was embarrassed, but Aaron didn’t hold it against me.  He still climbed with me.  I still performed the wedding ceremony for him and Hahn on top of Glacier point.

That was 2001, before my wedding, before my injuries and work derailed my climbing career.  Before I got married, had a kid, bought a house, moved back to Massachusetts, had another kid, and all but gave up climbing.  Dan had left San Francisco long before, in 2002, just before my wedding.  Our last climb together was, strangely enough, and aid climb. We hiked the Yosemite Falls trail, camped at the top, and rappelled down the Lost Arrow Chimney and did the two pitch climb to the top of the Lost Arrow Spire.  We meant to do the Tyrolean Traverse back to the rim, but we messed up the rappel down, leaving us without a way to recover the rope, so we ended up “just” rappelling, which was wild enough.  This was my “bachelor wall” and it was a pretty nice little adventure.  Dan brought Debbie as date to my Wedding.  I ended up performing their wedding ceremony a handful of years later.

Fast forward a half dozen years. Dan suggested climbing “The Nose.” I was involved with the struggle to get my house renovated.  We had moved back east, but the house market had started to sag, so we couldn’t afford to sell it.  The previous tenants had informed me of a mold problem, but had asked if I could postpone remediation until they moved out.  At first, I thought I could make a trip to check the house, and then climb in the Valley, but it turned out that the house demanded too much of an emotional and time commitment.  We put it off.  The next suggesting that we do it came half a year later, back in January of 2011.  This time, I had another motivator.  My fortieth birthday was coming up on July 18th and I wanted to climb the Nose before that.  I was out of shape, with chronic back pain, and constantly short of time.  But I said “Let’s do it.”  I joined Gold’s gym, and got a 10 pass at the Everett climbing gym.  I did a sole lead up a bolt ladder on a tree out in Menotomy Rock’s Park.  I wasn’t in the greatest of shape when our trip came around, and my mind was starting to get into the same mode as it had before Zodiac.  Jessica noticed.  “Are you OK with this.”  she asked, on multiple occasions.  I assured her that I was.

A big part of the worry got redirected into packing.  I made lists, and went around picking up little things I’d need. A new inflatable camping mattress; a bad idea of a big wall, I swear I’d seen someone use one in the past.  A new headlamp, but then I found the old one.  A fifi hook.  I found just about every thing that I wanted to bring with me but my camera.  It was enough to calm my nerves somewhat.  I told few people where I was going, but it seemed that everyone knew anyway.

“Why didn’t you do this climb before?”  Jess had asked me.  I thought about it.  I had never found the right climbing partner.  The dynamic between partners that would make a multi-day, 34 pitch ascent possible hadn’t been there at the time when I was up for doing it.  Besides Dan and Aaron, there were a handful of others I had climbed with.  Karl Aguilar would have been a good partner, but I hurt myself.  By the time I was back, he had already climbed it.  I had talked about it for so long.  It seemed that Dan would be the right partner.

This wouldn’t be aid climbing.  Oh sure, I’d “cheat” through the hard moves, and probably do some of the pitches as full blown aid, but, for the most part, I’d treat it like a free climb.  There we enough ledges to steady my nerves.  To be honest, I didn’t think we’d finish it, but I wanted to make the attempt, to get familiar with the stone.  I had done the Free Blast with Aaron before leaving California. That climb, the first ten pitches of the Salathe Route to the left of the Nose on El Cap, had gone so slowly that we only got through six of the ten pitches before we bailed.  But I had learned that I could go fast by “french-freeing” on difficult trad climbing, and figured I could handle what we had to do.  Getting on the plane settled some of my fears, as I hate the part of traveling before you check in and know you are going to make your flight.  Rain delayed our departure to the Valley, and a day in the climbing gym with Aaron, Hahn, and Dan, got my confidence back.  I wasn’t in top shape, but good enough to give it a go.

I got to Ruth’s house in San Francisco at one o’clock Saturday morning. Dan was already there, sleeping in the guest bed.  The forecast was for rain through Monday We were slow leaving the City.  He said it was because he didn’t want to face the rain, but really it was because he didn’t want to face the Captain.  The same fears that I had conquered were conquering Dan.  I suspect that a part of it was that climbing partner dynamic.  Dan, as technically competent as he was, was always a little behind me, either in experience or in having a good head for a difficult place.  Perhaps it is my time as an Army Officer that makes it easier for me to lead than to follow.  Bucking Dan up solidified my confidence, but it did nothing for his.  When we arrived at The Captain, I wanted to get right on it, get in line, get a couple pitches under our belt before we fixed lines and slept at the base.  Dan told the story of how he had “jumped right on” a climb in the Grand Tetons and it had ruined his trip.

We drove from San Francisco to Yosemite on Sunday, leaving after a slow breakfast.  We arrived in late afternoon and greeted the various rock formations as old friends:  Reed’s Pinnacle, the Leaning Tower, the Sentinel.

The Sentinal

The Sentinal

We saw El Capitan.  And Dan said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’

I shrugged it off.  Nerves.  It was just what I had suspected, just what I had felt at the base of Zodiac.  We left the gear in the car at El Cap meadow and went up to the base.  There were climbers on each of the belay stations for the first four pitches, setting fixed lines and preparing to rappel.  We watched.

“I’m going to go to the base of the climb.”  I stated.  “You coming?”

“No.”  Flat, almost petulant.

I scrambled to the base of the climb, up the fourth class ledges, and looked at the first pitch. At 5.10C, I probably wouldn’t be climbing it clean, but I didn’t need to.  I had a plan.  On the scramble back down, I found a stopper, relatively small, with yellow tape on it.  I gave it to Dan.  We watched the rest of the climbers finish setting their fix lines, and headed to camp four.

Ruth had lent us a tent, and I used that.  Dan slept in his Bivouac Sack, a mini tent-like covering that went around his sleeping bag.  Overnight, it poured.  The inside of the tent collected enough moisture that touching the sides ensured a drip.  Dan’s bivvy sack had leaked, and he was in a worse mood than he’d been in the previous day.  The forecast called for more rain, so we postponed our start, or even sorting gear.  I still clung to hope that Dan would change his mind, but he seemed to sink deeper into a funk.  He talked about Work and life in Vermont with enough energy, but talk of climbing just sank into him like rocks into mud.

“Well what are we going to do?  We’re not going up Nutcracker again,”  I spat at a low point.

We went to the Cafeteria for breakfast, then returned to Camp Four to find tags on our tent and bivvy sack telling us to go over to the ranger station and pay for the night.  The Ranger in the booth sternly informed us that we should have been there “first thing in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, and I’ll never do anything wrong ever again.”  I responded.  The antagonism between climbers and the Tourist infrastructure in the Valley had always grated on me, and never more than this morning.  My preferred approach to a weekend in the Valley included stuffing a bear canister full of enough food to get us through the weekend, and sleeping in the National Forest area outside the park boundaries.  I had grown to  despise  the sound of the diesel buses and the clang of emptying dumpsters. Both sounds were clearly audible from a few hundred feet up a cliff side.

Dan and I spent the day walking.  We walked to bridge that crossed under Yosemite Falls, and then over to Sunnyside bench, to the base of “Yosemite Jamcrack.”  Although the wall was wet, the crack was dry, and I regretted not having my shoes and gear with me.  At only 5.7, it would barely be a warm-up, but the climb was an old friend, ascended many times with many different people.  We crossed the valley floor to the chapel, and then behind to “Heathenistic Pursuit,”  one of the few climbs you can ascend when it is raining.  Again, I wished I had my gear.  Next we walked up the Four Mile Trail toward the base of the Sentinel.  On the way, we saw a bear, and I got some video of it walking around. I approached the bear the way I would a climb, straddling the line between confidence and caution.  I never saw sights of alarm from the bear, and so never gave off fear myself.  Dan stayed back, almost eager to leave the bear behind and continue our flight from the Captain.  We saw a climbers trail and walked around the base, discussing where the potential climbs might be.  This was safe territory:  abstract, historical, not something we were going to attempt.  Further up, we searched inconclusively for the start of the climbers access to the Sentinel.   Later, when reading the book, we found that it was indeed beside the stream, just that it had been covered by snow.

By four o’clock I had sunk into a funk myself. We were not climbing El Cap.  I would not be making an attempt, however abbreviated, prior to my Fortieth birthday.  I called myself a “whiny bitch.” and tried to snap out of it. “Let’s go to Hetch Hetchy.”  We drove the 45 minutes out of the valley and up to the reservoir, hiked across the dam, and saw deer in the tunnel and another three bears.  Dan kept making comments about how this was worth seeing, good time.  I  tried to be upbeat, and often succeeded.  We got dinner at a  campground on the road out of Hetch Hetchy.  It was a slightly fancy place, and we both ordered burgers.

“Isn’t this better than roughing it?”  He asked


Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy

Another night, and I insisted on taking the leaking bivvy sack.  Didn’t matter, he still got a poor night sleep, this time his reason was that his foam pad was too thin.  I wake late, and he was lying in the sun up slope from the famous boulder problem “Midnight Lightening”  We talked some more.  “You should at least get on Moby DIck.” He told me.  Not “we”, but “you.”  The previous day I informed him that at least he was going to belay me on the first pitch of the nose and he agreed.  As I chatted with some college students, Dan broke down our tent and packed the car.  Neither of us wanted to stay in Camp Four, not like this.  There was snow in the passes, so Tuolomne Meadows and the East Side of the Sierras were not accessible.  We discussed options like heading to King’s Canyon or the Lassen Volcanic park.

We drove to El Cap Meadow.  Dan parked and walked out into the meadow, to observe, away from the car, away from the gear, away from the climb.  I followed.  We met up with some tourists that had binoculars and pointed out the various ledges they were on.  There was a back from Sickle Ledge, at the end of the fourth pitch, to the top of the stove leg cracks.  Six people were in line on the stove legs, and no one seemed to be moving.   We spotted climbers on Zodiac, far higher up than I had gotten all those years before.  A climber that I somehow decided was female was making progress on the Muir Route, above Moby Dick and below the heart ledges.  We knew that wall so well for people that had never ascended anything but the most peripheral of routes.  We walked back to the car and I made the decision that ended our trip.  “Let’s go.”

Up to that point, I could have salvaged our trip.  If I had gotten out there and climbed a 5.1,  gone up Yosemite Jam Crack, or perhaps dragged Dan up The Nutcracker again for old times sake the trip would have been a success.  Give me five days in Yosemite, and tell me that the only condition is that I can only climb safe, secure, routes and you still have given me a gift.  A failure of leadership, it seems to me in retrospect.  If I had lead, he would have followed.  Instead, we drove off, had another lunch that I didn’t want in a Restaurant at the top of Priest Grade, the ultra steep section of road that delineates the Sierra Nevadas from the central Valley.  Years earlier, returning from one of our climbing trips in a rain storm, we saw the wreckage of a car that had gone over the edge, an almost certain fatality.  Sitting at the top of the valley,  I took Dan’s phone and called my wife.

“You didn’t climb any thing?”  She asked incredulously?  “It is OK if you come home, just don’t come home in a bad mood.”  But heading out of the valley would lead to heading back to San Francisco.  Which would lead to spending way too much money on an early flight home.  As Dan dropped me off at the airport, I shook his hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I’m not going to lose a friend over this.”

I would be in a bad mood, just not right away.  Like most things, there was a delay between the decision and the realization I had made a mistake.  For the rest of the week, as I stood in front of my computer, working on my code, scanning Facebook, and browsing pictures of climbs in the Valley, I was almost in tears about what I had thrown away.  My first time in the Valley in four years.  A week away from the computer, work, chasing toddlers, and any semblance of my day-to-day grind.”

“Fatigue makes Cowards of us all.”  I remember that from a lecture about the poor physical shape the Army of Occupation in Japan and Korea was in just prior to the North Korean invasion of the south.  I remember myself the fear of the upperclassmen from the walk back to the Barracks from our summer encampment at Lake Fredrick,  the anticipation being far worse than the actual event.  Climbing involves overcoming fear on a regular basis.  Perhaps on top-rope on a simple climb I would feel no real fear, but likely even the simplest of climb would raise my heart-rate.  Just thinking about climbing makes my palms and feet slightly damp. I had gotten myself over the overwhelming fear of climbing the Nose, put it into a framework that I could manage, by telling myself it was similar to things I did routinely:  hanging on a rope, trad climbing.  Sleeping on a ledge, ascending a rope, and doing the pendulums were all relatively uncommon in my climbing career, but I felt I could see my way through them.  Dan never got over that hump.  I could have lead him over it, but I lacked the emotional strength to both do that and conquer my own inertia.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article that distinguishes between panic and choking.  Panic is when we stop thinking.  But choking is the way that experienced people fail.  Choking is what happens when, as an expert, you return to that beginners mind.Choking is when you over-think an issue and your performance becomes wooden, slow, clumsy.  In a sense, Dan and I choked.  We were looking at a daunting task, something larger than anything we had done before.  I had dealt with the fear by getting myself back into my climbing mindset.   I convinced myself that it would be just what I had done before, a million times.  I relaxed, and I was going to be able to enjoy it.  Dan’s fear lead him to over-think it.  It focus on how uncomfortable the belays and the ledges would be for the rests, how scary it would be to lead, or to ascend a rope.

Early in the trip, Dan gave a shrug when I asked him about the climb and his reasons.  “You aren’t Gallic enough to pull that off.”  I chided.  As we walked back to the car from the meadow, I gave a dramatic shrug right before saying “Let’s go.”  I think it was that drama, driven  self pity that led to that split second surrender to depression.  Dan’s fears had fed back into mine, pushing me back over the threshold.  Some part of me was relieved to drive out of the Valley.

What did I learn?   I think that Dan and I should have gotten on a climb together back east.  At the first sign of panic, I should have gotten both of us back in to the groove of climbing.  Dan is in Upstate New York, I am in Massachusetts, and we hadn’t done anything more significant than canvassing for the 2008 election together.  We needed to reestablish the old patterns in a more gradual manner.  One lesson I’ve learned from software development is that the changes you push in immediately before a deadline are the most bug-ridden code you write, and usually have to be redone in short order.  By trying to cram “Climb The Nose” in before my 40th birthday without proper lead up, I set up too high a bar to clear.  Sure, I could have been lead up it by a climbing guide, but my goal was to be the leader.

I learned a few good things as well.  I remembered just how much I loved the sport.   Prior to the trip, Jess was saying “If you just go and do some climbing it will be a good trip.”  and I pooh-poohed the concept, but she was dead on.  Of all the forms of climbing, crack climbing calls to me the strongest, and Yosemite is a damn good place to crack climb.  I’ve been “Jonesing for crack” since I landed in Massachusetts.

I learned that I cannot ignore the good things that are right in front of my face for some abstract goal.  I’ve been a purist about things in the past, and it hasn’t really served me well.  I’ve tried to become more pragmatic over the years,  but I obviously have a ways to go.

I learned that I really missed climbing with Dan.  Despite all the unpleasantness about the climb itself, I enjoyed his company.  I missed my friends in San Francisco. I have some kick-ass friends there that put us up, lent us gear, met us for meals, and provided emotional and moral support.  Part of what made those early years in San Francisco so magical was the group of friends, and I miss them.

To many climbers, Yosemite is a magical place.  To me, it is familiar, challenging, threatening, frustrating.  There are not that many easy and moderate climbs, but there is always something else to climb.  When I lived in San Francisco, I had my systems down:  grab these couple of crates, the bag with my climbing gear, and throw them in the car.  Sitting in the Valley in a funk, I forgot how special the opportunity was that I had at that moment, treating it like just another weekend, when the truth is that every weekend, every day is special, and there are always positive opportunities if we can just overlook the negative.

“I want a do-over.”  I messaged to Dan.  He agreed.  This summer, we are going to climb Moby Grape on Cannon cliff.  I’ve already claimed Reppy’s Crack, the 5.8 first pitch.  We may never go “up the Nose” as the logistics of getting on the most popular rock climb in the world are a little daunting, and the truth is, there is so much good rock out there, it is almost a waste not to chase it.  Meanwhile, my two year old is climbing anything and everything.  Jess has expressed a renewed interest in climbing, too.  Summer is just starting here in New England, and there are boulders in my neighborhood I can climb at lunch.  The old cliche is that life begins at forty.  Ron Kauk put up his first 5.14. after he crossed 40.  John Salathe invented modern pitons after he started climbing at the age of 45.  I guess it really doesn’t matter if I climb the Nose before I turn 40.

8 thoughts on “Fear

  1. Adam, belated birthday wishes.

    Wow, it’s a roughly 50 paragraph read, still a fine fine read.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Adam. Like Chris, I didn’t expect to see it on Planet Fedora — but it made for a good reflective moment in the morning. Many happy birthday wishes, and many happy more.

  3. Here is wisdom — thanks for sharing, mate…

    I’ve never climbed other than as a lad back in Belize, when I used to climb what is in reality a wee rock — but seemed really challenging and formidable back then — on the way to the river; but I know intimately and precisely the feelings that you speak of. Kind of like standing in the door…

  4. Adam, its been too long. You more than just about anyone know the challenges Ive had trying to get back on the sharp end. I miss it as well. We should definitely figure out a trip. I have taken a break, and picked up whitewater canoeing. However your post reminded me why I loved climbing in the 1st place. … Well, we need to touch base.

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