Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bailing Gumbies

Even after receiving the gift of life from our friends Dave and Micah at the base of Half Dome, the hike down the death slabs was a brutal endeavor. Once again it was hot when we started our descent, and the sun broiled us mercilessly. Its reflection off the slabs seemed to amplify its effect, increasing our suffering logarithmically. Both Dan and I drank about a liter and a half of our friends' water when we met them at the base of the route. But that was after more than 12 hours without any liquids. Prior to that, we had been conservative with what little water we did have. Although our stomachs felt distended after chugging what we could, our bodies were still suffering from prolonged dehydration.

Dave, despondent over not
getting to climb...but he
gave us his water!
On the hike down, this manifested itself in all kinds of fun and interesting ways. We both had headaches and nausea, along with the obvious fatigue. I was confused and lethargic. I stumbled on seemingly every other step. Urination was painful and, thank god, infrequent. But the worst of all of these symptoms was the moodiness. I had no right to be the least bit grouchy, seeing as we had just climbed one of our dream routes in good style; nevertheless, I was full-on cantankerous. I had to restrain myself from yelling at a friendly European couple that passed us on the hike down. How dare they? I also remember feeling pissed off at Dan for not thinking of asking Dave and Micah to leave us more water for the descent. In my present state of mind, that was clearly his mistake. When we finally made it off the slabs onto the forest trail, I felt like punching a French hiker for not knowing exactly how far away the bus stop was ("You'd be speaking Deutsch if it wasn't for us, you ignorant Frog!" I said to myself).

But the coup de grace came on the bus, only one stop away from the Curry Village Pizza Deck and our salvation. The bus pulled over to let off a group of hikers, and one of them had the audacity to ask for directions to a trailhead. The bus driver indulged, and took her sweet time pointing him in the right direction. "There are ten hikers in that group. Doesn't one of them have a fucking map?!" I yelled. This time it wasn't just in my head. If they heard me, nobody paid attention, and soon enough the bus stopped at Curry Village. I leveled an icy gaze at the bus driver as I disembarked. That'll teach her to waste my time. ("I just climbed Half Dome. Who the hell are you?")

Minutes after getting off that bus I had a Gatorade in hand and all of that negativity suddenly started to dissolve with each gulp. Relief from the immediate discomfort of dehydration seemed to accelerate the half-life of Type 2 Fun.

It's incredible how easily the discomfort and uncertainty of a climb can fade from memory, crowded out by the expanding ego and certitude that come with success. Mere hours after cursing at a friendly bus driver, I sat in Curry Village--hydrated and surrounded by granite monoliths and pizza--thinking that climbing Half Dome was the single coolest thing I had ever done. Soon Dan and I were relaxing, beers in hand, nostalgically glossing over our climb while wearing rose-colored glasses:
  • We hadn't really been that thirsty. 
  • We never actually would have taken another party's cache of water had Dave and Micah not been there to help us out.
  • We need to do something else; faster, lighter...bigger.
Well...there's only one thing in Yosemite Valley that is bigger than the NW Face of Half Dome, and that's the Big Stone itself. El Capitan. Our confidence, inflated to galactic proportions by our recent success, was eclipsing the better part of valor. We decided right then that we were going to climb The Nose with only a single rest day.

The Nose of El Capitan, as seen from the approach trail.

We slept like happy babies that night and late into the next morning. Upon waking, we hiked to the base of the Nose to scope the start of the route. While observing a party climbing the third pitch, we saw a guy video taping the action from below. It turns out that he was making a video of his friend, who had never worn a harness, being guided up the Nose by famous Yosemite climber Timmy O'Neill. Their goal was to do it in 24 hours or less. It seemed like a lofty goal, considering he was schlepping a complete greenhorn up the largest sheer granite wall in the U.S., but if anyone could do it, Timmy O'Neill was the man. I wished him well, then walked around the buttress to get a better look at the start of the first pitch.

It was there that I first ran into the Swedes, Eva and Johanna. As it turned out, the Swedes also had eyes for the Nose (!), and were planning to start the next morning, just like us. They were also planning on fixing the first five pitches, up to Sickle Ledge. ("Fixing" is short for fixing lines. Basically, this means that you climb a few pitches, then secure your ropes from your high point and retreat back to the ground where you spend the night. The next day, you can quickly ascend your ropes to start from yesterday's high point. It's a common tactic on big routes.)

Eva, leading up a pitch low on The Nose.
Dan and I quickly decided to join forces with our new friends and combine ropes. This way, we'd need to carry less gear on our first day of fixing. With five pitches to Sickle Ledge, we would have needed four ropes to get back to the ground if we were working alone. But the Swedes agreed to put three of their ropes into the mix. Score.

With that worked out, the only thing left to do was try to get some sleep. Dan and I didn't need to fuss with packing. We offloaded that thankless job onto Dave. The idea was that Dan and I would fix the first five pitches while Dave drove Micah back to Oakland to catch a flight. Then when Dave got back to the Valley, he would pack his massive haul bag with all of our supplies for the wall. The next day we would all start up our fixed lines together as a team of three and make a push for the top--in theory.

The Swedes, at the top of pitch 3.
As it's wont to do, fickle reality made a mess of our perfectly laid plans. A couple things happened that we hadn't drawn up in the play book. For starters, Dan and I, short on sleep, showed up at the base of the route a little later than we hoped. By the time we got there, the Swedes were already climbing. It wasn't a big deal at the time, since we didn't know who would be the faster party. It turns out we were.

We ended up riding their asses the entire day. This not only slowed us down, but it made the already-cramped belay stances even more uncomfortable and fatiguing. In the end, there was nothing for it but to be patient, since we had made a rope-sharing agreement with them for the first five pitches anyhow.

The second unplanned incident happened on pitch 3, when I took a sudden fall. The pitch is only 5.10, so they say, but it is slick and polished from thousands of past suitors, and it makes use of pin scars--features not found in abundance in the east. I combined free climbing with some aid moves, and then found myself in a pickle. I had used up almost all of our offset cams (the perfect protection for pin scars) early on in the pitch, and came to a point where I needed an offset that I had already placed.I tried to just free climb around it, but it was tricky and I was tired. Finally I decided I would use a cam that was too small for the scar. I placed it as best I could and tugged on it a few times. It seemed OK, and I yelled down to Dan to be ready to catch a fall. As I stood up on my aiders, the cam blew and I took a short but sudden fall onto the slab below. I immediately felt a sharp pain in my left ankle and knew something was amiss. I took a few minutes to remember how to breathe, back-cleaned a bigger cam, then finished the pitch with my ankle throbbing.
Dan rests while waiting on the Swedes.

Alex also catches some Zs while in traffic.
 Dan finished off the remaining pitches with only one minor mishap, which involved a miscommunication during a pendulum, resulting in me paying out slack when I wasn't supposed to and Dan taking one of those scary falls where you have enough air time to actually think. Sorry Dan-O!

After fixing our lines with the Swedes, we got back down to the ground late in the afternoon. It was then that I realized how bad my ankle was. In the vertical world, it seemed OK, since I was rarely directly weighting it. But on flat ground, walking was almost impossible. I figured that, with some ice and "vitamin I," it would be fine in the morning and forced myself to forget about it. We had other things to worry about, like whether or not Dave could fit all of our gear into his haul bag.

We soon discovered that the answer to that question was still a mystery. Arriving at our cabin in Curry Village, we found Dave passed out in bed and an empty haul bag on the floor.  To Dave's credit, he had been climbing hard for several days straight, then had to wake up insanely early to drive 8 hours round trip before picking up supplies and packing the haul bag. Dan and I got to climb in the sun on El Cap with exotic ladies while he did all the dirty work.

He did manage to pick up the necessary supplies, but he ended up passing out before packing them. No big deal. All that was needed was a little calculus concerning how much water to bring. Luckily, Dan and I had done some independent research on that topic while climbing Half Dome.

Dave standing next to our first
attempt at packing a haul bag.
It was nearly as heavy as him.
I should say here that, to me, there's nothing worse than being thirsty. A climber can manage prolonged hunger--even control it with a well-timed Shot Blok or the occasional cigarette. But when you're thirsty, there's little else you can think about. That said, we may have overcompensated for our experience on Half Dome. We calculated two nights and three days worth of climbing for the Nose. I think we decided, at first, to bring four liters per person, per day. This added up to roughly 80 pounds worth of H2O. After we stuffed it all in the haul bag, we could see that this was not going to work.

Our initial strategy involved one person belaying and hauling at the same time. With a bag that was going to weigh close to 100 pounds and no prior experience hauling heavy pigs, we all started envisioning how slowly we'd be moving. We scrambled to come up with an alternative, and before long we settled on a hybrid approach. The leader would lead a pitch and fix a line for the follower to jug. The leader would climb unencumbered, while the second and third would wear light packs weighing roughly 20 pounds each. The leader would haul a larger pack that weighed in at about 40 pounds or so. This strategy would enable us to haul a smaller bag more quickly, and spread out the weight a bit. But it would require us to bring less water. Thoughts of parched mouths and swollen tongues danced through our heads, but we had survived it once already.

Testing my bum ankle on easy ground.
When I rolled out of bed on the morning of our climb, I could hardly stand. My ankle was swollen and painful. I took some pain killers and tried to loosen it up, but it only seemed to hurt more as I hopped along the dusty paths in Curry Village. I agonized over whether or not to come along, sure that I would slow us down. In the end I decided that I could never forgive myself if I didn't give it a try.

We got to our fixed lines pretty early and found no sign of the Swedes, nor any other party on the first few pitches. The weather was blue-bird. It looked like we were in luck. We started jugging the 400 or so feet up to Sickle Ledge and Dan rigged a nice hauling system for our packs. We made pretty good time, and soon enough we were ready to push into new terrain. 

I asked for the lead right off the bat on the easy pitch off of Sickle Ledge. This way I'd know right away if my ankle would cut the mustard. Like the day before, it didn't seem to bother me while I was climbing--either that or I had drugged myself up enough not to notice. I was moving quickly and easily up the moderate terrain. Things were starting to look up.

The next few pitches went fairly slowly as we got used to our systems and negotiated a few pendulums. Dan and I did all the leading while Dave jugged and managed the haul bag. Our thought was that we would tire out soon from our efforts on Half Dome. We just hoped that we could finish our share of the work quickly before we clocked out and unleashed Dave to drag us to the top.

We had hoped to make El Cap Tower in the first day. I'm not sure where we burned all of our daylight, but before we knew it, we were climbing the Stovelegs in the dark. Dan had a long lead which involved backtracking to a suitable belay station. I took over and got us out of the Stovelegs after another time-consuming lead. I don't recall what time we made it to Dolt Tower, three pitches short of our goal, but by the time we did, it was evident we weren't going any further that night.

New-school climbers with old-school comforts, atop Dolt.
Once we were all atop Dolt Tower with our bags, we unpacked and enjoyed a spacious bivy ledge. Nobody admitted defeat, but we were definitely moving slower than we had hoped, and our exhaustion was starting to catch up to us. I think we all knew in the back of our minds that we would be heading down the next morning. Even so, we had an enjoyable bivy under the stars, 1,000 feet above the Valley on the world's best rock climb. We were able to spread out and allowed ourselves to eat and drink more than our share of supplies--another sign that we were leaning towards bailing.

We rose with the sun the next morning and heard the sounds of a party above us on El Cap Tower. They seemed to be descending. We ate breakfast and watched them negotiate the tricky rappels from below. Once they got down to us, they confirmed that they had had enough and were retreating. We let them go by us before finally discussing our own bailure. We all three agreed that we could keep going. But our speed was an issue. We would have been pushing our supplies to their limit; missing our flight was another concern.

Before you bail on a climb, there is always a little kabuki dance that is done. Neither partner wants to be the one seen as the weak link--the one that made the call to bail. Even when everyone involved wants to get the hell off of a climb, there needs to be a little back and forth so that everyone can feel like they have covered their asses: "Well, I could definitely keep going. I'd really hate to bail. Pretty sure we could do it, but man, it would suck to miss our flight. Plus, we aren't really doing it in our preferred style, with all this gear. Maybe we'd actually be respecting the route more if we just bailed now and came back and did it lighter and faster?"

In the end, we all said our peace and came to terms with what had to be done: Complete and total bailure.

The Nose had beaten us. Time to bail. Give 'em the hook!

We packed up our gear and started dumping out some excess water weight when, out of the blue, a familiar face popped over the ledge from below. It took us a bit to place him, but somebody eventually said in a hushed but reverent voice, "I think that's Sean Leary."

He was covered in sweat and was carrying essentially zero gear. He ran to the belay bolts on the tower, said hello, and short-fixed the rope for his partner to jug. While his partner was jugging his way towards the tower, we briefly chatted and gave him a bottle of Gatorade. He thanked us, but only stayed long enough to chug the bottle and keep moving. He was halfway up the next pitch by the time his partner arrived at our position on the tower.

Sean Leary is a speed climber who has many ascents of the Nose to his credit. He even held the Nose speed record along with Dean Potter (2:36:45) for two years before losing it last summer to Alex Honnold and Hans Florine. His partner was not nearly as experienced as he was, but they were still moving at a blistering pace. We delayed our departure for a few minutes while we watched them speed along. By the time we started rappelling, they were starting the King Swing, five pitches above us.

Bailing from any big wall can be a tedious affair, even for experienced parties. But lucky for us, the Nose is pretty gumby friendly. If you have to rappel from Dolt Tower, you don't even need to follow the route back down. There are eight or so bolted rappel anchors down the sheer face directly below the tower. All you need to do is go straight down. Since all three of us have considerable experience getting in over our heads and bailing off of climbs, we assumed we were in for an easy retreat. Guess what happened next?

We made the most gumby move possible. We were using two ropes tied together to make our rappels. Of course, we knotted the ends to make sure we didn't rap off of the ropes and take the Big Dirt Nap. This is all pretty standard practice. The only thing is, you have to remember to take your knots out of the ends of the ropes before you can pull them and rig your next rappel. If you don't, the knot gets stuck in the anchors 200 feet above you.

I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow we let go of the end of one of the ropes. Under normal conditions, this isn't a big deal. But it happened to be extremely windy that day, and it was blowing in the wrong direction. Before we knew it, the rope was blowing about 50 feet to our right, well out of reach. The knot seemed to catch the wind and hover there, taunting us. We couldn't reach the rope to untie the knot, but if we pulled the other rope, the knot would jam and we'd be screwed. So, there we waited, about halfway down the rappel route. We waited, and waited, and waited. Surely the wind would have to let go of our rope at some point. It didn't.

That's how we came to be stuck 500 feet in the air on one of Yosemite's most famous attractions. It felt like we were on display for the whole world to mock. We imagined Tom Evans, publisher of, taking our pictures and laughing heartily while composing a harshly worded castigation of our sad little epic: "Citizens of the climbing universe, this is exactly what not to do when you are on the most famous rock climb ever! And look, they even wore camera-friendly colors! Everyone point and laugh!"

In this rather humbling dilemma, we had only two obvious choices.We could sit and wait, hoping the wind died down enough to bring the rope back to us. Or we could pull the other rope and let the knot get jammed in the anchors. This would allow us to retrieve one of our ropes, but we would have to sacrifice the other, essentially leaving litter on route. None of us wanted to leave a rope hanging on The Nose as a signal of our shame. The only trace we were prepared to leave on El Cap was the foul stench of humiliation.

Then, as if divinely sent by the Rock Gods themselves, an idea occurred to one of us. We had all been looking forward to doing the King Swing, a notorious pendulum pitch in the middle of the route, but we hadn't made it that far before we bailed. Perhaps we could perform our own version of the King right here on the bail route and retrieve our rope and reputations all in one proud effort.

A Youtube video of the King Swing

Before the others could volunteer, I quickly offered myself up as the hero. We fixed about 50 feet of rope and I rappelled to the end of it. In retrospect, this wasn't the smartest decision. My ankle was in no condition to hold body weight, let alone propel me across a blank face at high speed. But visions of glory crowded out my reticence, and I started running back and forth to gain momentum. The idea behind a pendulum is that you can reach otherwise inaccessible places on a wall by swinging back and forth on a line. When you have enough momentum, you can grab a particular feature and secure yourself to it. In this instance, I would be grabbing our rope at the endpoint of my arc, which was roughly level with Dan and Dave.

For those of you who flunked geometry, that makes a pretty damn big pendulum, and in my injured state, I was unequal to the task. I got within about 10 feet of our rope, but would spiral out of control on the downswing. With my lame ankle, I was unable to jump over the small corners and other features that were in my way. When I snagged them, I would spin and cartwheel across the face, slowing me down and exposing myself to further injury. I gave up after a few tries, but not before I noticed loud groans echoing up from the ground. While I jugged back up to join my partners, I realized our spectacle had drawn a small crowd in the meadow below. My nightmare was becoming reality. People were watching us bail!

It is only fitting that Dave should be our knight in shining armor in this perverse fairy tale. After driving 8 hours while Dan and I fixed ropes the first day, he was made to jug the entire second day without leading a single pitch. I felt bad for him, but it was all part of the plan--until we decided to bail and Dave was left with only memories of cramped belays and jammed jumars. But when I arrived at the anchor, Dave immediately volunteered to go back down and try it himself.

While he descended our fixed line, Dan and I managed, via a series of rope whips, to get the knot a little closer. It was still a solid 30 feet to our right, however, and the pendulum would not be easy. Dave made several attempts. On his fourth or fifth try, he nearly had the rope in hand before gravity had its inevitable effect and dragged him back down. At this near miss, our audience in the meadow, which had grown, let out a roar. It was clear that we were giving the people what they wanted. While Dave recovered from his last exhausting effort, Dan and I imagined a father and son standing on the periphery of the crowd below us:

Son: Dad, who are those people swinging around up there on the rock?

Dad: Son, those are the rare "Bailing Gumbies." They're native to this part of the world, but aren't often seen in such humiliating splendor. Sit tight while I get pictures!

From above, it was clear that Dave was getting tired. It seemed like he might only have one more effort in him. That was all he needed. Showing remarkable poise, Dave gained momentum, running back and forth across the rock several times, deftly leaping corners and bulges. This time, he had enough umph built up to grab the rope at the apogee of his arc. He had done it. He had saved us and covered himself in glory. The crowd in the meadow showed enthusiastic support with a round of applause. Dan and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The remainder of the descent went off without a hitch, and soon we were back on the ground with our gear and our memories. We packed up and hiked the 10 minutes back to our car next to the meadow. When we arrived, we saw Sean Leary finishing a beer and talking to a friend. In the time it had taken us to rappel roughly 1,000 feet to the ground, he and his partner had climbed the remaining 2,000 feet of The Nose and hiked back down. He also had enough time to drink at least one beer, although we like to think he was on his third or fourth. We calculated his ascent took between 6 and 7 hours, all told. Far from a record, but next to our 2-day, 1,000-foot epic, it seemed heroic.

If you asked me back in October whether or not our trip was a success, I would have been hard pressed to give an answer. Sure, we had climbed Half Dome, but we also bailed in extraordinary fashion from The Nose. In the weeks after our trip, I was hit with a case of cognitive dissonance. I was proud and humbled at the same time. I didn't know what to make of it all.

But nearly five months have passed since we were in the Valley, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can now say unequivocally that the trip was a success. It showed us our potential while giving us a glimpse of our limits. As Dan so eloquently put it in his last post, it also proved what a good training program can do for you. And, as always, it confirmed that time spent in the mountains with good friends is time well spent, no matter the outcome. (Plus it gave us more pictures to add to the Bailure Hall of Shame!) Armed with a little more knowledge and experience, next time we really will be capable of doing it faster, lighter, ... bigger.

The requisite pre-bail photo op. Not impressed...


  1. Nice write up boys. Sounds like a great adventure.

  2. Very entertaining. Thanks for the writeup. First time up proves quite a learning experience on The Nose. Next time!