Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Push

I write, now, from a million miles away.  Not like for the other posts.  For those I was on the scene, in the present: training, climbing, daydreaming about climbing.  These activities have occupied me for the last 6 years in ever more coherent and intense cycles, right to this last effort in preparation for our trip to Yosemite.

It was a perfect push.  Sport climbing last year showed what was necessary to access hard grades.  Reading the China Study inspired me to overhaul my diet.  Working with Dan Hague (author of  The Self Coached Climber) helped to optimize our gym sessions.  There was the marathon last year that illustrated how to increase training loads to a crescendo, then taper for a performance peak.  The 31 pitch attempt last May that offered confidence climbing through the night.

Past trips benefited from flashes of inspiration.  The Yosemite trip would test the sum of our experience.

It was my last hard training week.  I ran 31 miles, climbed 30 hard routes in the gym, and many boulder problems.  I ate quality food, and abstained from booze.  It was time to taper.  That's when life outside of climbing--long held at bay--started to pour in, and I started to float away.

None of that mattered for Yose though.  We found ourselves buzzing after the red-eye to San Franscico at 2am.  We jumped in our rental, skidded around the turns in Yosemite at 7am, checked in to our tent cabin, bought food, and were hiking up the Death Slabs below Half Dome by 2pm.

We decided on the drive in that we had no time to mess around with fixing ropes, or waiting to start predawn.  The fancier our tactics, the more water and food we would need to carry, the slower we would go.  We packed our rope, rack, some water, and commenced.

We gained the top of the slabs 4 hours later, rested, and started climbing around 7pm.  I short fixed the first 4 pitches as the sun set, then in the dark.  After midnight, Alex took over and pushed the rope another two pitches.  We settled to bivy on a slight, ramped ledge around 2am.

We ate sandwiches, drank from our meager water supply, and tried to sleep.  First we shared a single butt scoop, side by side.  Then Alex tried to find a more restful position a few feet away, slightly weighting his harness to avoid sliding from the ramp.  I nodded off for around 20 minutes, Alex barely a wink.

A few hours later, the moon rounded the corner of Half Dome and the entire Yosemite Valley showed bright in ghostly light.  The chill of the 50 degree evening gradually overtook our thin jackets and mylar foil blankets.  We could rest no more.  "Time to go."

Several pitches later, day broke and we heard the clanging and whispers of a team cleaning up from breakfast on the wall above us.  It wasn't all ours after all.

We freed strenuous chimney pitches beneath their heels as they wrestled a haul bag.  At the top of the chimneys the other team graciously allowed us to pass.  Their Cali ("This is rad brah!") energy was infectious.  It was pleasant to share the experience, and connect with locals.  They also took many of the photos you see here.

The sun caught us around 5pm at the base of the route's most difficult sections.  I felt strung out, like I'd partied all night, and now the dreaded sun was here to put me on the spot in front of all the world.  There I was: frazzled, unprepared, unable to maintain focus in the manner required of an upstanding citizen.  I stared into space after completing the first of the difficult "zig zag" pitches.  I was supposed to short fix and keep going, but there was a feel of doom about the notion.  Roped soloing was too complex an operation for my mental state.  Soon enough, Alex gained my stance, and stepped up for the lead.

At the top of the next pitch, Alex reached a similar funk as mine.  He was jammed in a terrible alcove that reeked of piss.  The stacked rope dropped into the hole, became tangled, and he threw a fit.  I felt partially responsible, but there was no time for explanations, apologies, analysis, what-should-haves.  The only thing that matters in the mountains is what you do.

The sun set, and peace returned.  The air was cool and soothing.  Time dissolved.

Crawling on hands and knees along the rail-tie-width-ledge, pack tipping me off balance, towards the void--following the Thank God Ledge evoked the feeling of being alone on a tiny planet with only the company of stars and endless space.

Then the tricky aid traverse unraveled like a puzzle.  Nothing scary or physical, just, "How do we negotiate this blankness? Will we figure it out?"

It was near 2am at the semi-hanging last belay, pitch 23.  A localized, unwavering sub summit gale stripped our heat.  The next pitch was rated 5.7--a grade we'd sleep walk when fresh--but here, chilled and tired, it menaced me.  What if there was no gear?  I envisioned myself run out, and melting down.  So close to the top, yet cartwheeling down easy slab in shame.  I considered passing on the lead, then ridiculed myself for the weakness.

I was shivering as I stepped off the belay.  The movement warmed my blood, and the fears vanished.  Excitement for nearing the summit took over.

The top was a moonscape.  We ate a liquorice, snapped a photo with the iphone, and sat under a spell.

30 hours on the face.  What a push!  But it wouldn't be over until we reached water.  I could hear a slight ringing in my ears.  "Your face looks angular, " Alex tells me.  I told him his did too.  Somehow, his face was also covered in soot, like an Oliver Twist street urchin.

Alex donned the follower pack, and I bound the rack and rope to my torso.  We hiked to climber's left 100 yards and found the heavy, elevated steel cables that mark the tourist path to the summit.

I had to give credit to the untrained tourists who negotiate those cables.  The thick, frictionless twists of steel are uncomfortable to grip, and the granite slope below is worn to a kitchen counter finish.  It's not a graceful way to negotiate the hills.

We started our descent facing down the mountain, but soon switched around backwards to relieve the pressure on our swollen toes.  Here we started to pay for only bringing climbing shoes.

In the planning, we assumed the route finding would be obvious once we reached the bottom of the cables.  Instead we found ourselves high above tree-line, with a mini dome in front of us, and void rolling off to either side.

We ventured over the rise ahead.  The sub-dome was bare.  There were no cairns or signs, or anything to suggest a highly trafficked path.

We backtracked to see if a hidden way might descend the "roll off" on the west side.  The second guessing underlined our fatigued.  We doubted our senses.  Time was losing continuity.

Having found no way down the side, we returned over the rise.  The throbbing in my feet was too much.  I removed my climbing shoes and continued in the thin socks Alex had lent me.  "It feels like a massage," I told Alex.  Alex stuck with his climbing shoes.

We picked our way down.  The moonscape dissolved and we found ourselves winding through sandy switchbacks, and hopping down steps in a fragrant pine forest.

The path flattened, and we found the beginning of the 9 mile hiking path we knew twisted around the back of the mountain, then around to the parking lots from where we'd come; but we needed to find a climbers trail that cut down to the base of the wall to find our packs and shoes.  Could we find it in the dark?

Getting lost was not an option.  We'd finished our last ration of water over 10 hours ago, and Alex said he was starting to see things.

"We may need to bivy here," one of us said.

I ditched the load of climbing rack and rope off my back and jogged barefoot down the path of soft dust.  There were no obvious cairns or side trails.  I jogged back and looked for the climber's trail right at the base of the incline.  It was faint, but there was something.

I stepped gingerly through the brush and forest, linking patches of sandy soil.  I could barely see.  I proceeded more by feel.  When I took a wrong step, I could feel the grains of forest detritus become more jagged and uncomfortable.  The right way felt comfortable and soothing under foot.

"This is how the Indians navigated these woods," I thought to myself, perfectly aware of being ridiculous.

I backtracked and grabbed Alex.

As we tip-toed down the vague path in the dark wood, we discussed our predicament, "We may need to raid another team's water cache."

"It may come to that.  They say people abandon water in the woods all the time.  Maybe we can find some."

Alex became possessed.  He would stop every 100' or so and stare into the woods.

"There's water over there."

I would sidetrack 50' off the trail.  There was no way Alex could know.  There was no way he could see this far.  Eerily enough, the several times this happened, deep in a bush or behind a log I found plastic water containers, but they were empty and flattened.

The slog through the woods dragged on.  At times the path was defined, but mostly we bushwhacked through brush and talus.

Finally we arrived at the base of the wall.  My feet had ceased to be comforted being bare, and I slowed to a crawl.  Alex, also hobbling, was a little ahead.

"We have plenty of water and food for you," I thought I heard the voice of my good friend Dave Truncellito say.

Was that in my head?

Dave and his partner Micah told us the day before that they might try to climb the route starting this morning.  It was almost 5am.  Were they actually there?  Why would they have extra water?  Was this real?

I stumbled into the clump of trees at the base of the wall where Alex and I stashed our gear.  There were Alex, Dave, and Micah.  Real.

Dave and Micah told us how they hiked up the death slabs the afternoon before with bulging 70L packs only to find 4 parties at the base of the wall, all queuing to start first thing this morning.  Dave and Micah didn't have supplies to wait, and were crushed to make the decision to bail.

I couldn't believe our luck.  Dave and Micah, and their predicament saved us.  I'm not sure what would have happened had Alex and I tried to descend the tricky 3000' "death slabs" in our state.

After catching up, and guzzling fluids, we bid Dave and Micah to crawl back into their sleeping bags, and Alex and I donned our thin jackets and emergency blankets for a few hours of sweet shivering sleep on the mess of our ropes flaked on the ground.

Then, upon first light, Dave and Micah packed and descended the death slabs, leaving behind their sleeping bags and pads for Alex and I.

We wriggled into our respective bags.  My legs and core warmed.  For the first time since we landed in San Fran over two days ago, I relaxed.  I gazed up at the pale wall cresting over us, and brimmed with joy.

The red dots mark the 3000' "Death Slab" approach.  The blue dots are the 2000' Regular Route.

We made it down and celebrated.  We strutted around the valley.  We talked big about our plans for the Nose on El Cap the next day.  That's another story--a good one for the chronicles of Bailure.

Since we returned home to normal life, I've turned my attention to stepping up to the responsibilities that come with a promotion at work.  I've allowed the sloth and excess of the holiday season to wash over me.  I've started to look at purchasing a house with my wonderful wife.

These are great things.  But, in the flux, I feel that my moorings have loosened.  My formula for happiness is less defined.  Am I descending into a trap of middle age?  Or will these efforts blossom, and lead to a higher expression of life?


  1. My partner and I have dreamed about climbing HD in one push like this. I'll be thrilled if our excursion ends half as successfully as yours. Awesome write-up!

  2. Well done. My favorite entry to date. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for your positive feedback, Austin, Alan! Austin, I say get after it. It's truly a worthwhile objective.

  4. This is a great write up. Worth the wait.

    Very impressive use of your time - way to make every second count.

    Looking forward to reading about the El Cap.

  5. Amazing story Dan! (and so well-written) I had no idea you guys were in such bad shape on the descent, that whole bit sounds pretty darn intense. I'll pick your brain some more when I see you guys in the gym!

  6. well written...i don't comment so quickly on blogs..but this is different. it has been put up very well Dan. well done.