Thursday, January 5, 2012

El Capitan

Painting by Joe Arnold

This story was written by Jason Arnold, one of my closest friends. We grew up together, his family taught me how to climb, and over the years we've shared many adventures together. This is Jason's account of our ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite when we were both very young. We spent 7 days living on the side of El Cap, 3 more days than we had planned for. It was an unforgettable experience at a pivotal moment in our lives.

I was the venture capitalist.  I had inherited nearly a quarter million dollars and I thought I could finance our adventures.  My father had passed away in a train accident – Union Pacific, while on the job – nearly 16 years earlier.  The settlement had paid for my upbringing, and bought me an entitlement attitude.

Oliver was my best friend, a workhorse, a thoroughbred who I could always trust.  He was a little of the California cool, except no one in California could boast the naivety, the chiseled bod, big coke bottle glasses, and the untamed wild mane like Oliver could.  He would wrinkle his nose to keep his glasses from sliding down.  Girls loved him but he never paid them any attention.

 We solidified our partnership in the Tetons. We spent the summer climbing and enjoying the freedom of youth.  We climbed Teewinot on July 10th, my 18th birthday and the day of my new-found wealth.

I remember standing on the summit of Teewinot, with every wild wind blowing through my heart and soul, thinking I was the king.  It was a long way down.

I was two years younger than Oliver, and I was reckless and wanted to prove myself. I was not confident on the sharp end.  I was just a trusted partner.  Oliver had been in the valley a year earlier, breaking ground in big bold style.  He knew the names, had sat around the fire, with Bachar and Shipley.  He took a good fall on a new route.  He was solid.  There was a glory in knowing these names and seeing these routes.

My alpine education commenced on summer trips to Jackson.  We started on Irene's Arete.  I remember the fear and awe of the approach.  I was 16, very young and with a big bold world all around.  I had been on lead enough to know what a fall looked like.  My confidence would take me to the point where the protection was about knee high.  We moved on to the Koven Couloir of Mt. Owen, trying to move fast.  I was plagued by doubt.  Something about the approach was very foreboding. The landscape moved by, whether on the vertical, or the scree, or the trail.  But I was digging down, trying to grab a hold of something with no one to tell me what it was. 

Oliver was so confident; it was like climbing with a lighthouse on the horizon.  I was lost in a thousand meanderings and dead ends.  I couldn't see the summit.  All I could see was how small I was and felt.  A rock turned over on my thigh, somewhere on the scree, and I used it as a bad omen and bailed. Oliver soloed up onto the mountain somewhere and then turned back out of prudence. 

Do I explain to you my misgivings?  It was a place where the pure, hard mountain air would test your resolve, your manhood.  Try putting yourself up against those giants at 16.  I had dropped out of high school in favor of a GED and a NOLS course.  There was no plan, just instinct pure and primitive.  I lived for the sense of brotherhood, the camaraderie that came from shared purpose and accomplishment. 

But the fear was very real.  Every time I found myself high on a lead I knew that a fall could hurt me.  I didn't like it, I couldn't rise to the challenge, and it wasn't glamorous.  It was stupid and scary.

The summer after my NOLS course we both moved to Dornan's Village in the Tetons and washed the dutch ovens every day.  We lived in a canvas platform tent out behind the dorms, and we could hear the quiet grace of the Snake River down below us.  When the clouds came in they would leave a thin white veil over the early season peaks.  The air was crisp and the fire would crackle with welcome warmth every morning.  The fat rain drops would pitter patter on our roof while I dozed in the early morning.  I would crawl down farther in my sleeping bag and watch my breath hang in the beams of my headlamp.

 The first time I approached the south buttress of Moran, I had the weight of the world hanging over me.  The bivouac at the base of the climb felt like the morning before battle. 

We climbed the South Buttress of Mt. Moran twice, first the right variation, and then the direct.  I remember a wide crack on the right buttress.  It was a fist crack, steep and clean.  The real business lasted about 30 feet and then it broke up into some ledges and blocks.  I went to the edge of my comfort and stood there, hanging onto a fist and a palm on the corner.  I could sense what the rock was asking of me.  It was and desire.  Do I want it bad enough? 

Many routes, especially the most beautiful ones, are beyond me.  They stab at the sky with clean, proud lines.  I had the fortune to follow in the footsteps of very strong climbers, those with a natural ability and the discipline that I lacked.  I knew that I could get up the route, but that it would be in a lesser style than them.  There was no on-sighting for me; just to get up was enough.  But I forgave myself, and I knew somewhere deep down inside that I would overcome the challenge.

So I approached Mt. Moran with boldness.  I rose up and led out.  It was glorious.  I had crossed into a place where I was...if not an equal then at least a worthy challenger.  The granite– endless, smooth, and steep – rose up against me with a strong, relentless purity.  The cracks, while not as difficult as some I had done, were smooth and proud.  They taunted me and hid themselves.  I kept climbing, confident that I was able to overcome, if not now then in another lifetime.

Our summer ended, and we headed west.  My initiation began the moment we started on the approach to El Capitan.  My confidence was in our partnership, in Oliver's strength and experience, and in my own patience and deeply held conviction.  The captain loomed proud and stately, like a ship's prow against the tide of history.  It was October 1st, 1997.  We waited, and then we blasted off, jugging the early pitches on the Muir wall.  At one point, we found that the jug lines were not as secure as we hoped.  Is there any more foolish display of youth than to climb a rope that has no certain origin? 

 I could barely haul the bag with my weight.  The feeling was of adventure in the pure form.  We continued in the morning, with weather moving in.  A team climbed directly above us, forcing us to share a belay.  They had a radio and when the weather report came in they listened to it and bailed.  We were on a more fateful climb than they, and we took it as a good omen.  The second night we were under the immense overhang of the Shield.  I remember awakening to a “thwack!”  A bag of granola had fallen, plumb-line straight, from the bulge of The Shield nearly 1,500 feet above and landed on my ledge.  It was like a fantasy from faraway.  I was in a land of the impossible.  There was sweetness to the granite.  It radiated hope and fear and love.  The warmth of the day's sun would radiate off the stone, giving it a life of its own. 

That morning was rainy, and so we curled up on our ledge and enjoyed the scenery.  We fixed ropes up into the Muir Wall and rested.  Then we woke up on the third morning and felt the tautness in the air and the urgency.  We left the security of the Heart Cave and the possibility of an easy retreat.  I led a simple A1 pitch, but grabbed a cam in the wrong place and took a 15 foot fall.  By that time, I had hope in my heart, and there was nothing that could faze me.  I remember looking down, dangling off the end of my rope, with a thousand feet of air beneath me.  I plugged and grunted, and the weather came in.  The rain turned to a snow gale, with fat flakes all around us.  The wind was blowing the storm around us, from east to west, and we were on the very prow of El Capitan.  We came out of the heart cave into the battle of our lives.  We made two traverses in the full force of a storm and then sat beneath the great roof hunched in our single ledge.  In the years since then we have learned how to spoon properly, but back then we were caught up in adolescence and timidity.  My hamstrings would curl up into great spasms and we smoked our cigarettes. 

Then we waited. 

We didn't sleep.  It was enough to rest a little and feel the storm abating.  Our position was precarious, but we had enough sense to think about the basics.  Then the ice started falling.  The sun had hit the upper walls, and the sleet and water and ice that had frozen into the cracks began to come down on us.  But we were mostly protected by the great roof.  A Japanese team was in serious trouble farther up the valley on the Half Dome. 

The morning dawned clear and crisp.  We were grizzled old men by then.  We stamped and stretched, faced with the prospect of frozen rock for nearly 1,500 vertical feet above us.  Our tape gloves hung in tatters after three days on the rock.  We were alone, at least as far as we could tell.  The normally bustling walls of El Capitan had been stripped clean of activity.  There was newness to the air as we looked around and felt our position. 

 The climbing quickly warmed us.  There was a sense of nothingness around us.  The great roof, so proud from the valley floor, went by in an awkward session of etriers.  The granite was steep and clean, oceans of it.  Though the climbing was normal, routine, even spirit had been set free.  Our position was so exhilarating I could hardly take it all in.  I was deeply enveloped by that feeling, common to those on the big routes; that my purpose was simply to keep going up.  It held me deeply in its embrace, and there was no going back. 

 There is always some animism in climbing.  It’s not that the mountains are alive – really; although they do seem to hold a life of their own.  It may be that there is a conscious out there; that the “mountain gods” are watching and waiting for a moment when you put your guard down. But more powerfully, for me, is the sense that the future is being defined as we look on.  Like Abraham and Lot, you say to your friend, “you go that way and I'll go this way”.   And the course of history is set.  It is now October 1st.  It has been 14 years to the day since we launched up the route.  Although our seven days on the side of El Capitan was forgettable in a larger sense – for us it was an experience burned into our souls. We lived our history and played our part.  The storm helped define us in a way that a summer climb never could have.  In the decisions and challenges that followed, I had a sure sense of my own ability to navigate the route that I had picked. 

I am reminded of a line from Shackleton's crew after they had safely endured 18 months in the frozen south seas. 

In memories we were rich.  We had pierced the veneer of outside things.  We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.'  We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that nature renders.  We had reached the naked soul of man.

No comments:

Post a Comment