It’s 3 am. Only two more hours to sleep, the clock is ticking. The world is silent. Maybe there’s a breath of wind here and there. Late July in California and it isn’t hot at all – I’m in a big puffy coat, sitting on a half-inflated sleeping pad, sleeping bag wrapped precariously underneath my legs. Weird.
I’ve been awake for hours, actually. Squirming and shifting carefully, a few inches at a time in fear of losing my pad or bag – or both – to the sky below me. At least the full moon isn’t shining directly in my eyes anymore. Instead, it’s illuminating the wall in front of me, bleak and pale and bleached bone white, while the menacing shadows to my right funnel into a chasm of incalculable depth and terror, the rest of the valley quietly basking in the moonlight far below. Laying down or stretching out isn’t really an option. The ledge I’m perched on – trying to sleep on – is barely wide enough for me to sit upright, and slopes remorselessly towards the bottomless darkness. The topo merely calls my location: “poor bivy for 1.” Every time I extend my right leg, when it succumbs to pins and needles, it goes over the edge, and every time I start to doze, the abyss below seductively beckons me to just slip quietly off into space.
But I’m clipped in hard to the wall. I’m not going anywhere. When I snap awake from my half-asleep visions, I’m reminded exactly where I am, how I got here. El Cap. The Nose. Camp 5. The emptiness below isn’t unknown, it’s a tilted sea of granite, the horizontal world abruptly folded over on itself, steadily steepening towards dead vertical. The wall feels like an enormous, crushing, crashing wave when you stand below it. But right here, now, on this hilariously uncomfortable ledge 2,400 feet off the ground, it all feels normal and the only way down, paradoxically, is straight up.
And I’m not actually alone either. Jane and Alexa are sleeping on another ledge 20 feet above. They’re so quiet. Are they really sleeping? They must be. Damn them and their confident comfort in this absurd spot. Except that I wouldn’t be here at all without their skill, and trust, and confidence. I’m two days into what I’ve already realized is the greatest adventure of my life. I’ve fully known it for two days too; it hasn’t been a slowly-building realization. The feeling when Jane tossed the extra fixed rope from Sickle Ledge – that’s when all doubt fell away and I knew what I was getting into. It must be the same feeling, or a similar version at least, of what the first astronauts felt on their way to the moon, how it felt like to cast off a bow line in the 1400s to sail across the ocean for the first time. That’s what’s keeping me awake. It isn’t quite anxiety; I was never really nervous about any of this, which is strange in itself. It’s some sick form of type II excitement. It’s the feeling of being alive – really, truly alive and viscerally engaged in the moment. Though the sloping ledge of doom and insomniac vertigo of the sickening exposure have something to do with my restlessness too.
My head is churning, awash with words and names and phrases I’ve never spoken before, even though I’ve been climbing for years. Lower out. Sickle Ledge. Penji. Short fixing. Protraxion. The Boot Flake. Ride the pig. NIAD. The haul line is fixed. Great Roof. Ready to haul. The Glowering Spot. All swirling around in my brain, hijacking my attention and forcing everything else out. I spent the first day with my daisies always the wrong length, unnecessary carabiners clanking around idiotically. I pretty much sucked at jugging. Tom Evans would hate my green pants and blue hoodie. My hands are throbbing and my throat hurts. My quads ache from hauling. But now it’s suddenly 5 am. Time is strange like that. So liquid. Six more pitches and we top out.
A few days before, I was joking that gloriously cruiser biking around the valley, drinking beers and swimming in the Merced was the best training for El Cap. We hung out at the bridge and made casual small talk about the famous pitches. It seemed so nonchalant and distant, but obviously the nonchalance was just a coping strategy, an attempt to keep the pre-climb nerves in check while we waited for the weather to clear. Now it’s all so real – I’ve never done anything like this. It’s my first big wall. My first aid climb. My biggest climb ever, in fact – far taller than Serenity-Sons a year and a half prior. Pitch zero of The Nose, for me, was the LeConte Boulder bolt ladder. It’s only been a few days since we were there, when Jane taught me the basics of aid climbing, the sequence of everything, how it’s all supposed to flow. And everything made sense then – when I was only 30 feet off the ground and the haul bag was just a tiny pack with a few rocks in it.
Not that it doesn’t make sense now – after two days on the wall, where you have no choice but to get your shit together and make the systems work, everything is going smoothly. I’m not exactly flying, even up the easier aid pitches. But I did well when we fixed to Sickle – the first real aid pitches that day were great. And the pitches I led up Stovelegs and across Dolt were amazing – even cruiser. Pancake Flake was a real tease – oh, how I wanted to free it! But when you’re tired and have about 40 lbs of gear and aiders and daisies and approach shoes and all manner of other crap hanging off your harness, even Pancake’s glorious 10a perfection seems burly.
But there are also things that don’t make sense, things that are breaking my brain. Clearly big wall climbing is a trip down the rabbit hole of your of your own mind – facing and overcoming your own deepest fears – as much as it is a physical feat. The abstraction of it all. Managing the madness of jugging a free-hanging strand of nylon 3,000 feet off the ground, occasionally spinning around towards the valley in a nauseating, exhilarating, pirouetting race to the next anchor, a race seemingly against your own destruction. John Long sums it up by saying:
“If wall climbing is good for nothing else, it’s a sure way to find out, once and for all, how you really feel – not what you’re expected to feel, or have been told or taught to feel. Slowly, you take on the stark, barren aspect of the great wall, and sink into the tide pools of your mind. It’s weird and disturbing to see what’s prowling around there, and you can’t surface no matter how hard you try. Down you go, into the silences within yourself. Finally, you hit bottom and just hover there, weightless, face to face with those ancient fears and feral sensations that reach back to when man first slithered from the ooze, reared up on his hind legs and bolted for the nearest cave to steady up. It’s very much like being insane, but far more intense because you’re so aware of it. Mastering these feelings, the inner tension of being strung taut between fear and desire, is the fundamental challenge for the wall climber.”
How did I get here? It’s mind-boggling that these moments are even possible, clinging to this nearly mile-high rock – that humans are capable of this. But pitch after pitch, higher and higher, we keep climbing.
And, now… it’s been almost two months since climbing The Nose, and I’m sitting here, traveling again, in the Atlanta airport, in this overwhelmingly pedestrian scene, trying to figure out how to sum it all up. This beautiful girl across from me is staring at her phone, looking supremely bored, taking selfies. What are her hopes, her dreams? Where does her mind go, when it wanders? Mine snaps back to the valley – we’re sitting on El Cap Tower the first night and darkness is creeping in. Music is playing softly and we’re eating dinner, watching an unbelievable sunset. There are people in the meadows – our friends checking in on our progress, tiny ants yelling, flashing us with their headlamps. Miraculously, we’re pretty much the only ones on the route – on all of El Cap for that matter – so when we yell and make crazy hooting wild animal noises, we know it’s us they’re yelling back at. The excitement, and relief, and disbelief in our surroundings is electric and overwhelming. These… these are moments that will remain etched in my memory for the rest of my life, in perfect clarity. We’re stoked to the moon. We’re wild and alive, in the only place on earth that makes sense at the time.
I could keep going like this for a while, writing out a laundry list of memories – Jane’s wild whoops of joy on top of Texas Flake, and when she stuck the King Swing. Waking up with mice in the haul bag the first night. The moment before Alexa and I came off the anchor to jug the final, maniac bolt ladder before topping out. But those things, my memories alone, they don’t get at the heart of it. The Great Big Why – as in – why do we climb? So many people have asked that question, and the one thing that’s clear to me is that we all have different answers – different reasons for our obsession, different things we carry into the mountains with us, different things we leave behind on the ground. Here’s what I know: life is short, and it’s always flowing away from us, yet it gives so much back when you push the limit of your comfort zone. It’s so precious and unpredictable. My parents both died twenty years ago, when I was 13, and sometimes I feel like that’s the only real story my life will ever tell. Sometimes, someone you love suddenly decides they don’t love you any more. There are bills, career worries, errant dreams and ambitions and missed connections. But when I climb, it’s the perfect meditation. Nothing else matters, nothing can touch me. My attention is focused, locked in the present; it’s an immaculate forgetting, if even for just a few moments. And more often than not, when you’re up there, it just so happens that you’re sharing your time with some really, really amazing humans who I’m honored to count as friends. Perhaps ruminating on the bigger questions of life in general, Long also writes: “The question can, in fact, never be finally answered, for each answer simply uncovers more questions; and that, I think, is the beauty of the thing. If nothing else, climbing is a kind of search that never ends.” And that’s an answer I’m ok with.
In the end, we topped out at about 3 pm on Saturday, July 25th – three wild days and 28 pitches later – to utterly peaceful stillness, solitude, and brilliant sunshine that seemed to make me immediately wonder whether or not I was ever trying to sleep on that tiny ledge at Camp 5, just 12 hours before, or if I’d dreamed the whole thing. I know, I know, it’s only The Nose, small peanuts in the big wall world. But your first wall is a special thing. And the feeling of walking back into the meadow after the climb, amongst the cars and the people and back into this horizontal world, that first time you look back up at the route, at that impossibly imposing wall, knowing full well that it was real, and that it did happen, and was completely mind blowing – that’s a feeling I’ll never forget, that I know I’ll never stop chasing, never stop trying to hold on to.
And that’s been the overwhelming feeling since then – a mix of melancholic wonder, exhilaration, and an unshakeable, nostalgic hangover, like waking up from an adventure that you know has fundamentally changed who you are, down to the core, and yet still remains just that – a dream from a world perpendicular to our own…