Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Link Up

I stood at the base of El Cap belaying Luke as he moved up the first pitch of The Nose, smooth and efficient, we have time.  It was hot but the wind was blasting pretty hard, even here on the first pitch and I knew it would be nuking in the Stovelegs.  I reflected on the first time I stood at the base of El Cap in 2005 with my parents.  I remember putting my hands on the stone, staring up at the wall towering overhead and swearing to myself that I would climb this rock.  I knew this was where I would thrive but it was still hard to believe I had just climbed Half Dome this same morning and was starting up The Nose for the Link-Up with sixteen hours to go.  Six Months ago I would have never believed it was possible.
We started climbing that morning at 6:40am.  The temps were forecast to be in the low 80’s, perfect for a mid August day in the Valley.  The plan was to simul-climb all the way to the Zig-Zags, then I would take over, aiding through and climbing to the summit.  We had come up here a week before intending to just do a pre-run on Half Dome, but after hammering out the route in 5 hours we decided to try to go for The Nose as well.  By the Stovelegs Luke was cramping up badly, on Dolt his whole body was cramped, legs, arms, back.  I watched his abds cramp when he bent over to tie his shoes and he could hardly stand up again, so we decided to bail and come back another day.
As we moved up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome we were feeling good.  We were moving fast, but not rushing, we were drinking a lot of water, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  We were having fun and enjoying it.  We told each other that we were just going rock climbing, doing what we do, never mind that we both knew we had 56 pitches of climbing and 5400 vertical feet ahead of us.  Attitude is everything right? 
After about an hour and a half of climbing we were coming into the chimneys.  Luke moved up the 5.6 entrance as I scrambled across a small rocky ledge.  Just as I came to the anchor, pulling rope through the gri-gri to belay Luke in the 11c corner, I heard a familiar smashing and crashing noise.  My eyes shot up and locked on Luke, I half expected him to be plummeting down into the depths of the chimney but I found him stemmed between the wall and the main chimney formation.  Below him a massive double refrigerator chock stone sat wedged between chimney and wall, behind it rock was pouring down forty feet to the bottom of the chasm and smashing into old debris.  For a moment I stared at Luke and watched the rocks falling and smashing, Luke stared downwards, then turned and looked at me.  Our eyes met, no doubt my face a mirror image of his, terror stricken and horrified.
“You’re Alright man! You’re Alright!”  I yelled at him a few times while he froze in place processing what just happened.  He had stepped onto a massive chock stone, a rock that had been stepped on thousands of times, but this time it pivoted and dumped several tons of granite down into the chimney abyss below.  Luke could feel the walls vibrating and moving as the rocks slammed down below.  In no time he was back at it, mantling onto the ledge above.  I let out an enormous hoot and cheer, draining the adrenaline from my system, and encouraging Luke upwards.
We put the rockfall out of our minds instantly and continued upwards towards the summit.  We were both fine and there was nothing else to do but keep climbing.  We quickly gained the chimneys proper, Luke still in front, me in the rear.  I was jamming along, perfect thin hands, good feet, my mind was clear and focused on the task at hand.  Suddenly the crack that was in front of me was no longer there and I was airborne.  I shouted a quick yelp, then let out the second longer scream. “Ahh..Ahhhhh,” and I came to a soft stop on the end of the rope.  Before I could even process what had happened I was grabbing for the crack, pulling back onto the wall, and climbing again.  I heard Luke shout down to me “Dave! Are you Ok?!  Get back on as soon as you can!”  I was already pulling on while yelling back up that I was fine.  I realized I just took the fall that nobody should take, the fall you can not take.
A quick moment of back and forth yells confirmed that we were both ok.  Like the rockfall, this went out of our minds and we kept climbing.  I spent a moment thinking about what happened but couldn’t recall anything specific so I concluded I must have just slipped.  I said quick thanks and realized how lucky we just got, how careful we need to be, and we kept going up.  Luke later told me he had just stood up onto a good foot hold when he heard me shout, he knew right away what it was and then all my weight slammed down onto his tie in.  He absorbed the force in his leg with a familiar feeling he remembered from training for crevasse falls.  We were lucky, he was 20 feet above his last piece with a ledge below that.  A good partner is everything.
Four hours and fourty minutes later we topped out Half Dome with tourists all around, staring in amazement.  We quickly coiled the rope and started moving towards the cables, laughing and joking, heading for El Cap.  Just under 21 hours after we started we topped out the Nose.  It was dark, we were hungry and cold but we laid down to catch some sleep, a few minutes later we decided it was better to just pack up and head back to the valley floor. 23 hours and 40 minutes after we started climbing we were back at the car, figuring out where to get breakfast.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An intense visit to the Eichorn Pinnacle Summit via West Pillar Direct

I had still never been up Eichorn Pinnacle when Sam asked me if I wanted to climb the West Pillar Direct.  A year ago when Chris Chan fell while down soloing the 5.4 route I decided that this was one of the routes in the Cathedral range I just wasn’t interested in soloing.  In fact, I had lost interest in climbing Eichorn Pinnacle almost entirely.  I knew that the summit register had been replaced by her friends and turned into a memorial for her, and I knew that for many this would be an emotional place to be.  Ill never forget responding to the call and walking Jim down the Cathedral Lakes trail, I had volunteered to stay with him and get him down safely, instead of going up to help with the grim scene above.  It was a long walk, we would stop, Jim would collapse, recompose himself, and we would continue down the trail.  I can’t even imagine the way he felt that day.
So Sam and I started up the Medlicott cut off, with the tiny rack, small rope and little packs we moved quickly.  We were well acclimated to the 8,600 feet that is Tuolumne Meadows.  We moved through the forest, talking and laughing, reflecting on the last time I walked the trail.  We popped out at the west end of the Lower Cathedral Lake, the familiar views and terrain of the Cathedral Range all about us.  Sam reflected on a bizarre rescue on the Cliffs above the lake he helped with a few years ago where a girl with brand new climbing shoes left the group, insistent on climbing to the summit of a bluff overlooking the lake.  In the middle of the night, cliffed out and terrified she yelled for help before slipping and taking the big one.  She land on a ledge where the SAR Team found her, kept her warm and then short hauled her with the helicopter the next morning.  “The Ram saved the day on that one,” Sam remembered.
As we pushed up the final steep hillside to the base of the West Pillar Direct we were overwhelmed with the minty smell of Pennyroyal.  The hillside was covered in the fuzzy purple flowers, the smell was nearly overwhelming, like hiking through a hillside of Vicks Vapor Rub.  With cleared sinuses, we got to the base of the route, and realized the gaping wide crack system was actually a wonderful hand crack in the back of a wider flare.  We Ro-Sham-Bo’d for the first pitch and Sam smashed my scissors with rock, he clipped on the rack and started up.
The route proved to be spectacular; moderate, airy and exposed stemming in a corner, perfect feldspar knobs that are so unique to the Cathedral Range, and splitter hand and finger cracks like we dream of.  An hour or two later, after laughing and joking our way up the 5 pitches of climbing, delighted at the exceptionally high quality of the High Sierra granite we pulled onto the summit of Eichorn Pinnacle.
I carefully flipped open the summit register box, I felt my throat ball up with the knowledge of what was inside.  As the lid flipped open to reveal the black and brown leather journal with a bronze placard labeling it ‘Eichorn Pinnacle Summit Register,’ a laminated topo map fell off the lid of the box.  The topo was titled ‘Hello Chris!’ and detailed a 5 or 6 pitch route and had a photo of Chris Chan and the other first ascentionist in the lower right corner.  The back of the topo was a letter, addressed to Chris, and explained how this was the best first ascent the two put up while traveling in China.
Within the summit register was a dedication to Chris and a brief memorial.  I felt the tears well up behind my sunglasses, and blinking them away I flipped through the pages of the summit register, scanning through the entries.  The overwhelming majority of them were dedicated to Chris, remembrances of great times, written by her good friends.  Sam read on over my shoulder as we turned through the pages, on July 9th there were nearly a dozen entries, all dedicated to Chris.  Our own friends and other SAR Siters had summited and written, we all shared similar feelings, and we were all moved and brought to tears up here. 
We didn’t know Chris, but we were connected to her through the climbing community and we were there to try to help her when she fell, even though there was no chance.  We walked with her friends from the base, listened to them and gave them a shoulder.  We were all moved by the experience and learned about the gravity of the risks we take.  It was a grounding moment when we responded to the call last summer, and when I stood atop the pinnacle this summer, remembering and reflecting.
Sam and I rigged the rappel, he commented how this was the first time he has ever rapped off.  I told him I wouldn’t down climb it and we coiled the rope and head to Cathedral Peak for a quick session at church.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Two Routes at the Hulk

Luke had never been to the Hulk, so we figured no better way to introduce him to the area than hiking in and trying to climb as many routes as we could.  We planned to start with Sun Spot Dihedral, rap down the Venturi, climb Positive Vibrations, rap again, and then go and cap the day with the Red Dihedral.  We are no Peter Croft, we weren’t going to tag the summit, but we figured this would be a great day in the Mountains.
We hiked up in good time, making it to the base in about two hours ten minutes.  We caught to Scots at the base, they were just getting racked as we threw our stuff on and asked if we could maybe start out first, trying to be vague but let them know we were planning to be fairly quick.  We exchanged great conversation with them, laughing and joking about their three week stay, in a camper, parked in the Camp 4 overflow lot.  They hoarfed down cigarettes at the ten thousand foot base, excited about their day at the Hulk.
Sun Spot went great, we lead in blocks and it ended up working out that Luke would on sight the whole route for his introduction to the hulk. We started rapping the Venturi, passing by our Scot friends and another party on Positive Vibes, giving encouraging words and more encouraging shouts.  When we got down we each drank a good deal of water and stuffed our pockets with bars and shot blocks. We filled our half-liter Gatorade bottles and then polished off a second liter and started up Positive Vibrations.
I felt good as I climbed through the first crux, it was different than I remembered it being last summer, but I quickly figured out where to go and clipped the anchor, calling ‘Off Belay!’  We had borrowed an 80 meter rope from a good friend so several times throughout the route I strung pitches together, belaying where I could with the dwindling supply of gear on my harness.  Luke climbed quick despite his arms cramping up a little and we had those perfect gear changeovers that were fast and seamless, sending me on my way quickly. 
We finished up Positive Vibes and headed to the ground.  We got down hungry and thirsty at the bags.  We were feeling pretty worked but also still excited for more.   Unfortunately, we dug through the bags and found we had a little less than 1 liter of water and hardly any food.  We knew pushing up the Red Dihedral, easy as it is, was going to be a hard mission since some of it would be in the dark and we were dehydrated and hungry.  After talking about it, we realized some lessons were learned about how much food and water we need for these missions, a lot, and decided there was no way in hell we were walking to the creek and then back up for more climbing.  So we packed up and headed back to the car, stopping to enjoy the incredible golden sun illuminating the Hulk in the late afternoon.