“Carmen, David is sandbagging you,” Ben stared at her.
“It’s going to be too hard, you’re crazy,” he told us. “I should come with you.”
Carmen looked like she was losing confidence in our plan to climb Mescalito, one of the longer routes on El Capitan, in just two days. It was June of 2011, the snow was deep in the high country, preventing Carmen and I, and the rest of the Tuolumne Meadows YOSAR team from getting to our summertime post. The valley was alternating sleet, rain, and perfect blue skies and the Monkeys were going stir crazy.
Ben Doyle had been insisting that Carmen and I let him in on our big wall plans for the clearing weather that began the next day. I was beginning to doubt our idea when Carmen looked at me, “Maybe Ben should come?” she questioned. I gave in knowing the plan was crap anyways and that it would be more fun with Ben there.
The three of us instantly found an incredible rhythm on the wall. Our three-man system worked perfectly. Ben led while I jugged the free hanging haul line and Carmen cleaned everything, we were fast. After five pitches I took the lead hoping to make it to the top of ten by dark.
Just before sunset the skies changed fast, within twenty minutes an evening thunderstorm was overhead. I hoped to finish pitch eleven and make camp below a roof. I didn’t make it.
The rain started and a light waterfall dripped from a thousand feet overhead soaking Carmen and Ben. It wasn’t quite a waterfall but the giant droplets of ice cold water quickly froze them. Carmen fumbled with a knot and I saw Ben reach across the belay, tie a clove hitch, and clip Carmen in. I was glad he insisted on coming with us.
When I got to the belay the rain had subsided but Carmen was dangerously cold. Ben and I worked quickly: Portaledges went up with rainflies deployed, down jackets went on, sleeping bags came out. Carmen warmed up while Ben and I organized our hanging wall camp. Stoves were roaring and soon we were drinking tea, making big wall burritos and laughing. I knew it was a good thing I lost the argument with Ben.
The next day started with warm, bright sunlight. We basked in warm sun as the shadows disappeared down the Wall of Early Morning Light. The day went as smoothly as the first. I started the day aiming for 5 or six pitches before turning it over to Ben. He jumared the free hanging line a thousand feet above the ground, singing and bellowing tarzan calls across the southeast face of El Capitan. All day Carmen cleaned one pitch after another. We chugged up the wall, laughing and enjoying ourselves on the warm California day.
Just before sunset we pulled ourselves and our gear onto the palacial ledge that is the highlight of Mescalito, The Bismark Ledge. This perfectly flat six by twelve ledge sits two thousand feet above the valley floor and is one of the most spectacular on the entire wall.
I turned my cell phone on, Facebook doesn’t update itself. A moment later a string of voicemailsand text messages began popping onto the screen. “Call me as soon as you can,” read one from one of my best climbing partners. Something was wrong. My guts twisted, I just knew something was wrong. Two thousand feet off the ground I called my friend.
“Dave,” he answered. “I know you are on El Cap, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” his voice choked. “It’s just…It’s…Zach died,” he stumbled. “It was a hit and run, it happened last night, he was on his bike.” My heart went heavy, my eyes watered, Carmen and Ben felt the weight of my conversation and froze.
While riding home at night a drunk driver swerved off the pavement, impacting Zach and sending him flying into a ditch. The driver didn’t stop, his bumper remained at the scene. Zach was found the next morning, he might have survived if the driver hadn’t sped away.
Zach was a good friend, he had just given me all the information about Mescalito. We had just climbed a wall together that February, he wore all cotton despite possible rain so I insisted he wear some of my clothes. He was beginning to sew and design gear for big wall climbing. He was endlessly talented at everything he did and climbing was no exception.
I hung up the phone, there wasn’t much to say. Carmen, Ben and I sat on Bismark ledge in silence. I sobbed deep and heavy tears. I stared down to the valley floor below, I looked up towards the summit. There was nowhere to go. All we could do was sit here on this wonderful ledge and cry.
Together Carmen, Ben and I cried. Ben didn’t know Zach, but it didn’t matter. We all felt the loss that evening. I hugged Carmen, then Ben, and we sat silent for some time, reflecting on what we just heard. Soon the silence was broken, crying turned to laughter, then back to tears as we rode the emotional rollercoaster of loss.
Looking back there is nowhere else I would rather have been when I got the news about Zach. I was with my closest friends doing something that Zach had also loved to do. So we pushed the sadness aside, we found joy, laughter and love. We watched the sun set on Yosemite Valley that evening feeling fortunate.
The next day we woke in our spectacular camp to coffee, breakfast and a slow start. Soon we all breathed a deep breath and aimed our sights for the summit. It was a day of reflection, of moving meditation, where a stillness of mind is found through the busiest of bodies. In the late afternoon the three of us stood on top of El Capitan, I sat at the final anchor and cried, suppressed emotion escaping into the world. Together we watched the sun set once more, we thought of Zach, I looked at Carmen and Ben. Damn, I was glad he came along.