The isolation of climbing El Cap is a bizarre paradox. You hang suspended, thousands of feet off the ground, but yet the Valley floor is right there, dump trucks banging, cars honking, friends shouting, it’s so close and so far away. As you sit at belays you stare down at the valley floor watching the cars pass at night like on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. You know people are there, taking photos and staring up. You have cell phone service and you can call your friends, parents, or your girlfriend.
In the days I have spent on El Cap I have often wondered what would happen if you received some sort of terrible news. Do you bail? Do you push for the summit and hurry down? Because while there is very little isolation in many ways, it doesn’t change the fact that you are thousands of feet off the ground with no easy way down. What do you do if you get some kind of terrible news?
This past June, Carmen and I made plans to climb El Cap again. This would be her second trip up the big stone; the first was a speedy, beat-the-storm, journey up the Zodiac. We had a great time but I learned that climbing seven or eight hard, steep pitches in a day was a bit much on one’s first El Cap route. So this time, we decided to climb a route that was over ten pitches longer…in the same amount of time…
Luckily, as I sat in the Caf with Carmen, eating a philly cheese with bacon, we discussed the plan with our good friend Ben Doyle. He sat, patiently listening, then looked at me, and in a way only Ben can, he invited himself along. He had a list of reasons, telling me how it would make it easier for everyone, it would be faster, it would be better for Carmen, it would be more fun. So after some hemming and hawing he convinced me that it was a good plan.
The weather had been total crap that June. It was unseasonably wet and the Valley had become more oppressive than ever. Too much talking about climbing had begun to drive Carmen to the edge. The massive walls were beginning to feel claustrophobic and cramped. I was eager to get back to the tall, vertical freedom of El Cap.
|Ben headed around the Seagull|
The plan was to climb about eight or nine pitches a day, spending the first night somewhere around pitch ten, the second night on the Bismarck Ledge, then climbing to the summit the last day. Things worked perfectly, we ran the typical three man system without issues. Ben and I took turns leading while the other ‘rode the pig ‘(jumared the haul line) and then hauled the bags. Meanwhile, Carmen seconded, in the end she cleaned every single pitch of the route as fast as we could lead them, no small task.
|Carmen cleaning up the pitches|
|Big lower outs somewhere around the molar|
|Carmen in the afternoon as the skies quickly changed|
While the weather on the first day was clear and wonderful, the late afternoon brought us a quick change of skies. The threatening grey clouds moved in quickly as I tried to finish a final pitch to allow us to bivy under a large roof. I knew I was too late when I heard the familiar whooshing sound of rain flying past you a thousand feet off the ground.
|Carmen and Ben as the weather starts to turn|
|Staying psyched just before the rain hits|
|Carmen bundled up earlier in the afternoon|
It doesn’t take long for the watercourses on such a massive expanse of granite to begin to flow steady. While I was staying dry under the roof, I looked down to see Carmen and Ben digging frantically in the bags, huddling against the wall and being hammered by rain. I watched for a second as a wave of water swayed from the right to the left, passing over Ben who looked up right into as if he wondered what it was. It then moving on to rain down on Carmen, huge abundant droplets of water soaked her. I kept climbing, quickly towards the anchor.
By the time I got back to the belay the temperatures had dropped significantly but luckily the rain had subsided. Carmen was shivering deep from her core and Ben was working on getting his ledge and fly up. I quickly launched into action, getting the ledge up and fly on, then getting Carmen onto the ledge and bundled in jackets and sleeping bags. She quickly warmed up and stopped shivering; Ben’s ledge was up, the rain stopped. We began to relax. I got out the stove and made hot food, we started to laugh and joke a little because we knew we were alright.
In the morning we were dry and happy, blue skies and sun blessed us and we pushed on for another thousand feet to the Bismarck Ledge.
That night, as we sat on the Bismarck Ledge, enjoying the giant horizontal perch, laughing, drinking beer and reflecting on the torrent of rain from the night before. I got out my cell phone and like I often do I sent a few text messages to my Dad, he loves the updates. I decided to also return a call to my friend and big wall partner, Scott, and say hello from this beautiful location.
As soon as Scott answered the phone I knew something was terribly wrong. Everything about his tone was wrong. The night before, while we battled the rain, our good friend Zach Parke had been hit by a car while riding his bike in Santa Cruz. It was a hit and run and they didn’t have many details yet. I began to cry, Carmen and Ben just stared at me, not quite sure what was going on. I told Scott where I was and he apologized, because he already knew, but had to tell me.
Zach had been my go to source for info on Mescalito and a great friend; I had just talked with him a few days before. I looked at Carmen and Ben, and I looked around at where I was, and I sat there on the Bismarck ledge, two thousand feet off the ground, and cried. I felt the isolation of El Cap, I felt how remote it truly was. After a few minutes, when I cried the sadness out of my system, I decided that this was one of the great places that Zach had been, he had loved it and we did too. I told myself there was no better place in the world to get bad news. So we cracked another beer, we cried a little more, we laughed and joked and we remembered Zach Parke as the wonderful human being he was.
In memory of a friend loved and friend lost.