Go West Young Man II - California Love
We knew that California was going to love the Freedom Mobile, and we felt at ease as it crossed over the border to the Golden State. Soon we were immersed in a desert of Joshua trees on a lonesome highway, and I had a feeling of going home. I felt good too, because even if the Freedom Mobile were to break down, we could just tow it to the town of J-Tree, and we could still climb.
|Photo by Luke Mehall|
It had been three years since I’ve been to J-Tree, but in town things did not seem to change much: still a dusty, rustic, small downtown, with the busy California highway rolling through it. Small town America, with much of the business aimed at the climbers and other tourists that pass through.
We stopped into the library, for a quick check of the weather, as we promised each other that we would bee-line it up to Yosemite if the weather improved. Sure enough the online weather showed that it would be in the 70s in Yosemite in a couple days. The minute I showed Gene this there was an electric feeling; we would be going to Yosemite after the Halloween weekend in J-Tree.
J-Tree was crowded, as it was a Friday, and the start to the weekend. We wanted a prime spot in the best campground, Hidden Valley, where we knew the Halloween party would be. Hidden Valley is also close to a hundred or so great rock climbs, so once the Freedom Mobile was there we would be all set up for our weekend.
Eventually we scored a spot in Hidden Valley. I was psyched to see several climbers already in costume for Halloween. Immediately the Freedom Mobile was getting approval, with nods and thumbs up from fellow climbers who walked by our campsite.
We didn’t do too much climbing; we were pretty worked from the three days in a row in Red Rocks, so we took it easy on ourselves. Nothing can destroy the vibe of a good climbing trip worse than overdoing it. Climbing contains its magic with just the right amount of dosage. Plus, we were headed to Yosemite soon and we had big goals for climbing there.
We just enjoyed the California sunshine and visiting with other climbers. Already within a half an hour of arriving at the site, we ran into two different groups of climbers that we knew. One friend, Holly that I knew from my college days in Gunnison hooked Gene up with some costume attire, most notably a curly blue wig that went down past his shoulders. I already had a costume box in the car, and lent Gene some items as well, rounding out his outfit. By Halloween, we were ready to properly celebrate.
I woke up and put on my costume: first the a grey wig, then the one piece pink jump suit and finally a black leather belt with metal loops that I could clip my chalk bag on to. Gene’s costume was even more over the top: the curly blue wig with an American flag bandana tied across it, a vintage late 1960s psychedelic shirt, and blue jeans.
|Photo by Luke Mehall|
We climbed a few pitches, in costume, attracting strange looks from some climbers, and shouts of approval from others. Other climbers were in costume as well, a tradition that holds strong in J-Tree.
We did the classic Geronimo climb, in camp, a moderate but overhanging crack that splits a roof. Tradition demands that one climber climbs up to the top of the roof, locks his feet off in the crack and yells, “Geronimoooooooo,” which echoes throughout the campsite below. I was climbing second, on top rope and did the deed, hanging upside down in my pink one piece, careful to hold on to my wig so that it did not fall off.
Rappelling down Gene got his blue wig stuck in the rappelling device, which would have been a problem if it was his real hair (long haired and especially dreadlocked climbers have run into this potentially dangerous situation in the past).
After a couple roped pitches we got rid of the gear, and just scrambled around the rocks around camp, ropeless, in costume, hooting and hollering when we reached the top. We stashed cans of beer in our pockets to drink on the top of the hundred foot domes, which looked over the landscape, all just blue skies and Joshua trees and granite domes for as far as the eye could see. An occasional plane from the nearby military base would fly by, seeming out of place in the peaceful setting of Joshua Tree.
Scrambling down just as the sun was setting there was a troop of people in costumes parading through camp, announcing what camp site was hosting the big party. It was a classic climber party with all kinds of fun people in a variety of costumes from mullet wigs to one piece wrestling outfits. An aluminum foil robot was cranking the tunes, and a big dance party ensued around the camp fire.
At one point a big portion of the party left for the Chasm of Doom, a big tunnel/chimney system that is a popular nighttime excursion during and after climber parties. I’d done it before, and opted to not go. Gene, on the other hand, was psyched, and disappeared off into the night with a crew of a dozen or so drunken climbers.
In the morning we woke up hungover. Gene was covered in scrapes and cuts that he acquired in the Chasm of Doom. He’d also lost one of his flip-flops, and the blue wig. I remembered why I chose not to go. We had our fun in Joshua Tree, and it was time to get serious about climbing again. We packed up the Freedom Mobile and headed up to Yosemite.
The Big Wall Red, White and Blues
The Freedom Mobile still had the check engine light on, but it continued to float on down the highway, so we just kept rolling. It was a funky little highway out of Joshua Tree that led us to the interstate; one of those interstates where you can see the smog from miles away, and sense the gloom of it all.
It was this sort of highway that carried us to Yosemite, the big wall Mecca of the world. Gene and I bought two weeks of groceries, stuffing the Freedom Mobile to the brim with the type of supplies that one needs for big wall climbing: canned food, coffee, granola bars, and gas for the stove. We rolled into the park late, haggard from the road and headed straight to the Green House.
The air was unexpectedly warm for November in Yosemite as we got out of the Freedom Mobile. We were pleased that we didn’t have to sleep in Camp 4, the climber’s campground, that was once a pleasant place to camp back when Gene and I were still in our diapers, but is now a potentially grim place to stay for several reasons, mainly the park rangers, who highly regulate the typically crowded campsites, so much that one does not feel free or at ease while camping. Once, I was woken up in the middle of the night by a ranger while sleeping in Camp 4, asking for my camping permit.
The rustic Green House was more than welcoming. In the living room were Scott and Ned, our friends who live in the house, and two of their friends, fellow climbers, destined to be our friends as well. We cracked beers and toasted to the possibility of good climbing weather in November.
Gene and I were set on climbing El Capitan, the largest rock face in the Lower 48. Neither of us had climbed it before, and we thought that this was the trip. In the morning, over coffee we decided that we would start up the wall the following day.
Driving into the valley that morning we met up with our friend Mark, who works as a guide in Yosemite. He was finishing up his season as the Valley was slowing down with winter on its way. We mentioned that we were going to start up the Nose on El Capitan the following day, and he asked if he could join. Mark has made several trips up The Captain and he is a fun and energetic guy, we didn’t mind at all if he would join. Immediately we noticed that Mark’s demeanor was erratic. First he could go, and then he could not. He was busy moving out of his place for the season, and seemed to have a lot on his mind. To make matters more complicated Scott called and said he would like to join us as well.
That afternoon, while Scott was working and Mark was busy with errands, Gene and I went to the El Capitan meadow, just to stare at it, and see how many climbers were on the 3,300 foot wall. Incredibly, we could only see one solo climber, high on the Nose. It was a great feeling to know we would finally be climbing on El Capitan the following day; both of us had been making trips to Yosemite over the last ten years, and neither of us had climbed it. The first time I saw El Capitan it seemed so big, so improbable to want to climb it. Now, finally after honing our skills for years and years it was time to try and climb The Big Stone. I was full of confidence and motivation. My recent climb of the Painted Wall in the Black Canyon had me convinced that I could now climb El Cap. After all if I had the skills to get up the biggest cliff in Colorado, I could get up the tallest one in California right?
|Photo by Luke Mehall|
“Gene, maybe after we climb the Nose we could do the Salathe Wall, it would be really cool to climb it twice don’t you think?” I said.
Gene mumbled something at the ridiculous ambition of my comment, and we continued to tilt our necks back looking up at over three thousand plus feet of sheer, golden granite.
We went back to the Green House to pack up for the climb. It was frantic. I wasn’t happy that we were all of the sudden a team of four. But, plans kept changing throughout the day, so I knew there was a chance that something would happen and things would change again.
We laid out a tarp and stuffed two big haul bags, nearly the size of a man, and almost the weight of one. Mark continued to be frantic, “So there is a chance I have to work, if so, I’ll just rappel off with an extra rope.”
Mark’s demeanor didn’t get me psyched, and I made subtle hints about how a team of four might be too much. We were hungry for the big wall experience, and Mark was clearly low on excitement for the experience; he’d been living and working in Yosemite for almost six months and didn’t have the fire. I was beginning to think he just wanted to hang out with us, and this was how he was going about it. Mark is one of my best friends, no Mark is like a brother, a soul-mate that shares the love of climbing, so I just put my head down and continued to pack up. Scott finally showed up, and confirmed that he was in. He laid out his gear on the gigantic tarps and started stuffing it in. By this time it was dark and we had moved inside the Green House and we were still packing. In addition to this we were drinking and smoking and getting weary. Scott’s roommate Ned, a big wall veteran himself, just looked at us and could sense the madness and the confusion.
Finally, near the end of the packing Mark quickly reached into the haulbag to find something accidentally pulled out a carabineer which smacked him in the face, knocking out half of one of his front teeth. All of the sudden it was quiet. Scott whispered what we were all thinking, that Mark would not be coming up the wall. He would have to visit a dentist in the morning. He was bummed but stayed in good spirits. Mark started removing his gear from the bags. Late in the night I crawled in to my tent for a few hours of sleep. I set my alarm for 4:20 a.m.
The alarm went off and I felt tired. Like a true fiend I headed straight inside to get coffee going. The coffee ignited the fire of my determination to finally climb El Capitan, and I felt motivated. Gene made up some grub, and we packed the two large haul bags into the Freedom Mobile.
It was still dark as we drove from Foresta into the Valley. We parked the Freedom Mobile by the El Cap meadow, and made the short approach to the wall. After the coffee wore off I felt tired, and the task of humping our gear to El Cap, while short, was draining. I looked at Gene, with the haulbag on his back, and he was sweating heavily. Scott, on the other hand, more of a big wall Yosemite veteran, seemed to be in his element, accepting all of these struggles as part of the game.
Since Scott was the aid climbing expert it was agreed he would lead the first block of pitches. He started up, moving quickly, and then commenced to start the hauling of the pigs (the haul bags). They didn’t budge on the slab and Gene had to push them up to get started. At that moment Gene and I knew we were in for some serious suffering and hard work, and we looked at each other. I said, “You know we probably should have done a practice aid wall before jumping on El Cap.” He looked back and agreed, with the ocean of over 3,000 plus feet of towering golden granite above us.
Finally Gene had to jumar up, to assist Scott with the hauling, as they both grunted and struggle to move the haul bags inches. I jumared up as well, and thought about the time that had passed since we’d started the pitch. When we reached the second pitch, well over two hours had passed, and I thought of how daring, expert, big wall Yosemite climbers had speed climbed the entire 3,300 foot route in the time it took us to get up the first 200 feet.
The suffering and turmoil got worse as the morning progressed and turned into the afternoon. There were traversing pitches, where I had to lower out the two haul bags so that Scott and Gene could haul. I’d never done this, and the weight of the bags pulled on me and the anchor, which made me terrified. I was to the point of cursing and complaining already. But, a party was behind us, and a woman was leading up behind me, and there was no way I was about to have a meltdown front of another climber, a female one at that, just a few pitches up on El Cap.
The woman arrived at my belay as I struggled with the haul bags, clipping into the same bolted anchor I was using. She and her partner were only doing the initial pitches of the climb, and so were equipped with a light free climbing rack, and nothing else; the same style that the speed climbing aces use to run up the wall in a few hours. They looked so free and happy. I was having problems un-weighting the haul bag from the anchor, and the woman helped me get the weight of the bags off the anchor by pushing up on them, so they could be lowered out with the remaining rope. “How far are you all going today?” she asked.
“Uh, I think we need to go back to the drawing board, maybe go do a shorter aid route,” I replied. I was already coming to the realization that Gene and I had a lot to learn about big wall aid climbing before trying to climb El Cap.
At this ledge I thought about style, and hated that we had so much weight and it was such a task to haul all the supplies up. I thought about how we had come all the way out to Yosemite just to suffer like this, because after all even if we did not realize it at the time, we were doing exactly what we’d came to do. To learn to big wall aid climb is to suffer, and then after that suffering the knowledge is attained and the rewards are found.
Finally, Scott and Gene had begun the hauling I started up the pitch. There was a traversing section where I had to lower myself out with the extra rope that was dangling off my harness. I’d never done this before and was terrified. Scott, just forty feet above, was close enough that he could offer a tutorial of how it was done. I finally lowered myself out, and like many climbing procedures, it was not as scary as the initial perception in my head. We were lucky to have Scott on board, and if Mark were there he could have provided beneficial lessons as well. Gene and I had a lot to learn, and luckily we had Scott there to teach.
When I arrived at the belay with Scott and Gene we had an enormous eruption of laughter at our struggle. I couldn’t recall the last time I laughed that hard, and felt a weight off my shoulder as I laughed to the point of tears.
|Photo by Luke Mehall|
We were at a spot where we could rappel down directly in a short amount of time, so we debated what we were going to do. Scott was game to continue, and I think Gene could have gone either way. I’d made my mind up at the last belay that I wanted to hone my skills some more before climbing The Captain. I expressed this to my friends, and they obliged to retreat. Sometimes admitting failure can be a blow to a climber’s ego, but at that point, I had no ego to be had, I imagined I was the worst aid climber in Yosemite, and didn’t give a damn, which in itself was a relief and a revelation. Freedom is just another word for nuthin’ to lose right?
Retreat was not as easy as we imagined. At that point there were now five of us climbers at the belay ledge, us and the other party. There wasn’t any tension though, as can happen at a crowded belay ledge, especially with failure in the air. We were sitting there trying to figure out how to rappel off with the mighty haul bags the weight of a man. The woman’s partner, a big wall veteran himself originally from Alabama, who’d already been up El Capitan, and all the other walls in Yosemite, advised us to simply lower the bags off as one of us rappelled down and clipped the bag into the next anchor. He was right, it was the most efficient way to do it, rather than having one of us rappel with the bags attached to us, and fumble down the wall. He was hilarious too, as we messed with the bags. At one point Scott had the bags in between his legs, and he joked, “I bet you always wanted to ride a fat chick huh?” in a way that only a Southerner could say. We talked to him more as Scott rappelled down, “Oh man you guys are trying El Cap for your first big wall in Yosemite? That’s ambitious. I did five or six practice walls before getting on this thing. Almost died once of heatstroke on the Leaning Tower, trying to climb it in the summer, we were so stupid…” he went on with his stories. Big wall climbers all have these stories, and more proof in my mind that every big wall climber suffers for every bit of glory attained.
I was feeling glorious and relieved when we finally touched back on the ground. It wasn’t the goal, the goal was to top out on El Cap, three or so days later, but I’d learned some valuable lessons. Gene and I talked it over, and we would take a rest day, repack and then attempt a shorter big wall route.
The weather was still sunny and warm, blue skies and all, a blessing for early November. Mark wanted to do some sport climbing, so we met up him in the early afternoon that next day. Sport climbing is somewhat of a rarity for Yosemite, traditional in its nature. So we hiked up to some obscure wall for a couple routes. The trees were changing colors, the gigantic Yosemite Falls still had some water flowing down it, and we even had a bear leisurely stroll by in the forest below us.
|Photo by Luke Mehall|
Mark was loving it; he was over the suffering of big walls and just wanted to bask in the simple play that is sport climbing. He made us laugh as he jokingly used his new kneepads that he was going to use for overhanging sport climbing in Mexico, as that was where he lives, and works, in the winter with his girlfriend.
That night we packed up the haulbag, one haulbag, because it was just going to be me and Gene for the climb. We decided to go for the all time beginner’s classic, the South Face of the Washington Column, a thousand plus foot wall of mostly straightforward aid climbing. Gene and I both had failed previously on this route, so there was also the prospect of redemption; something that always sweetens the deal when figuring out what to climb. I’d also done the classic free climb, Astroman on the same wall, with Mark the previous summer, in nine hours, which gave me confidence that we could get up the South Face in two days, even with all the extra baggage for living and sleeping on the wall.
There was an air of calm as we packed up the bag in the Green House. Ned and Scott watched us pack. Scott talked of plans to do a nearby climb to ours, Southern Man, with another climbing partner on our second day, so it would be a party on the wall. We continued to pack and organize late in the night, and Ned stayed up with us, saying he wanted to be a part of the excitement. He commented that he could sense that we were going to be successful this time, and I took that to be a blessing, and a good sign.
This is part II of a three part article, a continuation of Go West Young Man. Stay tuned for the final part, set to be released next week.
For more of Luke's writing, be sure to check out his blog: http://lukemehall.blogspot.com/