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Life in the Slow Lane (long)
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Sep 7, 2003, 3:28 PM
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Life in the Slow Lane (long)
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Life in the Slow Lane

Monday, June 18, 2002 -- Brutus of Wyde and Nurse Ratchet are driving “the cave” west over the narrow, winding Highway 1 to Muir Beach, to watch the sun set over the Pacific. Suddenly there's a loud roar beside them and a flash of sickeningly neon green. Within milliseconds a small sports car has crossed the double yellow line, passed them, and disappeared around the blind curve ahead.

"What could they possibly be thinking?" screams Nurse Ratchet, hands gripping the steering wheel in righteous anger. "That's illegal! And dangerous!... what could possibly be that important?"

"Speed. When you own a lime-green Porsche, you're not required to think. And nothing is more important than maximum speed." Brutus gazes wistfully after the sports car, now almost out of sight.

Five weeks earlier, the journey started with another Muir...


Monday, May 14 -- Piles of gear, boxes of canned goods, MRE food, clothing for everything from an arctic winter to a desert heat wave, guidebooks, laminated topos, haul bags, carefully waterproofed portaledge, aiders, jugs, soda bottles slung and wrapped in duct tape...all are double- and triple-checked and crammed into the Cave, ready to launch on the second annual Oakland Old Climbers Home road trip. But the single most precious item that was loaded into the truck was TIME. Five weeks of it.

Five weeks with just one destination: Yosemite Valley. (A strange destination for a road trip, it being just a short 4-hour drive from the OCH... but special circumstances prevailed: the recently approved Yosemite Valley Plan would soon change forever the ability to easily come and go to Yosemite. Brutus and Ratchet were convinced that it was now or never to get the full Valley climbing experience.)

Five weeks with just one goal: to climb El Capitan. Other climbs were on the list, but El Cap was the one "must-do" for the trip. Brutus had been there, done that, many times. But Nurse Ratchet never had; she had heard endless stories at the OCH about the Nose on El Cap: the ultimate climber's goal; and she craved more than anything a ride on the Big Stone. She had wheedled and cajoled Brutus until he agreed to be her partner and rope gun for the adventure. "Twist my arm!"

Time was also essential to reach the goal. Not so much for the climb itself (little did they know how long it would really take!) but with FIVE WEEKS they had a long hit list of Valley classics they planned to tick off, getting honed and toned and trimming off the flabby layers of winter insulation while waiting for the perfect weather window for El Cap. Brutus knew from harsh experience that either rain, snowstorms or searing heat could stalk climbers on the Big Stone in the merry month of May.

There was another time factor as well. Ratchet's biological clock was ticking, loudly. She had watched other friends crest the half-century mark and start to coast downhill into more comfortable pursuits like hiking, golf and Caribbean cruises, and it struck terror into her heart. She wanted to tackle the Big Stone before it was too late.

The plan was hatched on the way home from Mt. Waddington and the Tetons the previous summer. Soon after, big wall training began. Since Brutus had injured his shoulder arm-wrestling for a beer, and was unable to climb, he sent Ratchet clipping up traversing sport routes in the gym, clipping across beams in the Old Climbers’ Home, out for training with the famous guru Karl Baba of Wawona. (The first climb he sent her up on was Moby Dick Center. Prophetic of things to come.)

Throughout the spring, while the shoulder injury continued to hold Brutus in injured reserve, he kept the whip in one hand and the Gri-Gri in the other while Ratchet toiled her way up more bolt ladders in the gym and aid pitches in Zion. Then came a Nose rehearsal with Karl Baba, climbing the first few pitches of the Nose.

Karl reported back to Brutus at the end of the day, with gentle diplomacy, "Ratchet knows the moves...but she's so d*mned slow!" The Babameister shook his head at his eager but autistic student. "So, grasshopper, you want to climb the Nose! Have you considered maybe something shorter, less committing? What about a climb that's shorter, more aid, less free climbing, less crowded? And shorter?"

Blinded by her obsession with the soaring perfection of the Big Stone, Ratchet refused to accept a lesser goal. But some doubts started to creep in about her ability to keep up the pace on the Nose...crowd control would be a real issue...with parties on every pitch, it's move fast or be trampled...besides, Brutus had already climbed the Nose, many years ago, and it would be more interesting for him to do something new. One night, while thumbing through McNamara's Supertopo guide, something made them stop at the description of Muir Wall: "the least crowded route of its grade on El Cap." Hmm...

Neither Brutus nor Ratchet was willing to speak the name of the route out loud for fear of a jinx, but they started preparing laminated topos and studying the gear list. Still, because they knew that walls have a way of dictating their own terms, they kept their options open and told the other folks at the OCH that they were "going to do some more aid practice." Also, Brutus was convinced that Ratchet needed one good Grade V warm-up wall to prepare for the Big Stone.

The Prow repeatedly surfaced as the perfect choice, but Ratchet feared from past experience that the Prow, with its bouldery approach and hideous descent, would sap strength and energy, without time to recuperate before the 5 weeks were gone. So another plan slowly hatched.

The first 10 pitches of Muir Wall end at Heart Ledges. From there an easy rappel back to the ground is possible via the fixed ropes on Salathe. Beta from the Baba, who had just done the lower pitches of the Muir, revealed that the fixed ropes were in place, and in good condition. The upper 23 pitches present the major challenges of the route, and easily qualify as a Grade VI. Ratchet and Brutus would do the lower section as a warm-up Grade V, rap down to rest, re-assess, re-supply, then jug up and climb the upper wall in a second push. Perfect strategy for a geezer ascent: chop up the challenge into bite-sized pieces.

Nurse Ratchet recollects…
The mantras for the trip:
Quickly. Fastly Safely Fastly.
Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough.
Boris Goodenough and Justin Case

Tuesday May 15 -- We share a campsite in Lower Pines campsite with Maggie and Sadie, who arrive late in the afternoon after a successful climb of Snake Dike. They've had a great day and are still high from the climb. They are having barbecued steak for dinner to celebrate, and Brutus makes incredible barbecued salmon. Maggie's belated birthday cake, which we prepare on-site, is a tower of angel food, strawberries and whipped cream. We wait and hope that Karl and Chris will show up, they don't, but nevertheless we eat, drink and laugh long into the night. The next morning we must apologize for our rowdiness to the nice couple in the RV next door. They don't mind. Their son is a climber. They understand.

Wednesday May 16 -- Today we had planned to climb Nutcracker with Maggie and Sadie, but their quads are screaming from their Half Dome day, and they decide to take it easy

Brutus and I spend the day sorting gear, visiting the climbing shop for some last-minute retail therapy (most of our purchases duplicate what we already have stashed in the truck, but we can't find everything in the piles, and we don't dare take a chance of having left essential items back home). We ransack the village store for Gatorade, cheese, canned soups and fruit.

Pack haul bags. Fill water jugs, carefully measuring just the right amount of Gatorade mix into each duct-taped 2-liter bottle.

Thursday May 17 -- Launch. 1st 2 pitches in one. Met the Norwegians at the top of Moby Dick, they have the jump on us by 15 minutes. God they are slow! Slept. Rapped down for pizza. Returned 5 pm. Ratchet's lead. God she's slow! Had to rap off from intermediate belay halfway up P3. Back to the ground to sleep.

Friday May 18 -- Jug up to our high point. Surprise! No sign of the Norwegians above us (later we found out Tad was feeling sick so they decided to take a day off). Not knowing whether or not they would show up, we tried to move fast, sensing that this might be a chance to pull ahead of them. I started cautiously up from my high point on P3, then tried to start stretching out the placements as I moved up.

The mantra Brutus has given me for this climb repeats itself over and over: "Quickly, Fastly, Safely Fastly..." and I try to move from one placement to the next without hesitation. Reaching high to place an HB offset in a flared slot, I can't clearly see it it's good. "Testing!" It holds, I step up.

"POINK!!!! The nut pops as soon as a slight outward pull changes its precarious grip on the flare. The piece below thankfully stops my downward plunge, but not before the rope has seared a brand of dishonor onto my wrist. (Funny how long rope burns take to heal...) The mantra wavers; I keep repeating it, but fear now morphs it into "Quiiic-c-kly...Safely...Fastll-ly-y...Safely (please don't pop, please don't pop)" and I have to downshift into second gear. I hate it when that happens.

Brutus, back on the comfy belay ledge and around the 2-pendulum corners, later said he was unaware of my fall. But he was well aware of the passing of time before I radioed "off belay" and he was obviously going for making up time as he raced up the next pitch like a greyhound, backcleaning and hopscotching gear so hardly anything was left behind for me to clean. Cool, until I got to the roof traverse. Fortunately, some leaver slings allowed me to lower out from a fixed pin.

Thank goodness for all that time practicing lowering out from hideously traversing bolt routes in the gym... this would be a key skill required over and over on this route. Changeover. I rack up, the Norwegian high point anchor about 30 fit above us as I start leading P5, unaware of what has been brewing in the sky above us for the last hour. But Brutus knows. "Uh, Em, there might be some clouds moving in. Try to move fast."

Blip. .... what's that? blip, blip... is it starting to rain? Blap BlapBLAPBLAP...yikes! Hail! Oh My GAWD! Look at that waterfall!!! Get raingear on! We're getting drenched! Set up an anchor, lower down, Rap off! Jeez jee--e--z this water is c-c-c-cold. Careful to thread the ropes, check the backup, one more rap and we're on the ground, like two drenched terriers, looking up at waterfalls cascading down the face that just a few hours ago was baking in the sun. Safe, for now, we hustle back to the truck, kick off our wet gear and drive to the warm plastic embrace of the pizza parlor at Curry Village. By sunset it's dry again.

Saturday May 19 -- Up early, trying to get a head start to complete the pitch that would allow us to pass the Norwegians...good, no sign of them at the base...uh-oh. Rats. Here they come. Guess we'll have to let them go ahead.

Embarrassed at our failed attempt to pass, which has resulted in our gear on top of theirs, we offer our apologies for kluging their gear and their belay. Work it out. Go get showers then come back later in the day to finish P5. Let's do P6, too, it's still early! Nope, can't you see the Norwegian leader is just getting to the next belay...they'll be hours before they clean the next pitch.

Arg. We will need to leave our gear at the ugly encampment of Scott B's "fixed" portaledge. What a mess. But with the start of P6 in our reach, we decide to cast off with Howdy IId and the portaledge in tow in the morning, haul the gear up onto the wall to keep our place in line, and cast off the next day.

Unlike our Scandinavian friends, who started hauling from the base of the route, Brutus had cleverly deduced that with 3 ropes, by using the belay anchors on Dorn Direct, we could haul to the start of P6 pretty much straight up, avoiding the long lowering out that would be otherwise be required between P5 and P6.

The extra day would allow the Scandinavians time to either pull ahead and commit to the upper wall, or to bail. Either way, the way ahead would be clear for us.

Sunday, May 20 -- As planned, the day was spent hauling on Dorn and replacing a few bolts: Brutus stopped at the second anchor to pull out one of the old rusty bolts by hand and replace it with a new 3/8" bolt. The hauling goes well, in spite of a small hang-up of the bag on the first set of roofs. Brutus's advice to raise and lower the bag by small amounts, "bouncing" it over the edge, finally works. I smile. Small successes mean a lot in a day filled with Sisyphean labors.

Monday May 21 -- Howdy sits atop P3 of Dorn waiting for us. We jug up our fixed ropes. Despite the awkwardness of leading past Scott's ledge and gear, Brutus knocks off P6 in record time, trailing the haul line which is connected to Howdy, hanging from a hook. I follow at a somewhat more pedestrian pace, then we bring up the pig. The next two pitches also go smoothly, and by late afternoon we are setting up the portaledge at P8.

Feeling that we are finally "launched" for real is terrific. As we pull out dinner fixings from the haul bag, Brutus jumps in alarm. A tiny gray and white spotted frog (wearing his best granite camouflage gear) has taken a shine to Brutus and is glued to his arm. As we both stare in amusement, it appears to settle in, with no intention of moving. Brutus gently shoos him away, but no go. Froggie knows a good gig when he sees it! But we didn't bank on a threesome for this climb, so after taking a few candid camera photos which we know won't turn out, we gently move him into the mossy crack beside us. He stays for a while before he fades away into the granite background.

Tuesday May 22 -- Another short day. Swinging leads as we had for all these lower pitches, my lead took hours and Brutus's was over in a flash, and we arrived at Heart Ledges as the heat of the day was starting to really sink in. From the freezer into the fire in 3 days!

We tucked ourselves back into the shade of the belay ledge, drank a couple liters of Gatorade, ate a quick lunch, secured our rack and haulbag to leave behind, and prepared to traverse over to the fixed ropes on Heart just as a face appeared over the edge of the ledge above us. For the last two days we have been alone on a side road, but now we have merged onto a major freeway with no traffic control. Excited to have just finished Free Blast in half a day, the Mexican beams with enthusiasm and informs us that they will return tomorrow to continue on the Triple Direct. His enthusiasm in infectious and we wish him good speed.

Another party heading up Salathe Wall is rapping down from Mammoth Terraces. [Obviously not locals, we later learned they were from Hong Kong and planned to do Salathe. We let them rap on down but told them they were welcome to a ride back to Camp 4 if they were still waiting when we got down to the truck. ]

Wednesday May 23 -- We sleep in the next morning, but the rest of our "rest day" is spent packing and repacking for the second push. Our hands are like lobster claws, aching from the hauling and jugging; they refuse to function and we can barely feel our fingers. We would love to take another rest day...a rest week... but with Memorial Day weekend approaching we are afraid to lose our place in line. Ratchet also secretly fears for the wealth of rack, ropes ascenders and aiders left hanging in the alcove. How long can we leave our life savings sitting up there before someone climbs by and considers our gear booty free for the taking? We set our alarm for first light and drop into a deep sleep.

Thursday May 24 -- Today we launch! Ratchet is excited but Brutus still harbors doubts about their ability to take on the upper wall. He reminds her that they're just "going up there to check it out" and they can still fix pitches and come back down before committing to the much more difficult upper section.

Brutus starts up the fixed lines, jugging and then hauling Brownie. Ratchet brings up the rear, jugging looking like a circus clown with a skirt of water jugs bobbing around her waist. There are no other parties in sight, but we expect to see company soon, so we hurry to re-pack the bags and start up to Mammoth Terraces. Brutus remembers the first pitch, up broken corners and ledges, as having loose rock and ugly hauling, so he chivalrously offers to lead it. (We could just jug the fixed line, but we are fresh from our rest day and still clinging to some sense of ethics.) No argument from Ratchet!

The lead goes quickly and soon the hard part— the hauling— begins. The 2 bags are at their heaviest, and are like sullen children, refusing to budge when presented with the slightest obstacle. Like parents, we coax and cajole until we can finally heave their fat little butts up to the belay stance. But it's just more ugly groove full of loose blocks and a twisted stump. Having just packed the pups, we must now unpack them and ferry loads up and across a series of blocks and ledges to the far side of Mammoth Terraces.

Fixing a line across the Terraces, we do the tedious traverse countless times until we have transferred everything to a jumbled pile at the spot where we expect to bivy. It's time-consuming because every piece that we transfer must be kept clipped in to the rope any time we are not actually holding it. Tedious, but there is nothing here that is "extra." Every item is essential for either comfort, safety or survival, and nothing can be allowed to roll away , blow away or be forgotten. Finally the transfer is done, not an elegant pile, but good enough for now.

As we labor, we notice a propane barbeque grill on the ledge. Brutus begins to seriously consider rappelling to the base to get chicken and beer, spending the Memorial Day weekend 1,000 feet off the ground in style. Only the hordes of climbers swarming up the Captain from below persuade him to reconsider.

It is almost sunset and we wearily lay out our pads and sleeping bags on the flattest spots we can find, crawl into the bags still tied in to our anchors and are asleep almost immediately.

Friday May 25 -- The daily routine that we will follow for the next week begins: wake up just before first light when the birds start chirping. Massage the hands until they are willing to function. Get dressed. Breakfast. Take a dump. Pack the bags. Put on the rack. Get the leader on Gri-Gri.

I take the sharp end and move slowly up the 5.2 corner, Justin Case at my shoulder, searching the low angle flared grooves for non-existent gear placements (anyone else would just walk up it confidently). Brutus sighs, wary of what this forebodes. "Jeezuz, just get your butt moving!"

As the rock steepens I step into the familiar stirrups of the aiders and continue to plod along, with the occasional daring high step thrown in just to maintain some appearance of credibility, and finally pull over the last steep edge onto another blocky terrace. "Em to Bruce" I'm at an anchor, but it's not the marked belay. Should I bring you up to here?"

"Bruce to Em, No, keep going and see if you can make it to the big ledge on the other side."

“OK" I cross the terrace to a fixed bolt, and looking down at the rappel/pendulum to next ledge about 30' below, radio down "How much rope?"

Brutus gives the right answer: "About 40 feet."

I pull up all the slack, fix the rope to the bolt, and then rappel down to the ledge. Then hauling the 2 bags up to the ledge takes time as Brutus must traverse back and free each of them, then help maneuver them over corners and edges. Finally B jugs up to the fixed point and raps down to the ledge.

"Uh-oh. I think we may have some company soon." Brutus starts to re-rack for his lead, but in minutes the leader of the first of a series of teams pulls up over the steep edge.

"Jeez, that was the stiffest 5.9 move I've ever done! How did you do it?"

" Well, I aided it. Didn't seem that bad."

"Oh. I thought you led it free. Otherwise I never would have tried to."

I wince from the obviously sexist comment. The next pitch is up a thin seam and there is no alternate route. "Hey, my partner and I, we're really fast. We just did Jolly Rodger. We're doing The Shield. Mind if we pass?"


The next bivy is Grey Ledges, a broken series of ledges with only two really good spots to sleep, and several marginal ones. Bruce knows this bivy well from past experience. We cut a deal: we will let them pass if they agree to leave us the best bivy spots. We watch their leader start up the pitch.

Fast is a relative term, and relative to us, he is not moving particularly fast. So B and I wait, feeling a bit annoyed, and as the sun moves higher in the sky and starts to crank up the heat we take turns curling up in the tiny patch of shade that B creates by stringing up a rope bag over our belay spot. At least we have a good ledge to rest on, and we chat with the belayer of the team we have let pass. "Listen, you guys are not exactly burning rubber here. At this pace, we're not going to be able to make the bivy before dark. We need to re-negotiate."

He assures us that his buddy is just getting his lead head turned on, and they will definitely speed up. Riiiight. Meanwhile, more company: another climber has appeared on the blocks above us. It's clear that we need to vacate this belay soon. Eventually we strike a new deal: At the next belay, the team we have let past will trail our haul line, and fix it at the next anchor. We will jug the fixed line. This way both teams can make it to Grey Ledges by nightfall.

In the meantime, the next team has pulled up beside us on the belay ledge. There is a flash of recognition. Bruce? BRUCE??? The second of this team is Rich Travis, a friend and climbing partner of Brutus’s from years back and co-conspirator in numerous crazy adventures such as a 48-hour round trip from the SF Bay Area to climb Oregon's Mt. Hood in winter. Small world! We can talk only long enough to find out he and his partner Randy are doing Triple Direct, which shares P10-18 with Muir Wall. They'll be close to us for a while, so we're glad at least that one of them is a friend. Then it's time for B to lead Pitch 13.

B leads up quickly, fastly, safely, fastly (far more so than the team ahead). Sigh. So much for being polite. B is finished hauling by the time R gets to the belay, then they wait some more while the second of the Pep Boys finishes cleaning the pitches above... they have linked P14 and 15 into one long 60m pitch, so since they are now trailing our rope, we have no choice but to do the same. Just as well, since by now it's getting to be late afternoon. Funny how time goes faster on a wall.

Jug, haul, jug, haul. Arriving at Grey Ledges, Ratchet finds the Pep Boys are regretting the deal they cut. The first ledge is obviously looking mighty fine to them as a bivy spot, and they point to the higher anchors and whine that they don't have enough rope to reach them. Ratchet takes a finger to the rope tautly stringing from her anchor down to Bruce, and plucks it like a guitar string. "Well, duh. I don't have enough rope left either. A deal's a deal.”

The 2 weary lads look at each other, then back at R with disgust. "Your lead, man" one says to the other.

By the time B reaches the ledge, the Pep Boys have decided the upper ledges are too poor to sleep on (we knew that!) and are busy setting up their portaledge. Brutus gazes longingly back down at the wide, dark slot of a pitch we have both jugged past. "HNhhhhh, hnnnhhhhh, hhhnnhhhhh..." there's nothing sadder than a OW master deprived of his suffering...But all's fair in love and walls...

In the darkness we finish dinner, and sit side by side for a few minutes watching an endless stream of cars pour into Yosemite Valley for the Memorial Day weekend. "You know, we're really lucky. This is one of the few places we can legally camp, in Yosemite, on Memorial Day weekend, with neither reservations nor a wilderness permit. My only regret is that we're not going to be spending this weekend drinking beer and barbequing chicken at Mammoth Terraces." with these thoughts, Brutus jugs up into the night to his 18-inch wide ledge.

Saturday, May 26 -- Because of the pressure of the other teams, B and I have made the decision that we've made so many times in the past. Until we reach P18, where the Muir takes off from triple Direct, B will take over the leading in order to move faster. God, this haunts me! How much I wish it could be different, and we could continue to swing leads as we had done on the first 10 pitches. It seems especially unfair to B, as he must now take on all the hauling duty. But I am slow, and there's no way around it. Your lead, B.

By the time we're ready to go, the Pep Boys are only 50 feet up P16. Again we wait for them to vacate the belay before we start the pitch. It's clear that they rather overestimated their abilities, and to us the passing deal is seeming less and less fair. But too late to change. Sigh.

All along we have been using the Talkabout radios to communicate, and today they will prove their value many times over. Lowering out and hauling bag on P18 is one of the cruxes of this pitch, which traverses 60 horizontal feet and gains only 10 feet up and around a corner. Managing the haul bags is equally challenging for the leader and the second. The second must lower out the bag across the traverse, then let it free to swing across flakes on the face. If the bag gets stuck, there's no way the second can reach it to help, and there's also no way the leader can see what it's stuck on so he can know how to free it.

B once watched a team spend 8 hours on this pitch, unable to move because the bag was stuck, and completely unable to communicate because of the distance between them and the wind. He carefully explains to me exactly the steps to follow. I do it. (Hard work to body haul!) One bag makes it across, then the second gets stuck, but with the Talkabouts we are able to delicately work a series of pull-up, pull backwards, pull-ups to inch Howdy up and over the flake. Hurray! We are both relieved that the problem has been resolved so easily.

By this time yet another team has arrived, and has moved ahead of Rich and Randy. These two are both faster and more aggressive (but politely so) in passing. It turns out that they are “Team Mexico” we met on Mammoth Terraces at the end of our “warm-up climb.” B coaches me to allow them to set up a belay using two of the 5 bolts I am clipped to. Their friendly enthusiasm make them pleasant neighbors.

Pitch 19 finally signals the spot where we leave the freeway and set off on our own path. The mossy grit in the crack immediately signals that this is the path less traveled. Up until now we've been on terra cognita. Now the adventure begins in earnest. Without ever discussing it, we have been chased up the wall by the teams barking at our heels, past the point of no return. As Bruce says, there's only two ways off from here: “Your lead, or my lead."

B leads steadily but a bit more slowly up this pitch. It's tricky, with some narrow dirty slots and loose flakes. When I join him at the next belay, we check my watch. This ledge is our planned bivy, and we had hoped to fix the next pitch or two tonight, but as the shadows deepen we decide to just set up camp. The 1x4 ledge shown on the topo is more diagonal than horizontal, so we are more than happy to be able to deploy the portaledge as our oasis.

Sunday, May 27 -- At last. My lead. 5.7 free climbing starts with an easy, blocky traverse (cool!) but quickly gets desperate as the wall steepens and the holds diminish. I lunge with one hand to reach a promising-looking hold and find the top of it sloping and slick. With the hand oozing off, I scream, "Oh fuck... Damn it! Damn it!" and frantically fish for a piece of gear that can offer me salvation. At the last minute, I cram in a tiny Alien, scramble my feet against non-existent holds on the slick face below, and grunt my way up to the good hold above. Whew!
I unclip the aiders from my harness, plug in a piece above me, clip in with my daisy, and sag my weight carefully onto it. "Testing!" and I am happily back in the aider stirrups again. The topo says "one 5.10 move" but I am more than happy to aid the next 20 feet until I'm just below the belay ledge, with good holds for both hands and feet. A couple of moves and I'm at the belay. Cool!

But my elation quickly subsides when I check my watch and find that this short pitch, one of the easiest on the route, has taken me two hours to lead. Sigh. There's no time to spend moping over it, though. I have two fat piggies to negotiate through the blocks and small roofs below me, and I set to work while B jugs and cleans the pitch.

The next pitch starts up a wet tangle of flowers and mosses, into another dark wide slot. Topo says "5.10 squeeze or C1+" This has Brutus of Wyde written all over it. "Your lead, B."

Brutus reminisces
This pitch reminded me of much of the climbing on Magic Mushroom: A flared overhanging slot where 5.10 chimney moves are required to even aid the thing. Eventually I exit the gullet into the 5.12 layback moves to the anchors. C1 to me.

Nurse Ratchet resumes the tale
The next belay is where the Shaft (a 7-pitch "variation" put up by Scott Cosgrove and Kurt Smith in 94 during an epic 54-day siege attempt to free-climb the Muir Wall) departs from our route. Unlike the previous belays with their ancient rusted bolts and fixed pins supplemented by one or two newer stainless bolts, here we see a column of beefy new bolts marching out of sight up and around a corner to the right.

If we listened closely, we might hear echoes of the whining drone of the power drill that set these bolts, and resulted in Cosgrove and Smith receiving the shaft from the Park Service when they reached the rim and were arrested for illegal use of power equipment in a National Park. (Pretty ironic, if you consider that Yosemite Village is a small city with every modern convenience...) The original belay, at a marginal ledge stance, depends on gear in the crack above and below it, and the first of the new bolts is a good 8' to the right, but it's shiny sturdiness is so alluring that B leads up the start of the next pitch and pendulums back down in order to clip it. Ethics be damned. Our first priority is a safe belay.

Next pitch is C1, and I think I might be able to handle it, but we have far to go today, and after a brief conference, B continues leading. I'm back on 2nd string. We are entering the incredible, laser-cut, sweeping dihedrals that distinguish the upper part of the Muir Wall, and I'm just happy to be here. Sigh.

Pitch 22: Chris Mac’s SuperTopo says Muir Wall goes hammerless until P23, but B uses two pin placements. This, too distinguishes the Muir: it is a nailing route. With endless offset stopper placements up a consistently thin corner, the two pin placements primarily for good protection since he was backcleaning almost the entire pitch...

Pitch 23, The pendulum pitch: after placing a new bolt at the belay, Bruce uses the remaining daylight to fix most of the next pitch, a steep and complex series of nailing problems including a pendulum.

Brutus interjects
Chris' Supertopo calls this pitch the first crux, rating it A2. Me? when I place 7 or 8 tied-off blades and arrows in a row, I start getting the feeling of A3. But then, I'm an old school aid rating wimp.

Ratchet resumes the tale
Memorial Day, May 28 -- I clean the last piece from the belay, take a deep breath, and unclip from the bolt. Can you spell E-X-P-O-S-U-R-E??? I could not have felt more naked if I was walking down Polk Street at 3 am in my birthday suit. I swing out over the void, further than I could have thought possible, and look up at the rope, stretched like a spider's silken thread, leading out of sight over an edge far, far, far above me, and every nerve clenched in terror. Never have I been so conscious of how my entire life depended on this single piece of gear.

Carefully, I start jugging. STOP! NO SWINGING! C-c-c-areful... slowly...safely...c-c-c-carefully.... safely... inch-by-inch I try to peristalsize upwards without causing any movement of the rope over the edge above. Trust. It's all about trust. Trusting the system. Trusting Brutus's anchor. Trusting the gear. Trusting myself to set up every piece in the system correctly.

I check and double-check each locking 'biner, and stop frequently to adjust my tie-in- short knot. I think about the rope. I had pleaded to buy a brand new Edelweiss Stratos 11mil, but Brutus would be way too heavy. No way. God I wanted that beefy 11 mil now! Instead here I was with my life hanging from a measly 10.2 mm Sterling Marathon. Bought used. Over the Internet. As I send up little prayers for strength, serenity, and survival and continue jugging I think, "it's all about trust. Sue Hopkins (the seller of the rope) seems like such a nice lady. Doesn't she do some kind of medical work? She seems really knowledgeable. A good person. She wouldn't sell a bad rope, would she? Trust. Gotta trust. She REALLY seems like a good person..."

Pitch 24 takes Brutus most of the day. Even though we've only climbed 1.3 pitches today, Rather than start up 25, we opt for good anchors (Bruce places 2 bolts) and a good nights sleep. Tomorrow is another "crux" pitch. Lets see... at 1.3 pitches per day, the 33-pitch wall should take. Hmmm. maybe we should have planned on more than 5 weeks...

Tuesday, May 29 -- Pitch 25, although more technical (Brutus again wanders into the range of Wimp 3 with a string of stacked blades and tied off arrows culminating in a beak placement before the cheat to the anchors) goes faster than 24. At the anchors, the Shaft rejoins the Muir for a pitch before launching left to Chickenhead Ledge and the Magic Mushroom finish. The next pitch crosses a serrated knife-blade of granite. Bruce must rappel and clean the upper half of the pitch to keep the fixed line away from this death flake.

Pitch 26 ends at a bivy ledge. An inventory tells us that we have enough food and water to last us another year or so on the wall. The wall is starting to blur into our only reality. It is hard to remember a life on the ground. Time passes in snapshot images, as we immerse in the Now.
“Em, your lead!”

Wednesday, May 30 -- Brutus finishes Pitch 27
Pitch 28 Lowe balls for an entire pitch up a thin endless dihedral. Wha?? Send up the #5 camalot?? Okay...

Pitch 29, only 80 feet long, ends at a museum of rusted bolt trash. Bruce places one last fattie bolt here, and we again turn in early.

Thursday, May 31 -- Pitch 30: Stacked pins off balance, hooking and belay. We abandon the haul bags here. Later, after finishing the last few traversing pitches, we will rappel back down from directly above to retrieve them.

31: More penjis. Loose block. Our escape beckons above.

32: One last series of wild aid placements leads to the third class slabs, and the summit.

Brutus recalls
I step off the edge of El Cap, nauseated by the 3,000 feet of exposure, hanging by a single 9mm static line, twisting slowly in the air, the valley and the roofs of the Monolith rotating past my field of view. An eternity, and I finally can reach out and touch the haul bags we left at 30 so long ago.
As Em hauls the last bag off the anchors, the sun once again touches the horizon.

Ratchet continues...
Friday, June 1 -- Morning on the summit of El Capitan. We commute down the fixed lines to where the haul bags were abandoned last night, tediously ferrying loads up to camp. After a breakfast of peaches, baked beans, and tuna, we take a bath with the last of our extra water, and hoist the loads for the death-march descent down Falls Trail. Eventually we split the loads and cache half our gear, then stumble down the last of the trail, reaching the Valley floor at 8 pm, and the store (and beer) at 2 minutes to 9.

Saturday June 2 -- It’s not over yet. We hike back up Falls Trail to Eagle Peak saddle and our gear cache. Collect the last of our belongings, and descend yet again. On the way down, around 2 pm., we meet Bill Wright, who, with a party of four, is descending from climbing the Lost Arrow Tip, having started that morning. It’s a rest day for them.

Sunday June 3 – It’s finally over. We brunch at the Awahnee Hotel, spending hours in gluttony, gulping champaigne, smoked trout, shrimp, fresh fruit, and all manner of luxurious delicacies, until we can barely waddle out to the cave.

Monday, June 18, 2002 -- The Rat in Ratchet has been fed. Feasted on the sweet success of Big wall climbing, and tasted the acid taste of abject fear along the way.

As Brutus and Ratchet wriggle their sore muscles into the embrace of warm sand and watch the sun set over the peaceful waves, she turns to him, props herself on one shoulder, and announces: "I'm hungry! What's next?"



Sep 7, 2003, 3:35 PM
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dude... who's gonna READ all that?!?


Sep 7, 2003, 4:40 PM
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This was a very enjoyable read... Nice work.


Sep 7, 2003, 5:42 PM
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Great story. It must have been fun to write and was certainly fun to read.

In reply to:
Life in the Slow Lane
He assures us that his buddy is just getting his lead head turned on, and they will definitely speed up. Riiiight.
I'm impressed by how much the heavy crowding, even on this "uncrowded" route, shaped your tactics and the El Cap experience.

In reply to:
Chris' Supertopo calls this pitch the first crux, rating it A2. Me? when I place 7 or 8 tied-off blades and arrows in a row, I start getting the feeling of A3. But then, I'm an old school aid rating wimp.
Old school, wasn't it A4? I recall Robbins writing with some embarassment that he had to place one bolt on his solo 2nd ascent, because he couldn't manage a section that Chouinard and Herbert had nailed.


Sep 7, 2003, 6:33 PM
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So THAT'S how you get the rope up there.....

Hahaha, good story, I really enjoyed it. It only took 30 mins to read, and I don't think I could have squeezed 32 pitches into that small ammount of time.



Sep 7, 2003, 11:24 PM
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Hey guys,

Fun to get the whole story. Congratulations again on your grand adventure. Thanks for writing it up and sharing.

In reply to:
"Speed. When you own a lime-green Porsche, you're not required to think. And nothing is more important than maximum speed." Brutus gazes wistfully after the sports car, now almost out of sight.

Hmmm. Points to ponder.

In reply to:
Blip. .... what's that? blip, blip... is it starting to rain? Blap BlapBLAPBLAP...yikes! Hail! Oh My GAWD! Look at that waterfall!!!

Hey, is this the day that we saw you guys?



Sep 10, 2003, 2:34 PM
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Reading this TR made my day, and I'm sure it will inspire me beyond today as well.

Your more abreviated tale of this ascent was a huge inspiration to me and really helped me to get a perspective on climbing with J. We climbed the Nose together a few weeks ago, and it was one of the best times I've I've had climbing. My attitude adjustment that you (and T & Tom, and Mike from OC) helped me bring about was so necessary for it ending up being as fun as it was. What a great way to approach this climb and climbing together in general!

Nurse Ratchet, your biological clock rings with beautiful chimes! :wink:


Sep 10, 2003, 3:01 PM
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Thank You for making this day a little brighter, although I wish I was not sitting here at work....sigh.....


Sep 10, 2003, 3:56 PM
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Someone who took longer to climb the Muir than me!

Great story, mate. My palms were sweating with that rap down from the summit to retrieve the pigs.


Sep 11, 2003, 5:23 PM
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In reply to:
Hmmm. Points to ponder.

Yeah, especially when trying to keep up with you and your hubby. :D

In reply to:
In reply to:
Blip. .... what's that? blip, blip... is it starting to rain? Blap BlapBLAPBLAP...yikes! Hail! Oh My GAWD! Look at that waterfall!!!

Hey, is this the day that we saw you guys?

Yup, but I'm not sure we ever saw you... you guys were moving so fast all we ever saw was a blur...


Sep 14, 2003, 8:15 PM
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I almost missed this one! Thanks for sharing it!

Yup, the secret to sucess on El Cap is "Never Give Up"

the secret to safety on El Cap is "knowing when to give up"

Obviously, you did the right thing.

I'd like to say I was sorry that Brutus had a hurt shoulder for awhile but that blessed me with hanging out with two of the greatest human beings in the climbing world. I hope we never lose touch

Congrats and Peace


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