Articulo Mortis
© by Russ Walling

     We both knew this route would be a piece of work long before we nailed 
in the opening piece.  I remember sitting in El Cap meadow with Denny the 
previous spring and scratching out a rough Topo of the route through a telescope.  
The extended eyeball view showed an abundance of rotten and shallow corners,
seemingly linked by miles of hook moves--just what we wanted.  During the hot 
and lazy summer months we would go down to the meadow and just look at the 
line, make a few small changes on the topo, and talk about how horrible it 
would be.  One day in the meadow we agreed on a name for our route to 
be--Articulo Mortis.  Even from the ground this seemed appropriate.
     A solid late fall weather pattern and our own solicitude now had us seventeen
pitches up and well over three quarters of the way to the summit.  The climbing
to this point was just as we had imagined--loose, technical, deadly.  Each
terror filled rope length was taking a fortnight off our lives.  The last lead,
mine, was nine hours of horror, every placement leaching all I had.  If I had a
pistol out on the lead I would have used it--more than once.  By the time I had
the anchor secured and hauled the bags, the day was history--and so was I.
Denny finished cleaning the pitch in the dark, clambered into the station and
dumped the forty pound racks. He gulped down some water then out of totally
character, complimented me on doing such fine job on the pitch.  This comment
carried some serious weight, for Denny was as good a nailer as anybody had ever
seen, and most accounts rated him as the best.  I managed a weak smile, lied by
saying the pitch was casual, then settled into my portaledge, totally fried.
     The next morning had Denny putting on a clinic.  He was smoking up the
eighteenth pitch with an assortment of wall tricks unrecorded in any manuals.
Three hours and twenty-five tricks had passed since Denny cast off from the
station.  Now nearing noon, Denny had slowed considerably, in fact he hadn't
moved in the last thirty minutes.  I called up to him and asked if he needed
any extra stuff, like water, a new tape in the blaster, or whatever.  Denny
declined but recommended I get "heads-up, for the next placement looked pretty
     "What is it?" I called up to Denny.  "You hookin' or something?"
     "I think it's the somethin' part buddy boy.  Now watch me close--I'm leaking
onto a friction hook."
     "Friction hook," I mumbled.  "Jesus, those things didn't work in the parking
lot, now he's whipping one out here."  I pulled in a couple of feet of slack
and watched Denny easing onto this utter madness.  I thought of recommending he
sink in a Rivet or something, but remembered Denny was probably the last
holdout when it came to drilling on a route.  His previous first ascents up
here on the Captain were a testament to his beyond bold style--he opted for
pure nailing, with no 1/4 inch wimp-outs.  If there was a way around drilling,
Denny would find it, and I guess a friction hook was just such a way.
     "I'm on it!" Denny yelled down.  "Keep your onions peeled--this is way
     No foolin, I thought, and watched as he gained height in the aiders, quickly
motoring to the top step.  The steepness arched him awkwardly while he
struggled to whack in some sort of pin.  Every two or three swings Denny would
drop the hammer and readjust his stance in the aiders.  Two more whacks brought
the pin, about fifty pounds of diorite, and Denny down with it.
     "Falling!  Falling!" Denny yelled as he peeled over backwards.  With arms and
legs flailing wildly, he shot through a swath of sunlight like a high speed
macabre eclipse.  I watched in horror as piece after piece pulled out of the
rotten rock, every hopeless jolt knocking Denny out of balance as he attempted
to steer in mid-air.
     As I waited for Denny to hit the end of the rope, my brake hand instinctively
locked the belay device fast on the slack cord.  Real time was now moving in
slow motion, and all the details were easily taken in with a slight pan of my
head.  With a shorty Arrow, Denny had nailed off a flake the thickness of a
Rycrisp and the size of a bicycle wheel.  The long road of expando heads,
desperate blades, and skating hook moves were now whipping by him, none
offering resistance.As he zoomed toward our anchor station, the clanging of pitons, 
biners, occasional utterances, and various wall devices hitting the rock got hideously
louder with each second that passed.  Denny yelled repeatedly as his form
cartwheeled down the wall, each terror filled oration accented with sickening
thuds.  I moved to the far end of the belay stance and braced myself for the
certain--and unavoidable--impact.
     The last five heads above the station cut loose like they were placed into the
icing on a two dollar cake.  Twenty more feet of free air flew by and
then--Boom!--he walloped the stance like a jumpsuit filled with liver--hard and
messy.  The belay ledge slowed him down considerably, but his ride was far from
over.  Three more seconds of world class airtime rushed up to greet him before
he finally hit the end of the cord.  I leaned out from the anchor and watched
as two dozen pieces of bad pro slid down the rope and stacked up at his
     "Oh shit," was my immediate response and I yelled down to Denny, and as
expected, received no reply.  I fought to keep my lid on and started to think
about a plan of action.  For openers, I tied off the lead line that was
attached to Denny.  I sorted out the haul line still clipped to him, rigged it
into the hauling device, and secured it to the belay anchors.  I pulled our
first aid kit out of the haul bag--a roll of duct tape and five Percodan,
grabbed a water bottle, and started rappelling down the haul line.
     One hundred feet of free air descending put me level with Denny.  I clipped
into his harness with a short sling and tried to get an idea of the damage.  A
doctor I'm not, but there are a few things even a layman can see and make a
good call on--Denny's lid was one of them.  The impact zone was just above his
left eye, not that any features were readily identifiable.  I opened the water
jug, pulled out the first aid kit and downed a couple of pills.  For old times
sake, I checked for a pulse at the carotid--none.  Case closed, he was had.
     I tied the end of the haul line into the front of his harness and Jumared back
up to the station.  Totally removed and blank, I rigged myself for hauling and
began reeling in the haul line with Denny on the other end.  Each labored pull
raised the load a few feet and confirmed some obvious facts:  Not only was my
partner dead, but I was still high up on a wall, storms a grim reality, solo,
and with limited options.  With one final pull, Denny lurched onto the two foot
wide stance.  I stabilized him on the ledge and tied him off to the anchor with
a spare aider.
     I melted into my portaledge and just laid there, very still, while my mind
raced out of control.  What now?  What about Denny?  How am I getting off this
vertical prison?  What am I doing here anyway?  Every rocketing thought always
came back to Denny being dead, mere feet from me.
     I remembered how he used to loathe the fools that he helped rescue each summer
from the various cliffs around the Valley.  Rescue Bait he called them,
spineless fools on a waste mission, carrying their courage in their rucksack,
as drills and bolts.  When the going got tough the tough drilled, then lied,
then called for help--their skirts blowing up around their ears obscuring their
view of the summit--the all important summit.  Denny spit on that prideless
shit and vowed to die before being lowly Rescue Bait.  Denny lived to die
trying and he had just paid up.  I was going to make sure that Denny went
untarnished--he deserved better than to be Rescue Bait.
     I waited until the sun flashed it's last swath of light on the top of Middle
Cathedral and then untied all the cords from Denny's harness.  I methodically
racked the gear just like Denny used to, then coiled and checked the ropes,
ready for the next lead.  Denny was slumped against the aider that tethered him
to the wall.  I pulled out the Topo we had made, checked it momentarily, and
slipped it into his chest pocket.  Denny offered no complaints when I unclipped
the aider and let him fly.
     My headlamp shed eerie light on the stark grey wall as I started up the pitch
Denny had pulled.  I cleaned the copper from the initial seam left by the
mutinous heads, then placed my own in the shallow groove.  I found a sick
comfort in the darkness that hid the evil above and below.  My worry and intent
was focused into a shoe box sized area of light right in front of my
face--absolute attention to detail would be my prescription for life.
     Hours went by like minutes, and then I was just below the broken Rycrisp.  I
pulled the friction hook from the rack and slapped it into place.  If Denny
thought it was the piece to use, that was good enough for me.  I gained the top
step of my aiders and examined the broken flake area for what seemed like an
     The flake had left a small corner intact at the edge of its shear point.  A
few taps from my hammer said the corner was hollow, but usable.  I drove home a
Rurp that sunk into the corner like a razor into taught velvet.  "Testing," I
said out of habit and began to weight the piece--no dice, it shifted almost
     My thoughts raced back to Denny and I started to shake in the aiders.  This
was no game anymore--this was as real as it gets.  A few hours ago on this very
spot my best friend and a world class nailer had bought his last breath.  Was I
foolish enough to be next?  "Hell no!" I blurted out answering my question.  I
pulled out the bolt kit and prepared a bit in the holder.  "This hardman stuff
is bullshit," I yelled out loud and set the bit with a few taps on the fresh
granite that was exposed post Rycrisp.  I reached over my head to start the
drilling process, hesitated a moment, and then began to drill.  Five hits later
I knew I couldn't go through with it and holstered the drill.
     "Well--you got me," I whispered to the wall.  "I'm suckered, duped, and
seduced.  I'm offering you another fool trying to pass this square meter of
death.  I'll roll the dice buddy boy.  Let me step right up and pull the
trigger.  I'll live to die trying".
     With this I propped myself back in the top steps and cleaned the shitty Rurp
with a slight tug.  I thumbed the rack looking for a suitable piece, selected a
zero head, and scanned the crack.  I snuck the zero into a little restriction
in the back of the corner, and carefully tapped the Rurp back into place,
pinning the zero just below its copper head.  A mild jerk on my daisy chain
showed no ill effects, so I started to weight the head with small bounce tests.
The bastard was holding, and that meant only one thing--get on it.  I turned
off my headlamp, sucked in a possible last breath and stepped onto what I
figured would be the afterlife--it wasn't.
     Hope renewed, I scurried up my aiders to the second steps, clipped in at my
waist and flicked on the headlamp.  Quickly I grabbed a Fish Hook from the
racks and landed it on fair flake out to the right.  After the mandatory jerk
test, I loaded the hook with full weight and swung onto it as delicately as
possible.  Another hike up the aiders had me staring at a perfect T.C.U. slot.
I crammed a T.C.U. home and clipped in the rope with a locking biner as relief
flooded me to the point of giddy happiness.  A few more easy placements got me
to what would be the belay on "Denny's" pitch.  I fired in an anchor, then did
the cleaning and hauling.
     The next pitch was an easy corner on relatively good rock and 165 feet later
ended at a fine ledge.  I stopped briefly on the ledge to eat some canned
fruit, drink some water, and try to think only of the task ahead--not what had
happened earlier.  Back underway, two pitches of mixed 5.8, A2 stuff lead to an
anchor tree perched directly on the summit rim.  From this tree I hauled the
bags onto the summit just as the sun cracked the horizon far to my right.  I
pulled a gallon of water from a haul bag and just walked away without even
looking back.  I was done "living to die trying".

note:  Articulo Mortis literally means "in the grasp of death" in Latin.