"Go easy on the jug up here" I yelled. "The upper rope is pretty much
chopped". And this is how we began.
I was hot off an ascent of the MescaDawn Wall on El Cap a few weeks previous.
A basic 3 night affair that was to be the warm-up for the Native Son, owing to
the amount of sofa time I had logged, this seemed like a good idea. It wasn't,
but that's another TR. So on with the current circus...
All was well on the first pitch that starts out of a tree to some sort of
kookie mantle. Erik led this thing to get us off the ground without any
embarrassment from me and my free climbing skills. The real climbing started
under a small roof that was fairly severe
alumi-heads out a seam that headed
straight left. I was in the thick of the real stuff now, a trial by
aluminum one might say. This pitch quickly eased to good Friends and somewhat
wobbly belay in a wide groove. So far so good. Erik led the next pitch and it seemed
uneventful, but while cleaning it the teeth began to show. Hooking and some
sporty rivets led up to a spot of free climbing of unknown difficulty. Man,
was I glad this pitch was Eriks lead.
Erik led onto the big ledge to get our rotation right for the real leads to
come. This way he would lead the 5.9 blocky pitch to the base of the "Coral
Sea" and then I would lead the next two pitches to get us settled in at the
base of the "Wing" roof.
We fixed the first pitches to the big ledge and as ritual dictates, went for
liquor, food, and more liquor. Over the next day or so we packed the bags and
humped the loads to the base. Blast off was near, and the weather was hot and
stable...just perfect for a week of maniacal terror mixed with bored stiff
Jugging up to the top of the fixed lines is where our main lead line got the
chop. I noticed the fuzz falling down around me after changing over to the top
cord of our fixed lines. Oopsie. The cord was rubbing in two places and had
worn through to the core and then some. I exhaled to make myself lighter and
cautiously jugged by the chops. Then I told Erik. No reaction. I laced a
Jumar into the system to support the ropes below the chop and told Erik to come
on up. The chop was pretty bad, but we had some tape which afforded a fine
fix. Going to get a new rope was not an option, especially with all the tape
The huge ledge at the base of the "Coral Sea" is a good place to bivy. We set
up the portaledges and sorted the gear for the morning. The matter of the
chopped rope never even came up, but I knew that I was planning to stay away
from the taped end....at least on the hard leads.
Morning was here and Erik led up the 5.9/4th class to a double runner belay on
a big block. Here is where the dance begins. I snugged up my helmet, cranked
up some Nine Inch Nails in the blaster and stated out leapfrogging some small
hooks, vaguely following a line up and left toward a big block pasted to the
Welcome to the "Coral Sea". The fall was getting pretty bad, and a clanger
onto the ramp below is certain if you skate. I got to the big block and
started looking for the first piece of real pro on the pitch. All junk. The block is big
and loose and is in no mood to hold pins or nuts. Now the fall is looking really bad. I
eventually get a Fish hook pinned in behind a flake with a 3/4" angle. This is
a pretty good piece and would hold a slice of bread on at least a 10 footer. I
waffled around the block avoiding the thinnest, most sloping,
take-you-to-see-the-reaper hook move ever invented. Finally, it was time, and
I got on the shitty hook and using a knee on the block, started looking for the
next placement. Voila! A half in RURP would do the trick and allow me to move
left into what I hoped would be a good crack. I slung the loose block and put
on a panic-arrester sling that would activate at 250 lbs. The crack that was
to be my savior is junk. Now things are getting seriously bad as far as
zipping the pitch and hitting the ledge. I started pasting #1 heads in the
loose crack and whenever possible, doubling them up and equalizing them. These
heads are so crappy I was using them as a braking device just in case I pulled
the hooks that were propelling me up the flakes just outside this rotten seam.
I eventually hooked the entire 100ft or so to the belay, still placing the #1
heads as I went. Survey says, "death fall".
The next pitch was my lead also, and it is a good one. Not too hard, takes
all the pro on the rack, and is plenty steep. It is a huge sideways crack that
leads right to the base of the Wing. Near the start it takes arrows and maybe
a blade or two, then in 165' goes to 4" and then back down to #2 Friend size.
Superb rock and location. I tied up the belay and since we decided to leave
our junk on the big ledge and bivy there, I prepared to rap back down. This
was a much better plan than cleaning and hauling our circus up to the top of
todays pitches. Erik rapped down from the start of the sideways pitch and I
did the big 220ft. full air rap from the base of the Wing. I got back to the
ledge and discovered that my harness was not tied...at all. It was being held
on by virtue of the girth hitches from my daisy chains around the webbing used
to tie the harness together. No knots whatsoever. I showed Erik and in his
low and slow way said, "that shit ain't cool". I guess my number wasn't up.
We bivied on the ledge and let our thoughts drift toward tomorrow and the
I jugged up to the high point in the morning while Erik cleaned the previous
pitch. I started to haul the 200lb bags and as sure as it was horrendous they got
stuck going across the rubble covered ledge. I set up a 3 to 1 advantage on the
hauling rig and started to really put my back into it. The main haul line was
a 200ft 11mm static cord, but since the station was about 220 feet above the ledge,
I had to use the 7mm zip line to make up the difference. Well I guess 7 mils
ain't what they used to be, for during one of my mightier pulls the
sheath opened up for about 6 inches. Sheesh, first day and already two
chopped cords. Omen? Maybe...
The Wing is a steep mother with a good crack to start and then a bunch
of rivets leading up and right out of sight. It is the sort of pitch that will
make a belayers neck hurt even if he is laying down...it's that steep. Some
grim large heads await near the end of the pitch, and placing them looked very
The next pitch is your basic rivet ladder right off the belay and then some
fine nailing up towards the "K.B. Traverse" on Iron Hawk. Some dicey hooking
awaits above and then the pitch ends at a good belay station in a rivet ladder.
It was here that during the night a pretty good
storm rolled in and kept us pinned down basically all day. Thank God the
Olde English were talls and the blaster batteries were fresh.
Pitch 9 is pretty cool climbing over a few loose and expando cracks and
flakes. Erik motored this pitch and the highlight was finding some idiots
stool pasted oh-so-carefully at mid pitch.
From whence it came, I know not....
The belay on this pitch is funky expando and is notorious for
letting anchors fall out during the night. We knew about it and
it still happened to us. As I jugged up to the top piece in the morning to start my lead,
two of the belay pins fell out. Yes, it does wake you up. As Erik cleaned this station, the
flake had slapped shut on a TCU and squashed it flat. Yes, flat.
Pitch 10 is not so bad except for the really bad fall you could take if
things went sour. There is *the* sketchiest circlehead move I have ever seen
on this lurking on the traverse part of this pitch. After that you just angle
over on small pendulum off a hook to some #1 heads you hope will stick. A fall
here would be a melon breaker. I pinned a Fish Hook in again with a 3/4" angle
and led on up. Another small traverse follows that has a super technical
"hatchet" stack (ground down RURPs) that was just hideous to get. The problem
is that you need to lean right at a full extension and try to make the RURPs
stick long enough for you to land a hammer blow. The pitch is steep enough
that each hammer blow would make me barndoor away from the placement. Cripes!
I ended up doing a backstep/flag thingy that would make any Sportclimber proud
and getting some good licks onto the sad RURPs. Whew! It worked. Near the
end of the rivet ladder a woeful hole shows up that was a bitch to get
anything to stick in. I think I used a sawed off 1.5" angle and had to half
mantle it to reach some hook moves before more rivets came into play. Pretty
casual rivets and the odd hook from here, and it lands you at a
super bivy site that is clean to Valley Floor and has tons of bolts.
Nice! The next morning Erik led out on what is called the "Equator", an
expando but easy traverse into a reasonable crack that takes tons of pro. The
belay at the end of this pitch is cool and takes big friends, all the while you
hope they don't pry off the the main feature on the route, the
"Golden Finger of Fate" . It's big, hollow and who knows what holds
this 200ft thing to the wall.
Pitch 12 was marked wrong on our topo and man it got scary up top. Basically
I was cruising up this big left facing corner that is A1 or so, nailing away
with arrows and angles. Then it gets wide. Like real wide. I shimmied inside
and started to armbar the monster and could see all the way through to the
other side. At one point I had to abandon my cowboy hat to get further inside
the maw. After tons of groaning I had to hook the rack onto the bottom of my
aiders so I could get even further inside the chimney. Finally I got to where
I could get some wide pro way in the back and tied my aider on as an extendo
sling. Grunt-a-hoy and A1 my ass. Finally when I thought it was almost over I
encountered a rotten overlap that was super loose and venting sand. The belay
was still well above me. I stretched out of the chimney as far as I could and
started to drive an arrow into the loose crack above this overlap. Nope. The
crack was expando. I tried to push a Friend into the overlap, but as I
weighted it the sand poured faster and the overlap just kept expanding. This
was grim. I went back to the crack method and worked in an arrow stack that
seemed to be holding. Here comes the big test, as I have to sorta bomb out of
the chimney and onto the piece. If it blows I am so far outta there it's sick.
I looked down to confirm that the edge of the dihedral was extra sharp and cast
off onto the pin. It was holding so I hustled up my aiders and sunk another
pin that made the one I was on shift. Spookville. Looking down I noticed that
there were drilled hook holes to get around this chimney and into the crack
proper, bypassing the grievous offwidth and toil. Obviously the work of a
balless coward, since these were added after the first ascent. I clipped the
anchor and set up the belay.
Pitch 13 is a straightforward rivet ladder that is in good shape. Erik
cracked this off in about 20 minutes all tolled.
Pitch 14 is another rivet ladder with a single hook move out near the end. I
lead this pitch and I was to lead the next one also, so Erik could have the
last crux pitch. A great belay is at the end of the pitch and is where we
would bivy. The weather was starting to look grim so I decided to go out on
lead and get some of the
A3+ heading done before the corner started to run with
water, which it would if it rained. The pitch was a bear and had me struggling
like crazy to get in some of the 15 or so consecutive heads. It is an
overhanging corner that did its best to push me out and away from the wall and
over backwards. At the top of the corner was a good rivet which I lowered back
down to the belay/bivy from. We set up our ledges and as a precaution put on
the rainflys. Since we were already a day or so late from the first storm, the
food supply was about nil. I had one small salami and some hard candies. Erik
had a power bar and maybe a can of tuna. We settled in for the night and then
it began. First came the wind. Then rain. Then wind and rain. In the
morning it was still raining and snowing and the wind had picked up
Over on the Sea of Dreams a party was yelling for help. We
would look over and could not see the color of their rainflys for the amount of
water pouring over them. They were in a bad way. For the moment
we were fine. During the storm the wind was blowing so hard that it would
float my ledge out from the wall, turn it 90 degrees and crash it back into the wall.
This was starting to get serious. I called down to Erik to see how he was doing and the
word was not too good. He was getting wet and had a down sleeping bag. Can
you spell death? His ledge fly was in need of repairs before he got on the
wall and now it really needed work. I peered out of my ledge and saw his fly
being blown up over his ledge and him laying in a pool of water. He had
already toughed out a day of this, and it was time for him to come up to my
ledge and ride out the night.
Erik jugged up to my ledge and in the process of getting into my ledge copious
amounts of water soaked all our stuff. I was wearing a polypro suit and had a
Polarguard sleeping bag. Erik was wearing some wet Gramiccis and some sort of
jacket. He was desperately cold. I jettisoned his wet sleeping bag and any
wet clothes he had brought with him, and we both listened to the wails of
horror from the guys over on the Sea. We both got into my sleeping bag with
his feet pushed into my armpits to try and warm up his feet. This was going to
be a long night.
A few hours past and finally it was dark. Getting any real rest was a hard
trick and Erik was not warming up. We were both crammed into the ledge and
partially into the lone sleeping bag. Shivers were mandatory and the wind was
still managing to lift us both and float us around. Suddenly something started
hammering at the outside of the rainfly...WHAM.....WHAM....WHAM. It was Eriks
abandoned ledge that broke loose from where it was lashed and being whipped by
the wind into our fly like a cleaver. If it ripped the fly I truly believe we
would have been dead within minutes. I clawed one arm out of the fly and
managed to resecure the escaped ledge to the wall. This was really starting to
suck. We listened to some tunes to make things kinda like normal. They
weren't. Erik has now been shivering for hours and his feet were like two
frozen loaves of bread in my arm pits. We ate all 5" of the salami and drank
some water. I kept trying to get Erik to drink water to no avail. He was
urinating a bit too much for the amount of fluids in his system and I knew
there was trouble. His back has been against the wet rainfly for hours and was
now getting really sore. He claims that his kidney is bowing out of his back.
I don't want to see it. He takes a few sips of water and a bit of Powerbar.
The storm rages on. The guys on the Sea are now either quiet, dead, or just
unable to be heard over the din of flapping nylon and demons.
Every few minutes I doze off and then wake up. The cycle is agonizing. Erik
is getting colder still, so we decide to stay awake and make sure he slips no
further. He is getting confused. I try to straighten him out by telling him
that if he croaks, I will strip him, use his clothes for my solo to the summit
and chuck him off from here. He chuckles, thinking I am kidding. At around 4
am things start looking worse. It seems that some of our gear was hooked into
the ledge in such a way that when the stuff sacks and ropes and whatnot filled
with water and froze or whatever, it started to rip the bed of the portaledge.
Now when we moved, even an inch, the bed would slowly rip along the outside
edge. I cut loose all the heavy things attached to the ledge and remained
motionless. If the bed ripped completely, we would be in really bad shape.
For entertainment I suggested that we take our own
obituary photos and perhaps leave some last
words on the tape deck. I knew that if we turned into
stiffs, John Dill, the head of Yosemite Search and Rescue
would not only develop our film, but play any tapes in the blaster.
He is that sort of detective. Erik was even less amused now than before. We both tried
to stay awake and to think warm thoughts.
Morning is here. Erik is still with us and the wind has died down. I tell
Erik that the guys on the Sea are probably dead, and this is the storm that
gets them all. Every fall in the Valley, that first big
storm decimates all the parties on El Cap. When I was doing rescues
in the Park, it was a given that we would be waiting at the Rescue Cache
the minute the clouds rolled in each fall. Much like us, you start in tank tops and end
in body bags.
Erik was still not amused. Just as I was finishing my ghoulish tale the guys on the
Sea started yelling again. Unbelievable! They were alive and calling not only
for a rescue but for us to put on the Guns and Roses again. Within minutes,
Welcome to the Jungle played loud and true across the wall.
We saw the helicopters arrive in El Cap meadow and start hauling personnel up
to the top of El Cap. There was now a full on rescue effort going on for the
guys on the Sea. The weather was clearing and the sun was starting to break up
the clouds. The guys on the Sea were yelling over to us about us getting
rescued too. I yelled back that we were Ok and would be climbing on to the
summit and would see them in the bar later that night.
Erik was still in a bad way and his sportclimber frame was withered to the
brink. I readied myself for the rest of the pitch and got into my harness and
Jumars and started to sort the gear. All the ropes were frozen spaghetti and
the whole belay station looked like it was hit by a Zamboni. It took a while
to sort the stuff and Erik could not really help. I got him situated in the
sleeping bag and and set up my belay and attached it to his 8-plate. I jugged
the half-frozen line to the high point looking at the ice filled corner with
all the frozen heads from the previous day hanging like Otterpops. At the
rivet I got back out on lead and was like a salmon heading upstream. I tried
numerous times to place a head in a waterfall. No dice. I eventually looped
some wireds together on my hammer for extra reach and got a thin nut in
something under the water. I was soaked. Water went in my jacket and funneled
out my pant legs. I hooked along a big exfoliation that had water running in
the top and out the bottom, with the water being about 2" thick on the wall. I
set up the belay and told Erik to Jumar. This seemed to take hours. Erik was
moving really slow and was not able to swing the hammer to clean the heads or
pins. I told him to leave all the pro fixed,and to just clip past all the gear
and jug up here. I hauled the bags as Erik labored up the line. I set up the
ledge at the station and when Erik got there I put him in the sleeping bag. He
was disoriented and dehydrated. The lack of food coupled with the constant
shivering had taken its toll. I checked his ashen fingers for capillary
response and they refilled like they were powered by red molasses. He was
I went out on lead on what is the last pitch of the Native Son solo. Erik
could no longer belay. I slammed some blades into a traversing flake and
looked up at the rest of the pitch. Grim. In perfect weather this pitch is A4
and now the hooking and heading section was running with water. I could see
fixed heads here and there with just the clip loops sticking out of the water.
No way this was going today. I nailed back to the station to talk to Erik and
form a plan. I told him I could drill a hook ladder straight up the only dry
strip of rock and have him on the summit in about 5 hours. No good. He said
he didn't have five hours. A further exam of his hands showed frostbite
setting in. I asked him, "if we could get to the summit, could you make it
down the East Ledges?" No dice. Well it seemed pretty cut and dried to me.
We needed to get plucked. Erik refused. He did not want to get plucked. I
gave him the facts one more time. I asked him which would he rather have: his
fingers and his life, or the summit and no fingers, and probably not his life.
He deduced that life and fingers was probably a really good choice. I agreed.
With the rescue on the Sea of Dreams in full swing it was quite easy to yell
to the climbers on the rim to come over to us and drop a rope. As it turned
out it was Dan McDevitt and the late Mugs Stump who were on the rim above us.
They went to get a spare rope and I sorted the gear and prepared the station
for a gear retrieval at some later date.
Soon a rope attached to a daypack full of rocks was scraping down the slab
above us and once secured, I tied myself to Erik and started to Jumar to the
rim. I was trailing our 200ft haul line so I could get our gear back easily
some other time. Just about 10 feet from the rim the blasted haul line came
taught and I had to cut it loose. Bummer! We wobbled onto the rim and the
rescue guys led us up through the snow to the real summit, where the helicopter
was waiting. We were both flown down to the Valley floor and Erik was whisked
away to the hospital. I was given a much needed sandwich and jumped by the
press. It seemed the rescue had made
all the papers and some T.V. news as well.
After escaping the media goons I saw my friend Jo Whitford in the crowd
with a much relieved look on her face. After all it was she who said, "you
guys should not go up there", and had such bad vibes about the whole thing that
she gave me a good luck charm that I had tied to my hammer the whole way. I
think it helped.
Erik was admitted to the Valley hospital and they loaded him into a hot room
to heat up all his vital stuff. We went to see him later that same day and he
was looking pretty good. His fingers were going to be fine, albeit blistered,
and tender for a long time. With a whole bunch of fluids and snacks his other
problems would be gone in no time.
After any rescue there is the illustrious debriefing with John Dill. This is
where he asks the same questions and gets the same answers. It always follows
the line of "did you have a down sleeping bag?" Then the idiots say "yes".
Then he asks if you had good storm gear. And the idiots say "no". Then he
asks you, "without a rescue do you think you would have died?" and all the
idiots say "yes". Both me and Erik know, because we were those idiots. Thanks