Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fear and Loathing on El Capitan


“It’s raining, you’ve got to be kidding me, right?” I say to myself sarcastically as I lead the last pitch in the dark. I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m lonely, and I’m on the side of a cliff with thousands of feet below me…and its winter. It’s been hours since I’ve had any real conversations with my partners, and I yearn for human contact.

I find the last set of anchors in the maze of low angle, unprotected rock scrambling and yell, “Fixed!” I slump into a puddle, hide myself from the moisture, and sigh. It’s not over.



Too much stoke, brash over-confidence, and a round of poker with the weather gods led us here. We lost. Yesterday, we sieged El Capitan with the tactics of Warren Harding, fixing as high as we possibly could, four ropes from the bottom to the top of pitch 7.  With only 12 pitches to climb the following day, we had a chance to beat the 30% predicted overnight showers, and enjoy our first summit on top of El Capitan to the fading sunlight or so I thought.

The day drifted slowly and the sun was shining on our back, a perfect crisp winter day in March. We were the only party on El Capitan.  Daniel led his block, Vitaliy, his, and I was stuck with the night shift. It turned out we were a lot slower than we hoped for. After Vitaliy battled his last lead, he gave the rack over to me for those remaining four pitches. 

Vitaliy leading the hook pitch

Night fell all too quickly, and I was stuck in the dark for what felt like an eternity on a steep, exposed open odyssey. I moved slow, gingerly stepping on all of my gear, afraid for my life. It was cold, and I felt so alone. Alix, you wanted this. You pushed to climb this and you thought you could be a hero?

My logical self was scolding me, shaking her head with a scowl. I felt like I was lost at sea on a small boat with a paddle. I was slowly paddling towards the land, towards safety and comfort.

“I can’t find Thanksgiving Ledge” I cried out. They couldn’t hear me. “And the rock is so wet!” I squealed. It was seeping.

I stumbled through wet climbing and snow covered ledges. The route-finding was nearly impossible and I began to loose my nerve. My hands were swollen and bleeding like I’d gotten into a fist fight. The wind had cracked my lips and I was shaking. I don’t think I can lead anymore, those few pitches took half the night. I was self-conscious, wondering if my companions would ever want to climb with me again, because I was a weak gumby. What am I doing here?

 I kept going, plunging back into the dark recesses of the night. My arms were cramping and I had to warm my hands ever time I stood still for too long. Good thing I’m not at that belay or else I’d be REALLY cold, I thought to myself. As I was progressing upward on the last 5.3 pitch, far from my last piece of protection and way off route, it started to rain.

“I’m really fucking scared!” I screamed from the top of my lungs. I want off this thing. There was nothing they could do, nothing I could to do change the conditions, so I kept going. Alix, it’s 5.3. You can climb that in the rain. Calm down, and breathe. With each breath, I felt better. I tediously worked my way through another passage that led me directly to the anchors.

“Fixed!” I yell and quickly fold into the fetal position. It’s not over. My thoughts drifted between images bundled up by a fire with hot cocoa, my sleeping bag in Camp 4, and my worst nightmare, an unprepared bivouac on top of El Capitan.

Daniel comes up behind me, nudging me in the back. “We did it!” He said with enthusiasm. How is he so stoked? so not tired?

Vitaliy joined for celebratory high five.  He wasn’t completely wasted, either. Wow, am I really that soft? My inner conscience glared at me, No, you’ve never epic’d. You’re a noob, calm down. Daniel and Vitaliy had both logged many long days in the mountains and endured a few unplanned bivouacs. They had truly suffered before. This was my first time in the sufferbox.

“Alix, do you want to lead the way to the summit?” Daniel was looking at me.

“Ugh, no. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I’m done.”


After jugging the last fixed line, we negotiated a steep, sketchy gully system. Now, it was really raining, not just a misting, but enough rain to fill the gully with a small waterfall. I ended up in front, leading the way. I came to the abrupt end of the gully. Beyond it was blank, low angle, but blank and there was 2500 ft of air below. A small foot ledge above me was visible. I felt the weight of my backpack dragging me down. I glanced at my ratty approach shoes and imagined them skidding off the wet friction slab. The move looked desperate. 

This is it. I pasted my shoe on a bare piece of slab with no bite, just friction, and prayed I wouldn’t slip. I eased onto it and it held.

I looked down to my partners and my eyes swelled with tears as I stared intently at Vitaliy before he committed to the moves. Please don’t slip, please don’t slip. His face suggested he was as scared as I was, but in a few moments, it was over. He safely scurried up beside me. Daniel was down below with a giant pack leaning out from his shoulders.

“Can you give me a belay?” Daniel yelled up.

A belay? We’re on a slab. I can’t body belay. We’ll both die.
“No, I can’t.  I don’t know what to do.” I replied with a voice of panic.  “Fuck!” Why am I panicking so much right now? I can’t even think straight.

“Alix, calm down,” Vitaliy asserted. “Daniel, you have the gear. You’ll have to come up here.”

The air was tense. Please don’t die. Daniel put his climbing shoes on, and moved up to join us. I breathed a sigh of relief confident that the scariest, most exposed part of the day was over.

A rope-length stood between us and the true summit of El Capitan. Low angle, discontinuous cracks led to a tree above us. Someone had to climb up there and fix the lines for everyone else. In an attempt to redeem my heroic self-image, I volunteered to climb the last rope length of sopping slab. I changed into my climbing shoes and started free soloing the wet slab.

“This is fucked up.” I whined. I moved timidly up and down, tears streaming down my face. “Fuck, I can’t do this guys.” I broke down and climbed back. I was stressed - stressed I wasted time, stressed about disappointing my partners, angry with my ego.

Vitaliy, again calm and collected, greeted me with patience and understanding. “Let’s put a couple of pieces in this seam and build an anchor.”

“I can lead to the top. I have my climbing shoes on.” Daniel agreed to finish the route.

“WOOOO,” Daniel belched. He was on the summit at 1 a.m. 

Summit Glamor Shot Photo Credit: Vitaliy



Snow, snow, and more snow. It was snowing and there was snow everywhere. We attempted to carry out our original plan of descending the long Yosemite Falls Trail. It seemed like the safest and most obvious option. So we hiked the snow ridden granite, treading 2 ft, sometimes 3 ft, of snow amidst sparse trees and big boulders in hopes of finding a trail. 

There was no trace of human activity and we were left to wander the through the depths of the night. We crashed through dense thickets of forest atop El Capitan, post-holing through layers of snow. Our feet would punch through and twist between rocks, fallen trees, and bushes. Vitaliy fell a few times on slick ice, smacking his hip on the cold, hard earth. I battered my ankles. Daniel paved the way, looking for signs of a trail. I feel like I’m on drugs right now. I trudged behind like a zombie, watching the headlamps fade in front of me.

Where the hell are we?  We had stepped into another realm, as if we were deep in the Ent forest from Lord of the Rings. My eye sight became impaired. Spots of red and orange blurred my vision. I’m so tired. I couldn’t think straight. I could barely talk. After a few hours, the headlamps stopped in the distance.

When I caught up, Vitaliy and Daniel were conversing about our options.

“There’s dry wood over there. We could stop here and build a fire.” Daniel suggested.

“We should keep going. I think we’re close.” Vitaliy responded. Daniel nodded in agreement. They both turned to me.

“I think we should stop. I’m seeing things and I don’t feel mentally safe right now.” I replied.

“How about we keep going a little ways and if nothing looks good, we’ll come back here.” Vitaliy offered.  I reluctantly agreed and we staggered onward.

We climbed a steep, snow blanketed hill. Still, I dragged behind the others. I found myself falling more and more. I could barely move forward. We might have to call Search And Rescue.  I was drunk with exhaustion.

“I hear water.” Daniel was up ahead. “It’s a stream, a big one…we can’t cross it.”

Vitaliy caught up to him and was perplexed. We were utterly lost. “Let’s go back.” Vitaliy surrendered. 




My nose was filled with the smell of burning wood mixed with wet, dank forest. I opened my eyes to see Daniel adding more wood to the last embers of the night. The sun was creeping up over the east side of the valley. My body was wet and I was shivering. I can’t believe I managed to get an hour or two of sleep. Vitaliy turned and groaned. We survived the night, but it was time to go.

“Sleep well?” Daniel smiled, with a kick in his voice. He looked alive.

“Yea, I thought I was on a bad acid trip last night. That was intense.” I stretched my arms wide feeling the stiffness in my body. “Hanging in there V?”

“Yea.” He started gathering the clothes he left to dry by the fire.

The snow fall ceased. It was the first time in hours we weren’t getting any weather. Our only option was to find the east ledges descent. We headed towards the rim, out of the forest, back to the top of El Capitan. Within the hour, it started to pour rain again.  The gods plagued us with another exposed slab crossing. My thoughts raced with more what-if’s. What if we don’t get down today? Surely, we won’t survive another night.  “Maybe we should call SAR, Daniel.” I was losing hope.

“No, we are DEFINITELY not calling SAR.” Daniel said firmly. “We will find a way down. We’re so close.”

Vitaliy and I opted for a higher crossing in bush-whack territory while Daniel bee-lined straight across the slabs. We navigated down steep gullies, snow, and rappels off multiple fixed lines back to the valley floor.

“Good thing we didn’t wall it out,” I chuckled. We touched down at just before noon, 33 hours after we woke up. 

Daniel on the east ledges descent Photo Credit: Vitaliy


We hobbled back to the Manure Pile parking lot. Dirt streamed down our faces with the rain. Bloodied hands, bruised hips, and saggy eyelids were souvenirs from our first trip up El Capitan. We followed the road back to El Cap meadow where our car was parked. Two rangers stood by the bridge with binoculars. One turned to us as we got closer, “Excuse me, did you three climb El Capitan yesterday?”

“Yea, we just spent the night up there…pretty cold,” I responded.

“Well, a man by the name of Jim Reynolds, called in about an hour ago. Said there was a team up there with no bivy gear, and they shoulda been down yesterday…we were just looking to see if y’all were on the wall.”

“Oh, that’s us. He’s our friend. No need to worry.” Daniel told them.

“You know it’s winter, right?” The other ranger chimed in. I smiled. “Glad you’re safe.”

We stumbled back to the car in fits of laughter. Our trip up El Capitan was absurd, but one thing was certain, I’d never felt more alive or more fragile in my life.

 Photo Credit: Vitaliy


Down the fixed lines Photo Credit: Vitaliy

Climbing El Capitan at the end of the winter season was a rewarding but very humbling experience. It made me realize how little I knew about climbing, about Yosemite, and about myself. When faced with danger, I panicked. I wasn’t the hero I envisioned myself to be.

With a year of trad climbing experience before this ascent,  I was naive to think that everything would go as planned. We learned the hard lesson to not chance the weather in Yosemite.

Despite my short-comings, I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life, where the only thing that mattered was survival. As a child, I fantasized about being an elf in Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker saving the galaxy. I dreamed about a life outside the modern world. Lurking Fear was my first adventure that felt just as grand. Would Frodo have survived El Cap in a snowstorm?

No comments:

Post a Comment