Wild Thing! My 40th Birthday Rite of Passage

I thought it would be auspicious to commemorate my 40th birthday in May of 1999 with a climb that would be memorably epic, and yet short enough that I could celebrate with friends later in the evening. A full ascent of "Wild Thing" in Yosemite seemed like a good idea at the time. Eight pitches maxing out at 10c lead to the top of the "Folly", a pinnacle just West of Camp 4.

Now there usually is a reason why certain climbs are never done in Yosemite. Since "Wild Thing" has a short approach, I reasoned that the 5.10 offwidth and three pitches of hard chimneys near the top were probably the reason why only a handful of brain-addled misfits (sorry Fish!) had ever done the route. Since a good whuuping was what I was looking for, I felt I was heading in the right direction.

My partner for this endeavor would be Mark "the Great and Powerful Lummox". A good friend and fellow guide, he was obliged by the gravity of the occasion to climb the route of my choosing. I will say this against him though, he WANTED to climb "Wild Thing". We had climbed Steck-Salathe TWICE now, and under my bad influence, he was acquiring the dark and twisted taste for painful wide cracks that ferments slowly like the gradual seduction of most fetishes and perversions.

We arrived at the base of the climb to find that the #5 camalot had a broken trigger wire. I thought seriously of leaving it at the base of the climb since it always seems like a ball and chain hanging off my harness, but I improvised the wire with my Swiss Army Knife and hoped it would work for at least a couple of placements. This was the one decision of the day that I would bless over and over as events unfolded.

Mark lead the 5.9 approach pitches (part of the Good Book) up to Security Ledge where "Wild Thing" proper begins. The climb starts with a bang as you walk out an increasingly narrow ledge until it disappears on the brink of a 250’ drop. You sink a couple of jams in a crack around the corner and swing your feet over into the crack. This quickly leads to an awkward roof/alcove jam session that sends dirt into your eyes a your feet peddle on lichen-encrusted rock. A firm handshake with a cam that I placed at the brink of this roof was the first moral lapse in a long series of ethics degradations that would follow.

I had cleverly lead the first real pitch of the climb to set Mr. Lummox up for the next lead. It had a wide array of vexing and perplexing sections. I had lead this pitch a couple of years earlier when the "Good Book" had been wet and I decided to scope a pitch or two of "Wild Thing" out. It had been exciting enough the first time, and I wanted Mark to share the joy I remembered when reaching the anchors. Poker faced, I handed him the rack and fervently hoped he wouldn’t come to his senses. The pitch starts with an EXPOSED hand traverse where you get a couple of finger jams and commit to swinging your feet around a corner in hopes there will be something to stand on. I assured him that the promised holds would materialize but alas, I watched him with the dawning realization that he was awakening to the Folly of this route.

He handed me the rack and I hung my head in glum acquiescence. I started up the pitch with a happy heart anyway. You can’t fight reality after all. What better 40th birthday mid-life crisis buster than having a 6’5’ young buck hand you the rack hoping for deliverance? I started singing my new version of "Wild Thing"……….."Wide Thing! Da. Da...Da..Da…Da, you make my ears ring! Da. Da...Da..Da…Da, you make my skin sting!, Da. Da...Da..Da…Da, you hurt everything!, Da. Da...Da..Da…Da, Wide Thing!"

After the hand traverse, you down-climb to one of the wildest moves in Yosemite; a blind reach around a corner onto the exposed face to find a crack you only surmise might be there. There, you commit to a couple of marginal finger jams with no feet, and swing out onto the face and ape up the crack until it widens enough to put your foot into. After you surmount Pitch trauma #2, the crack leads straight up, wider and wider, to Pitch trauma #3, an off-width that ends at one rusty 1/4 bolt and some loose, razor sharp flakes tied off with tattered webbing, the best fixed anchor on the whole climb! I had lead this pitch clean the first time, but I admit to more glad-handing of cams this time during the section of trauma #2. Mark followed with the elation of someone who dodged a bullet.

The next pitch involves reaching across a face traverse to sink a couple of jams in a hanging-tooth kind-of-formation and, after cutting your feet loose yet again, down jamming the tooth and up the other side. I felt very smug after flashing this section, thinking it was the 10c crux. I was sure the Lummox would be worse off following this bit than I was leading it, that is, until I realized I wasn’t at the belay yet, and the real 10c crux was still staring me in the face…a no-feet, horizontal off-width around an exposed corner. Trust me, there was no easy way to pull-off this section except the still-exciting, chicken-livered way that I did it, and will leave to your imagination

There were no anchors at the belay so we were diabolically trapped on the climb. It was getting later and I didn’t want to miss my own birthday party, but the climb traverses so dramatically that, particularly without belay anchors, we couldn’t easily (or at least affordably) bail, even though we wanted to. To make matters worse, like an evil virus that adapts to measures taken to eradicate it, the climb would no longer offer any decent pro for its last 3 pitches. I thought, "Whatever, 5.8, 5.9, and 5.9 chimneys. I have soloed stuff like that. We will just pay our dues and rush off this pile" ….NOT!

The belay was in the bottom of a strange slot that branched off into several different chimneys. I optimistically took the friendliest variation and quickly found myself a 15 foot tunnel-through away from an opening that I thought would harbor the belay. It got narrower and narrower and nothing I could do would squeeze my fat butt through that passage. I took all the gear off my harness and tied the rope to the side of the harness… no dice.

It was too narrow to turn my head and I scraped my nose so much in squeezing and thrutching that the raspberry on my snout eventually bled. I was stuck there in this tight chimney thinking about my girlfriend’s pointed remarks over the winter-weight I had gained. There I was, on my 40th birthday, late for my party, and too fat to climb higher, and without hope of retreat! Fortunately, there was the hope that I was off-route. I down-climbed about 40 feet and headed up a different chimney that I had avoided because it looked harder, unprotected, and pinched off into an off-width. It turned out to be all those things, but now it seemed like the lesser evil indeed.

I won’t treat you to many details from the 5.9 squeeze chimney pitch that followed, although I will say it pinched off into a just-larger-than-a-#5 camalot, horizontal, off-width protected by an ancient 1/4 rusty spinner 20 feet down. The horror of this pitch was so exceeded by the final gauntlet, that it just blends into the general level off desperation that the climb inspired.

On the surface, we were still making the best of it, I was singing silly songs. (to the tune of onward Christian Soldiers) ‘Great and Powerful Luuummoox, cranking up the-a climb! With the cam of Je-Sus, yada, yada…" Underneath the surface, I was dealing with the seriousness of the lead-outs on some very sandbagged pitches. I would rather lead the Wilson Overhang on Sentinel over and over again than these horror shows. I thought of the friends gathered at a party in my honor, wondering why we hadn’t arrived. I thought of my girlfriend baking a special cake for the occasion while I was stuck on this damn stone, literally struggling for survival. I willed to maintain a firm resolve to overcome all obstacles one-pointedly, and in-the-moment now, and offer apologies and love to my friends later.

The last pitch didn’t seem to offer much protection. The outside of the chimney was glassy smooth, hard, and was of a size and orientation that promised to facilitate a long and gory fall. The inside of the chimney was absolutely running with slime and smelled like dog-shit. I headed inside the chimney and thrutched for my life. I was getting soaked with slimy goo and every inch of progress entailed a stout effort; slithering from a sideways position to upright then towards the outside of the chimney and then back inside. I could feel the water dripping off my shoes and shirt as I tried to compensate for my increasingly lubricated state. Finally, God relented and I was at the top of the bat-shit encrusted pinnacle known as the Folly. My heart soared with the knowledge that "Wild Thing" was behind me and I could look forward to a series of increasingly safe and comfortable circumstances and blessings. I could tell by the sex noises coming from the last pitch that Lummox enjoyed the chimney as much as I did. We celebrated momentarily and he gratefully thanked me for sparing him the lead on those pitches. Life was getting good in a hurry.

We rapped the top three pitches of the "Good Book" in one 200 foot rappel. Some photographers allowed us to then rap their fixed ropes to the ground, so we were excused from the Folly area with lightning speed. We reached the ground at 7pm which happens to be the moment of my birth! My party was two hours away in North Fork so we got moving. We picked up a friend in Wawona who asked us, "Do you have a dog?’ We asked her if she smelled dog-shit and, when she nodded her head, told her about the last pitch. (My clothes from that climb are still stained after washing with bleach and detergent)

When we arrived at the party at 9:30pm, some friends were playing bluegrass music and there was food left for the two ghosts who had each only eaten a power-bar and half an apple during the day. I got down on my knees and apologized to everyone for being late and expressed love and appreciation from the bottom of my heart for the blessings of my friends and neighbors.

I would like to thank all the folks who climb with me for good wishes and support over the years. May you all live passionately with great heart! Thanks for reading this far!

Peace and Love

Karl Baba

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