|There comes a point in a big wall climb, when the torturous logistical nightmares are complete, and the grueling carrying of loads of gear to the start are finished. It's a point where there's nothing left to do but savor the adventure with the Big Stone. I was happy to feel that Riley and I had reached that point.
He needed the last minute partner for Zodiac on El Capitan. He already had 200 feet of rope fixed and had collected most of the gear. I liked his net persona, I was free, and climbing El Capitan is always a larger-than-life rite of passage. It felt like something we were destined to do.
So after the headache of preparing my gear, carrying a load to the climb, and ascending strenuous overhanging ropes, Riley and I were finally climbing the third pitch. It would only be us and the stone for the next four or five days.
Or so I thought. There were intense drippings coming down from the summit. I thought it was just spring snow runoff but it became cloudy and the drippings got more intense. By the time Riley finished his pitch and I followed by ascending the rope, we were suddenly being drenched by water pouring off the top. Suddenly, we were becoming chilled. It didn't look like we could spend the night there. Suddenly, the only wise choice was to rappel back to the ground
in a hurry. Suddenly, we were going to have to repeat all that hiking and ascending ropes. It was striking how fast things can go from being casual but adventurous, to being perilous. We decided to close the haul-bags is tight as we could and hope for the best.
When we got to the ground, the rain was everywhere. Like one of those flash floods in a desert slot canyon, we had experienced the runoff from the rain, before the rain itself that hit. A bear came patrolling by just as I got near the ground. It was so close, I debated whether I should keep safely above the ground, but bear hazards seemed trivial compared to what we just escaped from.
The next day, ready for blast off, we hiked to the base again, and waited for the intense dripping to subside before ascending our overhanging lines again. As I laboriously climbed back to our High Point, it crossed my mind how this Zodiac route in particular had been a rite of passage for me for many years. When I was in my early 20s, I had done the third or fourth solo ascent of this route. It was a huge stretch for me to climb solo on my second grade 6 climb. I was leaving Yosemite after working there for three years. I was going back to school. It was the end of an era for me, a halcyon era of adventure in paradise.
And the climb was epic. There was unseasonal rain and snow in large quantities when I was high on the route, just when I thought my success was assured. People were rescued from Half Dome and El Capitan. I made it up to the summit despite the storm. That was the end of climbing for me for a good part of three years. I bought a motorcycle so that I could park on the UC Berkeley campus, but also, so I could indulge my adrenaline addiction in the urban environment.
20 years after that, I climbed Zodiac with Brett. We did the route clean without pitons. It marked a particular rite of passage for him and his life. For me, something had come around full circle.
Then a few years ago, I ruptured my Achilles tendon on the first pitch of Zodiac. I didn't know how injured I was, so I actually hiked back to the car and returned the next day to finish the route over five days. We narrowly averted the biggest storm of the year by Pushing to the top in a hurry.
So when I ascended the ropes this time, I had a moment to think about what destiny might have in store for me on this trip. I see an astrologer on my winter trips to India. He has had an uncanny ability to predict certain events in my life: relationships, and accidents. He was the reason I was careful to have medical insurance during the period when I ruptured my Achilles. He had told me that I was in danger of injuring my ankle or shoulder during the fall of 2009. He had told me that during this period in 2011, I was also subject to accidents, injuries, and unexpected expenses. What was I doing starting up El Capitan, on a route that was particularly fateful to me?
I wondered that while I toiled up the hanging ropes. I told myself it was pointless to attempt to avoid fate. I could only do my best to surf the waves of life that I was catching, and intend the best manifestation of what I needed to experience. If something was going to happen, there was a part of me that wanted to be on El Capitan doing what I loved, larger-than-life, rather than something mundane. Perhaps these were all rationalizations. I was too much of a guy to suddenly throw the towel in at this stage where all the fussing was finished and pure adventure lie ahead. Still, I wondered what may lay in store for me, now that I was committed to this big adventure.
I reached our High Point. Riley was trying to dry out our gear, which had got soaked. He started leading the next pitch while I finished the chores. We had once again reached the point where the logistics and hassles were finished, and pure climbing adventure lay ahead.
The day evolved, and soon it was getting late. I was immersed in leading my pitches. I had run two pitches together and the anchors at the end were only 25 feet away. An overhanging bolt ladder had led to a traverse across a ramp. I was already mentally planning how I would set up our nightly nest on the stone when I reached the next anchors. The pitch was in the bag. I placed a cam in a clean crack under a section of the ramp that seemed to be solidly attached to the Big Stone with all its massiveness.
When I tested the cam with some of my weight, my world changed in an instant. I recognized the sickening grating sound of a large stone rolling over granite pebbles and sand. Suddenly a refrigerator sized block of stone was coming loose in my lap, holy... !!! it reminded me of when Indiana Jones touches the wrong thing in an ancient tomb, and the booby-trap of some ancient Pharaoh rains tons of stones avalanching toward him. It was too close to see. I could feel the pain of the block hitting me as I could feel myself becoming weightless, plummeting backwards through space. I could feel attacks of pain and had time to wonder Just how bad was this going to be? Is the rope going to catch me? I knew that the full feeling of a trauma wouldn't be felt until the dust settled. Boing
! The rope did catch me after falling 25 or 30 feet. I was dangling in space.
Riley yelled up and asked if I was hurt. I didn't answer right away, I was still assessing how hurt I might be. I had a big bump on my head but I hadn't lost consciousness. I felt shell-shocked but lucid. My head wounds didn't seem to be bleeding profusely. My left arm was screaming with pain, the kind of pain that tells you something's wrong. I took a look at my arm, something WAS wrong. It's hard to see an invaluable part of your body distorted and abused. I had to accept that this adventure up the Captain, was no longer going up.
I flashed in my mind to the astrologer's prediction. So this was the hand I was being dealt. I was just going to have to play it. It could've been a lot worse.
I felt sorry for Riley, who had endured a lot to get this far. He was levelheaded and supportive. We were dancing with what was real, and couldn't be changed. I was grateful within myself that the accident wasn't the result of a mistake that I could have foreseen. It was a huge block, part of an old route that people climbed often. Why had it come out, after so many years, then and there? It was an act of God. It was going to be a pivotal scene in my drama of life. I was going to have to change my life to accommodate this new reality.
When we reviewed our options, we were relieved to realize that we could escape to the ground within the remaining daylight. This was welcome because drippings were wetting us again. Another climber had lines fixed to the top of pitch Four. I tried to keep my head cool. I lowered down to the pitch five anchors. Doing that I noticed that the rope had been almost severed by the falling stone. The sheath was cut completely all-around, and the core was damaged. I needed to get off that rope! I anchored into the pitch five bolts and pulled the rope back from its high point. Also on the tattered rope was the nylon sling of gear that had been cut completely in two by the fallen block.
I cleaned as much gear as possible as Riley lowered me back to the belay. As I was pulling myself over to the belay, I joked that I had hoped that having an emergency room nurse as a climbing partner wasn't going to pay off, but said I would take the blessing given the circumstances. We were finally together in one place, not insignificant since the route wanders and is overhanging. I showed my arm to Reilly. He said it was broken. I knew that, but hearing it pushed me to another level of acceptance. This was real. I was going to have to deal with a broken arm.
We quickly decided the plan was to rescue ourselves using the fixed lines and leave immediately. Within minutes, I started rappelling the overhanging fixed ropes to the ground, carefully juggling and fussing to pass my rappel device with one hand and mouth from one rope to another on the blank wall. I couldn't trust my left arm for the slightest help. I let the rope out slowly as I dangled 10 feet away from the wall spinning in space, inexorably returning to the boulders below.
There was no value in feeling sorry for ourselves. We were going to have some kind of experience, and we might as well make the best of it. We hiked back to the car by dark, and Riley started driving me to the level I Trauma Center in Fresno. Thank God I have a couple Vicodin in my first aid kit for times like that, because it would be after midnight before I saw a doctor. Riley was great sport about hanging out for the night and sleeping in the parking lot and his rig.
When other people got hurt climbing in the past, I always advised them to take the time made possible by the injury, and use it to do the things one ordinarily wouldn't. Now it's my time, to take my own advice. It's been good to hang out with my elderly parents as I recover from surgery. I learned dictation software so that I didn't have to type this trip report with one hand. I'm also planning on more writing, composing electronic music with software that I finally have time to learn. A number of friends have showed great support in different ways. Clients have bookedd me for photography retreats, portrait sessions, backpacking trips, and some have purchased my landscape photography. I'm in the middle of this rite of passage, and yet I don't truly know what lies at the end of the tunnel. Change in the air for many of us.
I've noticed that we often get just as much epic and adventure as we secretly need, or want. I guess I'm happy that El Capitan sent me on an alternate path for the summer, instead of tripping over the toilet, drunk in the bathroom. Yosemite has always loved me, reflecting my love for it. Now it's a tough love. I embrace that because faith means embracing reality and making the best of opportunity. I know it's going work out, but I'm going to do my part to work it out.
To his great credit, Riley found a partner, and in his final vacation days, managed to complete an ascent of lurking fear on El Capitan. Success in wall climbing means never giving up, unless you just have to. This time, I just had to. I takes a lot of guts to gears up and be beat down over abd over and still persevere to the goal. Right on Riley!
I wish you all great success in your failures and triumphs alike.
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