|Kevin called me and told me his dream was to climb the NW face of Half Dome someday. I suggested we practice some aid and start with El Capitan instead. I figured the spring at the base was dry and that humping all that gear and water to Half Dome would be the death of me, if not him.
We did a day of aid practice where Kevin led a few pitches and I was amazed at the way he didn't hesitate or fuss over each placement like most aid beginners. He actually had pretty reasonable speed on easier aid from the beginning. Many climbers expect their experience to translate into aid competence with little practice, but find they are much slower than they anticipated. Maybe his speed came from his martial arts background where one doesn't worry about getting banged around. I nicknamed him Nappy which was part acronym for Not a Pansy (or something like that)
I knew by now that Nappy could get up the Captain. I figured we might as well spend the second practice day humping the climbing gear to Zodiac and fixing a few pitches. We would only have to carry the gear one-way and that gave us an extra day in case we went slowly. I knew the first pitch is one of the tougher pitches so I talked Kevin into going back and carrying a load of water up while I soloed pitch one. I got the rack organized and by the time was 25 feet from the anchors he was back with water.
The last section to the anchor is tricky and traversing. I back-cleaned a hybrid alien and an inverted cam hook so it would be easier to clean. I was hanging on a blue alien under the roof and could almost touch the anchor chains. If I could fiddle myself a bit closer I could grab the anchors and be safe! I was nervously shifting to go for the chains when suddenly .
Bing! I was weightless, flying down the vertical face. After realizing I was falling, I felt my toe contact the wall and suddenly my ankle was in a world of intense pain. An aura of pain vividly surpassed the usual bangs and scrapes of most climbing falls. When you're falling, suddenly you can think at hyper-speed. I had time to suspect that I'd really injured myself by the time the rope caught me gently 10 feet further down the face.
I hung there waiting for the intensity to settle down so I could consider my options and assess my injury. Everything had changed. Perhaps our climb was already over. How the heck would I even get down the rocky trail to the car? Was my ankle broken?
After a few minutes, I was convinced my ankle wasn't broken and that the quickest way to deal with the immediate situation was to just finish climbing the pitch. I'm never in the mood to abandon a whole pitch of gear rappelling off a fixed pin when I'm not sure of when, or if, I'll return. I ascended back up the rope, didn't back-clean the protection this time, added more sketchy gear, and the pitch was done.
Hmmm, that wasn't so bad. I could manage on my injured leg if I didn't weight the balls of my feet or toes. Kevin cleaned the pitch and I figured it could only help if I stayed hanging with weight off my foot while he led pitch two. Nappy did a nice job on it! Ironically, the easier section scared the crap out of him, while he cruised the thin and tricky harder aid to the anchor. Ignorance is bliss when you have confidence in marginal gear. I cleaned horizontal section of the pitch with my bad leg in good speed by hanging on the haul rope while lowering myself out to clean the gear.
I had taken a similar fall early on the Prow of Washington Column some years back. I could hardly walk but I could aid climb. That time, by the time we got to the top a few days later, my foot was healed enough to hike down. This seemed like a trick I could pull off again. I didn't want Kevin's rare vacation time to go to waste; I like the right challenge; and I don't like to be the one bailing off a wall.
To keep our options open, Kevin and I fixed our gear and rope on top of pitch 2 and rappelled off. I hobbled down to the car with the help of a makeshift walking stick. It was sort of manageable until I stepped the wrong way and my ankle pain would redline and I'd have to collapse for a minute. It was the sort of pain that go so intense, it almost felt pleasurable after it subsided. Kevin assured me it was my body releasing dopamine and other brain chemicals in response. It got dark on the descent and was getting late when we got back to Wawona.
We decided to make final call in the morning. The ankle felt a bit better and, given my past experience, I just knew in my gut that I could do this climb, basically, with one foot. Nappy was onboard with us making informed decision to do something stupid. He was fearless after all. We drove to the bridge, hired a monkey brother to help with the remaining load, and blasted up the climb.
It's never as simple as you hope. My ankle only had one excruciating moment on my gimpy hike to the base where we found climbing ranger Max and Sar guy Jacob working up pitch one. A soloist, Mike, had ascended his fixed ropes and was working on pitch 3. There was no way we wouldn't be getting in each other's way but everyone was cool, everyone wanted a win-win situation, and that's the way we worked it out. Everybody compromised a bit.
The NPS bros fixed a couple pitches.
Soloist Mike, a 58 year old guy with good vibes, spent the night on pitch 3 anchors in a portaledge he designed himself that set up in seconds. He was on a mission to be the oldest guy to solo El Cap as he was losing his wife to Alzheimer's. A film crew was going to watch his progress from the meadow. Mike had been struggling a bit with technical setbacks and would wind up bailing after leading pitch 4 the following day. He felt things were just taking too long. The decision saved him a major epic later as we will see.
So far, so good. It wasn't so bad being on the wall with my foot. Even though it felt injured, wall climbing hurts enough that other pains, like just hanging in my harness, just blended in to generic painfulness. I just had to follow a couple hard and firm rules. Zero freeclimbing, and no weight on my right foot except standing in my aid ladders. Pain reminded me faithfully when I fudged on either rule. Nappy had 2 legs so we were in an effective 3 legged race up El Cap. Just one more problem, one of my rope ascenders was missing in action so now I was climbing El Cap with one ascender and one foot. I had to make due.
Kevin led pitch 5 pretty quickly and I got to belay chilled on the portaledge. He was fast enough that I sent him up pitch 6 too! I had been a bit apprehensive about the next section, the dreaded black tower pitch since if the marginal gear above said tower were to fail, the leader hits the tower instead of happily bouncing on the rope like a bungee jumper. I wrecked our clean ascent by using a tiny hammered piton. I decided to be nice and use my cabled rurp and left it fixed. I had led it without using a hammer in 2002 but key gear was missing this time. Still, I was very grateful not to fall and hit that black tower with my bad ankle although it was getting dark by the time I reached out bivouc ledge for the night. No worries, Nappy wasn't afraid of cleaning the gear in the dark by headlamp. It always seemed we finished our days in the night.
The rest of the climb was mine to lead, due to time concerns and more technical climbing. I had to use the hammer again on Pitch 9 started to deploy the cheater stick (using avoiding the hammer/ bad ankle/short days as excuses) We didn't have a vast supply of aliens and offsets this time so I bucked up and led the tricky Nipple pitch by leapfrogging cam hooks and backcleaning aliens. SCARY!@!@ This time Kevin got to fool with the trick of hanging on the haul line to cleaning the horizontal section.
By the time we got to the top of the Zorro Roof pitch, I was totally seduced by the promise of a great bivy just to the right of the end of the next pitch. It looked like a hassle to set up the ledge on the blank wall and squeeze in with Kevin again when some comfy ledge beckoned just above. Who cared that it was getting dark? It was only 6 pm or so.
I got this sudden feeling of discouragement when gear blew when I was 20 feet above the anchor and, even though Kevin had been giving me a tight belay, I sailed all the way back to the anchor! Fortunately I didn't hit anything but we lost time. Sigh. I still didn't like the idea of the blank wall bivy so I went back and led the pitch in increasing darkness. It was pitch black when I got near the top and I could see the sweet ledge off right but it looked sketchy to climb to!... unprotected freeclimbing or hooking. *&%^! There was a fixed sling on a piece that I thought would help me swing over there, or at least protect the beginning of the traverse, but nooo I tested the fixed piece and it blew! (a copperhead) Ok Ok, enough is enough. I hated to do the smart thing but it was too much risk for me with my bad leg in the dark. I rapped off a couple bolts back to the anchors and tired, we set up our hanging bivy in the dark with our tails between our legs.
Somehow it took us a long time to get as far as peanut ledge the next day. I needed a break and a good ledge to crash on. It seemed like we had plenty of time until I checked the weather for the first time on my cell phone. When we started, there wasn't a blemish on the long-term forecast. The weather had be perfect the whole time
Oh $#@* change of plans! The forecast was NPS speak for Major Whuppass storm coming in tomorrow night. Get off your climb or be spanked hard! Actually the recording actually did advise climbers to get off their climb, something that I had never heard on an NPS recording in decades of living in the park. To make matters worse, my ankle had hardly improved and carrying a pack down the East ledges descent was out of the question.
Memories... I had been spanked HARD by a storm on Peanut Ledge on Zodiac in 1982 when soloing the route. People got rescued all over El Cap and Half Dome. I froze my butt off! It was a world of pain that I didn't wish to repeat.
In the morning, we joined forces with the team behind us (Sar bro Jacob and his new partner Neil). Jacob had a janky ankle as well. We called friends who called friends and arranged for some monkeys to meet us on top to help with haul bags we couldn't manage ourselves. It was suddenly cold and windy and clouds were floating by close by. Brrr. We wasted no time coordinating getting all our donkeys off the stone. Jacob was particularly speedy leading the last two pitches to the top.
Thanks to Mr. Moosie and Eric Sloan for getting Ivo and Big Fall James to rescue our gear from the top. They lifted our giant haul bags as if they were paper sacks while I limped down with a makeshift cane, lagging behind even with no load. My ankle hadn't got better and after the first mistake in footing, got even worse.
But hey, we got our meat down to the car by our own power and the climb was all the challenge either of us bargained for. Kevin got off to wife and work the next day and I cleaned up the mass of gear that devastated my household order for the past 10 days. By the time the muscle soreness and wall pain subsided, my leg pain hadn't. I found out about a simple test for Achilles rupture and promptly failed it. @#$%# I'm finishing this trip report the day after surgery for total rupture of the Achilles tendon. My foot is up in the air and I'll be in a cast for 6-8 weeks, plus many more weeks in a walking boot in progressive steps to normal.
When I soloed Zodiac in 82, it was at a pivotal point in my life. I left Yosemite and completed my education at UC Berkeley. This climb, with it's one legged handicap, seemed like a pivotal moment as well. To what? The path reveals itself one gimpy step at a time. I'm grateful that there's a good chance I'll have a good shot of climbing again by Spring. In the meantime, I'm disabled from doing anything physical so I'm having a killer sale on framed landscape images, matted prints, and also a major yard sale of gear, musical instruments and stuff. I'll post up a link soon
keep a dirtbag dirty!
|Blue x's mark the Bivies|
|Kevin Cleans Pitch One|
|Photo Tom Evans minutes before I fell|
|Bad Achilles JuJu on Day 3|
|Kevin Leads Pitch Two|
|Rapping after Fixing to Pitch 2|
|Mike Leading Pitch 4|
|Kevin on Pitch 5 by Tom Evans|
|Kevin Leading Pitch 5|
|Kevin on Portaledge above Pitch 7||Kevin Belays Nipple Pitch|
|Kevin Belays Nipple Pitch||Kevin Cleans Nipple Pitch by Tom Evans|
|Looking back at the Belay we didn't want to camp at||Kevin breaking down the ledge in the morning|
|Neil, Jacob and Baba||Neil Cleaning as the Storm comes in|
|Baba Racked up to Lead||Baba as the Storm Comes in|
|Sorting Gear for the Climb|
|Jugging on Zodiac Solo 1982|