Migrating south with a tribe of climbers from Canada during the fall of 2012, I arrived in Yosemite National Park, California with the single minded momentum of a freight train and the ecstatic enthusiasm of a puppy. The reality however was more like a bull in a China shop. The deepening sense of ‘Me’ as a climber, produced expectations of progress, assumptions of success, exhilarating adventures and the enjoyment of physical suffering in this pursuit.
I loved every moment of it but it came with a price. Relentless devotion to this deepened sense of individual identity sped up my mind like a spinning wheel and as seen below, filled me with changeable emotions and placed me in some less than desirable scenarios!
Would I take it back? No chance.
Note: This post is broken up in 3 chapters for the three weeks spent in the Valley to make it easier to digest. Enjoy!
The Valley, Yosemite National Park
Every climber knows this place. The birth of big wall climbing on these colossal hulks of granite and the scene of outstanding strength and technical mastery. This place is a chance to take a look into the mirror and chisel away at my ego to get a real glimpse of ‘where I’m at’. In other words, to get my arse kicked. Looking back over the past 3 weeks, my plans of ‘climbing epic routes’ have taken a beating and my body feels like it’s been run over by a dump truck. But you know what? I’m more psyched than ever before.
The first week: Hopeful
It always starts with the south west face of El Capitan. As you drive into the valley, the majestic titan towers over the entire place, keeping watch. You cannot help but feel microscopic as you picture yourself up that immense face. All 3,000ft of it. Soon, please can it be soon. Anyway, time to focus on the present. It’s getting dark. Damn, where we going to sleep tonight? My friends and I walk into the climbers campground known as Camp 4 and sure enough we gravitate towards some friends from the road in minutes. It was good to see the guys again.
Cracking open a fresh beer for the reunion, we trade stories and catch up as night envelopes the camp. The topic of sleep comes up just as the park rangers arrive. Anyone who has slept in Camp 4 knows the right of passage most of us have to endure to get a camping spot. It pretty much involves lying in the dirt, sleeping in front of the rangers kiosk from 5 a.m until they open up and assign available spots at 8:30 a.m. So.. what to do until then? They promptly give us the routine options of either paying for a night in the nearby hotel or to leave the park. We nod and say ‘Yessir‘ and melt into the nearby woods where we’re aided in finding ‘alternative accommodation’ for the night. What else do they expect?
That night I wake up in a friends tent with a fright as I feel something sniffing my face from the other side of the tent. A Raccoon! (I left an apple in my pillow / backpack). Delivering the apple back to a nearby bear box I re learn Lesson One, always have smelly stuff in the boxes or the critters will come for you. They are relentless, seriously, squirrels, bears, ravens, mice, raccoons, even bees! Defensive measures must be observed to ensure your next meal! After a sleepless night, I wake up at 5:30 a.m to join the queue and claim a legit camping spot.
By breakfast I’m all settled in, so the week commences with some climbing nearby. I fall off a lot, blame the slickness of the rock and get annoyed. The next day, my buddy Drew and I go to climb an easy classic called ‘The Central pillar of Frenzy’. At the base of the wall we discover with horror that three groups are already on the route, one of whom is lowering back down through the chaos of ropes due a breakdown of emotion. 200ft is not an easy place to scream and cry. Recoiling in disbelief we leave the battlefield a little disheartened but not deterred.
I’ll climb another route tomorrow with Lauren, it should be less crowded.
The next morning, we scramble to the base of the ‘Kor Beck’ route. Not surprised we find a party had arrived just before us. Ok lets wait a bit. A ‘bit’ it was indeed. They take pictures, enjoy the view…eat some food…hmm. My British politeness keeps us waiting a little longer.They start to climb but take an hour for the first section. It has seven. Gggrrrr. We head back to re think the day but I can’t think. It’s been 3 days and I haven’t climbed anything I wanted too. I’m frustrated. Lesson Number Two. Don’t get up early in peak season to climb the popular classics from the guidebook.
The following day, I climb by myself on an easy route in the sun with nobody else in sight. It was then, feeling nothing but the wind, the sound of my own breath and move after move of synchronicity between body and mind that I again felt love for this place. The mighty walls of the valley stood silently around beckoning those with courage. I wanted to be on those faces. To give myself fully and be part of the landscape. To draw energy from the earth and conquer the villain that is my ego and give an honest effort to see what i’ve got.
But how much of that can you give in such a moment, when your up there and it’s real? That’s all I want to know, as the climbs get longer, harder and higher.
By the end of the week, Lauren and I are hiking up an 800ft steep gully to reach the bottom of a tall peak called ‘Higher Cathedral’. The route is 12 pitches (rope lengths of 60m), another 900ft from our starting point. The first half flows by smoothly and it’s great to already be so high in the valley. We have a bite to eat and enjoy the view of Cathedral Spire piercing the blue sky opposite.
Ok, time to begin the second half. The meat of the route. 300ft of flared chimneys. Looks like fun!
The pitch is long and sustained. The trouble is with flared chimney’s is that it’s like a corridor of rock the width of your body (chimney), except it opens out like a V (flare), so you continuously have to use your knees to apply pressure on both sides of the wall whilst shimmying your torso and arms up the crack inside. Strenuous work. The initial flare, is steep for it’s declared grade of difficulty which makes me nervous as I surge and writhe my way out to the top. I’m relived to be able to breath again. Wow.
After 50 meters I bring Lauren up who has to carry the backpack. (The leader who goes first carries all the gear, the second the backpack with the supplies). It’s pretty brutal for her as she had to hang the backpack from her legs so she could fit inside the corridor of rock, adding weight. She’s knackered when she arrives and sits on the ledge in a heap to recover her strength. I am aware of the waning day and keen to keep moving so I opt to lead the next pitch, with all the gear and the bag. I think this is a good idea as I can handle the easier section with the added weight but in no time a torrent of salt water is spilling down my face. I thrutch my way up to the ledge, with the backpack defiantly snagging on every spike and cramming itself into every crack. Reaching the next ledge I collapse onto the ledge gasping for air, disappointed at my tactical error. Now I’m tired too.
The sun begins to set so we climb onward in the last rays of the sun. The climbing is fun and varied, a relief from the previous couple of hours but it’s hard to enjoy as I know we may summit in the dark and the descent is infamously hard to navigate. As we climb…just..one..more..body scrubbing chimney, we are now in full darkness and out of water.
This is where Part 2 of our adventure began.
Those chimneys were thirsty work, I’m parched. We stuff our gear into our backpacks and get going towards the summit. To our left we see a steep yawning gully leading downward into the abyss of the now complete darkness. Ok, lets avoid that. Skirting around, we spend the next hour navigating our way downwards following the cairns that previous climbers have left before us like check points. From time to time we go down too far and waist precious moisture by hiking back up the loose slope to the last point. Every deliberation on where we are going is affected by the need for water. My mouth…is so dry. It feels like hours since the last sip. I start to breath through my nose to save on moisture.
We go up and down and find nothing. We go further on the ridge but don’t see a trail. We’ve been up for what seems like hours and I can feel the rising tide of panic. I think about all the mountain heroes I’ve read about and know that we can be without water for 3 days but my discomfort does not subside. Despondent we sit to think. On one side of the ridge we can hear Bridalveil creek streaming at the bottom of the valley. At least 600ft to descend through unknown steep brush with the main problem being that it’s the wrong valley. We’re supposed to be going down the other side. We give up on trying to find our way through the midnight maze of cliffs that will lead us down the other side to ‘Our Valley’ and say “fuck it“.
Both of us charge downwards into the brush. Like moths to a flame we kamikaze hundreds of feet down through the ever thickening brush to the mesmerising sound of the creek. The slope begins to steepen and we are literally swimming down through sharp, scratching, archaic brush. We get closer and find a few small cliffs. We are hesitant but we’ve come so far. Hiking back up would be awful. So we skirt around and scramble down as careful as we can since we are far away from help. Once we’re down we turn around and see cascading water shimmering in our head lamps. Success! Oh the sweet nectar of water! With a sigh of relief, we give each other a tired smile and decided to build a fire for the night and wait for dawn.
Hours later after dozing and feeding the fire, light begins spill into the valley at last. We leave the warmth of the little circle and begin the slog back up the hill to the ridge. After a slow couple of hours we find the notch through the cliffs to the other side. Spitting distance away from our last checkpoint! Another hour and we are dragging our feet back into camp 4 and cracking a beer before sleep.
Week Two: The ‘Holiday’
With our climax of week one over I was tired. Maybe take some rest days. It’s the 24th of September anyway. This means I have a couple of days to meet up with my annual visitor. Dad. Since the beginning of my adventures in 2007, an opportunity to travel somewhere new, have some adventures of his own on ‘holiday’ (which never seem to be restful) and reconnect with his nomadic son has manifested itself into an awesome ritual. Previous trips include; ‘That circus of a road trip across the south of New Zealand’ in a small car packed with three surfers ( two friends), four back packs and three surfboards strapped to the roof, including rafting, surfing and bungee jumping as our holiday activities! The last few years have also seen hiking in the Rockies, -30 Canadian winters and a couple pitches of rock climbing. Baby steps right? Well, this year it’s the valley!
The day before I’m due to be at the airport to meet him, I luck out and find a ride to San Fran. I frantically arrive in time and dash to arrivals and race around like a whirling dervish in the packed terminal. I woke up in a campground this morning. This is intense. In the Chaos we meet, embrace and decide to ‘get the hell outta dodge’. We head straight for the rent-a-car and hit the freeway. Piles of printed maps for the city are thrust into my lap and it’s back like old times. “Look at the map and tell us where we’re going”. Flashbacks of many road trips in France with a huge mapped sprawled across the dashboard lights up memory lane. No problem. A few hours pass, with a few U turns which my tired father did not appreciate and we’re finally returning to the valley, with a sigh of relief.
The week that ensued was a time I’ll remember fondly, even though we had our ‘moments’ as one with any family can expect! The most rewarding thing was being able to bring him into the family of climbers that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and travelling with. No work, no politics, no bullshit. Just genuine people with the same passion for adventure. A nice way for Dad to meet others like me!
It makes me so happy for family to see and feel what I cherish so much. I must admit though, I was so absorbed in my journey, i didn’t ready myself for a bit of compromise and a different pace. It took time to adjust as I’d been making my own decisions for the past 4 months but this is no excuse for stressing. I noticed that this life does come with a lot of selfish actions. Only spending money that is essential, getting as much ‘free stuff’ as possible and planning everything around your passion is a topic for much hilarity but at the heart of it, you don’t think much about compromise. For this I must apologise, I owe you everything for making this journey possible, without your help I would be light years away from now. I loved your company Dad (and all the dinners, and showers and comfy beds…but seriously, you know it). What a trip!
Week three: Enough is Enough
With my tent set up again in camp 4, I say farewell to Dad as he drives back towards the airport. Having not climbed during that week, I feel as though I’m rested a little. My buddy Drew suggests climbing ‘The Rostrum’. I couldn’t resist trying such a hard classic. Before long, we’re looking up the impressive face of immaculate cracks from the base. I’m first to lead the warm up pitch. Brimming with nervous and excited energy I go up and up until I can’t feel my arms anymore, my foot slips and I fall down the face a few meters until Drew catches me. My anxiety heightens as I’ve fallen on the easiest pitch! I belay Drew up who informs me that I should have gone left to the ledge instead of taking the harder variation. Ah ha.
The next couple of rope lengths turn out to be fantastic. Perfect steep rock. Beautiful! At top of the third pitch we bail and come back when we are more confident however. Well, when I’m more confident. The right decision despite being disheartened. Strike one.
Back at camp, I run into ‘Noodles’ back at camp and quickly talks me into doing the ‘Arches – North Dome link’. “Something like 23 pitches”. A big day where you link a 1400ft wall followed by a 700ft dome that sits on top of the first wall. Cool!A couple of days after, we reach the base of the first wall. Stumbling around some loose rock I drop our biggest water bottle which explodes and starts gushing. Damn! We chug the rapidly deleting water and hope for the best. With that we, start simul (moving at the same time) climbing the first ‘Arches’ section. (13 pitches)
4 hours later we on top and stop moving to rest. Great climbing, better keep moving before it gets too hot! We start hiking up through the forest in search of the Dome. The hard section. We have to circumnavigate the formation by walking across a big slab in order to start the climb on the backside. Traversing, traversing, traversing. We start to get hot as the massive yellow dot in the blue canvas above shoots down on us like a laser beam. I take off my jeans and have flashbacks of the thirsty epic the week before. An hour later we still haven’t found the base of the next route. We have been hiking an hour now and things don’t make sense, especially when I inform Noodles that my jeans fell off my bag with my camera inside. Fuck sake. Hiking back down the slabs in the melting sun, we find them and start the hike back up. 30 minutes go by and we are finished. The flame had officially died. Deciding to bail we walk towards the descent gully that’s used to reach the valley bottom. Urrgghhh. We discover too late the start of the route which is now obvious to us when seen from the way down. This makes the sting even more painful. After hours of slipping an sliding down loose marbles of rock in my crap shoes we are down and out. Strike two.
The next day, Drew and Lauren ask if I want a ride to Indian Creek, Utah. (The temple of crack climbing). At this stage I’m ready to run with my tail in between my bruised legs. We decide to do one more climb before we leave. Again I wake at 6 am to do a fun classic, the ‘East Buttress of Middle Cathedral’. After another hour a walking from camp 4 we reach the base of the route to find 3 parties clustered around the base! Strike three. I sink down onto a boulder and accept that’s its over for me in the valley. I can’t help but be upset from my perceived failures. After an age I get out of my head and take one last look at El Cap as the sun rises and paints a veil of rose across the headwall. (Featured Image). With such beauty, the pain dissolves for a while.
We head back, pack up and leave for Utah. Gotta keep on keepin’ on as they say!