The Western United States is a developed land, yet it is also very wild. Especially when you hail from the Midwest as we did, where there is very little wild land. Mountains and rocks had only been in my life for a couple years; a new medium to which I was painting on, attempting to become an artist at living, which is what a dirtbag is at her or his best.
by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Climbing Zine (This piece is an excerpt from an unpublished book project.)
There we were, further west than we’d ever been, driving into the Yosemite Valley for the first time. The drive is about 16 hours from Gunnison, 20 if Tioga Pass isn’t open, or you make a wrong turn. We must have slept on the highway that night, or maybe Tim just kept driving, he could always put in some incredible hours behind the wheel. Either way, we rolled in just as the sun was coming up, a new day, a new chapter starting, and then there was the presence of El Capitan, impossible to ignore, and I knew I was a long way from home.
El Capitan soars so high it takes the brain some moments to figure out what it is seeing. But there was no mistaking that it was El Cap. Three thousand feet of rock, golden granite, just sitting there beaming in the early morning light. Though I know I felt fear just being in its presence there was something special, something spiritual, to be there in that moment.
I was in a daze, and probably had that dumb expression that tourists do when they first see El Cap. They stop their cars, sometimes in the middle of the road, and just start staring at it, dumb founded. Immediately they become hazards to the busy traffic, but they don’t care. They just have to stare at El Cap. They don’t know why.
Tim, on the other hand had the look of a climber in his eyes. An intense focus rose to the surface of his being, and I could sense it. His eyes were wide open, and ready for whatever Yosemite could throw our way. He immediately wanted to experience the walls. There would be no delay. He wanted to select a route, and start climbing.
Tim had arrived, and was ready for whatever Yosemite could throw at him. I simply wanted to survive. In the last year since he’d moved to Colorado he’d progressed so quickly that there had to be some metaphysical reasons; something beyond him that explained why he was so comfortable on the rock. He’d mastered all the basics so quickly, that he could float any 5.10 out there. My duty in these situations was so try to advise Tim to keep safe, to suggest putting more gear in when he was running it out. He was always so zoned in, on the rock that sometimes he’d feel so secure on the holds, and in the jams that he would simply forget to place gear. When I climbed I placed as much gear as possible, sometimes too much, and I’m sure he would get frustrated with my slow progress when he could get up the climb much faster. But we were a team united by circumstance and friendship, and he was stuck with me.
At the start of the trip Tim would suggest a big climb, and I would come up with excuses why I wasn’t ready, and suggest something less difficult. This happened over and over again and at one point Tim got frustrated and blurted out that he would maybe find another partner. But that was just his eagerness to leap into the vertical world of Yosemite and experience its vibration and beauty. Eventually we had a list of classics we would do, and each day we’d line up at the base of one of them and embark upwards.
After success on a couple classics like Nutcracker and the Central Pillar of Frenzy I crossed that threshold of being held by fear right over into obsession. Yosemite was paradise. Everywhere were seemingly perfect walls that soared into the heavens. I pondered staying, forever. The grassy meadows were beautiful too, as was the lazy, wide Merced River. Tim and I had found some satisfaction climbing together, and though I’m sure he wanted to try harder climbs he seemed content. Soon the end of our week there was coming to an end, so we picked a big rock to climb, Half Dome.
I built up nervousness about Half Dome, like I’d always do with a long route. My mind always played tricks on my in the beginning. Maybe it’s a natural thing to do, while deep in our ancestry we may have been climbing, tree dwelling species, climbing big vertical rocks is entirely new for human beings.
While El Cap sits right there in the heart of Yosemite Valley, close enough that just about anyone could walk up and touch it, Half Dome sits seven miles away from the Valley, close enough to see, but takes an effort to get to. It has a sheer two thousand foot vertical face that lies in the shade for most of the day. A golden face with hints of orange and shades of grey. It stands proudly, suggesting an adventure, close to the Valley, yet far away. We were intrigued.
Snake Dike was our objective, a slab of rock running up the southwest face of Half Dome, skirting the vertical face that stands out from the Valley, but still leading one to the summit; fourteen miles of hiking round trip, with a thousand plus feet of slab climbing.
The way to do this climb is to bust it out in one big day. Get up early, make a light rack, and get er done. We didn’t know this, so we decided to hike up the night before, and camp out close to the base of the route, then climb the route the following day. I was all sorts of nervous because Snake Dike supposedly had long runouts without gear. We hiked up the winding trail, and found a place to camp near the base of the route. Soon we heard the clinking of climbing gear and the chatter of other people. It was a family of five, a Dad and four kids, ranging from five to thirteen. They’d just climbed the route, and had left some gear at the base that they needed to retrieve. In that moment I realized the ridiculousness of my fears, if a six year old could get up the climb, I probably could too.
That night was one of the most memorable of my life up to that point. We knew we couldn’t bring a full camping setup, it would be too heavy, so we went light. As the night approached I crawled into my sleeping bag, and looked over to Tim, expecting him to do the same. He decided not to bring a sleeping back and just stoically looked back at me. There we were, two best friends sleeping on a rock together. We shared a can of beans, the only food we brought for dinner. Then it was silent. We fantasized about food, and up until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever appreciated food like that. It was always just there. And now it wasn’t. We made a deal that when we got back to Gunnison we would make a trade from the two places we worked at. We were both dishwashers at neighboring restaurants. Under the stars we talked about food some more and then silently drifted off, me into a somewhat restless, but sheltered sleep, and Tim into his own world of sleeping on a rock, with little protection from the elements other than a hat, a pair of pants, and a fleece. He didn’t complain one bit. Cold ground was our bed that night and rock our pillow, another world within our world opened up.
We started with the sun, and found our way to the beginning of Snake Dike, named after a dyke formation that the climb leads into. With the presence of the family that had climbed the route the day before my fear had calmed down, but then came back as we were roping up at the base. Climbing offers excellent opportunities to deal with fear, you must face it, or back off.
The start was pure slab climbing, which involves delicate dancing on the rock, mostly staying on the tips of your feet, as you move across the stone. Tim led the first traversing pitch, and then it was my turn. I started off, my fear right there with me, following each step, reminding me what I was doing. I would always get more nervous the more air was beneath me, the more I was above a bolt or a piece of protection. This is where fear must be managed, you must remain in the moment, and delicately balance on the rock. I had a moment where I was frozen, scared to make any movement, but worked through it. I didn’t want to become a statue on the rock, and I wanted to end this trip on a good note. Once I reached that second belay, we were at the start of the really easy climbing up the dyke. The holds running up the dyke were the size of mailboxes. You would have to try to fall off of them. We ran up those dykes, and it was impossible to fall. It was a joyous feeling really, and they went on for hundreds of feet. At the top of Half Dome I thought maybe I was born to climb after all.
There’s a unique interaction when one is out of the vertical and into a place that tourists inhabit. Half Dome is climbed up the backside by thousands every year, and we immediately left the solitude of climbing and into a scene with lot of people who’d just hiked to the top. When you have a rope and climbing gear you’re suddenly like an animal in a zoo or something, but an animal that can be asked questions. They are all the same.
“How did ya’ll get the rope up there?
“Now are the bolts placed in the rock or do you have to place them as you go?”
“What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom?”
I always do my best to politely answer these questions, but then there comes a time when you get sick of it, and then you just want to get out of there.
Getting off of Half Dome is a trip, because the descent goes down The Cables, a series of pipes driven into the rock long ago, the route that the hikers go up and then down. It’s third class, mostly low angle, but steep enough that the average person needs some assistance to get up, and most people appreciate them getting down. Draped in climbing gear, tourists kept asking us questions, “did you climb the big face?”
I wanted to answer yes, but, no we just climbed the slab around the corner of it. And then there were the freakouts. Someone would get out of their comfort zone and lose it. A woman yelled at her husband, “You didn’t tell me about this Bob. I want to go down….”
Once one person gets scared, the fear builds and more people get scared. We just wanted off this damn thing. Once off the cables, its seven miles down, past a marching parade of hikers at their limits, fatigued, dehydrated souls, determined to get to the top of Half Dome. This scene is played out season after season in the crowded wild land that is Yosemite.
When it was time to leave Yosemite I couldn’t have been happier. I was pushed to my limit with hiking and climbing, and hadn’t got much sleep over the course of that week. When we got back to the Valley floor and packed up the purple truck for the journey back to Colorado a rush of relief washed over me. Fears were faced, and obstacles were overcome. We drove out of there on a high, past El Capitan, and out into the highways of the west, back home.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.