“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
I grew up in the traditions of western science and puritan pragmatism. Success is earned through work, luck is the sum of preparation, a penny saved is a penny earned. Claims that the universe provides if we ask, attributing benevolence to the cosmos, the nebulous idea of oneness, all this neatly fell under the new-age label. Experiences in my journey as a climber are forcing me to challenge that paradigm.
by Drew Thayer, Senior Contributor
This piece is published in the new Climbing Zine Book, now available.
Waking up in Camp 4 in Yosemite the morning after climbing and descending Half Dome, I pulled on slippers and a puffy jacket, staggered to my bear box, and huddled in a lawn chair nursing a mug of coffee and a bowl of oats. Still exhausted from the Half Dome mission, I was aware of basic sensations, my chilly hands welcomed the warm mug, my back was a sore slab of meat, my thighs throbbed from my knees to my groin, tenderized by the five thousand feet of vertical ascent and descent the previous day. I stared blankly at a squirrel sniffing at the lid of my food box that I’d failed to properly shut.
The sonic soup of Camp 4 bubbled all around: the hiss of propane burners, the clink of aluminum, garbled voices in English, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, German, the drone of motorcycles, dumpsters slamming, and garbage trucks backing up. In the middle of it I soaked and took stock. I had accomplished a few goals. I was tired and I didn’t have any partners or any real plans. The prospect of another week in Camp 4 spent hovering like a raven around campsites and the message board scavenging for partners didn’t seem very enticing. Maybe it was time to move on; after all, I had food, wheels, and some cash still. I could pack up today and leave for the solace of the road.
But in my gut I knew I wasn’t quite done. There were things I came here to do, goals built upon four years of dreaming.
In the midst of these thoughts my compadre Jim wandered over with a cup of coffee, wondering how Half Dome went. Before I could respond, we were joined by a European looking man, who I vaguely recognized. He greeted us in familiarity, but I could not recall his name or where we’d even met him. As conversation unfolded I started connecting the dots, a brief exchange in the parking lot, talking beta on Half Dome and The Nose on El Capitan. Standard fare. A question shattered my thought bubble, thickly accented, vaguely German, “And you, what are your goals?”
“The Nose in a day or Astroman,” I heard myself say.
Anton (ah! that was his name) introduced himself. His partner had just returned to Sweden, and he had another week or so in the Valley. Anton was entertaining the same goals that I was. Soon we had topos out, discussing beta and tactics. “Have you short-fixed before? Me neither. A Dolt Tower run would be a good idea, to see how we work together.”
Unfortunately the sky promised rain the next day and regardless I was too sore to walk further than the bathroom. We agreed to rest and maybe do a little free climbing together tomorrow, weather permitting. A clever idea flashed in my mind. I asked Anton if he had climbed The Moratorium? It’s a fun 3-pitch crack climb, not committing. I had a score to settle with that route and had been trying in vain to rustle up a partner for two weeks.
The next day, despite tender legs and a sporadic drizzle, Anton and I climbed The Moratorium. I felt solid, psyched to finally send the crux, until I got to the glassy corner and found the key fingerlocks seeping wet. I understand some people can crank through it in this state but I’m not that strong.
Getting on the rock with Anton was promising. He is a strong crack climber, and we grooved well together. A taste of hard free climbing excited something within both of us too. Hiking down in the drizzle we agreed that after much time monkeying around on big walls what we really wanted was some good pure free climbing, so we tucked The Nose onto the back shelf and began to focus on preparing for Astroman.
I still harbored doubt that I could climb Astroman, but I committed to taking the preliminary steps. My friend Chris Barlow, who regularly sends 5.13, warned me, “Before you even think of climbing Astroman, you need to crush the Rostrum. I mean top out and want more.”
Returning to the Rostrum would be a logical step; besides, it was unfinished business. Anton had also climbed it once and fallen several times, so we quickly agreed to rest a day and return for a redpoint attempt.
The Rostrum, North Face
It was one of those days that remind me what a whimsical gift it is to be a living breathing human being in this wild world of cliffs and trees and sky. Once off the ground we hit a rhythm and flowed through the route’s demanding features: the delicate second pitch step-over, the sustained corners and the powerful finger crack crux. Soon I was racking up beneath the off-width that had shut me down so hard several weeks before, and neither of us had fallen yet. I knew if I could send this pitch we’d have it in the bag; in the midst of the wide gash I was firing hard to stay in, and I simply refused to fall. Perhaps it helped that Rob Pizem, a prolific desert crackman, and author of many inspiring routes, just happened to be in the party ahead of us and cheered me on from above as I cranked heel-toes and arm-bars up the off-width.
Reaching the anchor, only two steep pitches remained. Anton, following, also sent the off-width pitch, earning him massive bragging rights over his Swedish cohort at Camp 4. I blasted up into last headwall pitch riding a cresting wave of confidence. I wish everyone on earth could share that experience. Cranking up overhanging fingerlocks and hand jams with eight hundred feet of air whistling beneath my legs, the cliffs saturated in the crimson glow of the setting sun. There was no question of falling. I was a creature that moved upward.
As dusk fell Anton led the final off-width and I followed him to the summit, where we high-fived after a quality ascent and were surprised to find that we weren’t spent at all, in fact, we were jonesing for more. Basking in the elation of our team send, I remembered Chris’ words and a shiver trickled up my spine; we were ready for Astroman. I gazed at the darkening horizon, mountains fading into obscurity beyond, unknown.
I tend toward the analytical approach in my climbing, but while analysis is productive during rest and preparation, it becomes an obstacle during the flow of movement. Preparing for Astroman, I accepted two things: that I had the physical ability to climb it flawlessly, and that if I let my mind drift into its usual pitfalls, hesitation, focusing on fear and seeking comfort, I would fall. I knew that regardless of the confidence of preparation and the doubt of intimidation, once on the rock I had to let go of both fear and expectations and let my body flow. We decided to break the climb into blocks favoring our respective strengths. As the Western crack climber, I would lead the Enduro Corner, the Harding Slot, and the fist crack high on the route. Anton, representing European face climbing prowess, would lead the Changing Corners and the final infamous runout pitch. Thus, prepared, there was nothing to do but begin.
Looking back across innumerable days past, the day Anton and I climbed Astroman stands out like a single shaft of sunlight in a forest. From the moment we left the ground we moved upwards with purpose and belief. The climb unfolded before us, offering exquisite cracks around every turn. The climbing was consistently hard, but manageable and intriguing, right at the cusp of the comfort zone. I thrive in this mental space of calm focus, but I’d heard enough harrowing accounts of this climb to expect it to last; in the Harding Slot, I took the plunge past comfort into the realm of real fear.
The Harding Slot is guarded by a relentless lieback crack capped by an overhanging flare which offers few holds and little purchase beyond the slick walls themselves. After whipping out of this fearsome feature and dangling breathless on the rope, on my second shot I managed to jam, flail, and desperately thrutch my torso into the flare, where I squirmed up the narrowing squeeze chimney until I got stuck.
I couldn’t gain an inch of ground, despite exhausting myself in the effort. I couldn’t even turn my head, but in my peripheral vision I could just make out the rope dangling freely from my harness toward my last gear, dozens of feet below. I knew enough to recognize that I couldn’t retreat, there was no other option, I had to free climb out of this thing.
I hit a point of hopelessness. It was so damn hard. I was straining every muscle and couldn’t gain an inch, or I’d gain one and slide back down toward the light below and a fall that I could not hope to sustain un-injured. I felt like I was at the brink of despair. I moaned in desperation, I bellowed in rage, the Slot didn’t care. Its iron indifference to my anguish was terrifying. The cold granite, slick with my condensing breath, felt like a tomb. My pulse throbbed in futility against the walls and my raw shoulders stung and after so much useless thrutching, I finally accepted that I could not do this on my own.
Stuck in the Slot, I rested and surrendered my ego, my will to conquer. I surrendered to the crack. “You win. I am weak. Compared to my flailing life the stone is eternal. I am a small blink in its memory, but I burn with the heat of blood and breath.”
On his solitary ramblings, John Muir recognized that as grand as they are, the mighty stones here yield to an even more constant force, the river Merced, the river of mercy. Sweating and breathing in the dark cage of the Slot, I asked for mercy from the spirit of the place, “I am weak. May I pass?”
Through my narrow view of the sunlit world I watched two ravens drift past on some invisible thermal, imperturbable. I surrendered to the spirit of the valley and started moving upward in half-inch bursts. Where before I could not move with all my effort, I could now make progress. Somehow I recognized that it was not my strength I was using. Obviously it took energy, the conversion of glycogen to ATP in coordinated contractions of muscle fibers in my legs and back and arms and chest, but it was not my strength. The movement flowed through me, from the valley to the sky, like a wave that I was suddenly shown how to ride.
I repeated my request as a mantra, “valley of mercy, have mercy on me,” when I stopped moving to rest I spoke this and kept moving. In half-inch increments, whispering this prayer, I gained two inches, then six inches, a foot, two feet, until the Slot widened and I could get a chicken-wing, move my limbs, and surge upward into sunshine. I’d relaxed my iron grip on ego and let something bigger move through me. I became a vessel. I was allowed passage.
Somewhere in those eleven hundred feet of steep cracks I encountered each dimension of my raw self: stamina, fear, joy, love, rage, despair, and hope. At the end of the day, Anton styled the final pitch, boldly pushing through the runouts, and we stood on the summit of Washington Column watching the sun set over El Capitan. We free climbed Astroman. Content, we watched the light fade over the valley, savoring the last sips of our water before beginning the descent.
The Nose in a Day (NIAD)
The next morning I rolled out of my tent, stretched, and felt the leaden soreness of my back and limbs. I surveyed the daily Camp 4 hustle and let loose a thick, contented yawn; I was done. I had now accomplished everything I came here to do. I ambled over to the Swedish camp with a mug of coffee and joined Anton in cooking up a royal breakfast, entertaining the Swedes with harrowing tales of Astroman and basking in the revelry of our ascent. I began to think of moving on. I had only four days left before visiting my family on the coast. I was sore and depleted from a week of hard climbing, and felt generally content about my Valley season. I half-heartedly organized my food box, tinkered with sorting gear, but something was nagging at my brain, preventing me from packing up.
I have never been successful at fooling myself. Passing a Big Walls guidebook lying on the picnic table I knew what was still missing: that elusive gem, The Nose in a day. When John Long, Billy Westbay, and Jim Bridwell first accomplished this goal in 1975, it rivaled the greatest climbing achievements of all time. Since then a NIAD ascent has become such a benchmark of big wall competence and stamina that it has become a well-recognized acronym (as if climbers needed to become more cultish and nerdy). The first dozen or so NIAD ascents were done by only the world’s elite crack climbers, but as gear, tactics, and general skill base has improved over the past 37 years, hundreds of recreational rock climbers have managed the feat.
Still, I did not seriously consider myself ranked amongst the NIAD class of climbers. It’s just so damn big! Staring up at El Cap from the meadow and thinking about ascending that vertical ocean of granite in just one day seemed ludicrous. After all, it had taken Jim and me three days to climb it before. Granted, we were hauling, we were both free climbing, yada yada, yada, despite all the things that made our ascent slow, I still couldn’t visualize climbing all that terrain in one day. The goal of NIAD hung just over the horizon of possibility, like a peak beyond the next ridge, something to admire, to daydream about, and make small preparations for a serious effort next year.
Once the seed of a wild objective takes root in the malleable tissues of my brain, nestled amongst Spanish verbs, constellations, trig equations, the location of my car keys, the minor pentatonic scale, mineral classifications, daily reminders to floss, it nudges for attention like the rest of its neighbors.
NIAD is big, but not in a realm completely beyond my experience. In the Black Canyon of the Gunnison I’d pulled off a handful of Grade V free climbs in the realm of two thousand feet, all within 12 hours or so. Those were big days, tiring for sure, but not unmanageable. For NIAD we would use speed tactics too, methods I had yet to learn, but I could put in some time learning to short fix, maybe make a few training runs up sections of the route, and build towards a one day ascent next season.
I resumed packing, contemplating a long-term training plan to gain the skills and stamina for a future NIAD, when my phone rang with Jim on the other line.
“Brother, you wanna go for Nose in a day?” he said.
I froze. Seriously, what was going on here? I gave him some noncommittal reply about resting a few days and strategizing.
“Naw, we gotta do it tomorrow,” Jim said convincingly. “I’ve gotta get to the Bay Area by Friday. Just rest real hard today, you’ll be fine. You down?”
I stared at the phone. I was sore and exhausted from the most arduous rock climb of my life the day before, not to mention four other strenuous climbs in the past week. My body needed rest, a couple days of lying in meadows and eating and full nights of sleep. I’d never short-fixed, just examined diagrams. I’d rope-soloed only once for a few bumbling hours. I didn’t even know if I could physically do that much climbing. This was ludicrous.
I have always held great respect for rock climbing’s pioneers. Today rock climbing is a mainstream sport. It can be completely safe. With Supertopo guidebooks, beta sprayed all over the internet, cams of all shapes and dimensions, cell phones, satellite communication, bolted anchors, etcetera, a party of intermediate climbers can control all the variables in a rock climb except for their own performance, effectively reducing the level of adventure to background noise. With prior knowledge, plentiful modern gizmos, communication, and escape plans, we can box an entire two thousand foot cliff conveniently into the comfort zone, scaling it in security before sunset and returning to the order of daily life. We’ve learned how to turn adventure into a workout, and while it fits well into a calendar, there’s something essential missing.
The climbing pioneers are set apart because they were willing to launch upward into chaos. They engaged in adventure, really coming face-to-face with fear of the unknown. The first generation of Yosemite Valley free climbers were teenagers and college dropouts, who were willing to risk injury and sometimes death to test the radical new idea that a human body could free climb these granite cracks. Layton Kor, Ed Webster, Earl Wiggins, Jimmy Dunn and crew spearheaded the era of “a rope, a rack, and a shirt on your back” in the Black Canyon, rewriting the rules that said you needed fixed ropes, ascenders, and several days to climb those formidable walls. These climbers all had their epics and close scrapes, but they had the courage to push forward into the unknown, again and again, just to see what’s up there.
The phone was still sitting in my hand, “Drew, you there?” Jim asked.
Would the pioneers have waited until their preparation, training, and strategy guaranteed success so completely that they had nothing to be afraid of? There had to be something to be said for just stepping out in faith. After all, human beings didn’t make it out of Africa because we followed the example of other apes at a safe distance.
“Aw hell, let’s go for it.”
“Nice, I knew you’d be good for it. Let’s meet this afternoon and talk strategy. Eat your bananas.”
I brewed another mug of coffee and sat heavily in my chair.
Our strategy was simple. We’d lead the same blocks we did before in order to be familiar with the terrain. We pared down the rack to essentials and gathered a handful of bars and gel packets, while debating the virtues of four versus five liters of water; neither would be enough but we couldn’t carry more. We scrutinized Hans Florine’s Speed Climbing! book, discussing where we could use each other as counterweights through the pendulums, a strategy that looked good on paper but we’d never practiced. After a brief discussion we decided to take just one rope; a second rope would allow us to bail from any point on the route, but we both knew we climbed better when committed. Would Jimmy Dunn bring a second rope? Hell no. That night our gear sat ready next to the tent, alarms were set for 3:00 in the morning, and I tried in vain to sleep. I haven’t been kept up at night before a rock climb since my days of cutting my teeth on multi-pitches in Colorado. The hulking mass of El Cap loomed over me in the stuffy tent, oppressing my thoughts. What the hell was I trying to do? Who was I to attempt such a massive goal? The image of us dangling from our single rope on the upper ramparts of The Nose at night, dehydrated, depleted, and helpless, plagued my mind until the alarm went off at three o’clock and it was time to shut up and pull on the man-pants.
There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of scrambling up to the base of a rock climb in the close silence of night, not knowing what the day will bring, but beginning it with a full head of steam anyway. The rhythm of short fixing and rope soloing is very enjoyable; we remained in constant motion for hours at a time. Somewhere about midday, as I climbed familiar terrain towards the base of the Great Roof, it dawned on me: we can do this.
A Russian team let us pass them on the Great Roof pitch and I hauled up Jim’s gear on my ladders, tied off the rope at the belay, then launched into free climbing up the Pancake Flake, intent on keeping momentum despite the full heat of the day. My second lead block continued through the Changing Corners; we had 4 strenuous pitches to go but my energy was wilting under the intensity of the sun. At a gear exchange I pulled up our backpack to snag a goo packet and a few gulps of much-needed water and continued up. After scrapping up a handcrack on what felt like my last reserve energy, I mantled onto the Camp 6 ledge dry, panting, and totally worked. I fixed the rope for Jim and was relieved to be forced to wait a few minutes for Sam and Will, the other party doing NIAD that day, to climb the Changing Corners. At four in the afternoon, huddled in a scrap of shade on Camp 6, is the most exhausted I have ever been on a rock climb. I had only one more lead in my block. You can always do one more. Jim jugged up onto the ledge, handed me a goo packet and started racking me up. Despite an overwhelming desire to lie down, once my fingers and toes were on the rock, my reptilian brain took command and I was leading again, flowing up the rock like this is all I knew how to do; I was a skeleton and a nervous system that ascended, I had no other identity, no past or future. After a sun-dazed blur of motion I clipped the anchors, fixed the rope for Jim, and collapsed in my harness.
Jim jugged up to the anchor and unleashed the energy he’d been saving for the last 11 pitches, firing up the strenuous 5.10+ lieback despite his fatigue and sending it clean. I relaxed into belaying and jugging mode as Jim took us up the remaining pitches through a glorious sunset and into the night. Jugging the final free-hanging pitch felt like the hardest thing in the world, but I pulled onto horizontal ground and stumbled up to the tree atop El Capitan in a tangle of rope at nine thirty, high fived Jim, Will, and Sam, and indulged in the amazing luxury of sitting down.
Despite little familiarity with speed techniques, fatigue from a week’s worth of climbing, and several major rope-cluster incidents, we climbed The Nose in 16:45, roughly what Long, Westbay, and Bridwell accomplished 37 years ago. We had done what I thought was impossible merely days before. After sharing the last Clif Bar, we shouldered the ropes and gear and began a three hour descent down slabs, thickets, and fixed ropes towards the cache of water, pretzels, yogurt, and malt liquor we’d deposited on the valley floor, on the other side of a long, long day.