Going It Alone by Vic Zeilman

Jun 25 • Dirtbagging • 6497 Views • No Comments on Going It Alone by Vic Zeilman

At some point in my early to midtwenties, I came to the conclusion that life is not about rock climbing. There’s just too much other crazy shit happening every day on this beautiful clump of space dust. The older I get, however, the more I realize that climbing is most certainly about life. At the risk of sounding overly philosophical about it all, for me, a demanding multi-pitch route feels like a microcosm of life itself (a concept that others have explored long before I ever brought it up). A lengthy alpine or big wall route is an encapsulated experience filled with an array of emotions, from joy to pain, and suffering to elation, which has the ability to bring to the forefront feelings that shape how I view the world well after the summit has been reached.

by Vic Zeilman, Senior Contributor. The full version of this piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10. 

We are all on some sort of path in life, and the future is ultimately unknown. And just like that greater path, the events of any given climb can never be foreseen until you’re right in the middle of it all. Committing can feel scary, and making decisions along the way can be stressful. Sometimes you have to put your trust in your partner or teammates to make it through some sort of impasse, and sometimes success or failure rides solely on your abilities alone. But either way, once you begin, it’s all action and reaction, cause and effect. Up or down, you keep moving, evaluate your options, weigh the risks, listen to your instincts, and in the end, you make the choices that will determine if and when you complete your objective.

Sometimes the obstacles are known, but oftentimes they’re not. Each pitch takes you to a different vantage point, and each rope length marks your progress, like months in a year, or years in a decade. Like many before me, rock climbing has provided valuable life lessons about setting goals, being prepared, adapting to adversity, and of course, all that cliché motivational poster stuff about teamwork—except the team is small, and the consequences can be huge. In climbing, as in life, sometimes things just don’t feel right. Pressures build, fear creeps in, motivation ebbs and flows, and there are difficulties at times for no apparent reason. It is often in these moments I feel the strongest urge to simply unplug, or at least turn down the volume, step away from the crowds, and go it alone for a while.

Everyone has their coping mechanism. For me, I have learned that solitude can be a powerful rejuvenator of the soul and a catalyst for truly appreciating the relationships that matter most in my life. As much as I enjoy the company of family and friends, there are times when I prefer individual pursuits—a lengthy trail run, a ski tour at dawn, even sitting behind the wheel on a long road trip—time to reflect on my existence in this world, and to let my own thoughts speak louder than the white noise that engulfs our culture.

Ranked highest amongst these individual pursuits is solo climbing. Not free soloing, but rather rope soloing. This is usually aid climbing, and if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, multiple days of it in a row. Slow, laborious, unnecessarily terrifying, completely exhausting, but surreal and meditative, like spending a weekend getting your ass kicked in a Buddhist monastery. I have joked with friends over the years that aid climbing is only good for three things: climbing El Capitan, summiting obscure desert towers, and going on vertical camping trips by yourself.

Let’s face it; aid climbing is a dying concept these days. When I was first introduced to rock climbing, being a “climber” meant focusing on the holy trinity of skills: trad, ice, and aid. Aid climbers still got cover shots in all the mags. Things have changed though. I mean, who even knows how to effectively rate an aid route anymore? It’s a lost art, like reading Latin, or making a sweet mixtape for your middle school girlfriend using only the record button on your stereo and a handful of radio stations. That said, soloing a big wall definitely has its attractive qualities. It’s a lot more satisfying than most people give it credit for.

Unlike climbing a wall with a partner, you are not forced to hang at an uncomfortable stance (or lack thereof), chain-smoking Luckies and eating cured meats, while you painstakingly feed rope through your belay device at a rate of one arm’s length every ten minutes. You don’t have to claw your eyes out while your buddy bounce tests each piece of gear (spread a mere eighteen inches apart) on a C1- pitch of perfect nut placements (which is probably 5.11b). You see, when you’re alone, there’s no time for cigs or salami. You are always the one spending an absurd amount of time leading, then rappelling back down, then ascending the pitch again as you clean the gear, then hauling the bag (then going back down when it inevitably gets stuck), then reracking the seventy-three pounds of shit, stacking the ropes, and doing it all over again. Sounds like infinite bliss, right? Plus, there is no one within earshot to tell you that you suck at aid climbing (which pretty much everyone does).

Anyway, the point is, I have found multiday solo climbing to be the closest thing to a transcendental experience that I’ve ever had. It provides a Zen-like existence where one is forced to remain immersed in the task at hand for hours on end, constantly moving along a completely self-centered wavelength, making slow and steady progress that is often demoralizing to measure. The solitude and the prolonged exposure have an uncanny effect on the mind. The nights are long and provide ample time for personal reflection, often tapping into the far reaches of the subconscious that harbor our most sincere ideals, goals, and plans for the future. All it takes is lying in a portaledge to make one keenly aware of gravity’s pull into the inky abyss below, as you contemplate the metal studs and nylon that hold your existence in place. Life is fragile, and it shouldn’t be squandered. Sometimes it takes climbing to remind me of that.

As much as I value the experiences I’ve had in the past, it’s never easy for me to commit to another solo climb. The stars need to align, so to speak. Enough time has to pass for me to forget about the measure of suffering I’m about to sign up for. I have to convince myself that it is a worthwhile objective and, more importantly, that I’m truly psyched to see it through. I mean, at the end of the day, who really wants to aid climb anything? Then it’s the planning, the logistics, the Rubbermaid bins full of random gear. Usually I’ll end up soloing a wall when I feel the pressures of everyday life putting the squeeze on me or if I’m losing that sense of inspiration that climbing has always provided in my life. Whatever the reason ends up being, it’s safe to say that there is usually some sort of metaphorical dragon at the heart of the issue that needs to be taken care of.

In the fall of 2013, I began to realize, this time around, the dragon I needed to face was my own fear and mental weakness. At some point during the summer, I had become afraid of the exposure and potential consequences of rock climbing. I was having trouble leading pitches in the Black Canyon that I had led numerous times. I was absolutely gripped thinking about falling—on bolts, bomber cams, or even top-rope—what if my belayer didn’t catch me? I was nervous about being hit by rock fall, of rescuing an injured partner, of a dozen other morbid thoughts. In short, I was scared, and I didn’t really know why.

These feelings boiled over during a trip to Indian Creek that October. I didn’t want to lead any route that wasn’t well within my ability level. I didn’t even want to struggle on top-rope. At the anchor, I was petrified of being lowered, of not being in control. The wall was steep, and the exposure was getting to me again. What the hell was going on? Sitting amongst those sandstone blocks in the Utah desert, I contemplated the rest of my fall climbing season, or rather if there was going to be one. I had already been planning a trip to Yosemite in November, but nothing was concrete. Soloing a route on El Capitan was definitely on my bucket list, but I had never climbed a Grade VI alone, and I questioned if I was mentally ready. By the time my Tacoma’s tires hit pavement, I had decided that I needed to slay some dragons if I was ever going to get my mojo back.

I’ve often heard the phrase “the devil is in the details.” I’m not sure that I fully understand the reference, but I can say that successfully climbing El Cap is in the details; the rest is just suffering, and learning how to poop in a trash bag while squatting precariously on a hanging cot. The amount of time spent planning on the front end of a big wall climb can mean the difference between success and failure. I’ve learned this the hard way on more than one occasion. Not only is gear preparation paramount, but it is also important to be realistic about your time frame and your objective, and how many pitches you can get done each day without getting burned out, leaving wiggle room in your schedule so you don’t have to bail if you’re moving slower than expected.

I rolled into the Valley on Halloween with my haul bags packed, ready to step out of the truck and start shuttling loads to the base of The Captain. No Camp 4 scene, no yard sale of gear, no grocery shopping in Curry Village, and no booze-fueled costume parties to attend that evening. I was on a mission, and it had started nearly two days prior when I left Colorado. The climb I had selected was Lurking Fear (VI 5.7 C2), and although it was technically the easiest aid route on El Cap, I knew that easy was a relative term. The lower portion of the route was steep and sustained with few natural ledges, and the upper half provided unique challenges with difficult hauling on less than vertical pitches, culminating in hundreds of feet of fourth-class slabs to reach the summit.

I once had an instructor who used the phrase “humble confidence” to describe how we should approach situations in the search-and-rescue world. It’s a phrase that I’ve adopted over the years as a motto in life. To me, it means that you should have the confidence to face intimidating circumstances, but for god’s sake, be humble enough not to set yourself up for failure. I had climbed bigger routes on El Cap with partners, and I had aid soloed harder pitches than anything on Lurking Fear, but I had never tackled a two-thousand-plus foot rock climb alone. In the end, I needed to be honest with myself.

Not only did Lurking Fear seem like an achievable goal but I had unfinished business with this particular climb, and it was high time to settle the score. Years earlier, my good friend Adam and I had first attempted the route. As a couple of big wall gumbies, we had gotten our asses properly handed to us, an all too common initiation for many parties first attempting the Big Stone. We were naive and overzealous, with lofty expectations of cruising the line in a seventy-two-hour period. After all, I only had four days off from work. Who cares if I had only climbed a couple of shorter walls in Zion, and Adam had no idea what an ascender was. We borrowed some gear from a buddy in Bishop, which included a mangy haul bag and a pathetic triangle-shaped portaledge dubbed “the social platform,” and we were off. We got this.

A day and half later, we were basically at the top of pitch five, maybe six, having just watched a party start at the bottom that morning and reach our high point in less than three hours. What’s that phrase? Big hat, no cattle? Clearly that was us. We had spent a miserable night cuddling in the fetal position as the nylon fabric between the three bars of the social platform lost all rigidity, slowly transforming into a sagging wall hammock resembling a ball sack. By early afternoon the next day, we apprehensively bailed, nursing our bruised egos with the rest of the Johnnie Walker, which of course we had carried with us in the glass bottle, as any big wall gumby would.

I laughed to myself remembering that trip as I trudged uphill along the western flank of that mile-and-a-half-wide monolith of granite. This was familiar terrain, but I had not laid eyes on it since Adam and I slogged downhill, tails between our legs, all those years earlier. With each gust of autumn breeze, I could almost hear redemption calling. Three separate trips, and six hours later, I had finally shuttled all my gear to the base. I sat in silence amongst the trees, already high above the base of The Nose and the valley floor below, completely isolated on the far left shoulder of this unearthly formation. In less than a week’s time, I hoped to be standing on the top.

The first few days passed quickly, the way time usually does at the beginning of a long trip. I had been shooting for three pitches per day, and thus far I had been on schedule, inching my way up the lower face of Lurking Fear. But there is an interesting phenomenon that starts to take hold the longer a person is completely alone, and it seems to be intensified by the stress of existing in a vertical environment. For ten pitches I had mostly been moving from one fully hanging belay to another, carefully organizing my rope systems without as much as a small stance to easy my troubles. I was physically spent from jugging and hauling and mentally wrecked from the unrelenting exposure. The repetitive cycles of upward progress were now on autopilot, allowing the less task-oriented portions of my brain to go on the proverbial walk about, meandering in and out of rational thought. When I was on the move, I would fixate on bizarre fragments of dialogue or music, which played on a continuous loop in my head, quotes from the movie Tombstone, for example.

“Doc, you oughta be in bed. What the hell you doin’ this for anyway?”

“Wyatt Earp is my friend.”

“Hell, I got lots of friends.”

“I don’t.”

By late afternoon on the fourth day, I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. I had only completed two pitches, and the next one happened to be an enormous, left-leaning roof that looked intimidating as hell. I hung there at the top of pitch eleven, forcing my weary mind to weigh my options. I could set up the portaledge on this fully hanging anchor for a third night in a row, I could push through the next pitch and surely finish in the dark, or I could rappel forty meters down and right to a small natural ledge just off-route of Lurking Fear. Nothing mattered more to me at this point than standing on some semblance of solid ground. I was starting to wig out—that much was obvious. I would rap to the ledge with my haul bag, jug the line again in the morning, and haul the same stretch of wall for a second time. I hoped that I was making the right decision.

That night I lay awake, mind reeling as I sorted through a kaleidoscope of intense thoughts and emotions. I considered the events that had shaped my life and led me to this exact place in space and time. How did I get here, ultimately? How easy would it have been to be a completely different person altogether? I was bruised, battered, and starting to have my doubts about making it to the top. Half a dozen times I turned my headlamp on and examined the topo. The massive roof directly overhead, labeled as The Grand Traverse, was causing me severe anxiety. I questioned my tactics for getting back to the anchor once the pitch had been led. I was beginning to see this feature as a threshold of sorts, which if I crossed, I would surely make the summit. Sleep eventually came, as I tossed and turned on that narrow granite shelf, waking occasionally to the sensation that I was falling into space.

As Americans, most of us are fortunate (more than we often realize) to live comfortable and privileged lives, but that doesn’t mean that everything is easy, or that hardship isn’t part of the process. It is often in these moments that family and friends provide the necessary support in countless ways, motivating us to keep moving forward and to believe in ourselves once again. I wasn’t feeling any of that support as the sun rose on my fifth day climbing El Cap. After a thousand-plus feet (which I had covered twice) there was no doubt in my mind that I had satisfied the impulses that had led me to that mountain alone. I had cohabitated with my dragon for days on end, and I was still fighting the good fight—now I wanted to be finished. I missed all the mundane bullshit that forced me into this position in the first place.

And isn’t that the crazy thing about life? So often we are convinced that changing our circumstances or our environment is what we need to bring us happiness, but in the end, it has less to do with that and more to do with our outlook on life in general. No matter our circumstances, there is always something left to be desired, something you gave up, you regret, you’re still missing, or that intangible thing that is just out of reach.

I lay in my sleeping bag, cold, sore, and completely exhausted. I figured I was a day behind schedule now, meaning I was probably a day short on water as well. Eventually I sat up and forced my aching claw-like hands to manipulate the knobs on the Jetboil. Thankfully, someone had left a questionable, sunbaked plastic jug of water hanging from the anchor. I took my chances, heating just enough to mix a coffee packet and down a healthy dose of ibuprofen. I stuffed the rest of the water in the bottom of my haul bag, just in case. From this bivy ledge, I could see around the corner of the wall to the base of The Nose. I sat there in silence, watching a party on the lower pitches, half a mile away, the only other people I had seen in a hundred hours of solitude. Despite complaints from my inflamed joints and tired muscles, I packed my belongings and jugged the fixed line.

As I stepped into my aider and weighted the first piece, I glanced between my legs at a thousand feet of God’s blue sky between me and the base of the cliff. My mind felt calm. I placed some stoppers, clipped some less-than-inspiring upward-pounded pins, made some moves on cam hooks, and soon arrived at the anchor. I had made it through the roof with relative ease, but I was still nervous about cleaning and hauling the pitch. For the next hour or so, I slowly executed a dozen steps I had meticulously organized in my mind while lying in the darkness the night before. When the haul bag finally reached the top of pitch thirteen, I could no longer contain my excitement. From somewhere in the trees below, my friend Ian watched my celebration through binoculars, later telling me that he could hear my shouts of elation from the valley floor.

The next few days passed in a series of fuzzy snapshots as I slowly trudged onward and upward. I had stopped checking my watch, and the way I saw it, time didn’t much matter at this point anyway. Moving faster didn’t seem like a viable option. The upper half of Lurking Fear had a different aura altogether than the clean, exposed wall that comprised the first dozen pitches or so. Above the roof traverse, the route wandered onto the western shoulder of El Cap, following lower-angle cracks and grungy, moss-filled weaknesses. You could no longer see any roads or hear any signs of life, except perhaps an occasional raven or the voice of an imaginary friend. The days were spent in the shadows, cold, isolated and lonely on the dark side of the moon.

Although the pitches felt easier (moderate free climbing intermixed with short sections of aid) the hauling was a nightmare, as advertised. I pulled every trick out of the bag just to get my gear to the anchor each time. By the end of day six, I was overjoyed to arrive on the plush terrace known as Thanksgiving Ledge. I took my harness off and cracked the seal on a pint of Jim Beam, which I had carried with me for just this occasion. Without getting too overconfident, I knew that things were looking up. Only pitches eighteen and nineteen remained, along with an endless amount of slabs that were sure to be a blast with a haul bag, portaledge, and boat anchor of a rack. Nonetheless, my spirits were high. By tomorrow afternoon, I should be arriving on the summit.

The most audacious plans in life usually involve turning a blind eye to certain logistical issues. In some ways, it has to be this way; otherwise we would never attempt such lofty objectives. For nearly a week, I had been solely focused on climbing Lurking Fear; I didn’t waste much brainpower considering how I was going to get myself (and all my shit) off the top of El Capitan. It took me three trips to get everything to the base. Granted, I had ditched nearly all my water, food, and that twelve-pack of IPA I had started with, but could I really get off this big ass rock in just one trip? I still must have a hundred pounds of gear. These questions began to fade away as the whiskey warmed my aching limbs and soothed my restless mind. I lay there untethered on a sandy patch of dirty, a thousand miles away from any living soul on Earth.

I woke to a dull headache and a parched throat. My water to bourbon consumption ratio had been poorly executed. Of course, I had little water remaining anyway, so perhaps it was for the best. I poured some of the old, plastic-flavored swill from the bivy ledge into the Jetboil and fired it up. Some would argue that making coffee when you only have a few liters of water left (and an undetermined amount of suffering to undergo) is perhaps not the wisest decision. Fortunately for me, I am not one of those people. After some moments of personal reflection and the enjoyment of a brand new wag bag, I organized my gear for the final push. As the story goes, God rested on the seventh day. And although that was my original plan as well, I spent day seven on Lurking Fear grinding what was left of my battered self into a puddle of bloody pulp.

The final pitches proved to be some of the worst hauling on the entire climb, followed by endless slabs, ledges, and windswept, barren slopes leading to the top. The hours of backbreaking toil were excruciating and unrelenting. My water was soon gone, along with my knees. I used my ropes as hand lines on the exposed slabs, shouldering my heavy haul bag and leapfrogging piles of equipment. By the time I reached flat ground in the early evening, I was in a zombie-like daze, stumbling madly. Loops of rope were clipped to my harness, dragging behind me in the dirt as they attempted to snag on sparse vegetation. I dropped my bag at the first of many summit bivouacs, where previous climbers had built wobbly windbreaks of stone.

I’m not sure how long I sat there. Maybe a minute, maybe a year, but I just sat there in silence, marveling at Half Dome as it peaked over the horizon line of El Cap’s summit like a rising moon. My body felt broken, and my throat felt scratchy. It was as if I had sweat every last drop of moisture from my pores. I felt pure joy, and I felt relief, but I also felt something else. Utterly alone. And I was tired of being alone. With light fading, I finally stood up and dug around in the pack for my headlamp. I was completely out of water, and although I would never make it to the valley floor tonight, I needed to contour the top of the cliff in search of any containers that others might have purposefully left. I didn’t even want to think about what my descent was going to entail the following day.

And that’s when I heard it. It was a full sentence, but my mind only registered the first few words before I damn near leapt out of my skin. After a week of isolation, the sound of a human voice crashed through my twisted reality like a brick through a plate glass window. I spun around to see my friend Ian, all smiles, laughing at my reaction. “There’s better bivy spots farther that way,” he repeated. Shock did not even begin to describe what I felt. I knew that Ian was in the Valley with his own objectives for the week, maybe he had even checked on my progress, but I wasn’t expecting any company on the summit that night.

“You scared the shit out of me,” I finally managed to say, stepping forward to give him a hug.

I still wasn’t completely sure that this figure standing in front of me—my good friend Ian—wasn’t some sort of figment of my imagination who appeared like an apparition with an extra gallon of water, offering to help carry my gear off the summit. It seemed far too convenient a solution to my problem. It was even more symbolic that Ian had been on that Indian Creek trip a few weeks prior when I decided to embark on this journey. This trip had come full circle in a way that felt metaphysical. I soon learned that Ian had, in fact, watched my progress these last few days, he had even communicated with my wife, Heather, and he had decided to make a few extra bucks by hauling some provisions to the top of El Cap for some other climber. Maybe he would run into me as well. Clearly this rendezvous was not as surprising for him as it was for me, but my tattered mind was short-circuiting. After so many days alone, this heartfelt gesture had me on the verge of tears.

And isn’t that the beauty of life itself, not knowing what’s around the corner? That’s what I meant by climbing being a microcosm of life. The moments of joy, the moments of pain, the clarity of thought, the tribulation that leads to triumph…all that other bullshit. And although I would argue that these elements are magnified to a greater degree when you walk the path alone for a while, for me, that experience is not sustainable. There is no substitute for sharing life with those who matter most. As much as I value individual pursuits, there are times when I prefer the company of others—a lengthy conversation with a close friend, sharing a bottle of wine with my wife, sitting around the table with family—time to reflect on what my existence in this world can mean to others and to voice my thoughts so that they may help shape who I am, and who I wish to become.

Lying there in the darkness, on top of the most iconic rock formation in the world, I listened to the sound of Mitch Hedburg’s voice coming through the speakers on Ian’s iPod. “I wanna open a McDonald’s and not participate in anything. I wanna be a stubborn McDonald’s owner. Cheeseburgers? Nope. We got spaghetti! And blankets!” I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting conclusion to my weeklong odyssey. As I drifted to sleep, I considered the ways in which this trip had already impacted me and what I imagined it would mean in the future. There is plenty of adventure out there in the world; we just have to decide how much of it we want from time to time. Complacency is easy to embrace, and although life may not be about rock climbing, life is fleeting, and it shouldn’t be squandered. Sometimes it just takes climbing to remind me of that.

This story is published in Volume 10, The Raw Issue, available in print and on Kindle. 

Vic Zeilman is a Climbing Ranger at the Black Canyon. He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and one-year-old son, Finn. He can usually be found on the North Rim, trying to tick off obscure desert towers in the Colorado Plateau, nerding out on climbing history, or planning a pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierra. His new guidebook—The Black. A Comprehensive Climbing Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—is available in select gear shops nationwide.

“The Black” by Vic Zeilman  (via Kevin Daniels publishing)

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