“Keep dreamin’, stay hungry, and remember that there is no finish line.”
This quote by Todd Skinner in the opening pages of the book Hangdog Days by Jeff Smoot gave me chills the first time I read it. In the pages that followed, I felt history come to life as I read tale after tale about what I had always imagined climbing to be at its very best: an epic adventure full of impossible dreams that somehow became reality through pure passion and sheer determination.
This piece is published in Volume 21, now available. The printed zine is the best way to experience our stories.
Photos by Garet Bleir
At the forefront of these adventures were Skinner and his frequent climbing partner Paul Piana. I had started reading the book because there was a chapter in it about Skinner establishing City Park, a route I had recently climbed. I kept reading it because Todd’s life on the road, dedicated to the pursuit of climbing, looked exactly like how I wanted to live my own.
I immediately adopted the “stay hungry” line as a personal mantra, making subtle nods in my photo captions and blog posts, and not-so-subtle ones by writing it on decorations all over my van. It was something I wanted to embody—this idea that there was always a bigger dream if my imagination could conceive it and that I could always continue to grow and evolve as a person in its pursuit.
Todd Skinner became my hero because, as a climber, he was always looking to the future: trying to find the next desperate crack, difficult sport climb, or other way to advance the sport. Not only that, but, like myself, he cared deeply about the climbing community, held genuine interest for the climbing of others, and eventually established the International Climbers’ Festival to bring climbers together.
As much as I loved reading about City Park in Hangdog Days, I came across another story that caught my attention even more: the first free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in 1988. Not only was the Salathé the first route up El Cap to ever go free but also it was done in a death-defying adventure of passion, effort, and pure survival when rockfall nearly ended the lives of both climbers. It showed the world what was possible, and of course the ones who did it could be none other than Skinner and Piana.
At the time, I didn’t think I would ever be capable of climbing a big wall myself, but after reading that story, I couldn’t help but think that if I did, it would have to be the Salathé. As if that alone weren’t enough, Royal Robbins himself called the route the best rock climb in the world when he established it as the second route up the mountain in 1961 with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt as yet another grand move on the Yosemite chessboard battle between Robbins and Warren Harding, setting a new standard by climbing it as the first route up El Cap not done with siege-style tactics. Despite nearly eighty years of evolution in the sport, the title “Best in the World” still holds weight today.
I had always been intimidated about even going to Yosemite, let alone climbing walls. It remained one of those things that just seemed too unknown, too big, and so I kept it on the back burner for some time in the future when I might eventually be more ready somehow.
Over the winter of 2021 however, things had been changing. After I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams of climbing 5.14 on gear with my early January ascent of East Coast Fist Bump in Sedona, Arizona, I was faced with the same question that appears after the completion of any major milestone in one’s life: what’s next? When you somehow manage to accomplish the things you barely even dared to dream, how do you go even bigger? Right as I was asking myself these questions, my path serendipitously crossed with Harrison’s.
Harrison was a seasoned and unbelievably talented multipitch climber, and I watched in amazement over the next few weeks as he projected and eventually dispatched first a climb called Dickel’s Delight in Sedona with three back-to-back pitches of 5.13 and then Dreefee in Red Rocks, which had 5 pitches that were even harder at 5.13+. I knew very little about working hard multipitch climbs myself, but I couldn’t help but envy the passion with which he had climbed, because it was something that I hadn’t been able to find for myself ever since Fist Bump. Inspired by Harrison’s dedicated pursuit of his goals, I began to wonder if these longer types of climbs might be where I should look for my own next big thing.
My soul ached for a new challenge, maybe even bigger than I’d ever tackled before. I yearned to be entrenched in a project, to be inspired by history, and beauty, and movement, while pushed to my limit and able to be my best self. How long had it been since I had felt a calling? That all-consuming passion of chasing an impossible dream? By the end of winter, I knew in my heart there was only one place I was going to find it: The Proving Grounds. The Center of the Universe. Yosemite Valley.
Harrison and I started dating and quickly agreed that by spring we would be sharing a portaledge on the side of El Capitan. As the time got closer, a scene from Valley Uprising often started playing in my head on repeat: Lynn Hill, one of the great stone masters whom I deeply admired, reciting inspiring lines with palpable affection: “People come [to Yosemite] to make a statement about what’s possible with passion, and vision, and heart.” I wanted to know what was possible for me—what my statement was going to be. Could I hope to stand in the shoes of the legends that had come before me, who had crafted the sport of climbing into what I have dedicated my life to?
As spring drew ever closer, Yosemite became synonymous with climbing big walls, and big walls became synonymous with the one big wall that stood above the rest in my mind: the Salathé. Still, despite a relatively impressive single-pitch climbing résumé, I was about as technically unprepared for big walling as could be possible. I’d never redpointed a 5.13 more than one pitch off the ground. I’d never hauled. I’d never slept on a wall. I had only ever backpacked twice in my life, both of which were miserable experiences. I rarely hiked more than thirty minutes to go climbing, and even on short Indian Creek approaches, I always made sure I didn’t carry both a rope and a rack because my pack would be too heavy. I barely knew how to jumar, I didn’t know how to tie a Munter knot, and I almost always got the rope tangled no matter how nicely I stacked it at multipitch belays. Still, I told myself over and over again to “stay hungry,” because if I wanted a dream I’d never had before, I’d have to be willing to do things I’d never done to achieve it. It was time to kiss my comfort zone goodbye.
Driving into Yosemite Valley that April felt like seeing El Capitan for the very first time, because this time I was hell-bent on climbing it. I had spent so many weeks and months building the anticipation, letting my longing for rivers, trees, and granite consume my imagination until it all came bursting out of me upon laying eyes on the mountain, Dawn Wall illuminated in the early morning sun. I burst into tears, though which emotion they were connected to would be hard to say. Above all else, it was the joy of knowing that my passion for climbing was back and that perhaps it was about to grow in new ways to possibly become greater than it ever had before.
My dreams for this place were big, but now that I was here, I had no idea how to even begin tackling them. I figured I might as well try to get to the top of El Cap via the East Ledges descent, mostly just to figure out how. My friend Scott generously volunteered to show me the way and help carry a load of six hundred feet of rope to the summit: the amount needed to rappel in to the Salathé Headwall. What’s normally a three-hour tour took us an entire day, as we struggled through the heat and a handful of wrong turns, but eventually with Scott’s help, I passed Yosemite’s first trial.
While hiking a few ropes up El Cap is common for many, for me it was a big deal. I’ve hated hiking since I was a kid, and my distaste for mountain walking had held me back for many years. Only recently did I start to come to terms with its necessity if I wanted to do bigger things and become willing to challenge my self-imposed limits when it came to approaching.
Soon after, I made plans to partner up with my friend SJ to rappel in to the Boulder Problem shared by the Salathé and Freerider (her goal), the route’s first crux pitch. We had met several years ago in Washington when she sent City Park around the same time as me, and I had always admired her talent for climbing and enjoyed her genuine, passionate personality.
I hiked up the East Ledges for the second time alone, intent on trying the Salathé Headwall before SJ arrived that evening. As I stopped for a breather a few minutes in, I received a message from the late Todd Skinner’s wife, Amy. She had known about my climbing ever since my ascent of City Park, and was glad to hear I was on my own “Stay Hungry Tour” (what Todd would call his travels and subsequent slideshows about them).
Amy shared with me how special their time in Yosemite had been when Todd was working on the Salathé and that maybe I could pay them a visit in Wyoming sometime. I was unbelievably touched to have earned the respect of someone that had been deeply connected to one of my biggest idols. The hike never felt quite so bad after that, because I knew it was what had been done by all my predecessors in order to make this dream a reality.
I located the anchors of the route with some helpful beta from SJ and tied my first rope to the chains. As I neared the edge of the cliff, my mind spun with fear and doubt. It felt like I was rappelling off the edge of the world, and despite knowing I was completely safe, a small voice in the back of my head still said I should at least wait until SJ was there, if not abandon this foolish idea entirely. Once over the edge however, there was only one direction to move, and that was down. Rappel after rappel, eventually I was anchored at the base of the massive headwall splitter crack, by far the most exposed position I’d ever been in before. After triple-checking my rope soloing setup, I started up the wall.
The following day, SJ and I rappelled down the entirety of El Cap, working various pitches along the way. Getting the preview made the mountain seem just a little less daunting as I started to see what the climbing was actually like. Thinking about my entire dream was overwhelming, but breaking it down into smaller goals, like redpointing each crux, felt much more like something I knew how to do.
I spent many a day by myself on Long Ledge, the lengthy-yet-narrow natural boardwalk that marks the end of the headwall crux pitches. The two-foot-wide platform lies three thousand feet above the valley floor, so wildly exposed that most of the time I could barely conceptualize the extremity of the position. Staring at the tiny treetops below often felt more like looking at a postcard than reality. The occasional party on Freerider would provide brief company as they passed through the Enduro Corner below, but most of my time on the Salathé Headwall was spent alone. I would solve crossword puzzles, write, and watch the cars far below on the valley floor, but mostly I would just dangle my limbs over the edge and let the sun warm my face as I ran through beta in my mind over and over and over again. The ledge is somehow protected from El Cap’s relentless barrage of wind, and the contours of the rock seemed to fit my body perfectly to relax between attempts. It felt like this place belonged just to me at times, and in other moments, I imagined sharing my airy perch with the party of Robbins, Frost, and Pratt, or Skinner and Piana, or any of the other legendary climbing pioneers that had come before me, such as Alex Huber, the first person to free every pitch; Steph Davis, the first female ascensionist; Mark Hudon and Max Jones, who greatly advanced Valley free climbing with their “as free as can be” ascent. I could even hear the ring of John Salathé’s hammer echoing across the Valley from the Sentinel as he nailed his way up some heinous ten-hour lead with Allen Steck on belay. I often felt like my heroes were watching over me up there, sharing in this crazy dream, and in those moments, I didn’t feel alone at all.
On my first completely solo trip to the top, it was still early April, and as such, the route remained quite cold until midday when the sun finally graces the headwall, so I had a good chunk of the morning to kill before I could climb. I stood at the top of the route for quite some time, completely lost in awe at the beauty of watching Yosemite Valley come alive as the day broke. I stretched my sore limbs, the rush of endorphins flooding through my body almost making me dizzy. In that moment, I was consciously aware that I was experiencing something truly special; what an immense privilege it was to be here right now. I started crying from the simple joy of how vividly alive I felt. It had been a long time.
I made a total of six trips to the summit of El Cap over the month of April, leaving my fixed ropes up over the duration of my projecting. I had learned to rope solo in Index, where microtraxioning is almost synonymous with projecting, and fixed ropes are embraced and shared amongst the community, because who doesn’t love a free toprope? Being new to the Valley, I didn’t know that the ethics were different here; I thought as long as it was labelled and actively being used, it was okay. I would later learn that this was a major faux pas in Yosemite—such practices inconvenience others and threaten access for all, and it won’t be how I approach any future El Cap projects. Ropes should stay up no longer than twenty-four hours. It seems obvious in hindsight, but that’s how little I knew about big walling.
SJ and I had stayed in touch about the route after our first mission together and somewhere along the way decided to climb the whole wall together. Technically we were doing separate routes, but most of their terrain was shared up until the end of the Enduro Corner. When the routes diverged, we would have separate partners rappel in and meet us: her friend Steph for her and Harrison for me, to save having to ask them for the huge sacrifice of supporting an entire big wall mission.
One week before we were scheduled to leave the ground, SJ and I returned to the Boulder Problem, stashing water along the route on our way down. Her partner Mikey Shaefer came with us, fixing a separate rope on the Teflon Corner for fun while we worked the boulder.
I had always heard that the Teflon required some kind of black magic to climb and had written it off as a possibility without ever even trying it. That was, up until I ran into my friend Alix on my way down from the summit one day. She had climbed the Teflon and mentioned that it held the advantage of not costing skin nor power like the boulder did, so with a fixed rope on it and no success on the alternative, I lowered down the blank open-book dihedral to check it out. To my surprise, in the span of about fifteen minutes, I was at the top, having climbed it clean on toprope in just a few quick, rapid-fire tries. I tried the boulder one more time after that and succeeded on it too, now finding myself uncertain about which I should plan to climb. I would have to decide on the fly.
With the final piece in place, there was nothing left to do but stew in anticipation. Part of me still thought this whole thing was ludicrous. Who was I kidding to think I could climb a big wall? So many stars would have to align—weather, logistics, navigating other parties, not to mention I still didn’t have the replacement for my blown-out shoes, a critical element to success.
The last day of April seemed to crawl by agonizingly slow, yet simultaneously I felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time—though for what I didn’t know. I continually reminded myself of a quote I like that says, “If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life.”
It was time to take the leap and embrace that falling, failing, and learning were half the fun.
We arrived at the base of the Heart Lines to prehaul our gear to find another party already there, slowly getting their stuff together. Not wanting to get stuck behind them in the large cloud of mosquitos at the base of the wall, SJ quickly jumped on the rope and started jumaring. It was my first time hauling, and as I pulled up the bag, I simultaneously tried to load a Google search on how to tie a Munter Mule, the knot most commonly used to dock the bags. The spotty cell reception on El Cap failed me however, and I had to ask SJ for help when she caught up to find me struggling. I don’t think I succeeded in tying a Munter on the first try until the last day on the wall, with my usual attempt count involving around three to six tries.
SJ and I met in El Cap Meadow on the morning of Monday, May 3rd to finally “blast off”. As we stood at the base of the wall, it was hard to believe it was finally about to begin and that I wouldn’t stand on solid ground again or be inside for an unknown number of days. The plan was for SJ and me to climb together for the first four days and then diverge on the fifth.
SJ and I climbed the Freeblast in blocks, dividing up the crux leads and trying to move as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the party behind us, as well as the sun. We reached a comfortable ledge at the end of the hardest slab climbing, but there was no time to relax—quite the contrary. It was time to move even faster by simulclimbing since we were sure neither of us was likely to fall. As I waited for the rope to run out so I could start following SJ, I looked down at my harness to realize that one of my gear loops had become frayed in a chimney. Not good for day one, but that’s what duct tape is for (that and for repairing the holes SJ and I both ripped in the seats of our pants, also on the first day). There are always things that will go wrong or that can’t be planned for on a multiday climb, but after living on the road for a few years, I had become quite adept at creatively adapting to unexpected challenges. Many things in my van are held together by duct tape, Shoe Goo, or whatever random bits of string from the core of old climbing ropes I had lying around. While I may not know much about big walling, at least I know how to improvise.
By the time we reached our last pitch for the day, the Hollow Flake, we had been climbing for at least ten hours, and fatigue was setting in. SJ took the lead, crawling up the off-width chimney as I hung in my harness at a painfully poor belay stance for what felt like ages before it was finally my turn to struggle down, across, and then up the long and physical pitch.
We had been concerned about a bottleneck at the small bivvy, but the two parties near us both chose other ledges that night. I slept surprisingly well for my first night on a wall, which came as a great relief. I’ve been something of an insomniac since I was a child, and sleeping in new places often proves especially challenging and can be a source of great anxiety for me. It was one of the things I worried about the most in the weeks leading up to the climb, because not recovering at night would greatly hinder my ability to climb hard, especially if it was compounded over several days of tossing and turning. My only complaint was the constant chittering of bats, which I solved by playing a white noise track on my iPod to silence them.
I woke shortly before my alarm, as did SJ, and we quietly broke camp in the dark. We were climbing shortly after six, successfully avoiding the hidden roofs we knew to hinder hauling in that section of the wall and quickly blasting up easy 5.10 terrain. Soon we were within earshot of Tate and Evan, the party above us, and I called out a cheerful good morning as SJ followed the pitch I had just led. I asked if they were planning on climbing the Monster, to which they replied that they were instead going to aid the crack to its right to graciously let us pass.
The original Salathé route follows the crack that Tate and Evan aided, a 5.13 pitch, instead of climbing the Monster Offwidth. When Skinner and Piana freed the route, they opted for this path because gear did not yet exist that could protect a crack of that size, and the pair had gotten so spooked on the Hollow Flake below (nowadays protectable by a #7 or equivalent) that they did not want to climb another runout wide crack so soon after. Most people that free the Salathé climb the Monster, and while the historic route was important to me, I chose the Monster as well. There were various reasons, but the main one was that I simply wanted to climb the Monster. It’s one of the most badass features on El Cap: a gaping chasm visible from the ground that looks like it just goes on forever. I couldn’t justify one of the two tattoos I have being from Vedauwoo, land of the wide and flared, without feeling compelled to climb such a crack. I love blue-collar burly climbing so much that I had spent the entire previous summer in “The Voo,” and had the scars, or in this case a stick-and-poke tattoo on my ass, to show for it. I could say something poetic about it being to remind myself to learn from the struggle, but really it was mostly an impulsive attempt not to take climbing and/or life too seriously and share a fun moment with friends.
What I have always loved about wide climbing is how it can bring out that lift-a-car-off-a-baby type of superhuman try hard, because you often don’t have any other choice. It’s frequently true what many say about off-width: that you don’t fall out, you give up. The suffering builds gradually, so you slowly have to start trying harder and harder to keep moving. Eventually it reaches a crescendo as your shoulders cramp, chafed elbows and knees ache, and toes scream in pain as though the granite is rubbing against your very bones. It comes to a point where you have to decide just how badly you really want it, if it’s worth enduring this seemingly unending struggle. How deep can you really dig when it matters most? I’ve always wanted to know the answer.
Before long, I was grunting and screaming, laying it all on the line as I moved up the Monster as fast as I could. I was following beta my friend Prith had sent me that said, “Three no-hands rests, sprint to them.” Then it was over as I finally reached the belay, completely spent. In my state of fatigue, it took me about as long to haul the pitch as it took SJ to climb it, as she crushed the Monster with apparent ease. On top, we shared a moment of great relief that the second crux was over. That pitch was really the only one you don’t get a second try on if you mess up. It just takes too much energy to try a second time.
After I complained my way up the next short pitch of more off-width, we were finally at the Alcove, our home for the next two nights. After resting for a few hours, we mustered up enough energy to drag ourselves up two more pitches of blue-collar 5.10 crack climbing to get us to the base of the Boulder Problem, our next big crux.
Leaving the ropes fixed at our high point, SJ and I rappelled back to camp, last reserves of energy totally spent.
The following morning, we hunkered down for a rest day that was only true to name in a physical sense. That day was probably the most difficult one I spent on the route, for while my tired body appreciated the chance to recover, my anxious mind would not stay silent.
I have always held a sort of reverence for filling my time with meaningful moments, loathe to ever feel like I’m “killing time,” because I think life is far too short for such a mentality. That day however, it would have been hard to claim that I was doing anything else. Time slowed to a crawl. I would look at my phone expecting an hour to have passed, only to find that it had barely been twenty minutes. I played cards, ate food, stretched, wrote, ate food, made some art, ate food, and then cycled through all the activities again. No matter what I did, I could not stop thinking about the Boulder Problem. It loomed over me like a shadow even greater than that cast by El Cap Spire, which kept us in the shade for most of the eighty-degree day.
The Boulder Problem was what it all came down to. I knew if I got through that, I could do the headwall, but if I couldn’t, all of my hard work over the past month would be not for nothing—but certainly not for what I wanted.
I was sure I could send everything else, even if it took a few tries, or even a few days; I just needed to get there. I must have run through the sequence fifty times in my head that afternoon, missing obvious plays in our card game in my distraction.
Unable to shake my nerves, I grew careless and let first a page of crossword puzzles, then my bowl, and then my jumaring ladders all blow away in the wind. Up until that day, I had been able to stay present in the moment, avoiding this fear and overwhelming intimidation by simply focusing on whatever was my current objective, but with nothing important to do now, I was completely falling apart.
At long last, night fell. We caught a glimpse of Starlink passing overhead, a train of endless blinking satellites marching across the sky. We talked in hushed voices about how it might mean a future where cell service doesn’t suck in Yosemite, and when the conversation reached its natural end, a new one was not started. I was left alone with my restless mind.
In an attempt to overcome the bad conditions, we had another 5:00 a.m. start, but with the overnight lows barely dipping below fifty, all it really did was buy us extra time to grease off the holds that hadn’t actually gotten a chance to cool down. The air felt heavy with humidity and heat, and my skin had never really recovered from trying it a week before. I knew I only had a few tries at best. SJ and I each gave it one go, slipping and sliding off the small crimps and rounded foot smears. It felt impossible, and I lost half my skin on the warmup attempt. We bemoaned to each other that it just wouldn’t go in these conditions for either of us.
My nerves were out of control as I panicked about how to best overcome this obstacle that threatened to end our dreams right here and now. I decided to try the Teflon Corner instead, an option that I knew had a higher chance of success because I could try it endlessly without destroying my delicate fingertips. I didn’t remember any of my beta from before, only that I needed to get through about ten feet of pure granite wizardry before the first real hold would appear and theoretically mark the end of the difficulties.
I climbed up, clipped the two permadraws, and fell off, landing right back at the beginning. Without resting for more than a few seconds, I pulled back on, stemmed up, and fell off again. And again. And again, and again, and again. Each time I remembered a bit more of what had gotten me through it the previous week, until finally I pulled through to the good hold where it should have been over…and then fell off yet again. My legs were starting to get tired from the stemming, as I had been rapid-firing for probably almost half an hour now, but I was so close I just needed one more try, one more, just one more, and it would surely go. I needed to just do it so that I could support SJ back on the Boulder Problem. It would be a huge pain to keep switching between the two.
Things were getting simultaneously more dialed and more sloppy as SJ encouraged me to rest. “After this go,” I assured her, not knowing if I really meant it or not. It was probably my tenth try as I danced back up the corner. This time I finally remembered what to do, when to stem and when to bridge, until I was back at my high point. I felt my right foot slip, the same mistake that had cost me the send before.
“No!” SJ growled in denial, almost a command, and I couldn’t help but agree. Not again. This time I kept it together; a few more moves and I was finally standing on real footholds. I went to clip a piton, only to discover I had no draws on my harness. No matter, I would just use the carabiner off a cam. Whoops, dropped the cam, but I was too psyched about sending to care if I had to buy SJ a new one; it was a tiny price to pay to achieve my dream. A grin split my face as I clipped the chains, knowing that I now held the key to actually getting a shot at redpointing the Headwall. Getting through this crux had been my moment of sink or swim, and after feeling like I was drowning for the past twenty-four hours, I finally remembered how to doggy paddle.
We returned to the Boulder Problem for SJ to give it some more effort, but my nerves must have been contagious, as the struggle continued. By 11:00 a.m., the sun hit, but there would be more time for her to try it in the evening.
Once at our third bivvy on the Block, we hid in a tiny patch of shade, tried not to let our things slide off the sloping ledge, and discussed how best to proceed. If I could push the high point through the Enduro Corner that evening, it had the potential to dramatically accelerate my timeline on the route. It would mean I would have only the short roof pitch to climb the following day before tackling the Headwall, instead of having to also climb two pumpy and difficult pitches beforehand. After baking in the hot sun all day, there was little friction to speak of, but I didn’t care. After sending the Teflon Corner, I felt unstoppable. I felt a confidence come over me that afternoon that couldn’t have been a starker contrast to my mindset just a few hours earlier. I quickly dispatched both pitches, celebrating the fact that I was now done with the climbing shared by Freerider and on to the Salathé.
SJ made quick work of the Boulder Problem that evening, yet our night was tinged with bittersweetness as we lamented that our shared portion of the journey was at its end. We had barely known each other at the start of this project, yet she felt like a sister to me now. Tomorrow we would go our separate ways, but at least we could enjoy each other’s company for one last night. The Valley could not have been more spectacular from our vantage point, a mere eleven pitches from the summit of El Cap. I only had to climb eight of them still.
Steph joined us on the Block on the morning of our fifth day as I packed my bags and said goodbye. I met Harrison at the base of the Roof a few hours later, well behind schedule, thanks to a stuck bag and the hassle of having to fix a rope for him to get down to my position under the steep overhang. I had only ever tried this pitch once, so it would either go, or I would fall onto one of the ancient pitons that offered the pitch’s only protection. The rusty pins were likely as old as the Salathé Wall itself and seemed to still be wedged into the wall by sheer luck. The term roof can be used in climbing to describe anything from a lip small enough to just reach past, to something where both hands and feet must hang from a horizontal ceiling. This one is certainly the latter, so if these pitons failed, I would be in for the whip of a lifetime.
Luckily I did not have to test the historic hardware, and I was soon dangling at the base of the headwall. Thanks to the roof, the exposure below the headwall is almost otherworldly, but I only had eyes for looking up. How long had I been waiting for this moment? How many times had I been here by myself, alone yet surrounded by the ghosts of my heroes, dreaming of even simply having the opportunity to try to send? It was hard to believe it was finally time.
I laced up my Miuras, rubber still fresh from only a few pitches’ wear. They felt unbelievably sticky, gluing my feet to the tiny edges I had slipped off so many times in rehearsal in more weathered kicks. I did the initial boulder problem first try, a feat I would not have expected in my wildest dreams. There was nothing for it now but to climb as hard as I could, for as long as I could, and hope that it was enough.
I was overly cautious at first, gripping holds too tightly and letting pump build in terrain that should have been easy, but soon enough I found some semblance of flow as I entered the body of the main splitter. A lifetime of climbing, with years of dedication to splitters specifically, had led me to this insane, wild, and impossibly beautiful place. I knew how to climb this crack.
It felt like I was on that pitch for hours, but those spectating said that I climbed it relatively fast. In the moment, it was impossible to tell, when the entirety of my focus was dialed on each foot placement, each jam, making sure everything was perfect. It was some of the best moves I have ever climbed.
When I clipped into the anchors, it felt like I was dreaming. As I hung at the anchor, I caressed the crack repeatedly, whispering a quiet thank-you to it for everything it had given. My eyes watered each time I looked at the crack up close, one of the most beautiful pitches I will probably ever climb. They would dry as I broadened my focus to the goings-on around me and then water again the moment I returned my gaze to the rock.
Arriving at Long Ledge felt surreal. I still had one more hard pitch, but it felt inevitable despite my increasing fatigue. I had been here so many times, had so many special moments in this place, yet never one like this. Having just sent surrounded by people who wanted to support me and believed in me, the sun warm but not hot, and a large cache of food and water waiting for me…it was nothing short of magical.
After an hour or two of rest, I could wait no longer. The pitch is short, with two boulder problems separated by a no-hands rest, but the incredible movement and wild exposure make it my favorite part of the entire route. After a false start, I jumped off and immediately began again, this time making no mistakes until I was screaming as my fingers closed over the juggy left side of Long Ledge.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I tried to wrap my head around what I had just done. I had just sent the Salathé Headwall. There were only four pitches between me and the summit: one 5.11+ I had never tried, two 5.10s, and a final 5.6.
As I embraced Harrison, I tried to vocalize how deep the passion ran in that moment, but I could never really explain in neither words nor writing the true scale of how much the route meant to me. I had poured all of my heart into this, chasing that special feeling of inspiration that captures my imagination so rarely, yet changes my life so grandly when it does. I knew it would probably be a long time before I found it on this scale again, so I tried to soak up every second of the immense and vivid joy I felt.
I had been prepared to try this hundred-foot section of the wall forever if I had to. I had told Harrison to bring enough supplies for four days, but to my incredulity, he would later tell me he only brought enough for one. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. After all, this was the person who, when I had been asked if I’d stuck a dyno on another climb because I was tall or because it was easy, had interjected and said it was because I was strong. Somehow he knew one day was all I would need.
It was only 4:00 p.m., so I made the easy decision to continue climbing to the summit. I was having too much fun to call it a day. The 5.11+ pitch did not disappoint, though exhaustion had started to set in, and the many side pulls and underclings brought with them a quick build of lactic acid. Three pitches left. A glorious 5.10 hand crack. Two pitches left. The final 5.10, and I spectacularly fell off it. I tried again, this time succeeding and worming into the last 5.9 squeeze chimney. The Salathé is notorious for its high volume of wide climbing, so of course it had to end this way. I made a calculated decision to enter the slot left side in, which proved to be a mistake. I had to reverse the entire thing, slithering down the short chasm, flipping around, and thrashing back up, and then still almost falling trying to escape the squeeze. It turned to a hand crack after that, and finally I was only one 5.6 scramble from the top.
The ultimate summit joy was overshadowed by a weary final haul, where the friction from twisted ropes running over low-angle slab required a multiperson effort to get the bags over the lip. Then it was done.
After a quick repacking of bags and sorting of gear, we decided to descend the mountain the same night I topped out. Sleeping in my own bed sounded nice and drinking a cold beer even more so. I gingerly tested the weight of my haul bag with each new item, feeling it get heavier and heavier as it filled.
I slowly picked my way down the slabs, surviving through the distraction of the majestic sight of Half Dome in the glow of the setting sun. As we neared the top of the rappels, I lost my footing on a steep piece of slickrock. I immediately sat down to prevent myself from tumbling down the hillside, but upon doing so found that I was somewhat stuck in that position. The angle was too steep for me to lean backward and too slippery for me to stand back up.
Harrison held my feet in place as I tried to stand, but the weight of the bag was too much for my tired muscles, so instead I tipped over sideways, the bag pulling me onto my back like a turtle. All I could do was laugh at the situation as I helplessly let Harrison hoist the haul bag off the ground for long enough that I could regain my footing.
Before long, however, I lost my ability to see the humor in my tiredness. By the time we reached the rappels, darkness had fallen, and I was running on empty.
“Have you ever rapped with a heavy load before?” Harrison asked me, and I assured him that I had. I thought I knew how to “ride the pig,” as it’s called, but as he disappeared into the darkness, I quickly realized I was in over my head. I wrestled the bag onto the GriGri and started down, but I had wildly underestimated its weight and my own exhaustion. Every minor ledge it caught on required me to manhandle the bag, and after just one rope length, I had sunk into a state of delirious despair. Halfway down the second rap, I abandoned my pride and just started crying. I couldn’t pick up the bag at all anymore, even though it couldn’t have weighed more than a few dozen pounds.
“Are you doing okay?” I heard a voice from the darkness below.
“No, not really,” I choked out, as I struggled to pass a knot around a core-shot section of the rope.
Harrison had waited for me at the next anchor and offered to trade bags. I stared at the wall in silence, warring with my own stubbornness. Of course I wanted help. I needed help. I also took a lot of pride in how little physical help I had had this entire time, when so often I really could have used it. I had hiked these ropes up (mostly) myself. I had hauled my share of the route. I had rigged the fixed lines; I had collected the water; I had done it all without ever asking for more than was absolutely necessary. A part of me wanted to see this final task through on my own too, as if it were a rite of passage to be able to truly call myself a big wall climber. Another part of me knew that it was time to check my ego and just get off the damn mountain. Besides, I had had plenty of help in other ways, from Harrison hiking all the way up the back to belay me, to SJ’s guidance in learning the hauling systems, to the other aid parties on the wall making sure we could maximize the shade when it really mattered, and so many other things.
“Are you sure?” I asked in a shaky voice, hating the bitter taste of the words as they came out of my mouth. I hated admitting my weakness, even to someone who I knew would think no less of me for it.
We swapped packs and made it the rest of the way down. A kind stranger picked us up as we hitchhiked the last mile back to El Cap Meadow. It was the first time I’d ever done so—yet another new thing the wall was teaching me to do. The driver offered us some whiskey, and what’s normally my least favorite drink never tasted so good.
Looking up at El Capitan from the meadow a few minutes later felt surreal. Had I really just been up there a few hours ago? I’d spent so much time staring at it from down here that it almost felt like any ordinary night, just gazing up at the monolith with stars in my eyes and fantasizing about one day climbing the thing. It almost felt like I’d dreamt the whole crazy adventure, and a part of me couldn’t help but wish I was still on the mountain. At least then I’d be sure it was really real.
My first time on top with SJ, I had told her that one day we would stand on top having climbed there instead of hiking. Back then they were just words, barely connected to a reality I thought I would ever experience. While we never actually shared the summit together, since she finished her send the following day, what I had said had come true. I set out to climb the Salathé Wall not knowing if I had any real chance of success or if it was just a pipe dream. I had no idea what it would take, but I knew I would never find out unless I tried. There’s another line from Valley Uprising that I thought about often, from the Yosemite spiritual/dirtbag leader Chongo Chuck: “I was teaching [the Valley climbers] all these tricks about how to make it the richest adventure that you can. There’s only one time that you’re going to be young, and get out there and do things people wish they would have done once they get too old to do them.”
I’m not that young or that old; currently I am twenty-eight. In the beginning, I thought perhaps if I started now, I could aim to accomplish this goal by the time I was thirty. It seemed reasonable enough, considering how ridiculously much I had to learn. Two years turned into one month, and then my nine-day ascent plan turned into five. Regardless of what I accomplished, it certainly had been the richest adventure I could have ever hoped for.
SJ and I would often discuss how the mountain seemed so huge when we first started climbing on it, but that, over time, it started to feel slightly smaller as we got to know each pitch, ledge, and occasional clump of grass. It felt less impossible the more we got to know each other too. When someone you barely know is holding the other end of the rope, you have to rely entirely upon yourself, but when someone you fully trust is on belay and believes in you, you feel unstoppable. For that I owe both SJ and Harrison my endless gratitude.
When SJ got back down to the ground, we had the idea to replicate the iconic photo of the El Cap conqueror, first immortalized by Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay after completing the first “Nose in a day.” The three men stand stoically side by side in El Cap Meadow, with the giant monolith rising to the heavens in the background. It represented both how we summited the mountain as a team and how we had added our names to the lineage of all those who had come before us. I felt less now like I was being watched over by the likes of Skinner and all the Valley legends, but more like I had earned the right to stand beside them in that meadow as equals.
In the end, everything really is bigger in Yosemite. Big days on big walls requiring big imaginations, big characters with big stories, and most importantly, bigger dreams than just about anywhere else I could ever imagine. Having poured my heart into trying my absolute best to grow here, I’m proud to say my comfort zone is a bit bigger now too, as I stay hungry for the next big dream.
Brittany Goris is a professional climber and unprofessional dirtbag, living on the road full-time in an endless pursuit of impossible dreams. She can be found climbing wherever the season allows for short shorts and long pitches, or at the mechanic fixing her not-so-trusty Econoline van. In between adventures, she enjoys working remotely as a graphic designer, dumpster diving, writing, and beating you at Settlers of Catan. More tales of her climbing and life can be found on her blog, Center Toroidal.