Though I’ve been dangling off the cliffs of Yosemite for twenty-plus years now, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with intimidation at the base of the roof crack known as Separate Reality.
Taylor and I had just rappelled in, and it was his lead, which was just fine with me. Taylor is a relatively new climbing partner, and he’s about ten years younger than me. Most of my regular climbing partners go back as long as I’ve been climbing, back to where it all began in Gunnison, Colorado. All of my best friends are also my best climbing partners.
Note: This is an excerpt from an essay that appears in Volume 23, now available
Tying in with someone is a great act of faith and trust. I don’t think it can be overstated, and some climbers can be too casual about this. Perhaps I’ve got mental battle scars from all my near misses over the years. If I tie in with you, I trust you. And if that trust is broken, well, it’s a hard thing to get back.
For the last couple years, Taylor and I have really been clicking. I’ve needed that. I’m in my early forties, and many of my climbing partners have started families, and thus they have less free time for trips. That’s not to say I don’t climb with my friends who have kids—many are still quite motivated—it’s just changed up the rotation a bit.
This was my first trip back to Yosemite in almost a decade. For the first ten years or so of my climbing life I was obsessed with Yosemite, obsessed with learning how to live and climb on a wall. Those days, with my best of friends, led to the best experiences, now my treasured memories and stories.
Those Yosemite days culminated in an ascent of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. Nothing fancy, not even close to free, but we clawed our way up it, and it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment.
And then I moved to Durango and got obsessed with The Creek. I was tired of poop tubes, portaledges, haul bags, and all the other elements that make big wall climbing seem like a construction gig. I wanted a different kind of fight, a different kind of glory, and I found it on those crimson walls of Wingate that seem to be endless in the land that is now Bears Ears National Monument.
It was the Yosemite Facelift that brought me back to The Valley. Ten years before when we did the Salathe, we just happened to be there when the Facelift was going on, and I was very impressed with the effort. Climbers were all over the Valley cleaning up trash and having a great time doing it. By day, we picked up dirty diapers left on the side of the trail, and by night, we partied down. And in the end, thousands of pounds of trash were cleaned up, leaving Yosemite a lot cleaner than it was before.
I am a very sentimental person, and as I traveled to Yosemite, I thought of everything that had happened in the decade since I’d last been there. I thought of the climbing legends that had died there, especially Dean Potter, who I used to see around all the time there. When I was twenty-two, that was like seeing Michael Jordan next to you on a basketball court.
Since I’d been there, El Cap had been free soloed. The Dawn Wall happened. Countless wildfires had scorched California. I’d been engaged, got a dog, bought a house, called off the engagement, and ended up with partial custody of the dog—a dog named Hope that I completely love and adore. During COVID quaratines, I fell into depression and loneliness; therapy and nature helped crawl out of it.
So many other things happened too, but my mind just started reminiscing in a way that only nature makes it reminisce. Yosemite to me is nothing short of a love affair, and all this sentimentality is connected to this love of land we call Yosemite.
As I left Colorado, people said things like, “I hope it’s not too smokey out there,” or “I just got back from Cali; the air quality was terrible.”
This is the new normal; the global warming stuff they told us would happen in college in my Environmental Studies courses in the early 2000s is now our reality. But for this trip, I got super lucky. An early fall storm rolled in, dropping snow high in the mountains and clearing out the smoke.
I spent my first couple climbing days on the East Side with Mark Grundon, one of my original homeys and climbing partners. Mark and I have always had a great climbing chemistry, and we have both gone down the path of not only establishing new routes but replacing bolts on old ones. We sampled perfect granite and also checked out Clark Canyon, a cool volcanic sport climbing area near his home of Mono Lake. While climbing, we both noted anchors that needed to be replaced and potential for new lines; both of our brains just work that way.
Soon enough it was time to go to Yosemite. The storm had cleared out, and the Facelift was beginning.
When I told people I was going to Yosemite, many asked what my objectives were. And I quickly told them I didn’t have any. I just wanted to be there, like visiting an old friend with no intention other than hanging out.
If we talked a little bit longer, I would reveal I had a small objective: to get on Separate Reality. That climb had lingered in my mind ever since I saw a picture of Wolfgang Güllich free soloing the line in an old climbing magazine. Even decades after seeing that photo, I can still picture it in my mind’s eye, the exposure below, the strength of Wolfgang.
I mentioned the climb to Mark, but he would be working as a guide during the Facelift, so he would only be able to hang out at night and not join me on the climb. I told him maybe I would save the climb, to experience it with him. “Don’t save climbs,” he said, as if it was a motto someone had passed down to him.
I got in my rental truck and drove over Tioga into The Valley. At the moment I was thankful to be alone, thankful for the reflection. I’d never driven into The Valley alone, always with a climbing partner or girlfriend.
The site of the ranger station at the top of the pass was a bit of a buzzkill. When I started climbing in Yosemite, rangers were the enemy. The relationship between climbers and rangers wasn’t great, one that goes back all the way to the societal revolutions of the 1960s. Rangers had rudely awakened me in the middle of the night, tried to bust me with cannabis, and generally were gun-toting assholes who were jealous of the freedom and swagger of dirtbag climbers (or so I thought then).
I aired out the car and got ready for the ranger to approach my ride. He was a jolly, bearded guy, who greeted me with a big smile as I told him I was there for the Facelift. “Do you need a map?” he asked.
“Well, it’s been a decade since I’ve been here, but I think I’m good,” I told him.
“Welcome back, brother!” he said with the utmost sincerity.
The lady at the entrance station quickly waved me through, and the drive shifted back into sentimentality. Yosemite seems to have a different vibe these days, I thought.
Since El Capitan was my goal and singular focus for so long, the sight of it when rolling in always had so much meaning. This day it was magnificent, but I didn’t know what meaning to attach to it. Sure, I’d climbed it, but as Warren Harding said after the first ascent, “It looked to be in better shape than I was.”
Rather than obsessing about a climb, I was simply trying to find my campsite. Since I was a volunteer, and I’d later be presenting a poem on Friday night, I was able to camp for free at a volunteers site. I pulled up the site in my GPS, but as it led me there, all I saw were Do Not Enter signs.
So, I did another lap around the weird roads in The Valley and ended up in the same place. I figured I’d just park the truck and take a little walk to see what I was missing. Yosemite has always been a difficult place to navigate.
As soon as I parked the truck, I ran into my friend Nadine—Taylor’s wife—and she pointed out where the campsite was. It was, in fact, right through those Do Not Enter signs, which were put there to keep the general public out. Ah, Yosemite.
When I finally found my site, I put all my food and smelly things into the bear box, cracked a beer, and decided to go for a stroll to reminisce.
What I experienced that night I can only describe as a flash flood of feelings, like I’d just walked into therapy and my therapist asked me to describe every emotion I’d ever felt while climbing and hanging in Yosemite. Each formation had a story to retell me, like remember when you almost died here, or remember that six-hour belay when you ate a jar of peanut butter with your grime-stained fingers?
The beginning of my Yosemite epic poem is rooted in death. Just a couple weeks before I set sail for The Valley for the first time, my friend Josh had died in a motorcycle accident. He was only twenty, and the very last thing he said to me was, “We’re survivors; we will survive,” and the last words he wrote me were, “Enjoy the promised land,” when I told him I was going to Yosemite.
I don’t know how a twenty-year-old could be so prophetic, but ever since I’d moved out West, my life was full of these strange circumstances, making me think perhaps we are surrounded by spirits and ghosts. All I know is I don’t know enough to truly know about premonitions or if we have an afterlife, but I do know what has been said to me and what has happened to me.
I soaked it all in, and it was all too much. I wished I’d had a trusty friend at my side, but instead I texted those friends, those climbing partners that I share these memories with. I drank sips of beer for those that died here and are no longer with us, for those that would have loved to make it here. Why am I still standing? Didn’t I make similar mistakes? Why was I afforded so many journeys here, on nearly every major formation? …………..