The granite escarpments of Castle Crags silhouetted the western skyway, massive gargoyles hunched and staring. I thought of my mother’s words: “Don’t do that. You’ll get hurt. Be safe. You’re going to die.” Sentences that salted every conversation I had with her. I revved the engine and accelerated. I’d intended to get on the road earlier, but I’d talked to my new girlfriend, Michelle, my future wife, all through the night and slept though my alarm.
by Matt Spohn
Steam curled through the mouth hole of my Americano. I blew into it, veering across the road’s rumble strip. My phone dinged, and I flipped it open. It was Michelle.
Where you at now?!
Just leaving Weed. I took a sip, changed lanes, and texted again, whatchya doing ;)!
I held my phone toward the windshield, swinging my arm back and forth, raising it to the gray-felt ceiling of the car’s interior. My last service bar disappeared, reappeared, disappeared.
Ding! With one hand on the wheel, one on my phone, my eyes somewhere between, I read the new message.
At my mom’s.
Cool : ), I texted.
It was the summer of 2008. Trees lined the steep, sharp curves of I-5 between Shasta and Redding, massive white pines, stands of sequoias, smooth-limbed madrones. A cool, incensed air rushed through my red Subaru Outback as the weight of climbing gear, two five-gallon jugs of water, and camping supplies propelled my car down the long, winding hills.
Watching the landscape and texting, I filled the twelve-hour drive south to Yosemite, where I was meeting my friend Dustin. We’d made plans to climb in Tuolumne Meadows and then attempt the Northwest Face of Half Dome—a two- thousand-foot granitic fortress rising from the backbone of an older, crumbling mountain. The water-streaked wall that glows near evening takes most climbers two or three days to ascend. Our goal was to climb it in under twenty-four hours. Another notch for our belts.
I placed my phone between my legs and put both hands on the steering wheel. My periphery blurred into a watercolor of mountains, hills, and forests. I listened to the kettledrum of tires—semis and cars. The sounds of humanity more common than birdsong. Humanity, civilization, mortality. My mom. I sought to escape it all.
Rounding a curve, I came upon deer in the middle of the highway. Six or seven across the southbound lanes, heads turned to me. I slalomed between their frozen bodies and swerved toward the cement median, swinging back right. My climbing gear crashed against the sides of the trunk. A water bottle shot off the passenger seat, impacting the dashboard. I skidded to the side of the highway.
The staccato pounding of my heart filled my ears and fingertips. I looked out my windshield, then into the rearview mirror. The deer vanished into the trees, steep forested hills, gone black with shadow. Above them, the eleemosynary evening sky—delicate wisps of cherry clouds like ribbon across darkening blue. My headlights beamed: a white sneaker, glass bottles, a yellow Chevron 10W-30 container. Life scattered across gravel, tossed from cars, pulled by wind into the wild. I reached down and found my phone under a crumpled map and pile of wrappers.
We’d just started using that term, and though it felt frightening and endless, it also felt like fire on the night. No other cars passed. I opened the door and stepped into the silence. A warm summer breeze lingered. Jesus, I thought, that was close. What if I hit the deer? Careened off the highway? You’re going to die…I imagined falling from Half Dome.
Hundreds of miles from Michelle, I walked to the edge of the interstate, kneeled, and touched the still-warm asphalt. I thought of her, how she dared me: “Let’s dress up in costumes and go to the movies,” she said. “Want to run around Skull Hollow naked?” she
asked. I ran my fingers down the backbone of America. Old telephone wires buzzed, and I imagined them connecting long-lost lovers, one of them calling, one of them answering, like birds of paradise. The sounds of the highway returned.
Back in the car, I flipped through my CD collection and pulled The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan out of a sleeve. I continued south, windows down, listening to Dylan and the songs of trees and the sounds of crepuscular bugs. I sang along. Shadows changed between my car’s high and low beams. Bugs broke against the windshield, left small globs of life-stuff smeared in long arcs. A disembodied wing fluttered beautifully. I filled my throat with wood, grass, earth. Minor undistinguished miracles.
After Susanville, the landscape fanned out. The dark, flat earth mirrored the sky.
Love you. Michelle’s text sat there on my screen. I couldn’t find service.
I arrived in Lee Vining well after midnight and pulled into a dirt turnoff. The steep, winding Tioga Pass, the eastern gateway to Yosemite, echoed with small rockfall. I laid my Therm-A-Rest on the ground and crawled under my sleeping bag. I felt the vibrations of intermittent late-night cars beneath my back—people coming and going from Yosemite at all hours. Small clumps of cottonwoods sat dark against the sky, the dust of moonlight drifting between their branches. I watched. I fell into dream.
I can’t hear my climbing partner’s words. He shouts. The rope pulls tight to my harness. I can’t move up. Downclimbing is impossible. Am I out of rope? What’s he yelling?
The wind takes my chalk in gulps, spits it out into the air. Ghostly trails. I take a step down, my hands cold against the rock. My foot starts slipping. I tighten my grip.
The next morning, I found Dustin waiting at the Tuolumne General Store, sitting on the open bed of his truck, reading a book.
“What’s with the beard?” Dustin bear-hugged me and grinned.
“Wedding fun,” I said. “Have you seen ‘Dick in a Box’?”
“I’ve been busy with school.”
“Don’t be jealous.”
“I’m not. You look ridiculous.”
Dustin, five years older than me, looked like an actual climber—thin and wiry. I’d always been fit but larger than my climbing partners by about fifty pounds and about twice as wide. Where his legs were like a gazelle’s, mine were like a moose’s. He smiled and adjusted his glasses.
He fished a rope from his truck and coiled it. He stood and looked at me, shaking his head. “I’m packing my camera, dude. You’ll have to live with that thing you’re calling a beard forever.”
I laughed, tossing a small assortment of cams, loose carabiners, and a rappel device into my pack. “Michelle thinks it’s hot.”
“My girlfriend,” I said, realizing I hadn’t texted her that I’d arrived.
Dustin shot me a side-glance. “Girlfriend?”
“Yeah, man. She’s rad.”
I threw my gear into the back of his truck, and we started the fifteen-minute drive to Tenaya Lake, where we were going to connect three long routes to simulate the length of Half Dome. The road cut through forest and granite. Out the window, the sheen of the sun surged between branches and shimmered through the thin flesh of leaves.
“Where’d you guys meet?”
“You lucky dog—she’s a climber?”
“Yeah. I signed her up for her lesson.”
He coasted the truck downhill, and we joked with such testosterone that a deep breath would put a beard on anyone listening. At the lake, tourists already lined the beach, shouting, playing games, cooking breakfast on old, rusted barbeque pillars. We shouldered our packs and walked past them, hiking beneath stegosaurus-plated sugar pines and aiming toward a maze of cliff bands streaked with black runoff. Early season waterfalls hurdled off ledges and crashed into manzanitas. Everything was in the shadow of Tenaya Peak—a giant pyramid whose base stretched three times wider than tall.
Morning light played across boulder-laden fields and across the towering walls of feldspar and quartz. A blizzard of mosquitoes fell from the sky, mooring to our bodies. We hiked faster, slapping our arms and wiping at the sharp pinpricks that felt like nettle. Deer trails lead up to talus. Lupine and paintbrush chafed in the wind. Burnt logs resembled bears, and we waited fifteen minutes for one to walk back into the woods.
We made our way through the cliff bands to the base of the climb. I looked up the rock face. A pocket of snow the size of a baseball field held precariously to the wall in the middle of our route. It looked ready to slide.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Dustin cinched the shoulder straps of his backpack. “It looks soloable.”
I nodded, still wondering about the snowfield. I bent and tightened my shoelaces.
We ascended unroped. Small streams from melting snow swept down the rock. Delicately, Dustin stepped over thin rivulets of water, and I followed. The water shadowed deep stone flues and furrows, and I listened as it whispered with a tongue that was hundreds of thousands of years old.
“How is it just sitting there?”
“I don’t know,” Dustin said, gazing up.
“At least it’ll be fast if it calves off.”
The snow blocked our route. To the right, steeper rock tilted to near vertical— glassy, clean, holdless. “Smear time,” Dustin hollered, stepping onto the face, toes of his shoes pushed flat and hard against the rock for maximum friction. He climbed a long arc that skirted the side of the snow. I waited below, thinking about the info I’d read in the Greg Barnes guidebook: often a snow patch sits in the middle of the route until late June or July, and large slab avalanches have been seen in May. If there’s any snow on the buttress, wait until later in the season.
It’s not May, I told myself. I could hear water trickle beneath the snowfield where it was completely detached from rock. I waited for Dustin to reach a ledge. Far below, Tenaya Lake mirrored blue sky. Flashes of gold undulated on the lake’s surface along with the reflections of the white granite domes that rose from its water. Time went by uncounted and unobserved. I stared into space, the known world announced by the light filling my eyes. A bee hovered by my arm, and I waved it away.
“All good,” Dustin shouted.
I climbed onto the smooth slab of rock and balanced my weight onto the black rubber of my shoes. This was only our warm-up route for Half Dome, and it felt incredibly real. If I fell, there were just a few bounces off rock and then a thousand feet of air until the ground. But I desired such moments. I raced through the darkness of my thoughts like a deer dropped into a forest of wolves. My pulse quickened. The wind growled. There was only up, and I went up.
Far out on the rock face, I continued climbing, safe from avalanche. My arms and legs were the only things holding me to the mountain. Freedom, but also the fencelessness of thoughts. At a ledge, my mother’s words came, but I tucked them quickly away. Michelle came, and I let her remain. I envisioned us swimming in the lake, then eating a late-morning breakfast. Suddenly, I wanted to hold her. Then I was off the ledge and back climbing. Up usurped all, no different than a needle or one more glass of wine. My gut, my heart, my brain tried to get me to stop but failed. The mountain lifted skyward. Heaven somewhere to be found, welded to Earth. Another notch for the belt. I felt along
the wall. I climbed, knowing that what I loved could eventually kill me. “You’re not going to fall,” I told myself.
“Fucking badass.” Dustin greeted me with a fist bump, holding on to the wall with his other hand.
“Sick,” I said, looking down to the miniaturized world.
Wind met us on the summit. Wind shaped everything. Its body in the twisted limbs of Sierra lodgepoles and in the smooth, tilting sedge. The scent of water carried on wind. Wind visible in the ripples crossing Tenaya Lake and the wispy contrails of pollen. Ravens and vultures lifted into the sky. Their flight suggested wind. Clouds bloomed to the south and east. A sea of granite waves crashed into forests that gave way to meadows. The sun radiated off lightning-scarred rocks, its warmth carried to us by the wind. Wind nothing but a feeling, a force, a ghost. Wind carrying dreams.
“Smile.” Dustin took a picture and chuckled.
We left the summit and hiked cross-country toward Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle. Day waned as we completed the circuit of mountains we’d set out to climb. Navigating a cross-hatched section of earth made from animal trails, we came upon the dusty main trail that led back to my car, which we’d left at a different pull off.
We passed a group of climbers who’d spent the day on Cathedral Peak. “Climb of a lifetime,” the woman said. The other two leaned into trekking poles, sweat soaked and smiling. Unconcerned with the coming dark, they ate a snack. Shadows tucked into shadows.
“Beautiful,” one of the others chimed in. “Tomorrow, one more climb.”
“Hey,” Dustin called from the bed of his truck. Our cars were parked back to back in a dirt pullout on the side of Tioga Pass. “You want a peach?”
I sat up and shined my headlamp over. He cut open a can of peaches with a pocketknife and began eating with the blade. Shadow held the valley. Juice dripped between his dirty stubble, his hands blackened, bloodied, stained. He handed me one, then wiped the can with his finger, licked it, and together we watched the moon part the clouds. Silhouettes of trees started climbing walls of granite on the other side of the canyon. Wind snagged in branches of sugar pines and sequoias, broke into many winds that rose. “Makes you feel pretty small,” he said.
“No.” I shook my head. “Something more.” I waited. “You thinking about Half Dome?”
“Yeah. Pretty nervous.”
“Butterflies before every climb.”
“What’s the game plan?”
We inspected the guidebook in the light of our headlamps. We discussed who would lead which pitches, what gear we should bring, what food. We decided to approach the climb the next evening by navigating the notoriously steep Death Slabs—a much more strenuous approach but faster overall. At the base of the wall, there’d be ample places to set our sleeping bags to bivy and hopefully a running spring. The following day, at first light, we’d begin climbing. Though the Death Slabs worried me with the questionable ropes we’d be pulling on that linked near-vertical sections of rock, my mind drifted to Michelle. I didn’t think of my death but instead wondered what would happen to her if something happened to me. It was the first time I’d ever thought like this and so strange I pushed it away.
“We should get some sleep,” Dustin said.
The next day, in the parking lot at Curry Village, we organized a tangle of gear on a tarp, loading and unloading our backpacks until we were sure we had everything: rope, cams, nuts, anchor kit, ascenders, sleeping bags, headlamps, water, food. Dustin shot me a fey glance. I returned it.
“Let’s wait a bit longer,” he said.
“I don’t mind. It’s hot as hell,” I said, lying down on a picnic table.
“Mmhmm.” Dustin uncapped his sticker-laden water bottle and drank. “You think we need anything else?”
“Cordelette. Belay device. Helmet.”
“Maybe we should just get going.” “Might be good.”
“We’re overthinking it.”
This was Dustin’s favorite piece of gear. It was an old, ratty yellow one that he clipped to the first piece of gear above every anchor and made me do the same because it was designed to absorb the shock of a lead fall on a marginal piece of gear. He noticed it lying between his sleeping pad and tire well as he shut the back hatch of his truck.
“I don’t think it could hold body weight anymore,” I said.
“Maybe not, but it’s good luck.”
In the evening heat, we began walking the road toward the climber’s trail that would take us up to the base of Half Dome. The Merced swished. Day hikers walked by. A group of tourists riding bikes along the path laughed. Some climbers passed, haggard and sunburnt but eyes glowing. Dustin and I continued, packs feeling heavy, but we joked. Something awaited us. And it was scary. And it was invigorating.
We took a small, concealed trail off the main path and began the Death Slabs. We scrambled up near-vertical terrain, dislodging rocks that hurtled by, unhindered, for a thousand feet. We pulled on rotten ropes tied to trees barely holding to cracks higher up. The trunks and limbs were rubbed smooth from countless hands and feet. Branches cracked. The ropes were frayed and knotted—the knots connecting stronger sections of rope to bypass tattered sections nearly serrated through. Half Dome grew larger. The earth below shrank. We chugged our water. Hours later, in the transformative glow of evening light, we stood at the base of Half Dome.
“No spring,” Dustin shouted, having gone to look for water.
We slept close to the wall with our helmets on. Rocks whistled into the blackness and cut the night. One crashed close by. The Milky Way looked like a railroad across the sky .
“Nature.” Dustin guffawed.
Nothing so good. Nothing as monstrous and irreverent either. I pulled my sleeping bag tighter around my shoulders and hugged myself.
I couldn’t sleep, and I listened to Dustin stirring. I watched Orion’s Belt disappear. I faded, then awoke at first light, my watch buzzing. Our water bottles were frosted over. The ashen sky slowly brightened. We packed our sleeping gear into our packs and left them hanging in a tree. We would be back by nightfall, I thought, shoving my down jacket and headlamp into the lid. I had a lightweight fleece. It was my lead, and I didn’t want anything weighing me down.
I worked up the 5.10-rated crack, fighting to hold on to a thin seam, pushing my fingers as deep as they could go. My feet slipped. “What the fuck.” I grunted. Veins bulged from my forearms. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was sweating.
“Watch me,” I shouted. I wrestled the rock instead of performing ballet-style movements. A piece of gear protected me, so I went for it, letting out a grunt as I lunged upward. I fell.
“Are we on the right route?” Dustin shouted. He blew on his hands and then zipped up his jacket.
I inspected the rock above. A smooth crack split the wall, but there were no footholds. I couldn’t see a way. “This can’t be 5.10.”
“I think we’re supposed to be farther left.” Dustin leaned back, inspecting the wall.
An hour later, we were on route. I’d wasted precious time on what we later found out was the dubious 5.12 start to another route named Arcturus. My shirt was sweat- soaked. At a ledge, I wrung out my bandana.
We climbed higher. Specks on a wall, barely visible to the world. We freed and French freed to move faster. My hands were blackened, bloodied, stained with chalk. Traversing across the tenth pitch, I pulled the topo of the climb from my pocket and looked for where to go. A crack system rose to the right of the ledge system, and I continued to it, to the anchor where I fixed the rope for Dustin. Dustin ascended the rope with jumars.
I scanned the valley. A snake of dark-green forest was contained by walls of granite. In the distance, the prow of El Capitan faded into sky. Nothing visible beyond it. My gear sling, rattling with its surplus of cams and nuts, cut into my shoulder. I
readjusted it, but it slipped back onto the raw skin. It didn’t matter. I finished off one of the water bottles.
“We’re flying,” I called down to Dustin.
He leaned off the anchor, smiling. Then his head jerked up.
“Rock!” he yelled.
I leaned in, seeing the falling object in my periphery. It spun and moved erratically through the air, heading straight for me. I hugged the wall and closed my eyes. It impacted with a poof! A light tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes. “Beef jerky,” I said. Dustin laughed. We looked up. A Frisbee flew into space. A parachuting G.I. Joe floated by. Hikers, who made it to the summit by the cables trail, were throwing things off. We were too far away for our voices to carry up, so all we could do was laugh as we watched other edible-filled ziplocks drift through the air.
“Who would have thought you’d be killed by beef jerky.”
“It’s hard to plan for everything.”
Dustin took over the lead. Day waned and the temps dropped. We arrived at Big Sandy Ledge at dusk. “This is our last spot to bivy,” Dustin said. He looked up, bleeding hands wrapped around the daisy that connected him to the anchor.
“I’m exhausted,” I admitted.
“Let’s see what this next pitch is like.”
“I don’t have my jacket,” I said. “Or my headlamp.”
I tried to think of something else to say but couldn’t.
I put on my sweat-soaked shirt and then the thin fleece. I had only worn shorts. Dustin sighed.
Maybe out of spite, he led the next pitch. He moved slowly, up into the twilit sky. His headlamp beamed. I stood in the approaching darkness, waiting, everything taking longer in the chilling air. Finally, he shouted, “Off belay.”
He rappelled back to the ledge, and we made the decision to stay. We didn’t know the route, and Dustin worried I’d make a mistake in the dark. We were stuck. Going down was near impossible with all the traversing we had done. I played it cool, but my
mind raced. There was no help up here. No phone service. If I died, I was dying far away from the woman I’d fallen in love with.
“It can’t get that cold,” I said. “It’s June.” Dustin looked at me wearily.
We took off our gear and mounded it with some rocks. The wind still came. I grabbed his Yates Screamer and played with it. “I thought falling was the only danger.”
The end of day came ablaze with untamable colors as the sky fought over the last scraps of light. I watched from our ledge, already shivering. The rock held the last suggestion of warmth and I pressed my hand against the wall. Even love can be done wrong, left unspoken, shut into a world of flatness like a rare flower forgotten in a book. It was young love, but I wanted to tell Michelle that I loved her—that I’d go on loving her. Now, darkness spread its blanket over us as slowly as an eye closing.
In silence, Dustin and I snacked on granola. I gazed at the stars and into the vacancy between. Every inch of earth was shined smoother than glass by night. I thought about Michelle. Needs, wishes, desires—all forsaken for this vertical realm.
Dustin and I huddled together in the dark and wrapped the rope around our arms and legs, shivering mummies. There was just us and the night and the wind. “We’ll be okay,” Dustin said, and in the light of his headlamp, my breath passed, adrift and
floating. The cold tightened around my bones. Tomorrow didn’t care that we were here. I’m going to die, I thought, wanting to be with Michelle, realizing my stupidity. I closed my eyes and waited. Maybe tomorrow would come.
I wondered about kids. Not my kids, but the kids Michelle would have without me. I pushed the thought away, but the voice kept coming—you’re going to die if you keep it up. Michelle would go on living without knowing all I felt. We wouldn’t know any of what would happen: In four years, we’d quit our jobs and live together out of a van, traveling the world; in six years, we would be married; in eight years, we’d buy our house and find a new passion together, gardening. We’d never get our Chihuahua. None of this would happen.
Suddenly, the sky sounded as if it were being torn apart. We tucked close to the wall, expecting rockfall, but it was a human body that hurtled down. Then, just as quick, a snap and the parachute’s release.
A whoop echoed as the BASE jumper disappeared into the dark. I shivered, jealous of their earthbound direction, knowing they’d be warm soon. I looked at Dustin and then lay down. “Insane,” he said.
Throughout the night, the exfoliating flakes of Half Dome let loose, unpredictable guillotines severing whatever they contacted. Cold and colder. Dustin shook me, blue
light of his headlamp fending off pitch black: “Eat this,” he said over and over, handing me a few chocolate-covered espresso beans. “It’ll increase your metabolism. Keep you warm.” I convulsed. Five minutes of sleep, ten. I’d jerk awake. An arm or leg slipping over the ledge and into the abyss. I’d jerk back. Dark, black hours went by. Death was close, and I thought I was dying.
I awoke and groaned, teeth chattering. Dustin was already up, pale faced. The night was gone, etched into a frightening memory. Unhurriedly, dawn’s gray spread across the sky. I opened my hands and stretched my fingers. I shivered. I looked out at the blue green of the valley. I thought about the cold, of wiggling myself deeper into Dustin’s body, spooning him in uncaring delirium. I sat up. I didn’t want to think about the night.
“Longest night ever.”
“I thought you were going to freeze.”
“Me too. It was total bullshit about increasing my metabolism, wasn’t it?” “I don’t know. Probably.”
Small streams of smoke lifted through the poppy-seed trees far below. I imagined a couple making coffee, sitting in camp chairs with a blanket draped across their laps.
Soon, the valley would be alive—people biking, snapping pictures. I unfolded a picture of Michelle I kept in my pocket and looked at her. It was from a night out on the town—one of our first dates. She wore a green summer dress with small red flowers on it, her hair was down, and she stood with her hands crossed, smiling, as if to say, Here I am; take me or leave me. She smiled. I smiled.
I undraped the rope from my shoulders. Dustin pissed off the ledge.
“Six more pitches,” I said.
“And the click of a thousand tourists’ cameras.”
“Maybe someone will give us water.”
“Like we’d ever ask.”
I looked up and followed the wall to where it ended in a transparency of blue. The crashing of a dump truck miles away broke the silence. Dustin unclipped his duct-taped Nalgene and handed it to me.
“Finish this,” he said. “It’s your lead.”
I tied in and felt death beside me, but I was going to go slow. I was going to climb every inch of rock in control. I was going home.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than survival,” Dustin said.
“Yeah, man. Life.” I didn’t know what else to add. We didn’t speak of death, but it was there. Everything more beautiful because of it. My mom was right: I’m going to die. I’m going to fall in love too. The summit was up there, and it was my pathway inward, a place to discover things I would never be able to otherwise, where I am reminded of what I am connected to rather than what I am separate from.
I put my hands into the crack, and they were cut, their flesh peeled, grayed with aluminum, swollen, dirty. Printless fingertips with nothing for the soothsayer but torn calluses and raw salmon skin. Cuticles shaved off. Knuckles split open, blood dripping down thousands of feet of granite. Lizard skin. Elephant hide. These hands made ancient by batholiths and mountains named for gods and forgotten men. Frozen, thawed, burnt. Tools to get closer to touching heaven.
The sun rose and I climbed. One move, then the next. My hands stretched the span of a mountain, came closer to Michelle. Roughed hands seeking the curve of her hip and soft skin of her thighs. Brillo hands that would stick to each strand of her hair when I combed my fingers through. Cracked calluses caught on the elbows of her sweater, fastening to small pieces of fine wool. I wanted to hear Michelle say, “Here I am,” feel her pull me close, lace her hands into these gnarled bristlecone fingers.
My hands stuck to the rock.
“Hey,” Dustin yelled up. “You should place a piece. Protect the anchor.”
I traversed across Thanksgiving Ledge, and I placed a cam and clipped it with the ratty Yates Screamer. Wind came. I listened and heard the voices of hikers on the summit. The rock warmed. I was thirsty and exhausted. I was going home.
Matt Spohn is receiving his MFA in poetry from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Michelle, and their climbing Chihuahua, Zoozoo. Matt has freed El Cap, rapped El Cap, bailed off of El Cap, and had a bag of poo tossed on him on El Cap. He has also freed other big walls around the world. When he’s not climbing, he helps run Stoneworks Climbing Gym and coaches a youth climbing team.