Monday, 15 October 2012

Within these Walls (Part I)

The Valley, Yosemite National Park

Sunrise on the Captain from Middle Cathedral

Every self respecting climber knows this place. The birth of big wall climbing on these colossal hulks of granite and the scene of outstanding free climbing. Since the 50's the valley has become a place where the Masters of Stone constantly expand our perception of what is possible, deeper into the realms of insanity (meaning ridiculously amazing).

For me it's a chance to take a look into the mirror. To chisel away at my ego and get a real glimpse of 'where im at'. In other words, to get my arse kicked. It's been 3 weeks since we arrived and my plans of 'great sends' have taken a flogging and my body feels like it's been run over by a dump truck. But you know what? I'm more psyched than ever before.

Week One: Hopeful 
It starts with the south west face of El Capitan. The majestic titan was towering over us as we pulled over at my frantic request. You cannot help but feel microscopic as you picture yourself up that immense face. All 3,000ft of it. Soon, please can it be soon. These are my immediate thoughts as i gaze upward in a trance at 'The Nose', one of the most classic big walls in the world. In time i suppose, it's a long road. Anyway, time to focus on the present. It's getting dark. Damn, where we going to sleep tonight?

My buddy Matt and i smashed out the drive all the way from Leavenworth, Washington (a bouldering spot) a few days ago to meet up with the rest of the tribe that had slowly disbanded back in Squamish around mid August, only to assemble back in Camp 4. Sure enough we gravitated together in minutes. It was good to see the guys again.

"Ahh" we all chime as we crack open a fresh beer for the reunion. We trade stories and catch up as night envelopes the camp. The topic of sleep comes up just as the rangers arrive. Anyone who has slept in Camp 4 knows the right of passage most of us have to endure to get a camping spot. It pretty much involves lying in the dirt, sleeping in front of the Kiosk from 5 a.m until they open up and assign available spots at 8:30 a.m. So.. what to do until then? They promptly give us the routine options of either paying for a night in the nearby hotel or leave the park. We nod and say 'Yessir' and melt into the nearby woods where we're aided in finding 'alternative accommodation' for the night. What else do they expect?

That night i wake up to feel some sniffing on the other side of the tent right next to my head. A Raccoon.  Damn, i left an apple in my backpack. My pillow.I slap the wall and run into the night in my boxers, delivering the apple to a nearby bear box. Lesson one, always have smelly stuff in the boxes or the critters will get you. They are relentless. I wake up again at 5:30 a.m to join the queue.

A typical line up for Camp 4
All settled in, the week commences with some bouldering. As expected, the camp 4 boulders are slick as butter from 3 decades of climbers rubber. Horrified at how 'spicy' we found the warm ups we move on in search of friction and luckily find some excellent problems down in curry village. The climbs go well and i match the grades of Squamish. This is encouraging.The next day, my buddy Drew and i go to climb an easy classic. The Central pillar of Frenzy. Enjoying the momentum i think im building up we get to the base of the crag in the mid afternoon hoping all the crowds are gone. Nope, all the belays are chocka block and we hear screams of "Taaake, f**king taake" and "Waatch me, arrgghh!". I recoil in disbelief at the amount of epics or about to be epics we're witnessing. We leave the battlefield a little disheartened but not deterred.
I'll climb the other 5.9 route up the hill tomorrow with Lauren, it should be less crowded.

The next morning we scramble to the base of the Kor Beck route. Not surpised we find a party landing at the base just before us. Ok lets wait a bit. A 'bit' it was indeed. They take pictures, enjoy the some food...hmm. My British politeness keeps us waiting a little longer..ok their climbing..wait whats happening? Why has the belayer got both hands off the ATC and making tape gloves whilst the leader's elvis leg is increasing in intensity?!!. We bolt down the hill and leave this potential catastrophe after a few tries at raising his awareness. It had been an hour and a half. Lesson number 2. Don't get up early in peak season to climb the easy classics from the Supertopo guide.

The following day was spent climbing the easiest classics with nobody else at all. It was then in that moment, feeling nothing but the wind, the sound of my own breath and move after move of synchronicity of body and mind that i started to love this place. The mighty walls of Half Dome and The Sentinel stood silently ahead beckoning those with courage but demanding the utmost respect too. I wanted to be on those faces. To give myself fully and be part of the landscape. To draw as much energy from the earth and conquer the villain that is my ego and give an honest effort to see what i've got.

But how much of that can you give in such a moment, when your up there and it's real? That's all i want to know, as the climbs get longer, harder and higher.

The Sentinel from the top of Sunnyside Bench
The NW Face of Half Dome
By the end of the week, Lauren and i are hiking up the approach gully for Higher Cathedral Peak. The route is 12 pitches of 5.8-5.9 and begins about 800ft above the valley floor. A good start to the longer routes in Yosemite. (I think to myself). The first 6 pitches flow by smoothly and it's great to already be so high in the valley. We have a bite to eat and enjoy the view of Cathedral Spire piercing the blue sky opposite.

Ok, time to begin the second half of the route. Flared chimneys. Looks like fun!

Enjoying the sustained chimney pitch! (Not yet realising how long i've got to go.)
The pitch is long and sustained. After the initial flare, i clip an assortment of pitons and pull over the overhang. Crikey, this is steep for 5.9. I continue up the next section of chimney as it tightens into a squeeze. Breathing in and using my chest to press against the constriction i coil my legs up again and repeat until i eventually writhe my way out of the top and am relived to be able to breath again. Wow another bulge. Time for more panting and pressing my way up this hold less flare. Thank goodness for the crack in the back. 

After 50 meters i make a belay and bring Lauren up who has to endure the ordeal of trailing the backpack. (The damned 'baby' that won't fit on your back in these formations). It's pretty brutal for her. I hear encouraging comments from a party behind us. After about 40 minutes of weight training she joins me at the belay. She is dripping. Hey lets drink! The leader from the next party joins us too in haste to reach the top. They are pleasant but it's cramped and 3 of us are shoulder to shoulder inside this gaping crack. I am keen to keep moving so i opt to lead the next pitch, with the bag. I think this is a good idea as the next 30 meters of the chimneys is 'only 5.8'. I hurriedly place a couple of pieces above the belay so i don't squash Lauren, but still manage to swat her around the head with my bag. Sorry love. In no time a torrent of salt water is spilling down my face. I thrutch my way up to the ledge, with the backpack defiantly snagging on every spike and cramming itself into every crack. I roll onto the ledge in a heap. A bit more challenging than i wanted. When i come back in touch with reality i make a belay and clip the bag to the anchor.

Cathedral Spires from the 8th bealy
With the crux section out of the way we let the party pass and rest with some food and water...The sun begins to set. Time to get a move on for our last push. The climbing is fun varied cracks, a relief from the previous couple of hours. At last we are near the summit. As i chimney, we are now in full darkness. This is where part 2 of our adventure begins.

"Just traverse over the first death shoot and follow the cairns down and around" they had said. Ok we can do that. We scoff a surprise avocado and take a sip of aqua each. Only one more left and we are out. Those chimneys were thirsty work. We get going and hike up to towards the summit. To our left we see a steep yawning gully leading downward into the abyss of utter darkness. Ok, lets avoid that. Skirting around that, we spend the next hour making our way downwards following the cairns like check points. From time to time we go down too far into the brush and waist precious moisture by hiking back up the loose slope to the last point. Every deliberation on where we are going is affected by the need for water. My mouth is so dry. I start to breath through my nose to save on moisture.

At last we find some cairns traversing left. But to where? We go up and down and find nothing. We go further left but don't see a trail. We stop and each take a last sip. I swill the last of drops of water in my mouth and feel every pore soak it up, relishing its sweet taste. Better than anything. We've been up here a long time and i can feel my body wanting to panic. I think about all the heros i've read about and know that we can be without water for 3 days but my discomfort does not subside. We can hear the creek at the bottom of the valley. Even though we are supposed to the find the notch that takes us down the other side to 'Our Valley' we both say 'fuck it'.

Both of us charge downwards into the brush. Like moths to a flame we kamakazie down through the ever thickening brush to the mesmerizing sound of the creek. The slope begins to steepen and we are literally swimming down through the archaic brush. We get closer and find a few small cliffs. We are hesitant but we've come this far, hiking back up would be awful. So we skirt around and do some 4th class down climbing. Once we're down we turn around and see cascading water shimmering in our head lamps. Success! We fill our bottles and drain as much as possible. Ahh, much better...SHIT! The water bottles shoots down with the water like a fish. Running beside the creek i pounce on the runaway and capture it. With a sigh of relief, we give each other a tired smile and decided to build a fire for the night and wait for dawn.

Hours later after dozing and feeding the fire, light begins spill into the valley at last. We leave the warmth of the little circle and begin the hike back. After a slow hour we find the notch. Spitting distance away from our last checkpoint!

Another hour and we are dragging our feet back into camp 4 and cracking a beer before sleep.

Lauren and I at the 'Notch' the next day.

With the first week over in Yosemite, what was going to come next?

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