Dirtbag Dispatches: The Big Stone, published in Adventure Magazine New Zealand, Aug/Sept 2016
by Derek Cheng
The Big Stone. To some, it is too indomitable to comprehend, residing in the realm of the impossible. Only the insane would venture up there. To others, the draw is irresistible. The grandeur, the challenge of the incomprehensible, the impossible, the insane.
Everything is intensified when you’re high up. Exposure is immense, even crippling. Survival instincts burst into overdrive, magnifying your falling screams with something raw and unhinged. Uncertainty permeates. Will we find the way, and if so, will we be able to climb it? Will we hear each other in this violent gale, or see each other under fire from these hail stones? How many hours will it take to rappel 25 times to get down if everything turns to custard? Most preciously, what if I lose my balance while hovering over the poo-bag?
The Meadow in Yosemite Valley is a haven for dreamers who gaze up at the daunting face of El Capitan, the most famous Big Wall in the world, and concoct plans to defeat it. It was first climbed in 1958, by the inimitable Warren Harding and his band of unmerry men; many of Harding’s climbing partners who helped siege the wall over 47 climbing days, spanning a year and a half, lost heart and dropped out. But Harding prevailed, pulling over the top rim of El Capitan one November dawn after pounding in 28 bolts through a marathon night of unprecedented endurance.
“However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered,” he later quipped. “I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.”
Today, mutants run up El Capitan in a day. Mega-mutants do it twice in a day, or even three times. The speed record for The Nose, the proud prow that eventually succumbed to Harding’s efforts, is an astonishing 2 hours and 23 minutes. Most parties take four or five days to climb El Cap, hauling up power bars and nuts – Meghan Curry gained notoriety when she climbed El Cap subsisting on bugs, such as protein bars made of cricket granola – four litres of water per person per day, an unbreachable bag to hold toilet deposits.
El Cap’s walls can be almost completely featureless, free-climbable only by super-mutants. Mere mortals resort to aid-climbing. While free climbers place gear in the nooks and crannies of the rock face to protect against a fall, aid-climbers grab the gear, weight it, pull on it, plead with it, molest it, anything to move higher up the stone. Hard aid climbs involve sketchy gear in fiddly placements, while huge vacuums of falling space circle ravenously below.
There are few features as majestic as the Salathe headwall, resplendent near the top of El Cap, where the angle kicks back and the gravity sharks salivate in the void below. The 60m-face is split at the bottom by a tiny seam, which grows to a crack that weaves its way through a small roof, before biting back down to a seam, arching to the glorious salvation of Long Ledge.
In 1961, when a team led by Yosemite hardman Royal Robbins first surmounted the Salathe, they had only pitons, hammers, a handful of bolts, and wills of steel. No sticky rubber, chalk, cams or wires or hooks, climbing gyms to build bulging biceps.
The headwall is sure to ignite your senses to heightened awareness. Just reaching it, 30-odd pitches from the base, is a battle. The Salathe is known for awkward, wide crack systems that provoked a torrent of curses from our climbing trio. On day one, Hannah brilliantly overcame the Hollow Flake, a steep and unprotectable chimney 300m above the valley floor. On the third evening, five pitches behind schedule, Mike led two pitches in the dark and the wet, pushing through rain, wind, hail, and the discomfort that his cold had been hurling at his sinuses.
We awoke on the morning of the fourth day to a common Big Wall scenario. Stiff and tired, with limited supplies. Either we top out today, or we add hunger and thirst to our aching, fatigued bodies.
A series of tiered roofs guard the base of the headwall. The tiny seam sprouting from the base of the headwall looked ridiculous. Ridiculous! I started up, placing small wires (metallic blocks that are wedged into gaps in the rock). Then, a cam with only two of its lobes engaged (a properly placed cam has four lobes equally engaged). “Oh boy” were words that frequently escaped my lips as I gingerly weighted these pieces.
Comfort breezed back into my being when I moved out of the seam and into a wider crack. So engaging was the movement as I climbed over a roof and into a chimney slot that I barely noticed the increasing exposure. The final, arching seam beckoned.
I placed the smallest cam I had in the seam, and pulled on it. It seemed to stay put, but it laughed at me. Ferociously. As if it found its tenuous position the most hilarious thing in the history of mankind. Below the cam was a tiny wire placement, barely thicker than a blade of grass, wedged into a constriction in the rock. Almost all my weight was on this piece, and it, too, struggled to hide its amusement.
Slowly, hesitantly, I unweighted the wire and stepped into a piece of webbing attached to the cam, transferring my weight. I glared at the cam, willing it to take my weight, holding my breath, squeezing my insides.
The sound of metal moving against rock is barely audible if you’re not breathing. A flurry of sounds and a flailing of arms erupted. I don’t remember if I shrieked. And then, I was flying.
My ear was searing. The cam had popped out and launched an immediate offensive, catapulting towards my right earlobe. The wire below it never had a chance. Such small placements barely hold body weight, let alone the full force of a fall. It burst from the wall.
Another wire five metres lower might have arrested my fall, but I had unclipped my rope from it. I was nearing the end of a 60m pitch, so I had unclipped it to preserve gear for the last section to Long Ledge, which was rushing skywards as gravity increased her grip.
A yellow cam another metre lower was, I thought, immovable. One of the lobes had inverted to the point that I had resigned myself to buying my friend a new one. But reality disagreed with my assessment. The punch of the fall yanked it free, and it, too, launched an offensive in the general area of my face.
Am I still falling? This must be massive if I have time to think, “Am I still falling?”
Finally, mercifully, four metres further below, a well-placed cam caught the rope. The dizzying mash of colours and shapes slowly took form as I stretched to a stop in clean air; the wall is so overhanging that I didn’t come close to scraping against it.
The first thing I did was rub my ear, and then my arms, to see if I was still whole. Then, I saw the yellow cam. “Hey, Mike! I got your cam out!” I declared with undeserving triumph.
Mike just shook his head. “Are you okay?” was his suitable response.
Dirtbags are frugal characters, with unnecessary spending constantly ruling their thoughts. I had fallen maybe 16m, 17m, and all I could think about was the money I would no longer have to spend to replace the cam.
Reaching the top of The Big Stone releases a flood of relief and transcendent delight. It’s like emerging from war – victorious, exhausted, in desperate need of a shower, overwhelmed with desire for burgers.
I had managed to shake off my huge fall, pull back onto the rock – with some understandable hesitation – and climb back up to the seam. I even used the same pieces of gear, supplemented with other wires, and they had held firm. Near the top, the seam pinches down to nothing, and with 800m of air below me, I clung to sloping holds and pulled my extended frame onto Long Ledge. From there, it was four easier pitches to the rim.
The taste of success was sweeter after the rain and hail, the uncertainty and fear, the falls both massive and minuscule. Surveying the valley far below, I couldn’t help but unleash a different kind of scream – full of joy and the kind of bliss that follows success after adversity.
The following day, lounging in the meadow, I kept following the features up the routes I had climbed, re-living the huge flight time on the Salathe headwall. Such intense experiences are forever emblazoned in my memory. Playing on The Big Stone infuses you with a profound vitality that fizzes through your whole being, long after you’re back on terra firma.
To paraphrase Reinhold Messner, who was the first to reach all 14 summits above 8000m: pushing yourself to the limit delivers the most intense life experiences, bringing you intimately close to your potential, your best self. You only see what you’re capable of when you try something you think is beyond you.