Maybe it’s just a sign of getting old, but each time I come back to Yosemite I get the feeling that I should make this one my last. The place haunts me when I’m away, and it haunts me when I’m here - I guess it just haunts me.
I’m here for three weeks, sort of a holiday after months of pretty intensive work or more intensive ‘life changing stuff’, with no fixed plans apart from climbing the Nose with some mates next week. I’ve done no climbing and no training, not even a quick Stanage hit, or ten minutes on a rower since climbing Moonlight Buttress in mid march. When I came back from Antartica I was in the best form ever, and had some big plans, but work, moving house, trying to make a new life out of an old one, have left me pretty much less fit than ever (there’s nothing quite like a big roll of fat pocking out of your harness to spoil your superhero psych!).
I should really treat this as a holiday, but as usual I feel the drums beating in me, and just can’t relax enough to just think ‘have a week off, enjoy the sun, the meadow, bullshitting in the cafeteria, eating ice cream’ - no I feel I have to make the most of every moment. I know that I can never seem to really switch off until I’m too exhausted to care.
And so yesterday I decided I would head up and try a one day solo of the West Face of Leaning tower, a classic I’ve never done (and like most ‘classics’ I turned my nose up at, only to find there are no ‘easy routes’ and all routes in the valley well traveled are well traveled for a reason). To solo a wall you need to have a good level of fitness, but I just thought I could wing it (to solo a wall you need to lead, rap the rope, then clean, so to climb 50 metres you have to travel 150m). To speed solo a wall you really need to both be on top form psychically, but also have all your systems dialled. I think doing maybe two or three walls before hand with a partner, then a wall in a day with a partner would be ideal pre speed solo training. Well as usual I just thought I’d tough it out.
The good thing about speed soloing is that it’s good for the knees, as you are carrying the bear minimum. Everything I needed: rack, 80 metre Petzl 9.2mm rope, 2 litres of water, fleece, 4 cliff bars, headtorch, fitted in a 32 litre Montane Medusa 32 pack. I’d pared down my rack to the bare bones, about half the rack it said you needed to climb the route (based on a mates recommendations - which proved wrong).
Woke up a 4.30am in the woods and ate 3 bananas and set off up the trail in the dark, something I’ve always found spooky since watching the Blair Witch project. The approach goes through a large boulder field, not a place to get lost when your by yourself (I was aware the only people who knew where I was where those who’d read a tweet I’d sent the night before). To take my mind off things I started trying to walk like Bear Grylls, jumping flamboyantly from rock to rock, always bent down and looking around me in case the invisible man was about to try and push me over.
Walking in the dark, picking up a trail of cairns, the nooks and crevices splashed in cobwebs, I thought about how Yosemite is like a place held in amber, with not only the mountains and walls changing in with geological slowness, but seemingly also the people, the food, the very fabric of the civilisation that lies in its folds and crevices. Everything is as it was the very first time I came here in the mid nineties, from the woman at the check out, to the topping on a pizza. Perhaps that’s why the place is so popular, why all these tourists keep coming back all the time - that familiarity. Maybe that’s why I come back as well, because I know I will never be turned away by the stone.
I used to joke that most hard mountaineering was like stalking, full of unrequited lust and love, and that men who where prepared to persevere and unhealthily obsess could one day succeed (or go mad trying). But Yosemite is not like that, its love is easy - too easy - with out moods or tantrums, troubles, traumas or issues (unlike the Alps or Patagonia). Because it’s so easy, this love, you take it for granted, and forget it is in fact true love, that is love does not have to come with pain.
Every time I return I feel the ghosts of my previous visits, and thoes people who no longer come come all around me, Leo, Chongo, Alex and Thomas, Timmy, hundreds of people who seemed like part of this place as the rock itself, but where not. Just cobwebs. Perhaps they had seen the same ghosts, felt this easiness of the place, and had chosen not to come back and face them, instead find new places, un-haunted by their past. Perhaps it’s only when I know I’ll never return that I’ll understand that the easiness of this place - the love - was not a reason to turn my back on it.
I arrived at the base of the wall after 40 minutes and traversed over to the start of the line, sort of a scary via ferrata along a ledge with some free moves above over a big drop, protected by a hand line of old tatty rope. It’s one of those routes here the ground is dropping away steeply below, and so by traversing in you get instant exposure. The first four pitches can usually be linked into two long pitches with a 60 metre rope, but having an 80 metre rope I wondered if I could link all four (just writing these words makes me realise that A: I’m not good at maths, and B: I’m an optimist (with no clue about maths). To make this work I was going to have to kind of free aid solo (ie solo without a belay) up the bolts on the first pitch, so just trusting one bolt at at time. So as not to have all my eggs in one basket (well one bolt), I looped my rope through the belay bolts and clipped into both ends, so that if a bolt failed I’d only fall 80 metres (yes - I am an optimist) - a system called a ‘death loop’ for good reason (BTW this and other highly dangerous solo tricks will feature in my Solo tech book on Kickstarter - which is 100% funded, but please pledge if you want a copy) Sticking my pack on my back I started up the bolt ladder, a mix of good 10mm new bolts (yah!) and some older button head bolts (eeek!), really feeling the weight of my pack as I went up the super steep wall (I read this is the steepest wall in North America - but not sure about that?).
After about twenty metres I got to some fixed junk (copperheads and pegs), so untied one end of the rope, pulled it up, and clipped it to two bolts and started roped soloing.
An eighty metre pitch is a hell of a long pitch (just imagine a 100 metre running track, and just knock off twenty metres… and stick it on its end… actually that doesn’t sound far enough). I past one belay, then two, then three, my rope getting shorter and shorter, almost at the end as I rocked onto Guano ledge, with just a few feet left to go. The bolted belay was only an arms length away, but I only had a Hair’s breadth’s of rope left. Unless I was going to down-climb all the way back to the last belay I had to improvise, so used one of my aiders to span the gap (I seem to remember that where full strength, but maybe that was a packet of mints?). This may sound a bit sketchy, but I’m not one to trust my life to a single well used aider - so clipped on my chest harness as well - bomber dude!
Trying to put my make shift belay to the back of my mind I rapped down using a Petzl Grigri 2 (rapping down an overhanging wall, past a load of gear on a single skiny rope would be a bit too scary with just a reverso), clipping past the gear on the way down (leaving it in means I’d be close to the rock on the way back up). Sticking on my pack I jugged back up with care, feeling both the weight for my pack pulling me back, as well the skinny bounciness of the 9.2mm rope. The trick to jugging on skinny ropes going over lots of sharp edges is great care, but jugging a semi free hanging rope with a pack on makes this pretty tough - meaning I was soon feeling knackered (the trick would be to re-belay the rope one the way down to limit stretch, but the rope was too tight to do this).
Eventually I reached the belay and had a drink, then set off to lead the fifth pitch, a very cool traverse, then up a crack with some nice 5.8 free climbing. Due to the nature of it being a traverse, I left both ends of the rope tied to the belay, so I could rope down one side back to the belay (rapping a rope clipped through a ton of gear on a traverse sucks and wastes a lot of time). At the belay I looked up at the next stance and wondered if I could link it before my rope ran out (not really thinking I was actually climbing on a 40 metre rope now both ends where tied to the belay). Half way across the bolt traverse I got my answer - no, so made a belay off two of these bolts and rapped down and cleaned the pitch. By now I’d been going for six hours, so averaging one hour a pitch (to lead, rap and clean), which meant I was on for a pretty speedy ascent. The problem was my body was not co-operating, my fingers, feet and waist were hurting, plus I was now feeling my 4:30 start (still a bit jet lagged as well), and a lot of little things were irritating me, and then the sun came round (I realised I’d forgotten bring my sun cream). I had yet to really get into a rhythm, and felt my system was wrong - and started to worry about getting slower and slower (I had 4 pitches left to the top, which I could link into 2). I pulled out the topo and saw there was no way I could fail from here. Even if I took twice as long I’d still get there in the day light. Then I spotted on the topo the rack called for a 4.5 inch cam, the size cropping up twice on the pitches above. I looked down at my single Camalot 3 and felt my psych draining out of me. “Come on Kirkpatrick you’re just looking for an excuse to bail!” I told myself, looking down not up for the first time. With only one rope I wan’t even sure I could get down. I now started to feel very exposed, and how my rack was tiny (one set of cams and two link cams, half a set of nuts and 4 micros) and may not get me up the next few pitches, especially if I was trying to link them. The sun beat down on me. “Keep going until you can’t go on” I told myself. I used my visualisation tool of a gnarly hand on a ship’s tiller, and started up pitch seven. But the damage had been done, and my pace got slower with each placement, the high I climbed the further my psyche descended, until half way up I cracked. I had every excuse to bail, and was not interested in many reasons why not to. I let myself off the hook, stuck in two nuts and started rapping down.
The descent was ‘interesting’ and when I reached the final two pitches I just fixed the rope (so I could rap 2 pitches in one), swinging in as I went down it to clip in quick draws so I’d hit the ledge and not get stuck hanging in space (Troll wall epics here good training for this). By fixing one rope I would be safe on the ground faster, but I’d have to come back with a second rope later (my job after I post this blog).
The last few metres saw me hugging a dead tree as I fought gravity to deposit me down on the ledge. Phew!
I stumbled down back to my car, feeling pretty wasted, knowing that although it had not worked out, at least I was blowing the cobwebs of the Kirkpatrick muscles, enjoying that Valley feeling, like you’d just been in a fight (it feels better when you’ve won though). I often tell people that when you try something very hard, and a bit risky, the most important thing is not reaching the top - it’s starting it in the first place. Think of it like an inverted summit. On such projects failure is far more common than success, in fact it is to be expected, but if you view it as I do, then even failure is a success. Take a moment to revel in the fact that you are alive - and I did.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram