Vanessa woke me, the pre dawn summit light creeping in around my hat, head stuck under the edge of our home made two person sleeping bag, the material damp from our shared breathing and sock smelly after ten days on the wall. The wall was below us now. “Let’s walk to the summit and see the sun come up” she whispered in my ear, a soft Irish nag to my ‘leave me be’ groaning, my forty four-year-old body stiff after a night on the ground, not hung over sagging portaledge nylon. “Christ, where do you get your fucking energy from?” I mumbled into the warm fabric. Most who’d just climbed El Cap would be wiped out for a week and in no need of a dawn hike in the winter snow. But then Vanessa is like a switch, she is either on or off, and after a year together I knew she was like a child who would not go back to sleep, not satiated by a lye-in in a stinky bed. I opened one eye to buy me some time as she moved her body over mine, saw her rock star hair cast over me, cloud crazy, raining down, touching my face, more animal than human. To look at this girl’s hair would tell you all you ever needed to know about her, crazy and dangerous and wild, like shagging Slash from Guns and Roses - sans hat. “Wake up polar bear” she nagged on, squeezing my nose, her movements letting slip out the shared warmth of the bag, the winter trickling in and pooling around me, making this hard man whimper. “I want to see the sun come up with you” she persisted, “but I’ll go by myself if you don’t want to come” she added, well aware I’d not let her go alone, that I’d let myself down if I did. I’d been to the top of El Cap way too many times to remember, dragged my shit up here both feeling both like a victor and like a man shipwrecked, shared these bushes and flat spaces with so many that now it was just camping, yet I remembered once there had been that magic, a magic now I only found through the prism of another’s eyes: the rocks, the trees, the pinecones, the piles of stones, the air: to stand on top of this crucible of desire and hard work and effort, to feel for once satisfied. Then another thought popped back into my head, a desire to do something, a commitment to make: an offer, a question, that could not be squandered by sleep, that this was no ordinary morning, this no ordinary partner. “OK, I’m coming” I mumbled, forcing my body to move, to show it was no bluff, but careful, my stiff spine feeling like it may snap if I was too keen. “I need a cup of tea,” I said, “you can have one when we come back” her reply. I slipped my arm out of the bag and opened my other eye and saw her lips smiling, chapped by the cold, the rest of her face hidden by hair. I reached out and tried to pull some of her energy from her aerials to the cosmos, felt it wool thick, cold with the slowly dying embers of frost still from where it had snuck out of the bag in the night. I needed to find my knife, and find a small length of three mil cord I thought, as she jumped out of the bag and began pulling on her shoes, the cold coming in now in a tsunami. “We need to be quick” she called with a kick to my back, adding, “you said I’d be knackered this morning, but I feel grand”. To men my age the idea of sharing your life with a woman fourteen years younger than you may seem like a bit of a fantasy, but to be honest it’s not, it’s makes you feel twice as old sometimes, twice as stiff, twice as slow, like all you want is a pipe a slippers, life sometimes feeling like you’re Frank Sinatra’s Von Ryan chasing after that fucking train.
The first night I ever met Vanessa, talking in Trinity College Dublin in 2014, was also the first night I met Cian O’Leary, a rough looking guy who was standing near the entrance of the venue as we left, a guy who looked out of place in his trainers and hoody and baseball cap amongst the down jackets and fleece. I can’t remember what he said as I distracted that evening, both by life crap, but also this woman Vanessa who’d asked me over to speak (I was £140,000 cheaper than Bear Gryll’s it turned out) and was leading me to the pub while regaling me with stories about her love for BG. For some reason that night I do remember Cian, and it turned out to be a very auspicious night for all of us.
It was probably several months later that I met Cian again, down at Dorky Quarry in Dublin, me and this girl Vanessa at the start of something special, me moving into her house without really asking if I could (sometimes moving in is as easy as not going home). People often ask me ‘what would have happened if you’d not met V’ to which I have no reply, I really can’t think of an alternative life. All I know is that in that time of my life, in a storm partly of my making, I was slowly succumbing to a poison and that I was lucky enough to find the one person in the world who unknown to her had an antidote. I loved going to the quarry, and in many ways, Vanessa reintroduced me to what climbing was all about - what life is all about - the simple act of living just that and no more. Climbing did not have to be about danger and suffering and going big, but fun and movement and dreaming small, me climbing more in the last year than I had in the last ten. But on that day while I stood belaying I saw a dodgy character lurking around the base of the climbs, a guy in a tracksuit and baseball cap, looking up to no good. “Oh hi, Cian” shouted Vanessa from half way up the climb. It was Cian O’Leary.
It turned out that my impressions of Cian where no so far off, and it’s not for me to tell his story, but him, but lets say he had a very rough passage through his teenage years and had stories that would make your hair stand on end, and in many ways, even at such a young age, Cian is a survivor. The funny thing was talking to Cian, a guy all smiles and jokes, I saw something of myself in there, and a lot of real people I’d known who got fucked or fucked themselves. Cian’s passage to climbing had been unconventional, a day’s climbing after six months of rehab suddenly giving a chemical life some new meaning. In the two years since Cian had gone straight, working in an ice-cream shop beside the sea, and pushing his grade, getting good results in the indoor comps. Most climbers you meet these days are either students or professionals; you don’t meet too many on minimal wage selling ice-cream. One thing I recognised straight away with Cian was here was someone who you would remember, a guy with charisma and charm and a good heart, even if maybe he didn’t know it himself.
The next time we met was down at Awesome Walls in Dublin, sat on the couch drinking tea, a female friend Sinead asking about the necessity for strap-ons for a winter walk demonstrating the two of us had an equally stupid sense of humour. Sat there Cian said how amazing it must be to climb a big wall, that it was mind boggling to him the very idea of being up on a wall for days and days, Cian only having done of eighty-metre multi pitch route before. “Why don’t we go and climb El Cap together?” I asked, as usual not thinking it through. “Are you fucking joking?” replied Cian, and I guess I wasn’t because we did.
And so three weeks ago there we were, me, Cian, Vanessa and ‘strap-on’ Sinead, below the Nose in March, only one of us having any clue what we were doing (they’d done one session at the wall aiding on bolts, and jugging, and that was it). I think climbing with inexperienced teams had become my thing over the last few years, something I get a kick out of (even if Alex Huber says I’m just into ‘self-sabotage’), but at times this seemed like I’d pushed things a bit too far on this one.
Going for the Russian technique of ‘learning by doing’ I chucked the three of them at the first four pitches of the Nose, an afternoon’s work turning into two days of scary learning for them. It took a further day to fix and get our three haul bags up to sickle ledge for their first night in portaledges, our speed becoming apparent when Erik Sloan and partner shot past us at 7 am having just taken thirty minutes to climb what had taken us two days of effort. But we were not after any records. We had a ton of food plus five litres of red wine. We were going for a Harding style ascent, and for every sigh or small trough of fear or anger or frustration, there was a wave of laughter, friendship and love.
The climbing progressed day after day, the winter days short, each person learning how to jug, lead, clean and haul on a real wall, the Nose far more involved to clean and haul than much harder routes (with featured rock, lower outs, pendulums, etc.). It’s fair to say that for a lot of the route everyone was hard pressed and I keenly felt the pressure to keep everyone safe. At times I’m afraid to say I lost it a bit with people, and later Vanessa told me she saw a side of me she had never seen before and could see why I’d not climbed with some people twice (also soloist are notoriously lousy at dealing with other people, especially those that are bloody clueless!). People began to admit that they were in fear of doing something wrong and me seeing it, to which I replied: “good, what you think of as me is the first stages of healthy paranoia!”
There was a big storm coming through mid week and instead of staying on the ground and wasting time I wanted to push up to El Cap tower and sit it out (and fix up), so this added an extra level of stress as most big wallers don’t head up with the intention of getting hammered. Our speed was not helped by the fact I did no leading, wanting the team to feel they were not being guided up, leaving it to them to deal with the sharp end, saving my comments for such things as “if you fall now you’ll die Vanessa” as I watched her leapfrog two cams twenty metres. Vanessa’s lead up to Dolt tower in the dark was a long one, her reply “10:30 pm?” when I asked her what time she thought it was when I cleaned the pitched and reached her. The actual answer was 1:30 am, and it was 4 am by the time we went to bed, but then on a wall you run to your one timetable
We made it to El Cap tower the day of the storm, but not before I made Vanessa cry, losing it with everyone, telling them they could not be passengers or tourists, but had to become team and help each other, not just switch off (then flipped my anger at myself for having two high an ambition for people with no experience at all for this).
The storm arrived on time and gave us a good pummelling (wind, snow, rain), but we stayed pretty comfortable, having taken enough kit for an ascent of Trango. The storm allowed me to wind Vanessa up about holding my hand tight as my Fish ledge lurched in the dark, it felt as if we were rounding the horn, not bolted to the wall.
Having spent a week on the wall at this point it seemed best if I started leading a bit, and so tackled the Texas flake as ice fell on us from the summit, the flake cold and wet and icy inside (I ended up getting seriously wet and cold on that pitch). Unable to free climb it (I fell off trying) I clip stuck the belay with the pole from our fly, and operation - in the strong wind - akin to changing a light bulb with a piece of al dente spaghetti. This was a day of fixing, and I offered Vanessa the chance to do the King Swing, quite an offer for someone who’d only been climbing two years and had never been this high up before. “No you do it” she replied, but I pressed her, knowing she’d get a lot out of it. I saw an unusual hesitation in her, a little fear, a little doubt, as I passed her a Camelot 4, no haul line but just the lead. “You’ll be OK,” I said as I lowered her down the wall, past the toe of the Boot and onto the wall below. Hesitant at first she began to swing, walking them running back and forwards on one of the greatest pitches of fun climbing on the planet. After ten minutes of working it out (I’ve seen teams take all day to do this pitch) she ran and grabbed some crimps and hung there sideways, trying to squeeze out some inches, heading over a blank wall to a crack around the corner. She looked like Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn wall as she clung on for all she was, getting closer and close. Then slipped and crashed back across the wall, smashing into a corner. She hung silent for a while clutching her side, winded. “I can’t do it” she shouted back dejected.
We rapped back down to El Cap tower, leaving the swing for tomorrow and over tea I asked the question ‘Do I push you too hard?”, defending myself in that, I have so much belief in her. “Maybe I don’t know you as well as I think? Maybe you’re not as brave as I think you are?”. I was a strange conversation that made me question if I knew her at all, that maybe that boldness I saw in her was simply a reflection of mine, an act, that she was giving me the woman I wanted. I love this woman so much that I know I go beyond what is comfortable myself, push myself for her, have sacrificed things I once thought sacrosanct, like living with her her far from my kids, that maybe what makes that act of love work is the act itself. I want to be a fitting human being, up to standard, a man befitting someone so awesome, but if this is an act what happens when you can’t keep it up?
The next morning we packed up the camp and hauled all the bags up to the top of Boot Flake, and Vanessa puts on her rock boots and chalk bag and tied on for another go. Down she went, slack given in inches as she found the sweet spot, a hard run to some side pulls and micro edges, a whizz bag double dyno to get into position. The three of us looked over the edge as Vanessa hit the right holds and hung on, inching across the wall, closer, closer, until with an outstretched arm she palmed an angle change: only ten only twenty degrees, but like a jug on that sideways wall. With a careful pull, she rounded the wall and reached the crack. When I rapped down to her to do the next pitch, I knew no act could have seen anyone across that wall.
Up we went for days more, arriving late most nights, bags and ledges sorted with tired bodies, the odd night when people seemed they might snap. Cian seemed to love the static times, but found the void challenging and scary, colder than most, up and down and out of his element. I think he often wondered if he was living up to some expectations I may have of what he would be like, felt guilt for the fear, but I don’t ask for much. For some, a big wall is a rough passage to be experienced but not repeated, for others, it’s a voyage on which when the port is reached they want to turn and set sail again. All I knew on this climb was for these three novice big wall climbers, this could not be seen as being good or bad, but one of the life’s greatest experiences, one in shades of fear and joy.
One of the lessons for me on this wall was that people do not learn anything until you leave them alone to do so, that being paranoid and micro managing undermined the team as a whole. On the final two days, I lead on, short fixing while the three of them cleaned and hauled and sorted out the mess. Time and time again I would look down at mini disasters: stuck ropes, stuck bags, lines tangled, but each time I bit my tongue shit got sorted. The sound of my voice shouting harshly - out of fear for them mainly - is not a sound I want to hear, and day by day that sound faded away. Now my heart leapt with pride when I heard a whoop of joy from Sinead and Vanessa when they haul bags reached the belay when space hauling, the breakneck checks as ropes were stowed in bags against the wind, Cian’s smile as he manoeuvred himself through a tricky section of lower outs. We became a team, a spear nothing if only the tip.
We had joked that Cian could try the 5.12 finished to the Nose, and if he refused he’d have to do it in his ‘jocks’ (underwear), but with storm clouds gathering, and our food gone, the flat so close, I pushed on, arriving as the sun set. There I sat, shouting into the night ‘ropes fixed’, shivering, the burden of another crazy climb yet to lift, praying with all my heart they’d not fuck up now. And then there they were, Cian and Sinead first, popping over the rim, Cian telling Sinead ‘Oh no we’ve got one more pitch to do’ as a joke, Sinead fighting back tears with a brave ‘OK, we’ll have a drink and we’ll get there’, only to whoop with crazy joy when I shouted down ‘This is the top!”.
Sending the two of them up to the tree to wait, need to know they were safe, I waited for Vanessa to appear, jugging a free hanging rope from the belay after the bags were released. Again I sat in the dark and thought about what such an experience could do to a relationship, such things easily fractured. I joked it would either make or break us, but we were already made, so perhaps only had it all to lose. I wondered if I had betrayed myself here, used up that love in the fire of this thing? When I lead, or space hauled the bags, and she said ‘You make me hot’ did she mean it, or did I only show my Hyde self, uncompromising and heartless? I shouted out into the night to see if she was safe.
And there she was too, jugging up, a pack on her back, the rope stowed in a rope bag as she went, looking as pro as any partner I’d had, experience forged in the doing. When she reached me, I think she was expecting a Hollywood embrace, but all she had was a quick kiss, neither of us free of the wall yet, the bags and us not reaching safe ground until midnight. It was late, but no one seemed eager to get to bed, and so sat around picking at the dregs of the food bags drinking the rest of the red wine listening to Nick Cave. Cian and Sinead looked like they were thankful for it to be over, so happy to feel solid ground again, to take off their harness’s and chuck them on the ground. I wondered how the climb would change them, especially Cian, change him as it changed me. As for Vanessa, she looked like she was just sad not be on the wall anymore, her ship ready to set sail already, her head full of walls, dreams we took with us as we drifted off to bed.
And so the morning after we left our bivy we slowly traipsed up towards the summit of El Cap, past trees that look so ancient and thick with time, boulders that seem carved by ancient mountain climbers, the ghosts of so many who passed this way marked by fire rings and flat spots. The final summit dome was under deep snow, and we walked hand in hand until there was no up left, only down all around, and so we stood and looked over towards Half Dome and waited. I first climbed El Cap sometime in the Nineties with my friend Paul Tattersall, the two of us doing the Shield, both clueless really, ambition a steroid to experience. Back then I knew that climb was a life changing event, that El Cap had taken place in my heart like mountains often do, becoming a part of me. And I chose well, as unlike most mountains the Captain has never been a tormentor, only a mentor: silent but always teaching and pushing and demanding. I had no idea when I first climbed El Cap how my love of this rock would unfold, how it would define me and lead me where it did. Every moment of my life I feel its power running through me, its gift, a gift I have shared with as many as I could, felt my reward only to see that change in them also. I have never asked anything of this rock but to let me pass, but it has given me so much more than I will ever truly understand. It has lifted me since the very start. Without El Cap, there would have been no Dru, no Troll, no Ulvertanna, no Vanessa. I am not a self-made man. I was made by this rock.
“Here comes the sun,” said Vanessa, my arms wrapped around her, the first flame of dawn lighting some far Sierra peak. We watched as the sun rose higher, felt its heat, knew we were sharing something special, a moment we’d not forget, all that effort worth it for this. Knowing there would never be a time better I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small loop of 3mm cord, cut from my camera case before we left the bivy, a loop no thicker than woman’s finger made thick by ten hard days on a big wall, tied with a fisherman’s knot, the ends scraggy, but perfect still, perhaps the most important knot I would ever tie. Bending down on one knee I looked up at Vanessa, who looked down at me, thinking for a moment no doubt I was taking the piss, my perlon ring in my hand, the question on my lips, no better time, no better woman than now, no better knot.