My last day, my first ‘easy day’, ended long and hard and painful as I scraped and scrambled, tired and tangled, Silent Partner locking and rope running out, onto the rim of El Cap. I had been alone on the wall for fourteen days, four of them on half water rations and the scraps of my food bags. I staggered, stood, staggered again - pulling hard in the still heat of darting lizards and baking dwarf trees with charcoal bark - away from the edge, away until I was sure I was beyond gravity’s high watermark - safe from the Sea. I stood there for several minutes unsure what to do - how to feel, stand or sit, laugh or cry, my legs equally unsure how to address the flat world again. But then it’s always like this. I know the feeling well. This was my fourth El Cap solo, my thirty-fourth route up the Captain. I knew how it feels at the end, the relief, the sadness, so desperate for it to be over for so long, yet wanting to hang on.
The Sea of Dreams is a route that still maintains a mystique, a route that retains a grade of A4+ (“if you fall you die”) even though it was put up in 1978. Time has no doubt mellowed the climb, with several well known ‘features’ such as the ‘surf board’ having fallen off it, as well as some bolts and rivets being added. Never the less it still deserves a Jim Bridwell grade of PDH (pretty damn hard) in most peoples books.
Although an undoubted classic the Sea is rarely climbed, with maybe one ascent every two years, with many stories of teams bailing off it, tales of loose and dangerous rock, run-outs, scary obligatory free climbing and bad belays (SOD is one of the few routes that has mostly old bolts still) and a whole host of horror stories. Robert Steiner, the German translator of Psychovertical lost a finger on the route when a loose flake broke and chopped it off, and no one I’ve ever met who had climbed the route had anything but respect for the first ascensionists, who had set out to create the longest, hardest and most sustained big wall in the world.
When I arrived in the valley, I already had my headset on doing a proper solo route, something full value, not messing around with speed shenanigans this time. My first choice was Tempest (A4), a relatively modern route, with tons of thin climbing close to Mescalito. One reason for a long solo climb was I’m working on a film with Jen Randell (who made Project Mina) called ‘Journey through the Brain’ - a sort of profile of me and my relationship with climbing, and my solo climb was a way of getting some content for our Kickstarter campaign. And so I needed to do a route that was hard, but not so hard I wouldn’t be able to do some filming.
The first part of the trip was spent climbing Zodiac (for the seventh time!) with my mate Charles, who wanted to lead a big wall (he led all but 3 pitches) my eye was drawn over to the North American wall and the Sea. This area of the wall is like looking over at Mousetrap Zawn on Gogarth, with tons of black, lose diorite, mega steep and obviously death on a stick. Tempest scared me a bit, but it travelled up golden solid granite, but the Sea scared me even more, the horror stories of pitches like the Hook or Book, Peregrine Pillar, the Blue Room, the expanding belay (cams placed in an expanding crack!) having hung in my mind for years, dispelling any desire to climb it. The peregrine pillar scared me the most, with these words by Nate Beckwith having stuck with me since I read them online in the late ’90s.
After our third bivy on the wall, I took the Peregrine Pillar pitch that morning. This pitch turned out to be one of the hardest, scariest pitches on the climb for me. Starting out with a long stretch of no pro 5.8, I arrived at the base of two loose pillars which I would have to climb up the middle of. Watching my cams expand and contract in the loose diorite, I half free-climbed, half aided to the top of the pillar. Next was some tricky nailing, with a bad fall to the pillar if things went wrong. A few moves up I started pounding in an angle. The rock started moaning and would not stop! I tapped on all the rock around me. All loose and hollow. The moaning continued. I thought surely the entire face was about to go. Finally, the moaning ceased. I decided not to take any more swings at the pin. I tied it off and continued upward. Finally some better pins, then the belay. And not a moment too soon. This was a long pitch.
Yes, there was probably no other route that scared me more on El Cap than the Sea. But then why not do it for that very reason - why should I let what others say or write about these pitches put me off, about death falls from a puzzle of skyhook moves, of car-sized blocks that rattled and moved when you nailed them, or pillars that hung like Jenga blocks that and to be free climbed to the top and then set off up hard A4 terrain? I had come to ‘sort my head out’ - to reboot my body and mind, something nothing can do like a hard wall can do - why not go for the full dose?
I had already done Bridwell’s other classics on this part of the wall, Pacific Ocean wall and Zenyatta Mondatta, and thought the Sea would be like these, hardish but OK, the shine would have gone from what was once state of the art - that I’d get the ‘tick’ but really it would all be in the minds of those who had not done them. Sure it would be hard, but I’d nail it and come down a hero - overcoming all the stories and just dealing with the hard facts.
And so up I went, a huge rack and ten days food and water (33 litres) that could be stretched a little, years of experience to guard me in what I might find. I was ready for a battle - but not a war.
It seemed like it wasn’t so long until I’d climbed all the lower pitches, which although not easy, were OK with care and attention and reached the ‘Continental Shelf’ and the Hook or Book. This was the first “If you fall you die” pitch on El Cap and involves crossing a vertical wall mainly on hooks, with rivets and old pegs at the start for pro. At the halfway point you lower off a rivet (a 5mm machine bolt hammered into a shallow hole) and swing around until you can catch an edge with a skyhook. Now the fun starts, as you begin a game of chess with the rock, hooking further and further right, stepping high with hooks on tiny nicks and edges, searching for the next hook. Slowly you get to the point that if you fall you will fall down into the corner below you - probably a 100-foot fall. Luckily protection is at hand halfway to the belay in the form of a nest of copperheads.
Unfortunately on reaching them, I saw all but one had fallen out! Getting out my heads I tried to replace them, but the depth of these heads is as shallow and ill-defined as if you pressed a match stick into some clay. Luckily there is a solid flake beside them, so backed up the heads with a bomber sky hook held down my Fish tag bag (funny but you actually believe this to be true at the time). From here you press on (you never weigh the heads - they’re only there for “pro”) hooking further and further, hoping you don’t go the wrong way and end up ‘in the book’. And there’s the belay - and it’s done.
It’s boring to describe every pitch, but I doubt I’ve climbed a route so sustained and mentally draining, probably not helped by being alone. I was out of condition at the start and my hands swelled up so much I couldn’t get my gloves on, and so just had to hope that they could heal faster than they hurt. Again and again I got to a point where I could not puzzle out how to progress, and even had to rap one time and try again the next day - but each time I unlocked the puzzle by following my big wall motto “If in doubt - get high”. But again and again, I found myself top stepping on some placement that defied reason to hold.
And then one morning I woke up and found the peregrine pillar before me. Again I won’t go into blow by blow detail - only to say it begins with an unprotected traverse on creaky flakes (if you fall you’d probably break your legs as you swung down onto the North America wall). Then you reach the pillars, a set of high blocks sat one on top of each other, that look as if they would simply topple off if you laybacked them. Half aiding (with nuts not cams, so as to limit prising them over) half free climbing (I call it ‘fraid’ climbing!), I made my way up this tottering nightmare, unsure if it was C1 5.8 or C4 XS. And then with a careful mantle, I was standing on top of the pillar, the rest of the pitch before me - A4 climbing with the pillar to hit if you fucked up!
The days were hot and often still and windless deep within the womb of the North American diorite, with 3 litres a day pushing it. I also found no easy pitches, forcing me to get up at dawn and climb into the dark, the punishment and stress unrelenting, but I could not stop - I had to get to the top before I run out of water.
The Blue room was special, with the wall getting looser and looser, the very skin of it overlayed with cardboard thin flakes that flexed and grated against my toes, flakes I feared would fracture and sail down and cut my rope. Any pin placed felt as if it could unlock the whole wall and cause it to fall down - the entire feature held on a hair-trigger. Up there in the black rock, nothing was safe - especially me, my lines getting hung up again and again on downward-pointing teeth of rock. Again and again, I asked for a break - but never was one forthcoming, the easy snap of a portaledge corner or my finger finding an edge all I was given. Again and again, I would find myself laughing at what I was forced to do - a hook tied to my hammer for a blind hook move out of reach, a cam hook behind a flake as thin as bone china, opposed beaks in a horizontal crowed with broken RURP tips.
My food ran out, my water was low. It was my 44th birthday and my birthday tea was a packet of M&M’s and the final brew of tea before my gas ran out -and yet it felt like a feast - me of all people, 44 years old and still alive and out here in the middle of the sea. My body grew thinner and harder, got strong as it does on a wall, then broke down, as it does on a wall. I slept with my arms above my head, as if I was surrendering, the only way to stop my hands from feeling as if they were going to burst.
And then I was almost there - three pitches of the North America wall - the end of the Sea. An easy day I thought. But alone nothing is easy.
And so I stood there, fourteen days on, at the end - again - a year older, but not the man who started, with all his doubts and thoughts and old troubles. I was broken down by the wall, skin and bone and fat and brain and thought rendered by the toil of it all. I stood there and looked around, feeling the feeling you get at the end of all such adventures such as this, at the rim of the wall, at the edge of myself.