In the mid 70's I worked at a backpacking shop in Santa Rosa. "Volunteered" is probably a more accurate word, as I was paid a few bucks an hour but could purchase outdoor gear at a discount, which I did as often as my meager budget would allow. There was an ongoing joke among the employees that every one of our hard earned dollars eventually found their way back into the owner's pocket because of our obsessive purchasing of climbing gear from his store, so much so that we toyed with the idea of putting a small mark on our paper money on payday and looking in the cash register for any marked bills in the days to come.
One of my climbing partners was a union machinist who was married to the 5 day, 40 hour work week, so the only time we could get together and go rock climbing was either on weekends or holidays, which meant that we often had to deal with hordes of other people doing the same thing. For some unknown reason he talked me into going to Yosemite over the Thanksgiving Holiday to try a route on Middle Cathedral Rock. Both of us were only average climbers at best, but we hoped the excitement of climbing a very large rock might bring out some hidden degree of talent that we were unable to conjure up on any of the local practice climbs.
It was a 5 hour drive from where we lived to get to Yosemite, so the plan was to leave right after work on Friday, get to the Valley late that night, then get an early start on Saturday morning. Since we were used to doing only short 1 pitch free climbs, I had a nagging feeling that we needed to devote more planning to this climb, but that's as far as the thought went. How I managed to forget something as important as food is beyond me.
Our first delay was that I couldn't leave the store until somebody who rented a tent and sleeping bag stopped by to return them, and their promised "half hour" delay turned into over an hour. I hoped that my partner was using the extra time to sort out any preparations that we might have overlooked — like food. By the time I closed up and drove over to my partner's house we were already almost 2 hours late, but we loaded up his parent's station wagon with his gear, my gear, and a few "extra" pieces of climbing paraphernalia I borrowed from the store.
One of the many things that we didn't count on was fog, as this time of year the Central Valley was often covered in a thick layer of tule fog. This meant that instead of cruising along at 65 mph we were instead creeping along at 35 mph for several hours. I don't even remember what time it was when we entered the Park but it was dark and I was tired of staring down at the road surface 10 feet in front of the car all night. A quick stop at the grocery store and we learned 1) that it was closed and 2) it didn't open until 8 am. We drove back to Camp 4, the climber's campground, and tried to find an empty campsite in the gloom. My partner got out and walked ahead with a flashlight while I tried to follow as best I could in the station wagon. We settled on a small cleared area that may or may not have been an actual campsite but it would have to do, as we were both tired and still needed to sort out the pile of gear in the back.
We crouched in the car for a while, studying the guidebook by flashlight and tried to make sense of how we were going to carry all of the equipment that we brought. The more we looked at the numerous pitches on the climb, not to mention the somewhat sketchy return route, we decided that we needed to get a very early start and waiting for the grocery store to open was out of the question. We both rolled out our sleeping pads and sleeping bags in front of the car, and at the last minute my partner ceremoniously produced a large bag of Oreo cookies, which he was planning to leave in the car as a reward upon our return from the climb, but it now seemed appropriate to include it in our preparations as well. We both inhaled several cookies, then vowed to not touch them until we were somewhere suitably rewarding on Middle Cathedral Rock.
In hindsight, one of us should have returned the opened bag of cookies to the car before we fell asleep. At some time during what was left of the night I felt a warm breeze on my face, accompanied by a smell like that of a wet dog. When I sat upright I saw that it wasn't a dog but a bear, and it looked very large as our heads were about the same height. My first involuntary reaction was to make "shooing" movements with my arms (as if it were a dog) and these worked surprisingly well, as the bear turned and slowly walked away. My confidence soon waned as I realized that this was not only the first bear that I had ever seen in the wild but that I was in a pretty much non-defensible position zipped up in my sleeping bag.
I woke my partner up by throwing a pine cone at his sleeping form, told him about the bear, and strongly suggested that he return the Oreos to the implied safety of the station wagon, which he did surprisingly quickly. I tried to relax and return to sleep but visions of bears dragging me screaming from my sleeping bag prevented that. Shortly I heard a faint crunching sound and bolted upright to see that the bear had returned and was slowly circling our sleeping bags. Again I flailed my arms and again the bear wandered off, only to return a third time and this is where I unzipped my bag, stood up, and threw a couple of handy pine cones at the bear, causing it to saunter away at an imperceptibly faster pace than the last time. Since I was up I figured that it would be a good time to take a pee, so as I was watering the base of a nearby tree I heard muffled shouts from the darkness and hoped that the bear was now someone else's problem.
As I walked back to my bag I noticed that there were no more stars visible, and looking at my watch reminded me of the fact that we needed to get an early start, so I reluctantly spent a few moments dressing in the dark, then woke up my partner and we began our day. As I rolled up my sleeping bag and picked up my ground pad I discovered what had attracted the bear in the first place — in our haste to find a spot to sleep in the darkness I had inadvertently rolled out directly over an old campfire spot, and underneath me were several flattened cans of Campbell's Soup, along with a chunk of aluminum foil that had fish bones extending from it. I vowed that next time I camped out I would clean my sleeping spot down to mineral soil before retiring for the night.
While getting an "early" start might seem like an overall good idea if one was embarking on a long climb, it also meant that the approach trail to the base of the climb might possible be hard to spot, which it was. We walked back and forth along the Park road to try and find the beginnings of a climber's trail, but finally a passing car stopped and, since it was filled with fellow climbers, they knew exactly why there were two guys with packs and ropes wandering around in the dark. Fortunately they knew where the trail started, and after thanking them, we backtracked a quarter of a mile and easily found the trailhead by the sight of a beer can impaled on a short stick.
By now it was almost light enough to see our way around without having to use our flashlights, but the trail entered a thick forest and shortly we broke out the flashlights again. While I don't remember it stating this in the guidebook, if I had to add a comment about the approach trail to the East Buttress route it would be dishonest of me not to include the words "steep" and "rocky". Whatever chill I felt on the early morning in late November was gone by the time that we reached the rock itself, and we plopped down to rest and pinpoint exactly where the first pitch began. A few more Oreos were consumed and our hiking boots were swapped for climbing shoes, with the boots being carefully hidden under a pile of rocks. The gear was sorted again, a belay anchor was set up, and we began the climb just as the top of El Capitan across the valley acquired a golden crown of sunlight.
The beginning of the climb was a welcome relief from trying to find our way up the approach trail, and the rock was as solid as most Yosemite rock is — a far cry from the crumbly stuff we faced on our weekend top ropes. There was also the creative effort that the placement of protection entailed. On one hand you had to place the nuts so that a downward pull wouldn't loosen them, and you also had to anticipate which direction the pull would come from if you fell after placing another nut farther up, which might pull your lower nut up, instead of down.
Once we reached a height above the treeline we had a great view of the lower end of the Valley, and often times I would find myself almost in a trance-like state while I was belaying my partner, and had to remind myself to pay attention to how the rope was paying out. I didn't want to keep any bit of tension on the rope in case my partner was about to make a big leap, as I couldn't see where he was, and at times if you were leading and almost a rope-length above the belayer the friction of pulling the rope along beside you seemed like you were trying to walk underwater.
We reached a small ledge and stopped for a bit to enjoy more of the Oreos, drink some water, and just enjoy the view. Unfortunately, although we could see details of dozens of climbs across the Valley, we couldn't see much of the rock above us, so it was difficult to judge how far along the climb we were. I don't think we were getting overly tired, but the difficulty of the climb seemed to be increasing, and our pace began to slow.
A few traverses across beautiful granite faces were a nice change of pace from cramming my toes into tight cracks, and at one point we had to refer to the guidebook as to which way to continue. I secretly wished that we had a small helicopter along to hover out away from the rock in order to see what it looked like just above our position. Backtracking a bit we made our way to the base of a long chimney system that stretched up and out of sight. It was lined with moss and had water flowing down from somewhere above. It was at this point that I noticed the beginning of a reduction of interest in climbing in general, and I hoped that we would find some hidden, easy, dry route up the chimneys.
It was my turn to lead, and reluctantly I squirmed into position to begin, fortunately finding a "bombproof" nut placement that boosted my spirits some, but instantly I had to enter the "wet, mossy" section, and managed to achieve some short boosts of adrenaline from having my boots slip on the wet rock and leave me hanging from a desperate hand jam. Similar to climbing up a steep sand dune, it was sometimes two steps up and one down. The saving grace was a crack on one side that was just the right size to get most of my forearm into, providing a bit more friction when I had to rely on it to hold me up when my feet slipped away.
I was making very slow progress, and I wondered if my partner was growing impatient belaying me. At the point that I was finally getting a hang of chimney climbing, I became aware that the crack was getting narrower as I moved up, allowing only my hand, and later only my fingers to provide a grip. At the same time I also noticed that the "trickle" of water had become a full fledged stream, making the rope now as slippery as the sodden moss and ferns. It dawned on me that the afternoon sun above must have speeded up the melting snow on the rim above, and things would only get worse, not better.
I hollered down to my partner and asked if he could hear me, and he hollered back that he could, so I shouted to him that I was coming down to let him give it a try, as my fingers were now at the point of numbness and I was unable to tell if I was gripping the rock tightly or not at all. He tied off the belay rope and I slid hand over hand most of the way back to join him on a small ledge. Apologizing for my pathetically slow pace, I gladly switched places with him and warmed my hands for a few minutes before I told him he could begin climbing. He began climbing at a good pace since all of the protection was already placed, and I gathered in the rope slack with my semi-thawed fingers. I sensed when he reached my high point as the rope no longer moved, and I continued to blow on my fingers to regain some feeling.
By now even the belay spot was soaked and the rope hadn't moved in several minutes. After staring into the chimney for so long I was startled to look around and see that it was getting dark outside — we had been in the chimney system for a good part of the afternoon, and at this time of year the sun goes down early, especially in a deep valley. I hollered up to my partner that we should go back down and to my surprise he agreed instantly. When he got back down after removing the protection, he was wetter than I was, and told me that he made it a few feet higher than my high point, but the crack disappeared and the water increased and when he heard me yell to come down he was thinking the exact same thing.
Down climbing was not something I was looking forward to, but rappelling was a bit involved as the route on the way up sort of meandered around which left a straight down rappel something that might not end up on the climbing route at all. We made our way down until we could see the reasonable sized ledge where we stopped for lunch, but the only safe spot to set up a rappel was off to one side, so when I got down to the level of the ledge I would have to run along the face a bit in order to swing over to reach the ledge. In theory, this sounded OK, but two things were against me — make that three things — my fingers were still numb from the ice water bath up in the chimneys, the rope was wet for the same reason, and I forgot to tie a knot in the end of the rappel rope.
I leaned back and started walking down the face until it got steep enough to hang free, then lowered myself until I was just above the ledge and maybe 20 feet or so to one side. Putting my legs against the rock, I backed up a few steps then "ran" as best I could over to the ledge, coming to a stop a few feet short. Swinging back to my starting point, I tried again, this time moving as far away from the ledge as I could until I was stopped by a rock outcropping, then I ran across and this time I reached the edge of the ledge, but when I took one hand away to grab hold of something the grip on the belay rope with my other hand slipped, and I swung back to my starting point again. I was now officially in a "bad spot".
I had slid below the level of the ledge and was too weak to pull myself up any higher on the slippery rope, my arms were getting tired, and if I slipped down any farther I wouldn't be able to reach the ledge no matter how far I swung. Looking down I saw that the end of the rope wasn't close to any sort of ledge or crack to anchor into, and this is where I noticed that I hadn't tied the knot on the end of the rope. If I somehow slid down much farther then I would slip off the end of the rope and make a very, very quick decent into the trees and rocks below. Gathering up what little courage I could gather, I gripped the rope like a barnacle and ran over to the ledge once more, this time getting a good grip with one hand as my other hand involuntarily let go of the rappel rope.
That last move represented about a year's worth of excitement in itself, and I hoarsely hollered up to my partner that I had reached the ledge. I untied several webbing slings and tied them onto the end of the rappel rope so that I could help pull my partner over when he got down to my level and hollered up again that it was OK for him to begin his rappel. In a few minutes we were both safely back on our lunch spot, and we agreed that we would spend the night here instead of continuing in the dark.
The ledge was maybe 8 or 10 feet long, and jutted out from the face about a foot on one level and maybe another foot on a level slightly below that one. In our favor was a sound crack in the wall behind us where we set up an incredibly over-cautious anchor, then tied ourselves to it and our packs as well. In the cramped quarters as my partner turned to set our remaining Oreos in a spot convenient to both of us, we witnessed the horror of the entire package sliding away into the abyss. In a half-hearted attempt at humor, we noted that we could have them for breakfast in the morning at the base of the climb.
With no sleeping bags and December only a week away, I'll admit that I wasn't looking forward to sitting up on a cold rock all night — a night that began in the late afternoon and wouldn't end until well past "early morning". One rope was used to provide a safety web around us, and the other was carefully coiled on each ledge to provide insulation against the freezing granite. The routine was for one person to lie down on their side on the lower ledge and the other person would sit up on the upper ledge — the lower ledge being long enough to lie down on but too narrow to lie in any position but on one's side, while the upper ledge was slightly wider, but too short to stretch out on.
Fooled by the degree of darkness, I checked my watch and we decided that 6:30 pm was way too early to go to sleep, so we sat up and nibbled mouse-sized portions of my dwindling block of cheddar cheese. We both had enough water, but our "food" consisted of a small chunk of cheese and some crackers. Again, to make light of our situation, we mused that the lack of a large dinner would lessen the chance that one of us would have to take a shit during the night, something that seemed inconceivable owing to our current location.
Looking across the valley at El Capitan we noticed three spots of lights — obviously climbing parties like us who were to spend the night tied to a huge rock hundreds of feet in the air. We turned on our flashlights and shined them over toward El Cap, but didn't receive any response from the others. The next several hours were spent in more or less silent introspection, or whatever it's called when you just "be" and don't engage in any conversation or movement.
At some point we watched a van pull off the paved loop that circles the Valley and enter another climbers campground below us. It turned around a few times then stopped in a small meadow, where the side doors opened and somebody carried out two large boxes and set them down along side of the van. As mundane as the incident was, it was the only "action" going on in our field of view, and we both watched the van and the people milling around with great interest. Minutes later the faint sounds of Bob Marley were heard and we realized that the large "boxes" were really huge speakers, and soon the volume was cranked up and we were treated to a musical interlude to break the monotony of our predicament.
Since we were more or less a captive audience and unable to ignore the music, I thought that if their choice of tracks were not to my liking I could just shout down "Shut that fucking music off!" and they would have no way of telling where the objection came from. Occassionally somebody around the van would appear to shine their flashlight up at El Cap, followed by a flurry of lights originating from the location of one of the climbing parties, and we deduced that the people on the rock were communicating with the people in the van by radio. Minutes later the reggae music ceased and the best part of the evening began — they put on Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon", and my partner and I listened to one of my favorite albums reverberating back and forth from one side of the Valley to the other... it was a perfect way to distance oneself from their situation and just... I don't know... "be".
The rest of the night was spent waking the other person every two hours to switch places, looking up at the stars, or more often, looking at one's watch to estimate how long it would be until we were warm again. When it was my turn to stretch out on the lower ledge for a few hours, I immediately became aware of a small bulge in the rock that forced me to lie on the side that I don't normally sleep on at home. This meant that if I turned over in my sleep, instead of having a foot or two of bed next to me I would actually have an inch or two of rock, then many, many feet of air. I did manage to get in brief periods of actual sleep, but I found it to be more restful when it was my turn to sit up, as I could change my position at will, without fear of rolling off the ledge.
Finally I again noticed that the stars had disappeared, but refrained from waking my snoring partner. I had the entire Sierra Nevada range between me and the sunrise, but a more anticipated sunrise has not occurred. The black and white of our night on the ledge was slowly replaced by faint pastels in the sky and emerging greens in the trees below. Now I had my gaze fixed upon the summit of El Capitan, awaiting the golden crown I witnessed the day before. When it appeared I nudged my partner, but he was already awake watching it as well. We both sat up and followed the light descending the cliff across the valley from us and tried to guess at what point it would reach our ledge. Looking up, we watched as the light slowly approached on "our" cliff, at one point even standing up so that the warmth could reach our outstretched hands a minute or so earlier.