A Recipe for Adventure includes a portion of personal challenge, a dash of risk, and a healthy dose of the unknown.
Embarking on an adventure demands that we expose ourselves to risk and open ourselves to the unknown, and the greater the adventure, the deeper the unknown.
The majority of my time spent climbing, although fun, fulfilling, and challenging, falls short of my qualifications for adventure because of the relatively minor levels of risk and the unknown.
Free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is a major goal for many, and was to be a great adventure for me. Many climbers with more experience on Yosemite walls wouldn’t find adventure here because of their familiarity and confidence in this particular venue. But climbing is an intensely personal pursuit, and losing sight of of personal challenge in the blinding light of the successes of others is a dangerous mistake. Fulfillment and growth come through challenging ourselves at our own level.
Free climbing the Golden Gate on El Cap would be a perfect challenge for me and my partner Dave Bloom, and it promised adventure, as this was to be my first big free route on the legendary granite walls of Yosemite and my first time on El Cap. After honing our crack technique on the sedimentary slots of Indian Creek and filling our bellies at Doug’s Sushifest feast, we pointed the van west and barreled towards the granite glory of Yosemite.
Our strategy was simple but would require several days of preparation; hiking gear 3000 vertical feet up of El Cap, filling water, and rappelling all 40 pitches of the route to stash our food, water, and gear. Hanging our gear at the Alcove (the top of pitch 20) and Tower to the People (around pitch 32) would allow us to free climb the route in three sections and do only minimal hauling.
Getting our gear to the top proved to be straightforward but strenuous and we reached the top of El Cap in a hailstorm. After hunkering down and spending the night while better weather moved in, we began the long series of rappels to stash our gear and reach the ground. Rappelling over 3000 feet with a haul-bag full of water, food, ropes, and gear proved more physical and taxing than expected, especially in the traversing sections of the climb.
Upon reaching the ground, with all our gear in placed, we were prepared, poised, and committed to our ground-up attempt. Resting our weary legs and sore backs, we took a day off and bummed around the valley before beginning the climb.
Coffee and oatmeal by headlamp and a pre-dawn drive through Yosemite valley started our day as we headed towards the wall. Twenty pitches of climbing lay between us and our first camp, guarded by the Monster Off-width just below the Alcove. We climbed quickly, enjoying the splitters, corners, and slabs of the Freeblast (the popular partial route made up of the first 10-ish pitches of the Salathe). We reached Mammoth Terraces before noon, making great time through the first 10 pitches of the day.
Our early start had put us ahead of other parties, and we had the climb to ourselves until Mammoth, where we were greeted by Tim and Scott, two Aussies hauling their bags to Mammoth from the Heart Ledges below on their way up the Muir Wall. Most parties climbing the Freeblast or aiding the Salathe rappel down to Heart Ledges on their way to the ground. Set on free climbing the whole wall, we chose to down-climb rather than rappel this pitch. Coordinating with the Aussies while they hauled, Dave down-led the pitch, essentially on top-rope as he navigated the 160 ft awkward 5.10, placing plenty of gear to protect me when I followed.
Tim and Scott managed to wedge their haul-bag in a flare below, so Scott rappelled down to free the bag as I began the down-climb. I made my way through the crux, side-pulling rounded edges and jamming a variety of cracks as I stemmed between the several crack systems. Passing the 5.10+ crux, I breathed a sigh of relief as I glanced down at the hundred feet of easier terrain between me and Dave. A well-placed cam slid out smoothly in my hand and I stepped down, matching hands on a grippy granite edge.
Without warning, my world began to shift. Tilting backwards, I clung in horror as the man-sized block I was latched on to ripped away from the wall and began free-fall. I tried to yell “ROCK” but meaningful syllables stuck in my throat, replaced by a wordless roar. After riding the block for a split second, gravity tore us apart as the block hurtled down with both Scott and Dave in its path. As my rope drew tight, gear ripped and my fall continued.
Falls happen incredibly fast, and my next memory is an instant of inverted video; a brief glimpse of the block catching someone square on. As I hung upside down, it was uncertain who had been hit with the block, and my thoughts raced to Dave. Righting myself and looking down, I saw Dave, holding tight to the belay, protected by the stuck haul-bag and unscathed.
As cries of pain rose up from Scott, I called down to Dave
“I’m OK! I’m OK!”
“What happened?!” Dave cried
“I ripped a huge block and it nailed Scott! He’s not OK!”
I watched as Scott began to drag himself back onto the ledge, to a more secure position.
I hung from my rope, veins coursing with adrenaline, mind reeling. As Tim rappelled to his injured partner, I began to ascend the fixed rope to assist with their haul-bag and help get them off the wall. Adrenaline faded, and pain shot through my feet as I weighted them to ascend the rope. Involuntary sounds something like laughter issued from my throat as my mind pitched and rolled on waves of fear, relief, and pain.
After assessing Scott’s condition, Tim asked me to call Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), and after connecting through 911, I lowered to him and handed him the phone. Amazingly, Scott was clear and conscious, with major injury only to his lower legs and feet, crushed by the enormous rock. YOSAR would come and evacuate him, but they needed someone to check the conditions of the fixed lines leading to Heart Ledges.
The extent of my injuries was unclear, but I was unable to weight my right foot without significant pain. Dave and I realized that our attempt was over. Our priority became assisting in Scott’s rescue, which entailed getting ourselves back on the ground. Our decision solidified, we rappelled the fixed lines to the ground, shouting back up to Tim that the lines were untouched.
Shortly after reaching the ground, YOSAR personnel began arriving, working quickly and efficiently to reach Scott and begin lowering him to the ground. After talking with Jack, the YOSAR Chief, filling him in on the series of events leading to the accident, we began the long slow walk back to the road. The trail from the road to the Salathe is short and moderate, normally taking just a few minutes. Spreading my weight between a walking stick and Dave’s shoulder, I slowly hobbled down the rocky trail over the next hour. Our friend Paul was near the base when the rockfall occurred and helped us on the hike down.
The remaining hours of the afternoon flew by as we watched the rescue from the meadow. Within hours, Scott was lowered down, carried to an ambulance, and whisked off to the ER in Fresno. We cooked dinner and drove to our campsite and I collapsed into sleep, mind still spinning with the events of the day.
The next few days passed comfortably, relaxing in the meadow, drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and reflecting with Dave on the danger of the situation and how lucky Scott, and especially Dave and I were. Despite the serious nature of Scott’s injuries, he was alive, and Dave and I both walked away.
We also prowled Camp 4, the meadow, and the cafeteria looking for willing climbers to help get our gear down from our caches. I wasn’t up to climbing or hiking, still walking slowly with assistance from a stick.
After coordinating our gear retrieval with helpful climbers, Dave and I packed up the van and headed home. Any feelings of disappointment in failing to accomplish our goal were completely overshadowed by the inescapable sense that we had dodged a bullet.
Adventure is built from challenge, risk, and the unknown. Stepping into the unknown inherently opens us to the unexpected. In the days and weeks leading up to the climb, dozens of scenarios flashed through my head. In some, we cruised through perfect conditions and sent the route. In others, our skills and preparation were unequal to the task and we failed, retreating with our tails between our legs.
None of my imagined scenarios held anything like this.
None of my dreams included injury and rescue.
None of my worries or ambitions prepared me for the confusing feelings of walking away from a close brush with death.
Sitting back in Flagstaff, curled up on the couch with Carrie, thoughts of risk, objective hazards, and the unknown dangers distract my mind as my body heals. After a few stiff and sore days, I’m limping and crutching around quite well and my injuries are limited to bruised and sprained heels, a bruised collarbone, and some whiplash.
We were climbing safe, not pushing the envelope of speed or safety in any way, on one of the best-protected and moderate pitches of the climb. Rockfall is unpredictable.
Is there anything at all Dave or I could have done to avoid the accident? No.
Will the risks I’m willing to accept in climbing change? Maybe.
Has my understanding of the depth of the unknown grown? Definitely.
Am I fortunate to be alive, whole, and walking? Without a doubt.
Deep experiences take me time to process, and I still have much to learn from this situation. I’m excited for the next few months, ready to train hard until I can hike and climb again, and thankful for both my awesome community: climbers, friends, and family.
Check out http://www.yosemitecloseup.com/stories/yosemite-news/for some photos of the rescue and another perspective!