September 15, 1997
Yosemite, California, USA
When I got up in the morning, Ken and Lydia had already gone off to work. As planned, I packed up my things in a backpack Ken loaned me, and made the two mile walk to the Greyhound station. I could hardly believe it... I was on my way to Yosemite.
The bus ride to Merced cost twenty bucks, as did the ride from Merced to Yosemite Valley. I got to Yosemite around five oclock that afternoon. Arriving in the valley was a magical experience. For climbers like myself, the place is special. Theres a lot of history on these walls. This, essentially, is where modern rock climbing began in North America. Although I havent been to Yosemite before, I am already familiar with it. I had seen many photos of the area in books and magazines, and have watched several videos of well-known climbers doing classic Yosemite test-pieces.
Peering out through the bus window and seeing El Cap with my own eyes for the first time, was like finally meeting a relative you had heard lots about, knew what they looked like in detail, and even knew a bit about their personality, but never met them in person.
After winding through the valley, the bus finally dropped me off at Yosemite Lodge, only a short walk from Sunny Side walk-in campground - Camp 4 as it is know by climbers. Camp 4 is the hub of climbing activity in the valley. I wouldnt consider staying anywhere else. Hanging around Camp 4 is the easiest way to find a climbing partner - which is what I intended to do.
When I got to the kiosk, I found a note stating that the campground was full. I wasnt going to let that stop me, so I walked around the campground a few times looking for a group of climbers I could make friends with, and who would let me squat on their site. Over half of the sites were occupied by climbers speaking languages other than English, which made approaching them difficult.
When I finally found some people I felt comfortable approaching, they told me that they didnt have a campsite either, and have been hiding out in the woods for the past several nights. "Lots of people sleep behind the boulders," said one of the men, as he directed my attention toward one the many monoliths surrounding the campground. "However...", remarked the other, "I have heard of people getting caught, and fined sixty bucks." I didnt feel like making a sixty dollar donation the US government, so I set off again, looking for friends.
I approached the group of people sitting around a picnic table, and asked them if they would mind if I slept on their campsite. One of them replied in broken English, but his German accent was so thick, I could hardly understand a word he was saying. "Youre so kind... Thank-you!" I replied.
My next job was to find a climbing partner. I started off by checking out the bulletin board at the kiosk. I finally hunted down a dude named Keith, and we made plans to climb a multi-pitch 5.10 called Serenity Crack on Friday. Shortly after my encounter with Keith, I grabbed my camera, and went for a moon-lit walk through a near-by meadow. A few weeks ago, when I was back in Oregon, my friend Art, described his Yosemite full-moon experience as one of the most amazing things he had ever seen. As a full moon rose over Half Dome, and cast its brilliance onto the 2000 foot white granite walls around me - Id have to say I felt the same way. I set up my tripod and took a few long exposures capturing the pale reflecting light.
When I got back to Camp 4, I grabbed my lap top and headed over to Yosemite lodge to get my email. After pleading with the people at the front desk for ten minutes, they finally let me into the back office where I could use a phone jack. "Ill only be a few minutes." I told them. It took me over half an hour.
The next morning at 7:30pm, I went on a "Photo walk" organized by the park service. The woman conducting the walk was a professional wildlife photographer. She was very interesting and I was glad I went.
On my way back from the walk, I spotted three deer: a mother, and two fawns. I had my camera in hand with a 70-300mm lens attached, and I was ready. The young ones were timid and kept their distance, but the mother didnt seen to mind my presence, and crossed the road only 20 feet away from me.
I dont have a large budget for film, so Im very careful to get the keeper on the first shot. I had it all lined up. A third of the photo was taken up by a sign in the upper right hand corner that read "Pedestrian Crossing", and on the other side of the street stood the mother deer. I was waiting for the mother to look at me before taking the shot... but no such luck. She turned and walked down into the meadow. "Darn it!" I thought to myself. "Why do I have to be so cheap!?!"
I followed the deer across the meadow, capturing a few more images. After five minutes I ended the pursuit, and came out on a road at the other side of the meadow. Shortly after reaching the road, a police car pulled up and told me that there were some people complaining about a man in dark clothes chasing the deer with camera... and would I know anything about it. "That was me." I replied. "Those are wild animals." says the officer, "Lets keep them that way!" "I understand." I said, and we went our separate ways. I spent the rest of the day sport climbing with four Venezuelan dudes, and one Colombian.
That night, I had a dream that I got caught by the park rangers for not having a camping permit. The dream seemed so real, it put enough fear into me that I was motivated to wait in line and try to get a legitimate campsite the next morning.
As I was waiting in line, I met a thin man in his early fifties who was looking for a climbing partner. After borrowing a harness from Omar, one of the Venezuelans, John and I hopped in his car, and we sped off for El Cap. It was a short walk from the road to the base of El Cap. The first climb we did was a 5.10 called "Moby Dick". John let me lead. I like leading far more than seconding. I believe a person cant get the full experience of climbing unless he is leading. There is basically no risk of death or injury to the seconder if the leader knows what hes doing.
What I like most about climbing traditional style routes, other than the physical movements and the awesome views, is the massive amount of decisions I must make while leading . These are routes with cracks, that I must place pieces of protection into, which will hold my wieght in case I fall. Each individual decision the leader must make, is so critically important, it is almost to the point of life or death. On more difficult routes, like Moby Dick, It is important that I carry just the right amount of protection. If I carry too much, it will weigh me down, and possibly cause me to fall. If I dont carry enough protection, Ill have to make longer run-outs between pieces, which means I would fall farther.
Moby Dick is a hand and fist crack. These types of cracks are climbed by sliding your entire hand in the crack, then forcing your thumb toward the palm of your hand, which makes it wider, and very secure. This is called a hand Jam. When the crack gets too wide to hand jam, I have to do a fist Jam, by sliding my hand into the crack horizontally, then squeezing the fist, so that my hand is pressed tightly against both sides of the crack. To prevent my hands from looking like they have been in a blender, I often rapped them in medical tape before crack climbing.
The next route we did was a beautiful 5.9 lay-back crack. I led that one also. The third and last climb we did was a classic 5.10c hand crack called "Sacker Cracker". It had a brutally awkward off-width start, then continued with a 60 foot section of strenuous hand and fist jams. Esthetically, it was a beautiful climb, and the view was spectacular, but man... that crack mutilated my feet. To keep from falling, I needed to slide each foot into the crack sideways, then twist, and put my entire weight over it so it sticks. About half way up, I took a ten foot fall. I didnt get hurt at all, and went on to complete the climb.
After getting down off the climb, I said to John, "Crack climbing is amazing! It allows a person to feel two totally intense opposite emotions at the very same time. I was in shear agony, because my feet were throbbing with pain, and yet my heart was filled with joy from the unrestrained freedom I was experiencing." It was another great day in paradise.
That evening, I went to see a video production called "No Barriers", hosted in person by Mike Corbit. The video showcased the extraordinary feats and abilities of a man who lost the use of his legs in a climbing accident, then went on to climb both El Cap and Half Dome, and cross the Sierra Nevada Mountain range on skis. Mike Corbit is the mans best friend, and climbing partner on both ascents of El Cap and Half Dome.
Mike is also an expert on climbing history in the Yosemite Valley, and shared some interesting facts with the audience. Something he mentioned that I found extremely amazing and almost unbelievable, was that Hans Fluorine and Steve Schneider climbed El Captain three times in one day. The three routes they did were the Nose, The Salathe, and the West Buttress. This means they climbed about 90 pitches, each approximately 150 feet long. It takes most people three days to climb the Nose alone. I was totally blown away by this.
Upon leaving the No Barriers program, I popped into another show already in progress. It was called, "Conversations with a Tramp", and was an impersonation of John Muir, by Les Stetson. John Muir was a pioneer conservationist who helped convince the US government to reserve Yosemite as land for public use(what is now know as national park). Les was on stage telling stories about John Muirs early Yosemite adventures, as if he were John Muir telling them himself. Les was a good actor and played the part quite well. He has even grown a long gray beard and looks like John Muir.
The next morning, I hooked-up with John again, and we head off for a climb he had been wanting to do for some time. We approached the cliff from above and it took us over three hours to descend to the base of the climb. Much of the trail was 4th class and very dangerous. One part of the trail even involved a ninety foot traverse across the midsection of a cliff, which required us to belay each other. When we finally got to the route, we didnt even bother trying it. The route was an over-hanging 5.11 finger crack. I didnt want to waste my time flailing on that thing all day... when I could be cranking classics. John agreed and we split. As we drew closer to the car, it started to rain, and are climbing for the day was finished.
That evening, I spent several hours catching up on my emails. After finishing my emails, it was close to 3am. On my way back to Camp 4, I found a man and a woman racking up climbing gear in the parking lot. It looked like they were heading off to do a big wall. I walked over to get the scoop. "Hey... where you folks heading off to so early in the morning?"
"We're going to climb El Cap." responded a tall rugged looking dude. "If youre willing... well pay ya $50 to help us carry a load of gear to the base of the climb."
I nodded my head. "Yeah... for sure!"
I then helped Orna and Wally pack up the rest of their things, and when everything was packed, I hopped in their car and we drove off to the base of El Cap. Before beginning the trek, we slept for a few hours at the trail head.
The loads we carried were brutally heavy. My pack contained 10 liters of water, two climbing ropes, and a ton of gear. Originally, when they asked me, I felt my assistance was a little over priced. Fifty dollars was a lot of money for an hour of work. When we got to the base of the Nose, I prepared to drop my pack, take the cash, and split. "Sorry for not telling ya man..." says Wally, "but were heading up to the West Buttress to do Lurking Fear." During the two hours that followed, we climbed up a steep and rugged terrain for another half mile. I certainly earned that fifty bucks.
By the time I got back down to the road, I was an hour late for my rendezvous with John. I couldnt find him anywhere, so I figured he decided not to stick around. As I was looking for a lift back into Camp 4, who did I meet, but the lighting bolt himself... Mr. Hans Fluorine. He had been up on the wall over the last few days helping a Japanese hot-shot, Yuji Hirayama, make the second free ascent of the Salathe. There was even a Japanese camera crew shooting the event.
I talked with Hans about his three ascents of El Cap in one day feat. He told me that he and Steve climbed every pitch of those three routes without the use of fixed lines, but said that they had fixed rappel stations going down Lurking Fear, and thats how they were able to get down so fast. They had done a large portion of the routes by simul-climbing. This means while one person is leading, the other is seconding at the same time. Even with that, I was still very impressed with their accomplishment. After my encounter with Hans, I hopped in the back of a pick-up truck and got a ride back into the village.
At two oclock, I set off to the climb the back side Half Dome, but when I got half way, I realize I would have to back back in the dark, and decided to stop at Nevada Falls. The place was mind blowing. Nevada Falls plunges down 594 feet, and over a thousand feet above it rises an impressive towering piece of solid granite called, Liberty Cap. Above the falls is a granite plateau, so beautiful, it could have only been sculpted by God. The experience was a great birthday present.
That evening, I decided to go to the grocery store and treat myself. I usually dont buy any meat, cookies or juice... but that night I did. I was celebrating the passing of my teen years. For supper, I had a baked potato with Mossa cheese, and roasted two Italian sausages over the fire. I washed it down with cran-apple juice, and Chewy Chips of Ahoy. And to top it off that momentous day... the family I was sharing the camp-fire with sang happy birthday to me.
The following morning, as I was in Yosemite lodge getting information on how to get to Glacier Point, I over heard two ladies asking someone at the front desk "How long does it take to drive up to Glacier Point?". I asked if I could get a ride with them. On our way up the mountain side, the ladies asked me many questions about my journey... and in return, I inquired about their travels through life. Both of the the ladies were in there 50s, were single, have had kids, and were now trying to figure out what comes next. They were very interesting and we had a great conversation.
There were many people at Glacier point. It is one of the only major attractions in the park not limited to the physically fit. I met some hikers on their way to the top of Half Dome, and by the end our conversation I had a free ride back to Oakland for the following day.
From Glacier Point there is a superb view of Half Dome, and with the naked eye I could just barely see little specks climbing on it. After an hour or so, I met the ladies back at the car again. On our way back down to the valley floor we stopped off at a vantage point, so I could get a few shots of El Cap. Judy, one of the ladies, had a keen interest in photography, so I gave her a short lesson. Before heading back into the village we made a quick stop at Bridalveil falls. As we were departing from the falls, I suggested to Judy and Susan that we have supper together at the Yosemite Lodge Buffet. The buffet was "All you can eat" ...and I took full advantage of it.
As well as paying for my meal, they gave me a book called "Wild Mind" as a birthday present. The book illustrates ways to improve ones writing ability. Susan and Judy are working on writing a book together, and earilier in the day, Susan had bought the book for herself. "Ill buy another one...", Susan told me. After lots of hugs, we said "until next time", and went our separate ways.
Most days, before heading out to climb or explore, Id eat breakfast, and talk with my new German friends, Josef, Barbara, Andreas, and Angelika. One morning, they informed me that a Brown Bear had been in our campsite the night before, and walked less than ten feet from where I was sleeping. It was probably better that I wasnt awake to see it.
On what was to be my last day, I had until 7:30pm to do what I wanted, before I had to be back at Camp 4 to catch my ride to Oakland. On the bulletin board at the kiosk, I found a few names of people looking for climbing partners. Within an hour, I was in a car on my way to Cathedral tower with a German named Uwe, and a Swede named John.
The route we did was a five pitch, 5.8, called Braille Book. It took us well over an hour to hike the approach, then we had to wait for another half-hour once we got there, because there was another team ahead of us just starting the route. John led the first pitch, Uwe went second, and I pulled the gear.
Climbers are interesting people. Most will trust another climber with their life... within minutes of meeting them... without knowing their past history or ability. Im a climbing slut. Ill do it with any body. Uwe and John didnt know each other before that morning either. Any one of us could been a winging-it, and carelessly killed the others by ancient.
The route was sooo nice!!! Almost all the hand holds were totally positive, with huge in-cuts I could sink my fingers into. It took John over an hour to lead the most difficult pitch, which involved a nasty off-width section. I even got a little scared climbing it, and I was seconding! It is definitely the toughest 5.8 I have ever done.
While waiting for Uwe to climb the fourth pitch, I began to get a little nervous that I might miss my ride back to Oakland. It was quarter after six and we still had another pitch to go. I speed led the last pitch, but by the time we were all on top, the sun had already gone down. I was no longer concerned with catching my ride. It was more important that all three of us got off the mountain safely. It was critical that we got down to the base of the climb before we were in total darkness. None of us knew where the trail going down was, and I was the only person with a light.
We managed to get down to our backpacks without incident, and I was extremely relieved that both John and Uwe had flash-lights with fresh batteries. On our way up the mountain, we had a horrible time finding, and then staying on the trail. Somehow, we were able to follow the Cairns in the darkness, and not once did we lose the trail on our way down. At half way, we stopped for a break, and I was astonished to look across at El Cap and see the twinkle of so many headlamps, it looked like a continuation of the clear night sky. By the time we finally made it back to Camp 4 it was 8:30pm, and my ride was long gone.
At around 4pm the next day, I found myself in Yosemite Lodge writting "San Francisco" in big letters on the bottom of a pizza box. Not particularly anxious to use the sign, I asked a lady at the desk if she knew of anyone going to San Francisco that I might be able to catch a ride with. "That bus behind you is heading there." she replied. I knew it was a chartered bus, but I figured there was no harm asking. The driver told me that he had room. I asked how much it would cost. He told me that he would have to make a phone call to check. I said to him, "How about I just buy you something to eat on the way back?" "How about ten bucks?", he replied. Within a half-hour, I was in a luxury motor coach on my way back to Oakland.
After an hour, the bus stopped in a mall parking lot for a 20 minute break. Everyone got off the bus to stretch their legs and to get something to eat. I used the time to go get a few groceries. After twenty minutes, I was still in line at the grocery store. Getting rather worried, I stepped outside the grocery store as the cashier was ringing up my things. The bus was no longer there!!! I almost had a heart attack!!! Much to my relief, I found the bus moving down parking lot towards me. The bus driver did not look happy. I ran back into the store, slapped my cash in the clerks hand, grabbed my things, chased after the bus, and jumped in. The folks sitting next to me said that everyone was back on the bus after only ten minutes, and they spent the next ten minutes waiting for me. Embarrassed? ...You betcha!
Along the way, we passed a hydroelectric project with 7500 propellers that generate electricity on a barren ridge. The bus driver told us, that on a windy day, those propellers can generate enough electricity for a half million homes. I got off at the Marriott in downtown Oakland, then took the city bus back to Kens place.