Up on the Big Stone

You could call it a youthful passion, but why mince words? What seized the author at age 19 was a fateful obsession with El Capitan.

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I CLIMBED THE WALL one more time that summer—via the Nose, with a New Zealander named Peter Woolford whom I'd met in Berkeley's Marmot Mountain Works. I was then Marmot's climbing-shoe repairman, and Woolford was on the classic New Zealander's globe-trotting walkabout. But after flying all that way from Christchurch, driving out to Yosemite, and starting up El Cap, Woolford's partner had somehow managed to drop his harness in midroute. Following their hasty retreat, Woolford had to drive his partner—who was out of vacation days—back to the airport. Moping around the Bay Area afterwards, Woolford stopped into our store. One day later, we were off for what would become a month in the mountains together.

We did the route in the standard time of four days, and it was an enormous help to know firsthand that El Capitan actually had a top. In fact, I felt so at peace that I decided that climbing El Cap would become a regular pastime for me, too, as it clearly was for Steve Gerberding. I imagined myself taking long weekends at age 50 just to go knock off yet another El Cap route—that I would spend as much time as I could toiling pointlessly in the sky. I actually called up John Middendorf at the Black Diamond Equipment Company to order a full complement of the specialized iron pitons and hammers and hammocks required for routes like Mescalito and Pacific Ocean Wall, and I began to find exquisitely roundabout ways of letting even nonclimbers know that I had climbed El Capitan, somehow bringing it into virtually every conversation I had.

My Louisiana-born-and-bred girlfriend didn't quite get how impressed she was supposed to be, so I actually drove her up to Yosemite to show her the thing—her first-ever visit to proper mountains. Stopping at El Cap Meadow, after the long drive from the coast, I pulled her out of the car, pointed, and waited—waited for her jaw to fall and for me to loom suddenly larger in her eyes. I bounded around in my excitement, thrilled as ever to be below the stone myself, right up until I noticed that it was having absolutely no effect on this girl. In retrospect, I'm sure I had simply oversold it, ruining any possibility of a genuine response on her part. At the time I figured she just needed some help. We happened to be standing in the tall grass near a German man who had a pair of binoculars, so I asked if I could borrow them. I hoped to pick out a climber somewhere on the wall, show the climber to my girl, and thus make a last-ditch effort to impress upon her the wall's magnificent scale (and so my own magnificence).

"People climb this thing?" the man asked, when he divined my intentions.

"They sure do."

"I can't believe that," he said, quite firmly.

"It's true," I insisted. "I'll find someone here in a minute."

"No, that can't be," the man declared with great finality.

"I've actually climbed it myself," I said, lowering the binoculars from my eyes.

"You've got to be joking," he replied, breaking into a broad grin. "No, no, I don't believe that for one moment."

"Really," I insisted, now getting a little irritated. "I've climbed it twice."

"That's preposterous," the man told me, right to my face. "You've done no such thing. Now give me back my glasses and I'll be on my way." With that, he took his binoculars and stormed off.

When I turned to my girl, she could scarcely suppress a giggle. That afternoon, however, we bumped into Steve Gerberding by the side of the road—a coyote, he seemed to me, so self-confident and so inalienably cool. He generously asked if I'd been "up on the Big Stone" lately, and I was thrilled to answer in the affirmative, feeling that I had taken yet another small step down what I saw as a whole new, vastly longer, and more serious path. I even asked the same of Gerberding: "How about you? Been back up there?"

"Bunch of times," he said. "Yeah."

Then I asked a question I immediately regretted: "You never get tired of it, huh?"

I'm still not sure what I was asking. Will I ever tire of it? Maybe. Or, perhaps I already sensed the passion slipping away from me—I certainly haven't been on El Cap since—and perhaps I knew that I would never become half the climber that Gerberding was, much less a climber he might consider a peer. Maybe I was uncomfortable with this, caught in a wavering moment between one code of self-evaluation and the next, arguing it out in my head. Whatever I meant, I hinted, albeit vaguely and unintentionally, that Gerberding had made questionable use of his time in this world.

Gerberding, of course, was too gracious, or controlled, or self-contained to take the bait. "Nope," he said, "I never do get tired of it. It's too big."

Dan Duane is the author of Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast, and Looking for Mo, a novel. This article is adapted from El Capitan: Historic Feats and Renegade Routes, to be published this October by Chronicle Books. Duane lives in San Francisco.

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