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.

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
IN MY FOURTH SUMMER of climbing, I tried and failed three times to climb El Capitan. The first time, with my friend Reuben Margolin on Warren Harding's Nose route, I was overcome by terror while still relatively close to the ground. The wall seemed impossibly vast, towering overhead with winds running almost constantly along the face; birds rose and fell in dramatic commentaries on gravity; hour upon hour of crushing physical labor seemed to bring the summit not an inch closer even as the ground got frighteningly farther away. Then, only halfway through the classic first day's work, I traversed onto a part of the wall on which the exposure—the vertical drop below, the sheer volume of wall and space swimming all around—preyed upon the stability of my mind. My thoughts began to swirl uncontrollably and I felt a terrible, inchoate urgency, as if something absolutely had to be done, and very, very soon. So I did something. I went down.

The second failure, with my college climbing partner Jonathan Kaplan, came on the third day of my next attempt, when I dropped a bag containing rain gear and warm clothing and refused to go any farther—forcing us to complete nearly 2,000 feet of rappels. The third failure was much like the first. My partner that time, Russ McBride, was so unafraid at belays that even as we dangled in the Stoveleg Cracks, hundreds of feet up, he kept right on reading Over One Hundred Ways to Buy Real Estate for Little or No Money Down. I was, however, utterly and desperately terrified once again. I actually wept with fear, babbling incoherently about how I loved my mother and wanted to live to get married and have babies of my own someday.

The following summer, I enlisted Reuben and Jonathan on my fourth attempt. The idea was to have the strength of both men, and also to resolve the debt I felt I owed them. We spent five and a half days climbing the Salathé Wall, and it was unquestionably the single greatest adventure of my life—sleeping on small ledges high in space, dangling on ropes from overhanging headwalls, and passing day after day inside the security of total purpose. The quotidian world was always visible below, with RVs and buses and cars and crowds of tourists in their lawn chairs in the meadow, but it was so distant, as if we were proper fools on the hill. The fear was still there, a perpetual background hum of abject horror, but at least I knew where I was coming from, where I was going, and what I was supposed to do with myself.

A hard-hat construction worker once told me that a day of big-wall climbing is harder than any day on any job site. The climbing itself, the endless coiling of ropes and switching of equipment, the hours and hours of awkward body positions, of hauling hundred-pound supply loads and ascending ropes, of exposure to the elements and the yawning space below—it all wears you down relentlessly. (Todd Skinner has said that you get so high up on El Cap that when you look down it takes five minutes to see the ground.) A love for the sport, therefore, is a love of extreme physical discomfort and a hunger for tasks so stupidly difficult they can obliterate your self—the ostensible point of the whole enterprise.

So, having worked hard from dawn until dusk for nearly a week, having been literally shit upon by climbers high above us, cleansed by a warm summer rain, and buzzed by peregrine falcons, we neared the summit badly sunburnt, many pounds skinnier, and covered in filth and scabs and open wounds; also profoundly exhausted and very, very happy in the way of tired and healthy young animals.

Then I discovered that there were depths of obsession with this wall that made my own look like a passing summer fancy. Far off to one side of the great cliff, we were arranging the short rappels back to the ground via the standard East Ledges descent route. Old, frayed ropes hung from bolts in the rock at our feet clear to the Valley floor several hundred feet below us—fixed lines used by Yosemite Search and Rescue to quickly access the rim of El Capitan. Where the ropes had worn dangerously thin, they had simply been cut through and tied in knots. Having survived nearly a week in a purely vertical world, with the threat of death by falling ever present, we had no intention of trusting our lives to such ephemera. So I spent several minutes rigging a heavily redundant anchor while Jonathan coiled and tossed our ropes off the edge, establishing our own rappel line. Reuben, meanwhile, readied our two enormous haul bags—the plasticized duffels in which we'd carried our 200 pounds of food, water, clothing, and bivouac gear. We were just about to descend when we heard footsteps.

Three men appeared, breathing hard and moving fast. One I had seen before in Tuolumne Meadows; he was a rock-climbing instructor who had the wiry, efficient build of a cowhand and who often wore a broad-brimmed Stetson while guiding clients up the cliffs. The second was rounder of body, with a gentle face and friendly smile. The third man, tall and lanky, politely asked if we would mind them rappelling ahead of us. "We've just been moving for kind of a long time, and if we stop now, we're going to fall asleep," he explained apologetically.

"But don't worry," he added with a grin, "we'll be real fast."

I watched in astonishment as the climbing instructor descended the fixed lines. When he reached a knot in the rope, he simply held on to the rope with one hand, unclipped his rappel device with the other, reattached the rappel device below the knot, and continued on his way—his entire life held, for a moment, in the palm of his hand. Reuben, Jonathan, and I exchanged amazed glances: Who were these guys?

"What you boys been on?" the tall climber asked. He had bright, flinty eyes and an air of silent confidence—one of those men whose alpha status seems to emanate from their pores, their rank in any group somehow implicit, beyond question.

"Salathé," I said, perhaps a little proudly.

"Oh, that's awesome," he said. "I've always wanted to do that route. Your first El Cap route?"

I allowed that it was.

"Right on. You guys must be feeling great. How long were you up there?"

"Five days," I told him, although in truth it had been closer to six.

"Right on," he said. "Congratulations. I've got to do the Salathé someday. Is it just great?"

"It's amazing," I told him, only barely catching the cue, the way his intonation of "Salathé" implied that he had done many, many other El Cap routes. "It was my fourth try, though," I confessed.

"Doesn't even matter," the man assured me. "Everybody bails a few times. What matters is you made it. You ticked it."

"I guess so." I smiled. I guessed I'd ticked it. That sounded good. "What'd you guys just do?" I asked.

"Mescalito," the man replied.

If the Salathé was one of the three great pioneering routes up El Capitan, Mescalito belonged in my mind to the same family as Pacific Ocean Wall and Sea of Dreams, climbs so committing they could apparently do dangerous and unsettling things to your mind. Much harder and steeper than the Salathé, Mescalito seemed far beyond a Rubicon I would never cross. I hadn't even made it back to the car yet, and my mental conversation could no longer revolve around simply having climbed El Cap. Already, I had passed into the realm of Which Route?

But then I noticed something, and asked: "Where's your haul bag?"

"We didn't really bring one," he replied. "Just that thing." He pointed to a sack about a third the size of ours.

"How long were you up there?"

"Twenty-eight hours," he replied. "One guy climbing the whole time."

Twenty-eight hours.

They had done a route radically harder than ours in a fifth of the time.

"When did you start?" I asked.

"Yesterday at about five."

"You did it at night?"

"Yeah. You want to time it so you're finishing up with some daylight."

I don't remember much more about that exchange, probably because I was so impressed that I more or less stopped speaking. By the next afternoon, however, and by means I have forgotten, I discovered that the man's name was Steve Gerberding, and that he had climbed El Capitan 52 times over the last dozen years; 52 times on what counts as the climb of a lifetime for a lot of people, a climb so physically demanding as to leave most worn out for weeks. This absolutely fascinated me. I had finally got past the thing that was supposed to be the obstacle between me and the rest of my life, and now it appeared that the rest of a life could be devoted to the obstacle itself.