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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THERE WAS A TIME—two full years, in fact—when climbing the 3,000-foot sheer granite monolith called El Capitan meant literally everything to me. I was in my early twenties and had somehow gotten it through my head that El Capitan lay as a kind of obstacle to the rest of my life, that I couldn’t get on with becoming whoever I was supposed to become until I had thrashed my way up the thing. My parents and my friends all knew this, and they regularly told me that they wouldn’t like me any less one way or another—hoping, I suppose, to defuse my potentially fatal obsession. They pointed out that, statistically speaking, 100 percent of humanity led lives in no way dependent upon their having climbed or not climbed El Capitan (or anything else, for that matter), and surely, they said, I could find less hazardous ways of proving myself. None of this meant a thing. My internal apparatus of desire and ambition had simply built itself around this single object; I knew without a shred of a doubt that if I failed to climb El Capitan, I would live my entire life in an intractable fog of doubt and self-loathing.

I got myself into this predicament by accepting wholeheartedly, at about the age of 19, what might be called the Path of the Yosemite Climber. Somewhat out of vogue now, in this era of bolt-clipping gym climbers, and never more than a tacit understanding among Valley regulars, the path is simply a sequence of rock climbs. It begins with practice routes like After Seven and the Nutcracker Suite and proceeds through several years’ worth of progressively harder ascents, from the Royal Arches to the Higher Cathedral Spire, from the Nabisco Wall to the Chouinard-Herbert Route on Sentinel Rock. “Do these five 5.9 climbs in good style,” the story goes, “and you can then begin to consider trying that one 5.10. Put the following ten 5.10s behind you, without falls, and you might deign to call yourself a 5.10 climber.” Less a matter of perfecting your gymnastics—as is the case in sport and gym climbing—this is a carefully calibrated means of acquiring authentic experience. For anyone who wants a path to self-knowledge, or adventure, or enlightenment, or whatever it is that we want such paths for, this still makes a brilliant one, complete with seasonal movements from the short, winter training climbs of Joshua Tree, to Yosemite Valley in the spring, up to Tuolumne Meadows for the hot months of summer, and then back to the Valley for the autumnal big-wall season.

You start out by following other climbers, learning to remove protective gear from the rock, and then you take your first lead on something short and easy, allowing plenty of time to fiddle with the equipment. The leads get harder and longer, and months and whole summers pass in the comfort of this meaningful march forward. Along the way, you probably try a few of the short climbs at the base of El Cap itself, routes like Moby Dick and Sacherer-Cracker, and you feel the stone’s absurd stature, its staggering, elemental size—as if you’ve put your hands on the side of a planet. Three years in and you’re ticking off the long, single-day routes, thrashing your way up the finger and fist cracks, squeeze-chimneys and slabs of the Valley’s pure granite walls, tasting the remarkable pleasure of running fast over stone all day. Finishing late in the afternoon, you thrill to another of the Valley’s peculiar joys: the long, long walk down, stumbling through the trees in the warm night, laughing with the climber’s utterly unique brand of elation, a mysterious and giddy delight at things meaningful simply because they are possible.

Living in Camp 4, Yosemite’s wonderful, tawdry, overcrowded, and deeply loved old climbers’ campground, meant, when I was there in the early 1990s, and still means, late nights with a global rainbow coalition of dirty, smiling aspirants—quesadillas and beers with climbers Japanese, Polish, Venezuelan, all delighted to be there. In the warmth of your bag, you fall asleep with a view of the stars through the treetops, the smell of Top Ramen and campfire smoke mingling with the cedars’ perfume. You wake up to the hiss of butane stoves and the clink of climbing gear as someone readies for a long climb. Rest days pass swimming in the crystal-clear pools of the Merced River, sunning on midstream boulders, watching trout flicker here and there. Maybe an ice cream at Degnan’s Deli and a long nap in the tall, wind-whispering grasses of El Cap Meadow, sleeping with the peace of physical well-being. Over time, as you lie there day after day looking up, picking out tiny climbers lost in their dreams, you begin to realize where all this is going. An elaborate oral history has crept into your thoughts through the osmosis of parking-lot conversations, all about the Valley’s own pantheon of gods and demigods, great achievements, disasters, and debates: how in 1954 Warren Harding got mobbed by biting ants on the first ascent of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, that one-day route you just loved so thoroughly, and how Royal Robbins completed the first ascent of Half Dome in 1957, when he was only 21 years old. Harding’s 18-month siege on El Cap, lasting from July 1957 clear through to November 1958, seems a testimony to the wall’s unimaginable vastness, and you pass hours picking out the climb’s famous features: Sickle Ledge, the Stoveleg Cracks, Dolt Tower, Boot Flake, the Great Roof. Robbins’s nine-and-a-half day first ascent of El Cap’s next route, the Salathé, with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt in 1961, seems an act of wizardry, and his North America Wall done three years later, with Frost, Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard, seems pure genius.

Even the old ethical arguments loom like scriptural disputes between apostles: To bolt or not to bolt? How shall we, as a people, define what we call right and wrong? The faces from the photographs become likewise etched into your mind. From Yosemite’s golden age, in the 1950s, it’s mostly Harding, the swarthy, Byronic wisecracker, and Robbins, the bespectacled fanatic. Also funny T. M. Herbert; Yvon Chouinard, gear-master and philosopher; sprightly Tom Frost; and stocky, implacable Chuck Pratt. From the weirder, wilder 1970s, it’s all about Jim Bridwell, the man who established Pacific Ocean Wall in the blank sweeps to the left of the black diorite of North America Wall and then set an altogether new standard for boldness and commitment with his still-terrifying Sea of Dreams, harder than anything the pioneers had attempted. Perhaps, if you were paying attention as hard as I was, you knew that even in the 1980s hard new routes were going up all over El Cap, and you tried to catch sight of Rick Lovelace or John Middendorf in the cafeteria and wondered what insane aid wall they’d just come off.

All of this past argues for the primacy of the wall you know you’ve got to climb next: El Capitan. Remember that this is only one version of a path that many climbers would say doesn’t exist, and that there are taller cliffs in the world, such as those on the Trango Towers of the Karakoram, and others on Baffin Island, all with far more fearsome weather and rockfall. No wall on earth, however, drops quite so sheer and smooth in such a perfect vertical sweep of solid granite as does El Capitan, from a flat top to a 90-degree plummet into the soil, or in such a sunny clime so close to a road and a bar and a very big audience.

The effect of that stone’s scale and singularity is so great that groups of tourists routinely gather in the meadow below simply to stare at the thing, using binoculars and high-powered telescopes to pick out climbers as if searching the skies for lost astronauts. Indeed, the first recorded non-Indian sighting of the wall comes from a U.S. Cavalry doctor who rode into the Valley in 1851, got one look at El Capitan, and fell behind his regiment to sit staring upward in awe, his heart pounding and his eyes filling with tears. When another soldier called back to the doctor, worried there might be scalping Indians in the trees, the doctor replied, “If my hair is now required, I can depart in peace, for I have here seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being.”

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.

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.

Five for All Time

A brief survey of El Capitan’s most mythic ascents and a sampling of the rock’s approximately 100 other routes, plus storied features on The Nose.

1. Salathé Wall
Yvon Chouinard named this 36-pitch route after his hero, John Salathé, the Swiss-born blacksmith who pioneered big-wall climbing in America and forged the first hard-steel pitons—even though neither Chouinard nor Salathé was the first to climb it. Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost first clambered over the final headwall in 1961 and, sharing Chouinard’s high opinion of Salathé, chose to formalize the name.

2. The Nose
In 45 days over the course of one and a half years, Warren Harding, 34 at the time, along with a changing roster of partners, placed 700 pitons and 125 bolts before reaching the summit via The Nose on November 12, 1958. Thirty-six years after this first ascent, Seattle resident Lynn Hill, 33, climbed it without mechanical aid in less than one day—still the fastest free ascent of The Nose.

3. North America Wall
Golden-era (1950s) Yosemite climbers didn’t find the loose and flaky black diorite of the southeast face as appealing as the white granite of the southwest face, so this route was not climbed until 1964, when Royal Robbins put together the best team in the Valley: Chouinard, Frost, Pratt, and himself. Named for the shape of the discolored rock, it was the first route done without fixed ropes—and as a result raised the bar for good style.

4. Muir Wall
Shortly after Chouinard and T. M. Herbert put up this route in June 1965, Robbins chose the most dull and tiresome way to repeat it: solo, reclimbing every pitch in order to remove the pitons he’d placed minutes earlier. “I began to hate the climb,” he wrote later. Nonetheless, the nine-and-a-half-day ascent remains one of the most inspiring feats in Yosemite history.

5. Pacific Ocean Wall
Even after Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay, John Fiske, and Fred East first summited Pacific Ocean Wall in 1975, Camp 4 rock rats considered this the biggest challenge of the decade because of the unstable belays, spotty protection, and necessity for sophisticated aid tools. Today, routes such as Wyoming Sheep Ranch, straight through the North America diorite, and nearby Lost in America are among the hardest climbs on El Cap.

6. West Buttress
7. Mescalito
8. Sea of Dreams
9. Wyoming Sheep Ranch
10. Tangerine Trip
11. Zodiac

a. Sickle Ledge
b. Stoveleg Cracks
c. Dolt Tower
d. Boot Flake
e. Great Roof