Beginnings(Pipe Dreams): a greenhorns first wall

Pipe Dreams


Swifts whistle through the air, surfing the wind above us as we awake upon the “Heart Ledge”. The white and black birds dance in the sky with their long wing tips, the curve of the feathers a masterpiece of engineering and the birds do not hesitate to take advantage of what comes natural to them as they dive and dip along the contours of the cliff and then bank up and away, stalling for a second before catching a new current and whizzing back - and then up, up, and away again. We share a bag of watery scrambled eggs and an energy bar. I notice that at times two birds will meet at the pinnacle of an arc and latch onto each other, pausing for a second as momentum carries them upwards before they begin to fall. Down, down, down – spinning wildly, neither bird flinching until inches above the Manzanita bushes where they separate, opening their wings at the last second to joyfully escape the crushing embrace of gravity. I lean back on the rope securing me to the cliff and I wonder if the birds feel the same fear I feel; as Luke and I fall upwards in our own dangerous dance, locked together at the waist by this nylon chord.


Luke charges up burly wide cracks all day. I fumble through my leads, making up for my incompetence by trying my best to organize the hundreds and hundreds of feet of rope, a clusterfuck of carabineers, cams, nuts, pins, hooks and slings all entombed in the Pig. All that matters is the haul bag, or the Pig as we now know it, Without it we will have no food, whiskey, water or smokes and without we will not go up. I lean back on the pulley system we use to haul the pig and I hear it scraping along on the rock below me, a grating percussion to the cheery tinkles of gear on Luke’s harness as he jugs the rope and cleans the gear from the crack. The route we are following was visionary in it’s time(‘61): with the exception of 13 bolts used to link a small blank section, the entire route follow’s natural crack systems that lead directly to the summit. A new precedent was set for clean, natural lines. A statement, one that was in direct conflict of the first route up El Cap’s South Buttress, The Nose, which required 125 bolts.  It was a statement of doing more than simply reaching the summit, it was about style and this ushered in a new era of progression in Yosemite.  


We chew espresso beans and ibuprofen for breakfast, our fingers are swollen and sore but we pack our things away nonetheless and prepare for the day. It’s easy to fall into the motions as I lead us to the top of a pinnacle of rock that appears to be detached from the wall, this platform in the sky, it takes my breath away and I feel happier then I have ever known, Luke and I puff an offering to the ancestors before continuing onwards. We are working well now, our rope systems have become natural. As we reach a ledge aptly named “the block” I look up to see shimmering droplets of liquid free falling in the sky towards us. I am entranced by the expanding pattern of light and watch it pass by us and into the void below, I look to Luke with surprise and he laughs at me as he explains that it was no miracle, only piss. He chuckles his way up the pitch as I think deeply about whether or not it even matters if I just got peed on, I finally conclude that it does not, all the while Luke has been working his way through the harder terrain easily, slowly disappearing out of view. His shouts come echoing down to me and I only catch snippet of what he says before I get yanked from my seat and slammed into the wall as the rope catches him. Now, much closer than before, he explains how he was off route and the crack had exploded from his body weight. We discuss what we should do as he dangles from the rope and I wait on the ledge, finally we agree that we will spend the night here and push to the summit in the morning. We string up our hammocks and crack the whiskey as the sun takes it’s time to set over the western horizon. We eat cold Indian food from bags with sporks and enjoy the thousands of feet of air below our feet.


Our final day we wake up early and crawl from our hammocks; salami, espresso beans and painkillers topped with some whiskey get us moving and soon we are packed. A short argument concerning who will get to use the last poop bag first and we are moving upwards once again, Luke leads as I take care of the bags and soon we are below the headwall. The belay is occupied by two Brit’s who share their freshly brewed real hot coffee with me(the first I’ve had in days) as I watch Luke climb towards the roofs. He falls but quickly continues on and soon I join him below the overhangs. I retrieve the gear and move past him. The only way down is up, after all.


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The headwall crack, the roof is below my feet and the void below that and then I fall. Protection rips from the crack and I am tipping backwards until I stop abruptly, laid out horizontal bent backwards in my harness. I am below the roofs and I see stars, my ribs hurt and I look at Luke and ask him to take over, I can’t go on. He looks at me and shakes his head, dig deep he shouts and I am too scared to say anything else so I continue. We push up the headwall battling our demons as we go. As I climb away from an old piton on wet holds I commit to the unknown and find myself clinging from a single hand hold, it’s started to rain, the gear I need isn’t with me and I’m looking at a large fall onto old gear at the top of the biggest cliff I have ever seen and then it all goes to shit, off the rock and I find myself plummeting to my doom. I have time to imagine the old piton exploding from the rock, the string of tiny gear below following suit until there is nothing between me and Luke and I will fall and fall and fall, until at the last second, I would have to spread my wings and skim the tree tops. But the old piton holds and the rope does not cut and I am still alive. Cursing myself and kicking the rock I try to pawn my responsibility off to Luke once again but he refuses. I curse Luke and his experience, he knows more, why was I up here, I was falling apart and he was still collected, I was scared and that made me angry. I looked around at the rock, poked and prodded the next move and began piecing together the trickery that was necessary to continue up once again. No longer thinking, I observe my body moving upwards, sliding jumars up the rope, passing Luke, suddenly climbing on big holds on low angle rock and then suddenly trees. I wish to look at the trees more but I am too busy building the last anchor, setting up the haul system for the last time, my ribs scream every time I weight my harness, leaning back to pull the bags. Luke is on top now too and he helps me haul, the bags have become pigs, independent minds crowding for a single teet, crawling over each other, the void dragging at there tails, we pull until it is over. Then it is done; or it has just begun, but I look back over the lip at the thousands upon thousands of feet we have fought our way up and smile, and the void smiles back.