Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Zodiac

I sat on a plank of rock high on the right side of Yosemite's El Capitan, letting my heels dangle and kick the granite wall. My climbing partner, Jamie, handed me half of a sandwhich. I spread the bread and examined the contents. There was chicken, lettuce, and cheese. I began folding it all back together when I noticed one important detail. Jamie and I rested on Peanut Ledge; sixteen hundred feet of sheer rock, and twenty hours of non-stop work sat below us. My focus shifted back to the side of El Capitan and the meal in my lap. Delirious from climbing through the night, I suddenly had a moment of clarity. The sandwhich had mayonaisse. I hate mayonaisse.

My climbing career began at Vermont Academy. After a fall of riding the bench on the football team, and a winter slogging through the snow on a pair of cross-country skis, I joined the students and partipated in the climbing club.

The club spent half of our time behind the gym in a small room filled with mattreses, dust, and a ceiling of climbing holds. We fought to swing around on the holds in the room, excitedly taking turns. A third of the time, we climbed the wall of plastic holds in the gym. Occasionally, on our best days, we got to take trips to the Keene Bridge, Rumney, and the other local crags to climb outside.

The twelve passenger van filled with an assortment of helmets, ropes, harnesses, and students. We bounced over the hills east to New Hampshire. The bluffs of granite seemed unnaturally large when I climbed them. I was terrified whenever I set foot on the rock during these trips. While I shook like an autumn leaf on the grey stone, the other students sat below eating their sandwhiches and talking casually about their classes. When I finished and began eating my lunch, they smoothly ascended the rock.

The naturally talented Grayson Holden showed the rest of us how to climb. He flowed up the rock, confident, and relaxed. He exmplified the ideal student of Vermont Academy-intelligent, modest, and an outstanding athlete in snowboarding, and rock climbing.

While the academic aspect of high school came easily to me, the social aspect did not. I held students like Grayson in high regard for their ability to mold both. They held their ideals close to them, and then made smart and cool descision when under pressure. I graduated from Vermont Academy and made a half-hearted attempt to attend the University of Vermont. I felt lost in college, out of place, and not ready despite my high school preparation. I left Vermont and headed to Yosemite California, hoping to find the same confidence that Grayson and the other Vermont Academy students had.

In Yosemite, I worked a menial job making beds at a tourist lodge. I climbed the granite walls, learning to be comfortable with who I was. I climbed before work. I climbed after work. I climbed on my days off. Soon, the nervous shaking I had experienced while a student disappeared. The small crags turned into larger cliffs and then into entire walls. While the physical challenges of rock climbing were hard, I approached the climbing with the academic rigor I had been taught at Vermont Academy. I tackled the smallest and easiest subjects first and progressively learned how to deal with the harder bits until a fall day in the late afternoon, I found myself at the base of the Zodiac, an 1800 hundred foot route up the side of El Capitan.

I led the first section, hanging the rope for the initial eight hundred feet. I yarded my way up the rock, clipping pitons, and placing gear into the rock. Jamie followed behind me, climbing the rope. When the sun fell, when we were 800 feet off the ground, Jamie took over and began leading. I followed him through the dark. After midnight my head fell against the granite wall, bouncing against the rock as I fell asleep then woke from the thunk of my skull hitting the rock. With a late afternoon start the majority of our climbing was done in the night; we had little sense of exposure.

Then the sun rose and a sea of granite swept up below us. Jamie hung beneath a large roof, his feet kicked in space as he reached up and placed a camming device into the rock clipped into it and stepped a little higher. He placed another piece three feet higher and continued the crawl. This was we had moved all night, like caterpillars ascending a few feet at a time. When Jamie reached a ledge, he established an anchor and clipped in our climbing rope.

I fixed my jumars to the rope and ascended the line. I found Jamie laying on his back and muttering when I joined him at Peanut Ledge. I nodded to him. I understood. He could barely move from exhausation. We exchanged gear so that I could led us through the next hundred feet. I sat down for a moment of rest and Jamie opened our small daypack, handing me the sandwhich.

The Yosemite deli had coated the bread with a pink cranberry goo. Delirious, I fixated on the mayonnaise. Should I or shouldn't I? The question drove my mind from the cliff towards something more real and more important on a daily basis. It was an important moment. I hated mayonaisse and was on the verge of freaking out on the side of El Capitan. I recalled Grayson and the other students at Vermont Academy, how they remained poised and true to themselves. With my blackened hands, I grabbed a piton from our rack, and scrapped the sandwhich clean, leaving a trail of metal, but removing all the mayonaise. I decided to keep my ideals and stay away from mayo. I ate the sandwhich, iron and all. We headed to the summit and topped out the noramlly five day adventure in a 21 1/2 hour sprint.

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