The smoke cleared the Valley floor within a few days. I rappelled 1300 feet from the top of El Capitan a half dozen times in two weeks. The skies grew blue again. A difficult boulder problem, two thirds of the way up the formation, thwarted my previous year’s efforts. 12 weeks in Rifle, a spring on Fifi Buttress in Yosemite and 50 days in Hueco prepared me to try again. I fell on the difficult moves my first few days. Frustrated I, I spent a day working a difficult stemming variation. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana aptly named the pitch The Teflon Corner. My feet skated. The boulder problem seemed easier. I kept working on the pitch. At the end of two weeks, I managed to free the pitch on minitraxion.
Matt Ciancio stopped at the top of the East Ledges and waited for me to take a picture of the sunrise a week later. We rappelled to the boulder problem, pulling our ropes as we descended. In the middle of the wall, I sent the difficult moves of the boulder problem. As I rested, a loud speaker yelled from the meadow below.
“Yosemite closed! Government Shutdown! No recreating!” A voice cried from the meadow. A congo line appeared heading up the fixed lines half way up El Cap, climbers determined to stay through the shutdown. Matt and I continued up the wall, swinging leads. I fell on two pitches. Progress in a suddenly still Valley.
Yosemite remained quiet for 18 days. The absence of tourists holding cameras out their car doors, of hikers snapping pictures of the Yosemite falls with their camera phones, of buses loudly driving the Valley loop became the most obvious part of the closure. With the quiet, finding solitude became easy.
The wildlife noticed as well.
Though the government closed the park to visitors, nature remained open. With fewer chances of human interaction, the wildlife emerged from the trees. Bears wandered through Camp 4. Foxes ran across the roads. A small owl hid beneath the rocks on the top of El Capitan. The normally domesticated deer, who eat crackers from tourists’ hands, suddenly shied away. The animals became feral. They returned to nature.
A certain wildness spread through the park.
The bipartisian gridlock suspended recreation in the park. Climbers parked at the base of El Capitan received tickets. A local ranger issued a citation to a Nose in a day party. “Closure of Public Use” read the $175 ticket. My Saturn, embossed on the hood with the Stonemaster’s lightning bolt, taxied an El Cap climber out of the park. In the moonlight, two base jumpers flew over El Cap. Base jumping, rock climbing and interperative nature walks became the activites of criminals.“Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here.” Tom Robbins wrote in Still Life with Woodpecker.
I set the alarm for 3:30am. Hayden Kennedy and I biked from Yosemite village to the top of El Capitan. At the top of the East Ledges, I snapped a picture of Half Dome. We rappelled to the boulder problem and climbed out. We were the only climbers on the monolith. Devoid of tourist buses, the usual stream of traffic and gawkers, Yosemite felt wild and adventurous. We climbed out from the boulder problem.The climb went smoothly enough. Hayden dispatched the boulder problem with a little effort. I sent it was well. The corners went well. On the last offwidth, the notorious Scotty Burke, I tied my shoes too tight and wore thick socks in my high top climbing boots. I desperately laybacked past the wide climbing. My numb feet skated off the rock. I whipped. The rope grated along the edge cutting through the sheath of the rope and into the core. Scary. Falling from the top of El Cap would be a miserable thing. Dying wouldn’t be so bad, everyone does it, but falling from the top of El Cap gives you so much time to think about it.
Rope breaks. You fall. There goes the corner pitch. Bye bye boulder problem. Now you’re accelerating past the alcove. Later Monster Offwidth. Still Falling. Say goodbye to Hollow Flake. Maybe you’ll miss Heart Ledges. You’re almost to the ground. But wait there’s Mark of Art, Sacher Cracker and if you look up you can still see: BOOM! You’re finally dead.
Hayden and I hiked down towards the East ledges descent of El Cap. At the top of the Zodiac, Liv Sansov and Vanessa Francois, a paraplegic woman who had just done 4,000 pull ups through the closure to summit El Capitan. It as pretty inspiring to see her on top.
Hayden left the next day. Sport climbing instead of El Cap adventuring called him. For a few days, I felt lost. The closure was nice and quiet. No one was around. Finding partners became impossible. I minitraxioned Cosmic DebrisI soloed Royal Arches. I enjoyed the solitude. The absence of tourists made Yosemite feel special.
Every move felt harder than the previous. I kept trying. I stepped my feet onto the horizontal. Two more moves. My hand reached for the thin finger lock. I pitched. I screamed as I fell. Disappointed. So close. During the closure, I worked out the moves on Cosmic Debris, a difficult crack climb behind the Chapel. I worked the route a lot the previous year but fell off the thin finish. Then it snowed. This fall, I managed to toprope the route cleanly. I was close.
“That was a really good effort,” Hazel said. The young Brit flew into the States from South Africa and met me a few day after her plane landed. She had few plans other than to climb in the Valley. I quickly convinced her to join me on an El Cap mission. I was close on Cosmic Debris. Maybe I’d send both Freerider and Cosmic this fall.
Hazel and I stocked our bags full of bars, toilet paper, plastic bags,
We hiked to the top of El Capitan. I took a picture of the sunrise from the top of the east ledges. I scrounged a half dozen gallons of water, extra supplies from my trips to work on the Boulder Problem. We rappelled down to the Alcove, mid way through the route, and dropped off our haul bag. We continued to the ground. We rested the next day. The following day, we woke started climbing at 4 am. I linked the first pitches. We swung leads to Heart Ledges. I fell on the thin move off of the ledge worked it out, and sent the pitch from the no hands stance. We continued up the route with little difficulty.
“It’s hot.” Hazel said. We sat on Hollow Flake Ledge. Most of the day’s work and most of the day had passed. We still had the daunting Monster Offwidth to finish.
“Yup,” I said.
We then started into one of my favorite games. It goes like this- French fries or French toast, big or small, mountains or oceans, magic or science, ties or suspenders, boxers or briefs, empty places or crowded rooms, sun or moon, stop signs or stop lights. I can’t remember what Hazel said but her answers seemed satisfactory enough to put her on the sharp end to lead the Monster. She fell getting into the beast. I worked out the moves but had fallen. I pulled my way up and set a tr for the beginning of the pitch. Hazel hiked through the traverse in and then fought up the offwidth.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said. I wanted to weight the rope. The Monster ate my thigh and devoured my elbow. I was so tired.
“Come on,” Hazel shouted. “You can do it.”
We reached our bag in the Alcove. We set up for the evening. I cranked the volume on my iPod. The Talking heads vibrated the granite walls. Hazel and I split an apple. We ate chocolate. We danced in the dying light.
We woke before the sun and climbed a few hundred feet to the Boulder Problem. Hazel worried that she wouldn’t send the pitch. We raced against the sun. I felt tired from the Monster Offwidth.
I crimped hard and threw my thumb against the rock. I pressed my two thumbs together. I would free climb El Cap. I reached a large loaf of granite. All the hard work would be rewarded. I moved to match the hold. A moment of insecurity entered. Then I fell.
I tried the boulder problem again. And again. Hazel worked the moves. I fell. Hazel sent. The sun was coming. I tried once more. I wanted it. The sun burned the holds into my fingers. I was tired. I fell. I pulled through and climbed to the anchor. I slumped my head against the wall. I didn’t want Hazel to see me cry. I barely knew her. I failed because of my inability to see myself succeed. I felt like a failure. I fixed the rope. We rappelled to our camp in the Alcove. Hazel hung the rope made a make shift curtain. We hid from the shade. Walker Emerson climbed to the alcove on a mission to the Teflon corner. He rappelled back down and provided us with some much needed batteries for Hazel’s headlamp. I had brought 2 instead of 3 extra.
We watched the sun set. The unmistakable whoosh accelerated past the alcove. He flew by the Monster Offwidth. Still falling. He said goodbye to the Hollow Flake. He missed Heart Ledges. He was almost to the ground. He would die! Then BOOM! The parachute exploded and the basejumper glided to the meadow. I slept restlessly. Feelings of failure crept into me. I would try once more in the morning. Only once.
We woke early and climbed to the top of the Boulder Problem. My headlamp danced across the rock as I pulled onto the moves. I mantled. I crimped. I threw my thumb against the rock. I pressed my thumbs together. I reached for the loaf. I moved to match it. I fell. Close.
“Do you want to try again?” Hazel said.
The pitch stared at me. There was still much climbing to do. I failed. I was a failure. “Let’s keep moving.”
Hazel dispatched the pitch easily. I followed cleanly. On the second corner, I fell clipping a fixed piece. I pulled up, clipped the fixed hex, and continued to the anchor. I one hung the pitch. Whatever. I hadn’t sent the route. Hazel followed cleanly and dispatched the traverse. We met at the Round Table ledge. Hazel fought up the fist section but got the single big cam stuck. She lowered and I finished the pitch. She followed cleanly. Turbo charged by a fair amount of caffeine shot blocks, I dispatched the Scotty Burke offwidth. Hazel fought her way to the top. We summated. Hazel free climbed El Cap.
“Are you sad you didn’t send?” Hazel said.
“It’s still here. I want to do it in a day anyways,” I replied. I wanted to sound nonchalant. But the fact that I failed crushed me.
We rappelled down the Salathe. At dusk, we reached our bags in the alcove. We considered spending another night but decided to continue our descent.
“It’s hard to be a lady on the wall,” Hazel said. I ate as much chocolate as I could. We hit the ground 2 hours before a snow storm hit and soaked the Valley for a few days. Hazel took the time to rest and then climb the Nose with Hans Florine. I focused on sending Cosmic Debris. Maybe I could walk away with one tick?
I threw my finger into the granite. My finger caught on the edge of the crack. I tried desperately to reel my body into the wall. I fell. A chunk of skin hung from the side of my index finger. I one hung another project. Close but not quite there.
I cleaned my gear. Hazel met me in the meadow. We stared at El Cap. I looked at the Freerider. Hazel looked at the Nose. Her boyfriend, Peter aided through the Great Roof. Peter and Ben wanted to climb The Nose in a day. They were far off a reasonable time but they would summit, suffering for 28 hours. They failed on the coveted in a day mission but they accomplished something.
I stared up at El Capitan once more. I would be taking more pictures from the top of the East Ledges. I walked to my car and escaped the Valley.