Monday, November 26, 2012

The Big Stone with the Big Guy

The Big Stone and The Big Guy
It is day 1 on Freerider. I am attempting this 35 pitch free route on El Cap with my husband Evan. Things are going well so far. I have successfully sent the 5.11 down climb and traverse into the Hollow Flake, a 5.8 offwidth. The bottom of the offwidth goes smoothly, but as I climb higher , the #6 BD Camalot that I am walking with me no longer fits and I am looking at my rope going sideways for 50'. No problem. It's 5.8. I can just dig my body in a little deeper, use my own flesh as protection. Now I am dug in so deep I can't move upwards. I am sweating, it is really hot. I loosen myself from the gaping crack to smear and scrape flesh as I scrabble a few inches summitward. Knees are bleeding. Elbows are bleeding. I may or may not bellow with effort (OK I do... ungirlishly, primally, I only wish I could forget). Evan calls up from the belay, wants to know how it's going. I may or may not have moved in the last 15 minutes. I discover a technique that involves pinching the flake between my thighs. It really hurts my pubic bone but I do it anyway. I just want to be done. I am really hating this. I am covered in dried tears and blood. I pull onto the ledge, haul the pack, put Evan on belay. No celebrating this send. It is 5.8 and the first offwidth of the Freerider. Things are not looking good.

Thoughts of THE MONSTER threaten to trundle my calm over the brink. THE MONSTER is a 5.11 offwidth looming a few pitches above us and is the only hard pitch we haven't sussed out on TR. I try to focus on the pitches at hand. All 5.10 and easily dispatched, before you know it we are at THE MONSTER. We have decided for fairness that we would each lead a section of THE MONSTER, utilizing the optional bolted belay half way up it to tag each other out. Evan gets the first pitch and floats it, even though he's more nauseous with nerves than I've ever seen him. I'm so proud watching him that it hurts. Soon enough I'm hurting in a much less enjoyable way as I follow the pitch. Cool and pumpy underclings traverse you into the crack and then it's chickenwings galore, armbars for dessert. No fancy stacks. No pretty butterflies. No jamming your knee in this gaping maw. I shimmy up, try to wedge my butt in. It sticks enough. I reach the belay happy and bleeding and desperately grateful for my Anasazi Velcro Hi-tops protecting my ankle bones and a neoprene knee pad my friend Jesse Huey donated for our ascent. Now it is my turn. There are moments of progress. A tough spot slows me down and I seem to be climbing in circles: wiggle up, slide down, wiggle up, slide down. I swear I am greasing the inside of the crack with sweat and blood. I focus on the stance rest above me and somehow get there. Meters above, I am stopped in my tracks. I climb up, desperately, determinedly, but as soon as I stop struggling my body slithers back down the crack. I am not scared but I CAN NOT seem to get past this spot. After trying and trying I give up. Pull on gear. Get to the top and belay Evan up. He struggles on TR but sends. We do the final pitch to The Alcove, the ledge where we will stay for the next 3 nights while we climb the rest of the route. I am exhausted and bonking. My obsession with drinking water eclipses any disappointment I have in myself. I am so thirsty, so done. Food helps and I sleep like a log. Early the next morning I go back down and reclimb the second pitch of the Monster by headlamp. The cool temps, rested muscles and a pair of Patagonia stretchy corduroy pants seem to help. It doesn't feel easy but it feels solid. We can move upwards.

Following Evan up the first half of the Monster, wishing my knees were fatter or my ass was skinnier. 
First night at the Alcove, before food and water raised my spirits.
If I included every struggle, every tear, every success and failure of our journey up Freerider this would be a really long, really boring, really humiliating post. This adventure had all the elements that makes climbing an El Cap route such an amazing experience: sleeping on the edge of a 2000' drop, shitting into a bag mere meters away from your partner while they try to focus on something else, anything else, wearing your harness for days on end and slowly becoming immune to exposure. The climbing on the route (even the offwidths) is super high-quality and Evan and I found ourselves to be a great team. I excelled on the technical slab and flared crack pitches, Evan charged on the big moves and wide cracks, and we both revelled in the sections of crack-climber's dream of steep, exposed cracks way off the deck. When one of us was struggling, the other took the lead and we both inspired the other to try harder at various points during the climb.

Sweaty chickenwings on the Monster and desperate palm pressing on the Teflon Corner leaves it's mark. 
Modelling my El Cap(ilene) leisure suit for Walker and Elliot at the Alcove.  We got to share lots of laughs with these two guys who were climbing the route at the same time. 
Elliot and Waker brought travel scrabble, so Evan and I had a match at the Alcove.  For a guy who favours cell phone video games over books he sure can lay down a mean scrabble turn. 

Every evening this magic orange glow would hit El Cap right before dark.

Life on a ledge. 
After a month of not climbing before I headed to the valley, my ambitions for sending Freerider were pretty low. I was psyched for the experience of climbing on El Cap but intimidated enough by the wide cracks and valley climbing in general that I was unattached to the outcome. When we began our efforts to climb the route, which began days before starting up the climb, I was truly relishing the experience of it. It felt great to get a cardio workout hiking to the top of El Cap with a heavy pack to bring food and water we needed for the climb to the Alcove. Sleeping in the warm California air on the granite slabs up there with no one around and a sky full of stars was unbelievably perfect.

Hiking food and water to the top of El Cap was actually really fun (when I was high on exercise induced endorphins) and an awesome workout (oh great, my legs muscles grew)
My Scotty Burke Crack (a 5.10 offwidth near the top) practice outfit. 
Pretty grand place for a late-evening toprope session (almost as good as Penny Lane in the Smoke Bluffs)
Hanging out on top of El Cap while we sussed out the upper part of the route was blissful -  more like being in the Bugaboos than Yosemite! 
Full moon, campfire, suddenly this is seeming like a "REAL" vacation!
Our motto for our time in the valley was "one day at a time", and once we began up Freerider it morphed into "one pitch at a time". After a hectic and stressful month of work at our backcountry lodge we were determined to have fun and not let climbing ambitions, ego or bickering get in the way of what we desperately needed - some fresh air, hard exercise and pure fun together. We got what we needed and we were overall pretty happy with how we climbed too, which was a bonus. I would love to do the route in better style - after we fell leading the crux pitch and one other pitch on the route we both toproped them clean but things didn't work out for us to get back on them and lead them clean. I really want a chance to get back on the route and do it again in a few less days and in better style, but as a great poet once said, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need". I definitely got what I needed out of my time on El Cap with Evan this fall. When we pulled our bruised and tired bodies over the rim at around 1PM on day 4, we snapped a couple of pics and just sat there for a good 20 minutes. As we snacked and watched the ravens play in the wind I was stunned by gratitude for the amazing life I have and the fact I can share adventures with someone who simultaneously pushes and supports me. All too soon it was time to begin the huge rappel back down El Cap to collect our bivi gear and empty water bottles. As I dropped over the edge I had the distinct feeling that I wasn't going to be staying away from the top of El Cap for long.

On the top! We are REALLY PSYCHED! 
Sorting gear and dumping the poop tube... it's all a part of the Big Wall fun!

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