The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite was my first big rock climb. Most climbers don’t choose the biggest rock climb in the world to be their first big climb. I fell in love with the mountain when I was a teenager and saw a picture of it in Yosemite Climber. It is what inspired me to learn to rock climb. My heart wasn’t into climbing smaller mountains first. I would rather have failed on the Nose than try to climb something else first. It’s what I had a passion for.
At the time, I was working full time and going to college. Scheduling a week off from work and school at the same time was difficult. There was a narrow window in which I could try to climb it before summer school started. I took a week of vacation, all that I had, and drove to Yosemite by myself.
At the campgrounds, I found a note on the bulletin board from a man from Australia who was looking for partners. He had already hooked up with a Canadian but invited me to join them. I was delighted. I explained I didn’t have as much experience as they did. I promised to be the engine that could.
On the first day, we fixed ropes up to Sickle ledge, a big ledge 600 feet off the ground, and came down for the night. I thought things were going well. (To “fix” a rope means to tie the end to an anchor and leave the ropes hanging so you can use it to pull yourself up when you return.)
The next day we returned, hauled our bag with food and water up there, and slept on the ledge. The following morning we started climbing higher, with hopes of reaching the next ledge big enough for us to sleep on before it got dark. Almost a thousand of feet of difficult climbing separated us from it.
We were still several hundred feet from our sleeping spot when it was my turn to lead. I moved slow, afraid I might fall. The sun was starting to go down. I saw where I needed to go, but I was scared. As I craned my head and looked above, I saw a wall of steep, smooth granite as far as I could see. I yelled down to my partners that I was stuck.
My partners were around the corner, unable to see me. After desperately trying to communicate through the wind, I heard them yell that if I had enough gear, I should set up an anchor where I was. It was not the normal stop- ping place. Clanking in the wind at my feet was a “No Parking” sign. Some jokester had bolted it to the rock there. I was the most terrified I had ever been.
When my partners reached me, useless arguments ensued. The immediate question was where to sleep. The sun was going down. I give the Aussie credit for every- thing that happened next. He spotted a small, sloping ledge that was twenty feet down, large enough for the three of us to sit on. We lowered ourselves — just us, not our sleeping bags. We slept side by side, sitting with our feet dangling over the ledge, the rope tethering us to the anchor twenty feet above.
In the morning, the question of if we should continue or go down was discussed. I sat quietly as to let the others make the decision. I had pooped in my pants and a loaf was stuck. I was miserable and voted in my head to bail. But I didn’t want to ruin it for them.
The Aussie and Canadian, no poop in their pants, no school or jobs to go to, voted to go down.
We had swung around a corner. Below us was a blank face for 1,000 feet. Complicating the nature of retreat was that we had to go down with a haul bag containing three people’s sleeping gear and food. I’m grateful for the guidance and expertise of the Aussie. While this might seem more of a survival story than a feeling of triumph and satisfaction of doing what interests you, I was happy. I learned from the experience and planned to go back. I was still passionate about climbing, about being on the Nose. This wasn’t about conquering a hard thing. I simply had a desire to be there.
The following year, I wanted to go back and try again.I was worried I might still be too slow. I told a friend about my doubts. He had climbed the Nose, and I expected him to concur, to tell me that I was not ready. Instead of agreeing with my insecurities, however, he encouraged me. He said if I had enough time and desire, I could get up anything. He said to bring plenty of water (gallons more than you think you need), take your time (we took a week of food), and if you are slow, let others pass.
I drove to Yosemite where I met Derrick, a partner, by placing a note on the bulletin board in the campground. I brought the largest Army Surplus duffle bag sold and wrapped duck-tape around it to prevent it from being torn as we dragged it up the mountain behind us. The first item we placed inside was the drum of water. We wrapped our sleeping bags around it to protect it.
It was Derrick’s turn to go first when we reached the part that had scared me the year before. When he was high up and around the corner, in a place I could not see him, he quit moving. I held the rope, as though waiting for a fish to bite; ready to hold the rope tight if he fell. Finally, word came. He was stuck. I knew exactly what to do. He was at the No Parking sign. I told him to set an anchor, and I would come up. I wasn’t afraid. I’d been practicing for this day.
The crack was the same width for as far as the eye could see. We had only three pieces of gear that would fit. To climb it, I did what’s called “leap-frogging.” I put a piece of gear in the crack and stood on it. When I reached above my head and placed another. I pulled up and stood on it, then reached down and removed the one I had been standing on. I repeated this until I made it to the anchor, which was 150 feet above us. After that, the rest of the climb seemed easy. Realizing I had skills, I became confident in my abilities. Like a Jedi master, I had become fearless.