Lessons in Granite The school of hard knocks, as taught on the walls of Yosemite. by Daniel Duane
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I woke up first and, knowing that any sleep at all was a blessing to my father, I took a long walk into the meadow below El Capitan. Duck pairs flapped from tree to tree, and fine white clouds glazed the sky — the thickening air of an oncoming northern storm. Far up-valley, Yosemite Falls plunged out of the mist as if pouring from a hole in the sky: a fierce, torrential roar that spread eventually into a widening cloud in the high winds, then pooled in a tight canyon before pouring again — a ropy jet of power.
Up on El Cap, Horsetail Falls fell free in watery gray fans, and then blew sideways in cut sheets of glass. That wall is so huge, I'm always shocked at how far back I have to lean to see the top. Only a few months earlier, my friend Stephen Ross had phoned from Caltech, full of excitement about an El Cap route called Zenyatta Mondatta.
A charming 32-year-old atomic physicist full of enthusiasm for puff pastry, big walls, abalone diving, fixing his old BMW, and whatever you were enthusiastic about, Stephen was five foot six with a shock of blond hair; he'd remove his eyeglasses to clean them, shrink into himself as his blue eyes receded from the lens magnification, then leap forward again when the glasses were replaced and say something like, "I'm not sure I want to marry an astrophysicist." A brilliant teacher, too — the kind of guy who could make very arcane science feel perfectly accessible. (He had once explained his work to me as "building a clock that will count backwards if time reverses in the universe.")
Stephen had climbed El Capitan once before, but was unhappy in his life and looking for another grand adventure. Just two weeks before his planned weeklong sojourn on that vertical wall, he called once again, this time with bad news: Some guy had just died on Zenyatta Mondatta. Climbing by himself, with ropes, he'd fallen — pulled out some gear, actually broke a carabiner. His rope had then slipped behind a piece of rock and cut, sending him 300 feet to the ground, where his fiancee and friends found him the next day.
The death scared Stephen so badly he decided not to do Zenyatta Mondatta after all. Maybe he'd try a different El Cap route, something less monumental. A few days later, he called again. He was "feeling too mortal," as he put it, and he thought he wouldn't climb El Cap at all. Maybe he'd just do some short stuff. Sounded sensible to me. It was the direction I wanted to go myself: back down from all the risk, find a way to make climbing something I did just for fun. The next phone call, three days later, was from Stephen's climbing partner: "I have some strange news," she said. "Stephen died yesterday."
The haunting part, at least as I returned to wake my father and get us going toward the East Buttress, was the exact nature of the accident. Stephen had died on a climb called Beverly's Tower, which my father and I had once tried. Not 15 feet off the ground, I'd been stumped by a move that scared me beyond all rational explanation. So I'd fumbled around with my gear, I'd retreated and returned and retreated again. I'd told my father the climb was well within my abilities, and he'd reassured me that he knew that perfectly well, and then he'd said, "But who cares? Why don't we just go get some ice cream instead."
That's the kind of father I had, thank God. In teaching me to climb, he'd always insisted that a big part of courage was knowing when to turn back, and he illustrated the point in parables about guys who listened carefully to their inner voices and either (a) skied an extra ten miles rather than crossing that loose snow slope, and thus avoided the avalanche that killed ten people, or (b) suffered a partner's absolute fury and disappointment by refusing to do some climb, just because intuition told him not to.
And then my father was practicing what he preached, or encouraging me to practice it. So I agreed, and backed off Beverly's Tower, and we ate ice cream by a river. I later learned that Stephen got to exactly the same spot, took what should've been a minor fall, and somehow flipped on the way down. His head hit the rock and he died.
The biggest risk in Yosemite rock-climbing is the chance that you'll slip and lose your grip. If you're climbing second, this isn't much of a danger: An attentive leader, keeping the rope taut from somewhere above, will catch you in a matter of a few feet. If you're the leader, however, you'll fall more than twice the distance you've climbed from the last piece of gear you affixed to the rock. And that can easily put you on the ground, if you're not careful.
Even higher up, where a ground fall is unlikely, 30-foot falls are not at all uncommon. If you don't hit anything on the way down, you just dangle unharmed at the end of the rope; if you catch a ledge, it can be awful. As a result, leading is more stressful, more tiring, than going second — but it's also more rewarding.
My father insisted on swapping leads on the East Buttress. He had his eyes on the prize now, on the way he was going to recover his strength, and he didn't want to be the tagalong; he wanted to be my climbing partner, doing his share of the work, just like the old days. And he was: We meandered up the East Buttress's lower cracks, in plain view of El Capitan.
At every ledge, the leader handed the gear to the follower, and we moved upward. He led smoothly and calmly, and we both marveled at the forgotten familiarity of the sight — one of us rising from below to greet the other. Perhaps it wasn't gone after all, my father wondered aloud. Perhaps we could still do this together! Feeling better and better, he opened our lunch on a small ledge and dared to dream: "Do you think I could ever do El Cap, son?"
Such a vulnerable and secure thing to ask your boy; such a sign of how good we had it. He'd never wanted anything to do with oedipal rivalry. He'd always just wanted to make sure I felt that I'd won, so I could get whatever strength sons got from winning, and so that we could carry on being friends. So he asked: "Honestly, son, tell me. What would it take?"
He eventually did climb El Capitan — years later, at age 64, and not with me — and I now know that I was hearing, on the East Buttress, the first stirring of the ambition by which he guided himself from midlife malaise to one of the happiest adventures of his life. But the question made me extremely tense: Although plenty of people climb El Cap without making a big deal out of it, I'd found it very hard, even after a year of training and at the peak of my physical powers.
I felt a resistance, an impulse to say: I don't know, Dad, I don't know if you should really try that. It's easy enough to fill in some of the blanks in what I was saying — the son's desire to feel that he's actually better than his father. Oh no, Pop, you could never climb El Cap. That's the difference between us. I wanted the whole conversation to go away, but was afraid of saying so.
Two crows soared in wild drafts along the wall, rose and fell, launched into the sky, then fell again. Across the valley, I could just make out Horsetail Falls, blowing into the sky in a waving horizontal spray. I told my father he could absolutely climb El Cap, and that he'd just have to train hard for a year. He'd have to do a lot of climbs like this one, until they became routine.
"Any chance you'd do it with me?" he asked.