Friends to Oblivion
I watched as my best friend swan dived backwards from the rock. I knew it was my fault. I was the reason he was on this wall with me. As he plummeted earthward, his arms rolled up the windows. His shoulders impacted first, then his brain bucketed noggin. His long blue tipped dreadlocks took some of the impact against the wall. The rack of iron hit him in the face. I lowered him to the portaledge, and looked in his eyes, one had blood running down the side of it. I broke out the first aid kit, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, lit it and patched up his eyebrow.
It all began in 1996; I had been living in Yosemite for a year, and had made friends with this modest, quiet, Asian kid. Mike was the roommate of my friend Colin who was living in Tuolumne Meadows. I met him after spending the night crashed on my friend’s floor. The next day I borrowed Mike’s car for two weeks and got an Otmar Libert tape stuck in the player. This was the start of our friendship, and my manipulative tendencies towards him.
A few months later I called him “on the east coast where he went to school.” Not knowing he was a Harvard student, I would call his dorm (though I doubt it would have made a difference anyway) and pester him to climb the North America wall with me. He had climbed the Salathe’ Wall before (along with some other walls), and the proposition didn’t seem too out of the ordinary. He always seemed keen, which to me was as good as him swearing in blood that he would do the wall. Come the following summer he arrived back in the Valley.
I must clarify as to why I wanted to do a wall with Mike: You see everywhere I went everyone adored the guy. Hippie drum circle types would pull him over to their parties one night, and another day he would be pulling down at the Cookie with concession employees, and then he would be in Sonora the next at his girlfriend’s house. I could never just hang out with him, so I figured I would steal him. A wall - that’s seven days – I figured that would be about enough time. So I set my sights on convincing Mike to do South Seas. And here’s why: He’s mellow, that’s it… I mean I didn’t know he was a genius from Los Alamos at the time. He just seemed mellow. Like a good wall partner should be. Easy going, good at following directions and not the kind of guy that would freak out. Plus he looked really funny when he wore a helmet, his dreads stuck out everywhere.
The night of his arrival we bought a bunch of Ol’ E’s and started planning. I never actually wanted to do the NA, there is just something about it that never set right ‘course I never told him. He really had his heart set on the NA, ever since he read about it in The Vertical World of Yosemite.
So, we drank our Ol’ E’s, and smoked, and it got late. We were at a friend’s house, his roommate, I don’t remember her name, but that night she started to loathe me – and does to this day. As Mike and I bullshitted about walls, she would tell us to leave and I would ignore her. Who does she think she is? I mean I don’t care if this is her house, we’re climbing El Cap – and Mike doesn’t even know that a change of plans is coming.
It’s late, Mike is blurry eyed, drunk, wasted, and about to pass out. I struck: “Mike, how ‘bout South Seas?” I think he said okay, or he garbled something, but I took this statement as his unequivocal word and agreement. Contented I fell asleep on the floor, much to the annoyance of what’s-her-name.
Morning came. I was psyched. I started packing the bags right away. More pitons, check, more hooks, check. I figured that we should further up the ante, by not climbing into the PO wall, the customary finish. “Hey Mike, you think we can cut left to Mescalito?”
“From the NA, are you mad?”
“No, from South Seas, remember you agreed to doing it last night.”
“I did not!”
“Yes you did, anyway, should we cut over down here,” I pointed at the topo in the guidebook “or up here?”
“When did I agree to this?”
“Right before you passed out. You got any beaks?”
“Sure I do, check in the bag - What’s South Seas?”
Mike wasn’t pleased. After he checked the route in the guidebook he looked cornered. “Do we have to swap leads?”
“You know…whatever… Oh yea! one more thing we’re not bringing a topo on the wall with us.”
We kept packing, and then hit the grocery store. The next day we hiked to the base. Day one went fine, I gave him some instructions on how to do steep hooking and nailing, and he followed slowly but safely. Then we fixed and went to the ground. Day two we left the ground with an enormous amount of supplies.
“Mike, I don’t think it’s going to take us nine days to do this route.”
He didn’t believe me. Nor did he want to lead anymore after his first lead. I was genial and didn’t make him, until the top. You know, one of those horrendous slabby top outs, with nauseating rope drag, and thorns, that one I let him take.
We walked down after five days, subsequent to gorging on four days of excess provisions.
The following week, after Mike got back from Sonora, we planned our next wall, and then our next, each one getting progressively harder, and he stronger and more confident.
For our final wall of the season we went for a Jim Beyer route on Leaning Tower. I always wanted to climb an infamous Beyer Route, and now was the perfect time with the perfect partner. It would be the same deal as before: We would fix pitches (by this point I was working full time at the Ahwahnee) until we had our ropes high enough we would blast for a weekend. After fixing the first two pitches Mike and Mark (the third member of our team) wanted to bail. Mark was completely over this climb. During his seven-hour lead of pitch two, he snapped a bolt off, and had a hook skate six inches. At the anchor, they tried to gang up on me and play democracy games. “All right, we can bail,” I said, much to their relief, “but we’re not pulling out lines.” Mark left town the next day and I didn’t see him again until the next season. Mike didn’t like the fact that he still couldn’t get his way with me, but he grudgingly agreed to go back up.
When we came back it was mid August. Hot as hell, and we’re up on the wall sweating and smoking. Mike, uncomfortable and scared is sucken’ ‘em down like candy. Finally he is on lead. He used a piece of wood that he brought with us as a cheater stick to reach a distant copperhead. He had packed it up with this move in mind. As he ascended the piece pulled. Being a bit runout, he whipped about forty feet.
So, there I am, with my partner a frightened bleeding mess in the portaledge. I take the lead. I mean he’s my friend, that’s what friends do right? It’s my duty.
At the time, this was my hardest lead; comprising of small copperheads in leaning flake, delicate hooking capped with free climbing. Mike recovers enough to take the next pitch – which was all copperheads. He attempts to equalize some heads in an expanding flake but is unable to – so he cautiously squeaks by. After seven hours his lead is done. That night we bivi on an expanding anchor. Then next morning I lead into a thin expanding flake, which I am able to beak for most of the way. Mike leads a constricting corner and builds a belay off of Lost Arrows. I take off on the next, a remarkably dangerous lead, where the risk of breaking my lower extremities seemed rather likely. Then I skip a meager anchor, drop the last drill bit trying to replace an old bolt (Mike dropped most of them earlier) and run out of lead and haul line. I make us an anchor that I didn’t like. Twelve pieces in a loose flake.
This belay was somewhat better than what Mike had set for us on the wall before last – which was Roulette. Our team of three bivied on a rivet, a rurp, a couple Lost Arrow stacks and a flared alien. Here and now, the whole thing could blow. I hauled the bag, quickly broke out the camera and took a parting shot.
Mike jugged up, unbeknownst. Fifteen feet later I led into a 5.8/A1 crack until we topped out.
On the wall we had found our boundaries. We had stepped up to the edge of our mental capabilities to deal with fear, crossed the line, and with some luck on our side were now safely on top. I was so jacked on adrenaline that I down climbed the 5.6 descent slab with a haulbag full of iron on my back. I felt I had gone too far for a slab to get me now.
Once on the ground we went out to eat. I didn’t have my discount employee ID card on me – but figured that the clerk would recognize me. He recognized me alright, but after observing how dirty we were, he decided to be a stickler for rules. I caused a bit of a stink, but we got in. Mike silently followed. The management came up, and gave me their worst, but I got my discount anyway. Then, we drove back to Curry Village. Rangers pulled us over at the last stop sign before we turned into Curry. For what reason I don’t know. They gave us a full nine-yard harassment. We denied everything; even Mike kept his cool, which is not his strength when he is lying.
The ranger gave Mike every ticket he could. No registration, no insurance; $1,500 worth of tickets in fact. Mike had recently bought the car, and distracted from all the wall climbing, hadn’t taken care of his business with it yet.
The predicament got me thinking about why I like hard walls. No matter how bad it gets, it is all your own decision. There is no Johnny Law up there, no managers to deal with. In fact I never really adapted to the kind of society the majority have become accustomed to. I am happier, and more comfortable on a wall. At least I was then.
Now, looking back at that summer, we regard it as one of the best of our life. We’re still best friends, and Mike says that one of the greatest things I did for him was to not less us back off Heading for Oblivion on Leaning Tower.
Chris Van Leuven has climbed nearly every Leaning Tower route (he's done everyone except Disco Strangler and The Yellow Corner). He rarely aid climbs anymore, however he still loves spending time on big walls free climbing. Recently he made th 5th free ascent of Leaning Tower.