Small Dogs, Big Faces
Stepping into the lead took the last drop of my strength. I climbed for ten shaky feet. My body plotted mutiny against my mind. I delicately stood up on a loose block. The effort required was inconceivable. The joy I normally felt when climbing had been replaced with fatigue and terror. I tried to let out a roar, meant to give me power like in Kung-Fu movies. A feeble sound dribbled out of my mouth, as if I had laryngitis. My body tried to force itself into the fetal position. I stepped down off the loose block and cowardly crawled back to the anchor. “I can’t do it Rob”. He then gave me the look. The “I am ashamed of you” look. My stomach was in my throat and I wanted to die as soon as possible.
We were two pitches from the top of Leaning Tower, in Yosemite National Park. One hundred feet of 5.12, consisting of a twenty-five foot roof crack and a desperate stemming dihedral remained between the summit and us. A year earlier I had belayed Rob (Miller) when he successfully made the second free ascent of the route. As a gift of generosity and friendship he said he would belay me to make the fifth free ascent of the route, unfortunately I was not up to the challenge.
I would have been content with swapping leads that day, but that just wasn’t part of the deal – I had to lead it all. I wanted so many things, to free the route (I was over-gripping the whole way), and to tear down the walls in my consciousness that kept me from succeeding in my goals. Most of all I wanted to have fun. I had come closer to my goals under Rob’s mentorship, but my body and my soul were not ready for the challenge.
We didn’t speak after I announced giving up. There was little choice; Rob had to lead us to the top – I was incapable. The route had not been easy for either of us, after all there are no pitches easier than 5.12 and some pitches were as hard as 5.13. The sun beat its debilitating rays down on us.
Rob chalked his hands and set off on the boiling, urine-covered stone. The minutes passed as my mind tried to regain composure. Thoughts crawled through my head like thick molasses. Fear permeated from my skull with the question: Even if he finishes the lead, what the hell am I going to do? I’m so tired I can’t move.
Rob led the pitch without problem. I let every drop of self-regard fade away and climbed to get to the top. I reached the base of the roof and pulled hard on a fixed sling and yanked myself up. I followed like a drunkard. All the caffeinated energy gels and vitamin drink did little to help me now. I was climbing on fumes. Rob led the last pitch too. I managed to somehow follow.
The journey to the ground was slow. I was forced to go barefoot. My feet had swelled to the size of paddles. I walked like a foot bound concubine.
Rob and I continued to climb together nearly every weekend. Thankfully, he never game me the “look” again. The Westie Face, however was now solely my project.
Six months passed until I found the right partner. I called Rob up: “I can’t climb with you for the next two weeks. I have a friend coming out from Colorado and I promised I would climb with him.”
“This conversation is over,” he replied and hung up the phone.
Jonas arrived to the Valley psyched. “I’ve been training,” he said enthusiastically.
Then next morning we headed up to Leaning Tower, climbing to the roof before the sun hit us. We used this day as a warm-up, pulling the occasional French Free move. I suggested rapping from where we were.
“We can’t do that can we?” Jonas said shocked.
“Sure we can,” I replied confidently. I didn’t care if I had to leave gear (anything was better than what happened last time). We were back to the ground by 3PM. It was a smooth descent. During the hike back to the car we passed two aid climbers who asked what were up to.
“We just rapped from the roof,” I told them matter-of-factly.
They were unfazed by my response as if I told them that we had climbed halfway up the first pitch and then bailed.
We took two days off before returning to the Tower. This time we reached the top, but again we resorted in French Freeing a few sections. After one day of rest we went for it again. Again we failed. On the whole however, we were making progress.
There was one move that I had never been able to do, the crux 13a move at the end of the first free pitch. I doubted I would ever free the move, and thus the route. That day I had done the move with ease. Jonas was regressing. “I’m so nervous” he said “I want to do it so bad that I am over gripping.”
We decided to come back the next day after making a pact. “This is for fun,” we decided. “We’re just going cragging.”
The morning of the fourth attempt I didn’t want to get out of bed. This was our fourth 4AM start; we had covered twenty-one hundred feet of hard climbing this week on the steepest big wall in North America. I got up by telling myself that I would just talk Jonas out of it and would then go back to sleep until noon. I walked out to Jonas’ bivi site in the back yard and kicked him awake. We bickered back and fourth for a half an hour before Jonas convinced me to go. We drove in the darkness with our coffee cups filled to the brim. We climbed relaxed that day, more relaxed than I had ever felt. By the time we reached Ahwahnee Ledge we were feeling warmed up. The lactic acid was draining from our muscles and our spirits were high. If one of us fell that could mean the end of a complete team free ascent. We approached the roof and I had to step it up. Having never actually made a redpoint lead of this pitch I was apprehensive to go boldly. At the radical “surfboard” move I traversed back and fourth, looking for a new way. The pump was building and I knew if I didn’t get my ass in gear I could ruin my chance of ever completing the goal. I moved determined and free. I reached the anchors and knew my biggest challenge was completed. Jonas climbed quickly up the last pitch, running it out. He climbed focused and boldly. After busting through the crux and clipping the next piece he let out a scream that could be heard back at the Bridelveil parking lot. I followed slowly, my taste buds savoring every last drop.
The experience settled in our gut as we hopped over the talus field that led back to the car. Skin stretching smiles appeared on our faces. We drove towards El Cap meadow. Once there we darted out of the car and stared in awe. It looked bigger than ever. We pointed out the free lines and talked about our next objective. So many of our mental doors were open now, we couldn’t wait for the next adventure.