Resurgence at the Chapel Wall
Photo by Justin Lawrence
With a quivering body, I desperately roll my fingers into white-knuckle crimps and pray my body won’t fly off the route. My hips pry away from the wall. I instinctively scream and drive hard with my core to keep tension. I throw for the next fingertip layback and force my foot up to the next tiny hold. I barn door from the wall for in an instant – and like magic – swing slowly back in, like floating. Forcing all my weight onto a smearing back step I deadpoint to the next crimp, and stick it.
Surrounded by bay and cedar trees, the Chapel Wall in Yosemite is a hidden pocket of solitude from the hustle and bustle of the Valley floor. The routes here are the finest mica granite, with crisp edges, subtle quartz knobs and splitter cracks, which remain in the shade for most of the day. Yosemite Falls pounds in the background like a drum. Veils of leaves filter the golden sun and scatter the ground with marbled spots of shade.
A downed cedar branch marks the cutoff, and then a lightly trodden trail brings Heidi Wirtz and I to the base of the wall. My palms are already sweating. We walk past two burly 5.10 cracks that stay dry in light rain and unload our packs at the base of Drive by Shooting, a 12a bolted face. Heidi stares up at the wall in awe. “I suck at sport climbing,” she says.
I uncoil the rope. I have done Drive By many times to warm up for my project, and hope that my familiarity with the route is not too much of a sandbag for Heidi or myself. I take the draws and circuitously pull up the eighty-feet of milky stone, littered with oblique catacombs of black varnish. Heidi heads up next, and doesn’t even wince at the crux. Once again I am humbled by her impeccable technique.
“You don’t suck at this, you’re just being humble,” I say.
“No, really,” she says earnestly. “I do.”
Photo by Justin Lawrence
We climb Berlin Wall a 12b to the left next. This route takes a considerable effort for the both of us. This reassures me that she is indeed human (though barely). We rest up for a bit, and I show her my project, Double Dragon a 12d. I’ve worked this route for two seasons, I tell her. And still haven’t figured out how to do the crux.
We put off the project and head back to the cracks we passed on the way up. I try to use my smoothest technique while leading the left one, Hiethenistic Pursuit a 10b. I can hardly contain the grunts as I fight my way through the slick, thin hands crux. I clip the chains, and lower, all the while trying to conceal my pump.
We hear some voices in the forest behind us, and look back to see Laramie Duncan and Adam Stack coming down the trail. Heidi leads Heithenistic next, as Adam and Laramie unload their packs at the base.
Laramie heads up on the crack next, and whips off. Adam quickly arrests the fall.
“Sorry,” she says empathetically. “I don’t normally fall that much.”
“It’s okay,” I say “I fall all the time.”
After some rest, I piece together the rack for Double Dragon and start up, while Adam leads Drive By. I struggle through the 5.11 starting moves, plugging in cams. Next comes the first face crux, protected by bolts. I clip the first two and whip trying to get to the third. I ascend back to my highpoint, get the next bolt clipped and hang again. I then fight my way into the main crux, and come screaming out, mildly injuring myself when I slam my crotch into the rope. I French free the next few moves, and finally make it to the anchor. Upon reaching the ground I hold my stomach and hunch over. “I’m fine, really”, I insist to Heidi and Adam.
Photo by Justin Lawrence
Heidi follows on toprope and quickly reaches the crux and falls. After some work she gives up on the crux, pulls through on a draw and climbs the rest of the way to the chains. Adam heads up next and falls at the crux too. He stays and works the on it for a while and finally declares that he has solved the problem. “You see you bring your left leg up, then right leg up, then left leg back down, then reach” he says confidently. I nod and try to process his beta in my head.
Feeling sufficiently powered down, Heidi and I decide that there will be no more 5.12 for us for the day. I recommend a final route for us, The Great Escape, a four-pitch 5.11 sport climb.
We trod west up the hill, and negotiate a small talus slope. During the walk I tell her about the route, “There’s all these killer face holds, and it’s really cerebral climbing, you’ll like it”.
Heidi starts us up and is at the first anchor before I know it. I reach her and take off onto the crux pitch. I read the hard moves just fine but then slip off the finishing moves.
“I wasn’t expecting that” she says.
“Neither was I,” I grumble.
I feed the rope out of the Gri-Gri as she climbs, and squirm to get comfortable at the belay. I look around at the scenery; the air is so still that I clearly hear the swoosh of a raven as it flies to it’s nearby nest. I admire the fluid movements of the bird, and stare in awe as it feeds its chicks.
The slight tug of the rope awakens me out of my trance and I pay out more slack. The raven flies out of the nest and Heidi calls that she is off belay.
I follow her up and lead the final pitch all the while hoping to see the Raven again. We rap and our day is done. I head off to work and Heidi heads to her secret bivi spot.
Photo by Justin Lawrence
A week goes by before I find time to get back out to the Chapel. We warm up on Drive By again, this time Heidi and I get flash pumped. Feeling pumped but devoted I ask her for a belay on Double Dragon. I get on the project and whip a few times at the crux, pull through and climb to the anchors. She follows on toprope and takes her time working out the crux, then announces that she has found a way. We head out to The Great Escape to finish the day. At mid-height, after eagerly anticipating the event, I notice the raven swooping into its nest to feed its chicks.
We come back to the crag a few days later. This time we are sufficiently cooked from a long adventure route we did the day before. Numerous valley denizens show up and the crag is suddenly packed. We warm up and I hurriedly rack up for Double Dragon, just hoping to get it over with and fall again. The opening moves feel harder than before- I can’t seem to shake out my pump and am right on the cusp of falling. At each rest I hang out forever, dragging out the inevitable. I breathe deeply, and enter the next crux, then blow the sequence but still manage to hang on until the next rest. The route feels like sheer torture, and I can feel the dozen eyes staring at me from below. I enter the final crux, and accept that the rope will again slam my crotch. Then something remarkable happens. The air turns completely silent; I feel a complete disconnect from my body. Lithe arms move instinctually, and my feet stick to the holds. I can feel nothing except the internal struggle of my body and mind. The body wants to let go, and the mind is unwilling to give in. With every last drop of effort, I clip the anchors and the battle is over. I don’t feel much of anything when I reach the ground. The send doesn’t even feel real, like I left my body behind.
To end the day, Heidi and I hike back up for a final go on The Great Escape. We reach mid-height again, and it is around this time that sending Double Dragon starts to settle in. I stare off at Yosemite Falls pounding elegantly down into the valley. A big grin crosses my face as it hits me. The raven comes into view again. I can see the sun reflecting off the top of its glossy black wings, and I marvel as it effortlessly catches thermals, coasting into its nest to feed its chicks.