Rob Pizem broke a vertebrae in his back while attempting to free an old Royal Robbins aid route on Yosemite's Half Dome called Arcturus with Mike Anderson, in 2006. This is the third part and conclusion of Pizem, Anderson, and photographer Andrew Burr's epic first free ascent.
June 2007 The Return to Arcturus
When I left the climb in 2006, I was sure that I could complete the route in just a few short days. Upon returning in 2007, I was surprised with the amount of work that the route needed to indeed be safe to climb, yet committing at the same time. After 12 or 13 days of work, living at the base of the timeless giant Half Dome, I rested in a dank Fresno Days Inn and tried to find the strength and courage to complete the looming task that we set out to accomplish last year.
We watched movies that I did not care for, ate at goofy themed restaurants that occupied time and provided false birthday’s and watched reruns of the Discovery Channel’s Myth Busters and fishing shows. Time passed slowly, it was extremely hot and the skin on our fingertips slowly returned after we destroyed them over many practice attempts on Arcturus' various granite cruxes.
Big walling Ain’t Easy
Arriving still jetlagged from my former home in Salzburg, Austria to Yosemite’s grand emerald green valley, our first task was to establish a high camp at the base of the route. The task was as equally as daunting as the idea to free an old aide line on the wall. Establishing a high camp meant that we would need the basics: tent, bear boxes, cooking supplies, water bottles and sleeping bags and pads. What makes the job a challenge and a mind game is that we had to carry the equipment up the mountain much like an attempt on Denali. In addition to the survival stuff, we needed the climbing gear. This amounted to nearly 4 sets of cam’s, nearly a hundred free lockers, 30-40 slings, bolt kits and hammers, quickdraws, nut tools, wire brushes, nearly 2400 feet of static rope, lead rope, chalk and oh yeah, food for the days of work and eventual redpoint attempt. This year we were smart and found assistance from some naïve, but energetic Camp 4 climbers.
It’s not even all the gear that makes it a such a task, it’s the fact that you must hike it up one of two energy sapping trails: either a tourist filled eight mile track for approximately 3 hours or option 2; the death slabs, which is a technical and demanding 2-3 hour nearly vertical trail with fixed ropes and lichen covered slabs traversing under the base of the giant monolith, where mistakes or slips can be deadly. Whether you are coming or going as a hiker, one always must pay attention and be careful as rescues are dependent upon how clever you can be.
Anyway, once our camp was established Mike came up with a brilliant system that would keep us from working ourselves to exhaustion. At no point in time would we do the 5000 feet of vertical gain in one day. At most it was only half. To the high camp the night before we began work on the wall, then work the lower half of the wall on days that we would be hiking to the valley floor on the death slabs, work the top of the route when we would be heading to the valley on the tourist route.
Work on the wall consisted of at first finding Arcturus (it has not been very popular over the years) and then determining whether or not it appeared to go free. Upon convincing ourselves that it would go free, (even though we knew there would be some difficult climbing) we identified loose rock that had to be removed. Finally, the last details consisted of brushing off lichen and placing of bolts, if necessary.
Our goal from the start was to not place any bolts as long as the cracks were continuous. Unfortunately, there were a few natural anchors that would never be safe without a protection bolt due to loose rock or lack of gear at the end of certain pitches and the sometimes the route switched from corner to corner leaving sections of unprotectable face climbing that would eventually need to be bolt or pin protected. What Mike and I observed was that if this aide line was actually repeated more than once or twice that much of the climbing would be a lot easier due to the ability to pull on pin scars. On the contrary, it had none and would prove to be a great natural route without the manufactured holds of most other Yosemite free climbs.
So our three day work sessions began at sunrise and ended at dusk. We both hiked to the top of the cables on Half Dome and rappelled to where we each had been cleaning, bolting or identifying gear placements with chalk or we started from the bottom and jugged up fixed lines to where we needed to do more of the same. The days were long. We never felt like eating and on more than one occasion would only eat one bar in 12 hours of work and we always end up dehydrated. Then we would stumble back to camp not talking to each other until a small dinner filled our shrunken bellies. Our spirits would rise as we each told stories of rocks that we tossed, close calls, or how amazing the climbing on the pitches that we cleaned was and if necessary where a bolt was going to be. Mostly we ended up in the tent early due to the ever nagging mosquitoes. Towards the end or preparation, we even played a few hands of cards.
Now, I haven’t done any big mountain ascents, but I imagine this is what it’s like: long work days till dark, moving up and down the wall and short nights sitting in a tent, attempting to regain some energy to do it again the next day.
The reality is that you are always working with an energy deficit and it is amazing to me that anyone, let alone us, is able to complete a big route on either a mountain or rock wall when you think about the damage that you are doing to you body.
The third day always brought out higher spirits, as we knew that we would work for only eight or ten hours and then head to the valley floor. We would make sure that we brought down any trash or unnecessary supplies and that we ate a lot during our following rest day. The trick was finding a place to sleep. Anyone who has ever spent a night in noisy Camp 4 knows that some people party all night long and the birds and other animals begin making noise before first light. The way that we solved this problem was to leave the park and head to a quiet parking place in the national forest outside of the valley. Most of the time we were so tired from our work days that we couldn’t walk straight as we gorged ourselves with pizza or the Curry Village buffet. The drive always felt too long and we quickly faded as soon as our weary heads hit our pillows.
What goes on in your head before a push for a first free ascent of a big wall or any new climb? I can say that if I know that I can do the climb that I know that I will, eventually. But I do realize that there are plenty of things that can go wrong and that too many slip ups on easier pitches adds stress, doubt, and a decrease in stored energy for the real challenging pitches. Arcturus was like others in that we were running out of time, that we should have worked some of the cruxes more, that we could have cleaned and brushed certain sections better and that we should have rested more. Oh well, when the time is running tight, no matter what was done in the past, you have to make the best of the present.
Mike and I are not big on talking (well not until we both have succeeded at the crux of the route). I now know after many hours driving and climbing with him that his anxiety turns him into a silent beast. Time and time again while climbing new/old routes with Mike, when doubt or frustration has set in, I watch him close up like a turtle and wait for him to perform a sequence and get through a crux. Whether or not I had done the crux or still had to do the crux, seeing Mike “close up” adds tension to the day, this showed up as we hiked up the death slabs for what we hoped to be the last time. The silence can be painful. Neither of us slept well in our camp at the base of the route, both our anxiety levels were high. After the first day of climbing, we had successfully sent the first 5.13 crux and made it to our first night of sleep on the wall.
The second day consisted of me having a rough start. Mike felt as good as he could for a day two on a first free ascent, I on the other hand was dehydrated, had major stomach pains, diarrhea, no appetite, the dire need to puke and complete and total soreness in every muscle in my body. Before I could say a word I had to muster up the strength and calm down my heavy breathing. I still don’t know what caused the 24 hours flu effect but the climbing day for me was a nightmare. The day consisted of me fighting through the pain at the belays, barely shouting out beta to Mike on committing pitches that I was supposed to lead and somehow mustering the strength from the bowels within to second all the pitches free. The final pitch of the day was a chimney and offwidth that lead to the base of the crux of the route and what we now call “the backbreaker”. Hours passed as I took advantage of every rest in order to complete the pitches that I just couldn’t enjoy. At our bivy on the wall, I finished the day eating wheat crackers and drinking water, attempting to magically heal myself for what I was hoping for “the final day of the push”.
I can’t imagine what went on in Mike’s head as I lie there in a total state of destruction. It was all that I could do to just lie there and try to take in water. The sun blared down on the massive face of Half Dome and did its best to thwart my efforts for hydration and all I could do was to wrap my head with my sleeping pad. Darkness fell and I felt a small recharge and hoped with all my might that the next morning would not be a repeat of the last few hours.
Another perfect day in the Valley and we began on “the backbreaker”. I woke feeling way better than before, but not nearly 100% and popped some Vitamin I in a vain effort to mask what was to come. Now this is the pitch that I fell on the year before breaking three small bones in my lower back. I had only attempted to lead it once and spent more time toproping it this year than anything.
As I climbed the four inch crack and roof that begins the pitch, the visions of last years epic rang through my tired brain. I reached the first rest and stayed there a long time. I stared almost hopelessly at the dead vertical left leaning roof traverse. I visualized getting to the first pseudo-shake through the series of loose finger jams, liebacks and rock over movements. I remembered the crucial foot beta that made possible the desperate sequences that took so many attempts to solve. Finally, I thought about not blowing the clip that I did last July. Not making the mistake of being too pumped for the final boulder problem that was determined by how well you twisted and gripped the tiny underclings of the seamless corner. It took about 2 hours and many falls terrified screams and releads for me to redpoint the pitch. The emotional high that followed my accomplishment proved to be just what Mike needed. He made short work of the pitch and climbed it in nearly half the time and in almost perfect style.
The rest of the day was a blur. I remember that the sky was a deep blue, that there was a slight breeze and that I had to lead the last crux while looking directly into the sun. We freed the final pitches to the summit and more than anything were relieved from the effort and from being done. I can compare it to having to sit in a huge gravel parking lot and being assigned the tedious job of flipping over ever stone and not stopping until you are done. When you finish you are tired, unenthused about everything and in a state of mind incapable of conversation. You don’t want to stand, yet you don’t want to sit, you just want to get away. So without talking, we began the tremendous chore of bringing back those piles of equipment to the car so we could just get away.
I am going to take a long break before I do this again...
Rob Pizem lives in Denver Colorado and works as a high school teacher. He is currently in Norway climbing big walls with Mike Brumbaugh, Ari Menitove and Andrew Burr.