As told to James Lucas.
In December 2000, John Jorgenson, the late Micah Dash, and I set out to climb Native Son (VI 5.9 A4) on El Capitan. Micah and I were both El Cap veterans, with roughly 20 walls under our belts, but John was a relative climbing neophyte and had never done a wall. It was winter, but the wall faced south and caught a lot of sun; we figured we’d be fine.
John and I had first met in Tacoma, Washington, that year at the local outdoor store where he sold kayaks and where I hung out whenever bad weather hit nearby Index, which was often. In his free time, John bushwhacked through the North Cascades to find gnarly whitewater kayak first descents, and attended the renowned outdoorsman Tom Brown Jr.’s tracking and wilderness survival school. At 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, and of Swedish descent, John had crazy Viking strength, so I figured he’d be fine on Native Son. We could recruit him for the grunt work.
John and I met Micah in the Ditch, where we got right on the wall—and where John’s prep week of single-pitch sport climbing had done little to alleviate his fear of exposure. On the fourth-class belay ledge atop the second pitch, he kept three daisy chains clipped to the anchor to move a mere six feet. When he jumared, he kept his Grigri on the rope, tied multiple knots, and backed himself up with a tiny Tibloc ascender. Too scared to lead, and giving out wild screams every time he cleaned a piece and swung out, he acted as little more than a haulbag with a head. We soon relegated him to jumaring the haul line and occasionally belaying. Though terrified, John, admirably, wanted to see the climb to the top.
Over the next few days as Micah and I swung leads, John jugged and hauled. After those first few days, I noticed that he hadn’t used the bathroom—he’d been too afraid to remove his harness leg loops. On day four, as Micah finished the Machine Headwall, pitch 12, John started jumaring the haul line. I prepped to clean the pitch when I heard John screaming.
“Oh no! Oh god!” John yelled. He spun in circles 1,500 feet up, hanging out from the overhanging rock. The past week of salami and canned ravioli had built to an explosive crescendo in his guts. Combined with early-morning jumaring, the storm hit hard. For five minutes he swore, flailing in space, fumbling with his pants and grabbing at his harness to try to release his leg loops, punching futilely toward the granite 40 feet away. As Micah and I laughed uproariously, John tussled with his underpants, eventually ripping them in half before the poop waterfall went crashing to the talus.
Afterward, John jumared up to the belay, pulled his pants back on without a word, and didn’t use the bathroom again for another three days, until we topped out. It took me until then to figure out how John had escaped his underwear—he showed me the tiny, sharp teeth on his Tibloc. As it turns out, those survival skills had come in handy.