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The Time El Cap Nearly Ate My Toes

Three greenhorn wall climbers headed up the Big Stone in 1981. They vowed to reach the top or nearly die trying. They got their wish.

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By 1981 I’d been climbing eight years and was embarrassed that I hadn’t yet done a route on El Cap. The hole in my resume needed filled asap so when my buddies Jimmy and “The Roach” [not real name] said we should team up and climb the Nose, it was as if a beautiful woman had asked me to dinner.

We were all green to big walls and unsure what to bring for a multi-day venture in the vertical. “You won’t need hiking shoes,” said The Roach, “Too heavy. We’ll climb in our E.B.s and walk down in them, it’s only about eleven miles.”

The Roach was from New Hampshire and was a frugal and strict New Englander. He had a full-time job with steady pay but slept on the floor of his house on an foam pad he’d found behind a funeral parlor and wore clothes he’d found blown across the interstate and caught up in fences. Everyone called him The Roach because he was a gifted climber and had an inclination to travel to new areas and poach the best existing lines that stumped the locals. He wasn’t especially universally loved for that reason, and tended to appear when you least expected him, but we appreciated his directness and never-quit attitude.

Jimmy and I hailed from Oklahoma, he from the metropolis of Oklahoma City, “The City,” me from the wind-abused prairie of the western regions of the 48th state. Jimmy differed from me by being twice as tall, and would go on to become a Baptist preacher, repaying, I imagine, the debt we would soon put on our ledgers on the granite crucible.

I don’t remember what Jimmy or The Roach packed for clothing, but it was probably similar to what I had: white cotton painter’s pants in the style of the day, a cotton rugby shirt, and a down jacket, although the latter seemed unnecessary: Back home it was 90 degrees and the base of El Cap when we’d scoped it felt like a being inside an Easy Bake.

The evening before we blasted I made a headlamp from bits and parts I’d sourced at the OTASCO store back home. Decent manufactured headlamps were still about a decade away and the few store-bought jobs that existed at the time were bulky, weighty and expensive. So I took a big reflector, the sort a proctologist might have strapped to his forehead, and a bulb, and wired these to six-volt battery the size of block of chalk. This thing I’d wear around my waist taped to a belt of webbing. I turned my invention on by screwing the bare ends of wires onto the battery terminals—not much different from how you’d wire up a dynamite charge. The battery alone weighed a pound and a half, but the rig was bright as a star and I was proud of it.

Noon the next day after an early start we were in the famous Stoveleg cracks, moving steadily for a team of three, a bad number according to Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, and a bad one if you like to climb rather than account for a third of your time hanging at the belay examining the toes of your shoes.

Also Read: An Actual Poop-the-Pants El Cap Survival Epic

We hit El Cap Tower with daylight left, and shoehorned among the various other teams stretched out haphazardly across the ledge. We ate and curled up under the sparkling stars. Sometime in the middle of the night it began to sprinkle. When the real rain hit I jumped up and packed away my down bag and jacket so they wouldn’t get ruined. Curled up in what was soon a deluge, I couldn’t have gotten any wetter, but I could have been warmer. When dawn broke I stripped off my painter’s paints and socks and shirt, wrung a quart of black water from them and put my outfit back on. The clammy fabric gave me a shudder.

All other teams on El Cap, from the West Face to Zodiac and including everyone on our ledge except us, rappelled off that morning. It’s about impossible to imagine today having El Cap to yourself, but we did, and this was our first time on the Big Stone. There’d be no going down unless you untied and jumped.

By mid-day we and our baggage were under the Great Roof, where we had a snack and reorganized. The Roach and Jimmy would lead the next two pitches including Pancake Flake, a nice layback in daytime and when it wasn’t raining. I’d get the final pitch of the day to Camp V, our bivy.

The Great Roof sheltered us from the rain, but when the three of us got to the station atop Pancake Flake, the storm unleashed its fury again.

Darkness fell and so did the temperature. Unable to bear the cold, I dug out my down jacket. The moment of warmth it gave was invigorating, but within minutes the duvet was soaked, heavy as a waterbed and wicking away what precious heat I could generate.

My teeth chattered. Jimmy and The Roach hung at the belay, heads down.

Water ran over my hands and into my jacket sleeves as I climbed, but that was a slight bother compared to the struggle with the headlamp. Back in camp when I had measured and cut the wires connecting the bulb to the battery, I had snipped them just a bit too short. Now, when I looked up, they pulled off the battery posts.

Ten to 20 times my fumbly fingers had to tackle the delicate task of reattaching the wires to the battery. Frequent flashes of lightening did occasionally coincide with the headlamp going out, so that was an upside.

Sleet pounded the wall as I mantled onto Camp V. Jimmy and The Roach quickly joined me. We were all wet, out clothes stiff with the cold, and we were hungry. We opened our cans of icy Beefaroni.

“A dog eats better,” I grumbled as I licked the greasy mixture off a knifeblade.

As usual, The Roach was as inscrutable as a sink disposal. Cold canned food wasn’t a hardship for him. It’s what he always ate, even at home.

A gentle snow was falling when we rolled out in the morning. I stowed my waterlogged jacket, pulled the ensolite liner from the haul bag, wrapped it around my torso and tied it in place with a runner. I felt like the Tinman, but was instantly warmer.

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It took most of the day for us to claw up the last steep pitches, the exposure obliterated from us by blowing snow and mist. We pulled onto the summit of El Cap and into a foot of snow.

“Which way is the trail,” one of us asked, looking across the blanketed landscape.

“That way, I think,” someone said, and pointed down in the general direction of Zodiac.

We shuffled off, postholing in E.B.s now frozen onto our feet. After about an hour, The Roach slipped off a snowy log bridging a stream and plunged in up to his waist.

The falling snow obscured the lights of the Valley, and we navigated by instinct, carrying with us the nagging worry that we might be completely lost.

“Look,” The Roach exclaimed two hours into the march. “Footprints! Other people!”

We felt like shipwreck survivors who had spotted a sail on the horizon

We jogged steadily in the tracks, haulbags happily bouncing on our backs. When it got dark we switched on our headlamps.

The light beam hypnotized me and I imagined I was massaging my feet by the snapping warmth of the Lodge fireplace, now only four or five miles away, just on the other side of a log crossing over a creek.

“Careful you don’t fall in,” The Roach said, chastened by recent experience.

We crossed the slippery log without incident.

It is a fact that without a bearing people in the woods will walk in a circle. We’d crossed that log before. The tracks we’d been following were ours.

We dropped on our backs into the snow.

I didn’t think I could take another step, and my condition wasn’t unique. Our feet were ruined from three days in wet E.B.s, we didn’t have a dry stitch between us and we had gotten nearly no rest in three days of storm. We had now also walked five miles in a circle and were several miles in the wrong direction. It was 11 miles, maybe more, down to the Valley.

Some of us cried.

Simultaneously, we rose from the snow, did an about face, and like automatons carried on in what we now knew was the correct direction.

The sun was breaking through the clouds when we limped into Camp 4. We fell into our respective tents and no one moved for two days. Jimmy’s toenails all fell off and he had to crawl to the Coke machine that stood outside the Camp 4 gas station.

When I did see The Roach he seemed unfazed. “Eh,” he said in his high Yankee pitch, “How about we do Excalibur?”

With that, he popped open a can of Beefaroni and munched joylessly away. I looked on envying his armor of indifference, knowing that I’d survived my first real epic and learned a few important lessons about climbing and life, but that no matter how much I suffered and strove, I’d never be as tough as the Roach. I gathered my gear anyway and racked up for Excalibur.