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Things We Shouldn’t Have Done: Tried to Solo Swan Slab That Night

1:00 a.m., on the way back from the Mountain Room Bar, wet rock after a rain. What could go wrong?

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The Mountain Room Bar, 1979: the social hub of the Yosemite climbing scene. It was a lively, noisy place drawing climbers from all over the world, and a place where rabble like us could rub elbows with climbing’s elite.

My partner Michael Paul was underage, but nobody cared. We drank beers and had a good time. At one point I found myself chatting with an older fellow who had some of the best stories about El Cap I had ever heard. Afterward I asked the barkeep who he was.

“Tom Frost,” was his reply. We also saw Galen Rowell and some hilarious top British climbers in the bar that night. Michael and I only left around 1:00 a.m., heading for Camp 4 to bed down.

 
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Camp 4 Yosemite
Our heroes, Camp 4 parking lot. (Photo: Ron Amick Collection)

The well-worn path from the Mountain Room Bar to Camp 4 passes Swan Slab, a low-angled practice area encircled by boulders. Michael and I often warmed up there before setting out on a day’s quest. On the left side, just off the slab proper, was a 60-foot buttress sporting a 5.6 hand crack that we climbed every day in our tennis shoes. As we walked by Swan Slab on this cold, dark night, Michael blurted out, “We need to get on that crack!”

I thought it was a brilliant idea. We duly considered the hazards.

“It’s kind of dark,” I said with great insight.

Yosemite Camp 4
A bit of the flavor (beans, that is) of Camp 4. And lots of tents. 1980.  (Photo: Asta Korm)

“Yeah, and the rock is wet,” Michael said. It had rained that day.

“Yeah, and it’s goddamn cold,” I observed. We stopped walking and 10 seconds of silence passed, then without a word we both turned and started toward the climb with purpose.

Never mind that it was pitch dark or the rock was wet or that we had just consumed a substantial amount of alcohol. At the time it seemed like a great idea.

 

I had met Michael four years earlier when he was 16, and a fellow San Diego climber, Frank Noble, told me that I had to meet this kid from San Diego who was cranking everything in sight.

I was introduced to a thin, wiry teen with red hair and a front tooth missing from a skateboarding accident. After Frank left, Michael and I hit some of the boulders around the park. Boy, could he crank. Michael had steel fingers and ridiculous hang time, but his real talent was crack climbing. He was ticking thin crack test pieces everywhere he went.

Camp 4 Yosemite
Original signage for Camp 4, Yosemite. (Photo: Steve Roper / Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber)

Michael and I started climbing together and were soon taking trips to Joshua Tree, Suicide Rock, and eventually Yosemite. We got on our first wall together, the South Face of Washington Column, and would later pair up for the Nose, Salathe, and Dihedral on El Cap and the Regular Route on Half Dome. In the valley we always stayed in Camp 4, but never paid for a site. We would wait until everyone was asleep and lay our bags on a tarp on the far corner of someone’s site, then wake early and disappear.

Camp 4 was the other hub of Yosemite climbing, where dirt-poor climbers who looked like bums planned their assaults on some of the hardest climbs in the world, and where, too, one bumped into the climbing elite. Contrary to what the name suggests, Camp 4 was not exactly a camping experience, it was a ghetto where foot traffic pounded the ground and everything on it into a fine dust that covered everything and everyone. Like it or not, Camp 4 turned you into a dirtbag.

Climbers occupied the bottom rung of the economic and social ladders at that time in Yosemite. We were dirty and loud, and scared the tourists. We may have been performing amazing athletic feats on the rocks, but in the eyes of the public and the authorities we were considered daredevils and fools with a death wish. Climbers were misunderstood, maligned and scorned, but that was how we liked it, and we had a similar regard for a soft suburban existence. It is a testament to the motivation of the climbers in Camp 4 that even when they were destitute, they continued to climb, and climb hard.

In the evenings the rock warriors who weren’t high on some wall would return to camp, and it was around those camp fires that the real climbing news was learned. But the news was limited to who had done what, and in what style. The quickest way to silence everyone around a campfire was to ask for route beta. You just did not do that. The moves and sequences that were the key to success on a route were hard won and not shared. Slander flowed freely, but not beta.

Four Yosemite icons goofing off in the 1970s
Oh those Camp 4 cards. Werner Braun, Jim Pettigrew, Ron Kauk, John Bachar on scene in the 1970s. (Photo: Paul Sibley.)

Everybody knew what everybody else was doing, and if you weren’t out and on the rock you didn’t get the time of day.

 

We couldn’t see our hands or feet. But Michael jumped right on the crack, with me close behind. The rock was slick and wet, and the air was probably in the 40s, and the crack felt familiar but not secure. Still, things were OK until about halfway up, when my hands started going numb. No longer able to dial in the best jams, I clumsily stuffed my hands and fingers way into the fissure. This lousy technique put excessive weight on my feet, which started slipping. Michael was making steady progress above me, but now I was in trouble. I started to downclimb.

 

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Solo downclimbing is a worst-case scenario. When climbing up, you pass the footholds so you know what to expect. In downclimbing you lower your foot, then body onto unknown holds over and over, especially unnerving that night given the conditions. I was barely holding it together.

After maybe 20 feet, I encountered a flared section. I tried to downclimb past it but almost got spit off, so I moved back up a few moves to better jams. I yelled to Michael that I was in a bad way and needed a spot. His voice came back from the darkness above, sounding far away.

“I just topped out,” he shouted. “I’ll get there as soon as I can, but I can’t see anything!”

Paul, Amick starting up the Salathé Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite. (Photo: Ron Amick Collection)

The descent from the top of this crack is not straightforward. You walk along the top, scramble down to the top of Swan Slab, and then downclimb about 40 feet of friction and thin edges to the ground. If you pick the right line it’s 5.6ish, but it’s easy to turn it into a 5.9, especially when you can’t see the rock.

“OK, man, just hurry,” I yelled.

Shifting into survival mode, I took a deep breath and told myself that the only way that I was going to survive this was to keep my head, but that was my conscious mind. My subconscious mind was screaming, “Fuck! I’m gonna die!” Nothing was sticking in the crack for more than a few seconds, so the only way I could keep from falling was to keep moving. I climbed up another 10 feet, then back down to the flare, panic setting in.

I yelled to Mike, “Dude, I’m gonna deck, man, I need a spot!”

All I heard was, still sounding far off: “Fuck! I can’t see shit!” and “I can’t find any feet!”

Desperate, I sketched down the dreaded flare, to a super shitty stance where I placed and replaced my jams as my feet slithered and slipped. I couldn’t stay there. I climbed back up the flare but everything was skating now. I was running out of time.

Michael shouted, “Hang in there, dude, I’m almost down!”

In desperation I downclimbed the flare yet again and resigned myself to die. “Dude! I’m almost off!” I yelled as everything started slipping at once. Then I felt Mike’s hand under my shoe. I was four feet off the ground.

 


 

See also: So Sandbagged on Serpentine, by the same author.

Remembering the Pink Boulder (membership content), by the same author.

Bad Day on Mount Woodson, Ron Amick’s Worst Epic, and That’s Saying Something.

and

Yosemite’s Wild Days in Pictures