Today is going to be special. I am on my way to Yosemite to climb the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome. It will be my first big wall. And, I will be climbing it with a total stranger.
(Half Dome, viewed from Washington Column.)
I have left the Bay Area early this morning and now parked outside of Arch Rock Entrance Station, where I am about to meet my partner. Having planned to document this historical ascent, I turn on my newly purchased GoPro when I step out of the car. I hold it in my hand while walking towards him and his wife. Here is our introduction:
Oops, I have held the GoPro backwards pointing at my arm pit. But look at this little guy; can you blame me for confusing the front with the back side?
(A very cubic GoPro cube and a very round Buddha.)
After some gear sorting, my new partner, Juan, is in my vehicle along with his backpack. We are headed into the park. We have a little more getting to know each other to do, but I'm pleased that he is as tall as he has promised. After all, that's really the main reason why I have teamed up with him.
A few days ago, I realized that I did not have a plan for this weekend yet. A short post on Supertopo caught my eye. Some guy was looking for a partner to climb Half Dome with and he didn't even list any credential requirements. Hmm… this could be my opportunity?
I casually emailed him asking if he wanted to do it in one push. I didn't mention that it was only because I didn't want to use the bathroom on the wall, but I did warn him that I was a wall climbing rookie with pretty much zero experience. Surprisingly, I heard back from him saying he was tempted and wanted to plan it for the next weekend. He must be desperate. It turns out, their US visas are just about to expire and they must leave in a few days after a three month visit.
We did get on the phone three days before we met, me with my up-to-date list of questions in hand for the interview.
- Will you vote for Trump?
I had no interest in engaging in a political discussion, but a "yes" answer would definitely cut the interview short right then and there. However, with Juan, I skipped the question. He is an Argentinian from Spain living in England, or something like that. No matter how you shuffle those three countries, the question wouldn't apply. Lucky him!
(I'm pretty sure I just lost a few readers.)
2. What have you climbed in Yosemite so far?
I have sent him links to my previous trip reports via email hoping to give him a glimpse into my climbing (to this day, I believe he never read them, which made his commitment even more impressive). I wanted to hear his. I think he mentioned Snake Dike. He also mentioned the Nose, a multi-day ascent. Well, not that long ago, I went to check out the Nose the first time. Despite running into Hans Florine at the base, right off the start, I got off route and did a "not recommended" (as shown in Topo) first pitch and the second pitch of Muir Blast. That is the bolt ladder to the left of the 2nd pitch of the Nose. On the bolt ladder, I realized how frustrating it was with my short frame combined with a negative ape index.
So many bolts were a few inches out of reach despite top stepping (sometimes, even with me stepping on the bolt below). It was then I reached my own conclusion that aiding is a game favoring tall and skinny people.
When I related my experience to him, he answered, "oh, that's never a problem for me. I'm 6'4"."
He is 6 foot 4!!!
I tossed my questionnaire into the recycle bin, never mind the remaining 10+ questions, and cut my interview short right then and there. "Okay, I'm in."
Moving along as planned like clock work, at 9am, we are parked in front of the Majestic Hotel, and set out on our trek up the Slabs approach. When I pulled my pack out of the trunk, I saw that the GoPro mount on the helmet broke off. So much for documenting the historical ascent! I put the little guy in my pant pocket. I'll just have to hold it in my hand to shoot any footage.
(The Slabs approach is not all slabs.)
There are some good beta online about the Slabs approach. At one point on the approach, there are two ways to go. Left, you wander a bit and ascend a series of four separate short fixed ropes. Right, you ascend one tall fixed rope. We opted to go right — do it once and be done with it. This video is a short film of Juan pulling himself up the fixed line. I get nervous watching it.
Dictated by my short-leg pace, we reached the base of the climb at noon. After a leisurely break, we started climbing the bottom pitches. The idea is we fix ropes as far as we can. This is a good place to mention that two days ago, Juan had run up the Slabs with three ropes (1 80m and 2 50m double ropes) and some of his climbing gear. I thought he was nutzo! I did a solo day trip the Saturday before to scout out the Slabs approach when I had nothing else to do, but I only carried an extra gallon jug of water up with me. (Yes, I knew there was spring at the base.) It is very reassuring to see that the stranger you are about to climb with is a nutzo workhorse.
Today, we have brought up my 60m rope, which would be our climbing rope for tomorrow. With four ropes, we fix six pitches with each of us leading three. That a quarter of the total pitch count. Aid climbing is like cheating. We might as well cheat all the way.
On this climb, it again confirmed my observation I made when I played around on the bottom pitches on the Nose — the number grade ratings on aid climbs don't really mean anything. Pitch 4 on this climb is rated 5.10a or C1 according to my topo. Pffft, 5.10a my butt! I pull out the aiders for the bolt ladder.
Otherwise, everything seems to be clicking nicely, including the spring at the base of the climb. I have brought an inline filter, but after two squeezes, I lost patience. For the rest of the trip, we fill our bottles with liters and liters of spring water, without filtration nor treatment. The water tastes great! Neither of us died as far as I can tell.
It's not until we hit the bivy I realize that I'm actually tired, from the hike and the climbing on this hot day. The weather forecast for the weekend has been in the triple digits, and even at night, it's quite warm, almost too warm for me to be comfortable.
Shortly after I dozed off, my alarm goes off. This is the ascent day. I start jugging up our fixed lines at 4:20am. (I sense that I just lost another reader here. You know who you are, Jim Herson. P.S. explanation is here. ) Juan will jug after me and toss the three extra ropes down. He's doing more work than me, but hey, he is 6'4"! To be honest, I'm not sure how much time it really saved us with the extra fixing because the second has to deal with pulling up the ropes, coiling and tossing them. Not to mention carrying them up and down and approach and descent. Well, we did it, but I will not bother with it next time.
After he joined me at the top of Pitch 6, I set off on the easy terrain and soon, I am at the base of Robbins Traverse bolt ladder (Pitch 10 in my topo), where we switch roles. It was on this pitch that I had to do my first lower out, which I remembered in panic that I had never learned how. I received job site coaching from Juan — he talked me through it. On my second lower out on the route, I immediately made a mistake by forgetting the step to unclip the rope before lowering out. Don't think I'll make that mistake ever again!
(Half Dome shadow selfie)
Pitches 11 and 12 have been altered by the massive 2015 rock fall. Juan executes the now-mandatory rope toss maneuver and gets us over. Time to switch leads again (at top of Pitch 12) because there are three pitches of chimney above us. While I'm a newbie at aid climbing, I take up the slack in leading wide. May I casually mention that in the past few months, I've onsighted Twilight Zone, and had 2 for 2 successful leads on Ahab? That's not to say I'm not scared of wide climbing. I am still terrified, but when I climb with out-of-towners, I often feel the obligation and responsibility to step up — the Europeans especially hate the wide crack climbing in Yosemite. I arrive at Big Sandy, top of Pitch 17 in three long pitches. It's only 12:40pm. We seem to be doing well without much rushing.
For your reference, here are the landmarks on the route:
I fix the rope, relax, and text my spray victim, "Big Sandy!" That's all it takes. No concern about a proper time, and no need for context. Within seconds, "nice job!" pops up on my screen. It makes me smile. At this moment, life is good, and I just shared that joy with another person who I trust will feel genuinely happy for me. Although I call him my spray victim, in reality, I know he will never misinterpret my celebration of progress, big, small, or even tiny, as egotistic spray. As someone always full of self doubt, I treasure every little achievement, and he understands that. He always congratulates me without any judgement or belittlement even if he has accomplished a lot more BITD and most likely in a more admirable style whether by choice or by circumstance. He never forgets to remind me that a gym 5.12 is like an outside 5.9. A true friend. I hope everyone has at least one spray victim in his/her life. I'm extremely fortunate to have one.
Big Sandy must be a time sink because my photo taken when Juan started up the next pitch shows a time stamp 1:45pm. We have been warned — climbing slows down after Big Sandy. And the sun is upon us now. Juan leads the Zig Zags. It must be some tricky aiding from what I can tell. I am thankful he's handling it. After three pitches, I then take the Thank God Ledge pitch because of the squeeze chimney at the end. The ledge traverse and the chimney are a lot of fun to do. I stop midway for a Honnolding pose. Hope Juan has captured it with his phone camera, and hope someday, I will see his photos.
(Juan on Thank God Ledge.)
After that, Juan takes over the aid lead all the way to the top. It's on the last bolt ladder pitch (Pitch 22 in my topo) that people might need to do hook moves. Although we have hooks on our rack, Juan has no need for them. In his words, "I'm able to reach." Oh, those beautiful words!
We are both on top at 7:20pm, exactly 15 hours after the launch this morning. We certainly did not break any record, but we achieved our goal — finished the route in light. We linger at the top to reorganize the gear and rope, and take summit photos.
(Two strangers top out on Half Dome.)
We first make a detour to the base to retreat the tossed ropes and bivy gear before returning to the hikers' Half Dome Trail for a very long descent back down to the valley floor in the dark. Despite having lost one (50m) rope to the bush midway up Pitch one, we still have three to carry down with us, along with our climbing and bivy gear. My ankles have been sore for an entire week after last weekend's trail run down the Half Dome trails, and they are in pure agony now with the heavy weight. Juan is carrying even more weight. I can now say without hesitation that the crux of this whole affair is the long descent. Next time, I'll take the Slabs down. We return to the car way past midnight, extremely tired, but without a twisted ankle. Big success! We say goodbye when I drop him off back at their van.
Two strangers, less than two days, and one big wall.
Before I reach home in the afternoon, I stop to get myself a foot and body massage (after taking a shower at the climbing gym of course). To the lucky people who live in the South Bay (Cupertino area), who have easy access to all the cheap massages, if you've never treated yourself, you are really missing out big time!
So, did I get lucky as far as climbing with a stranger goes? It certainly felt that way. It was a leap of faith to set a goal this big with a total stranger. And we delivered. We each led half of the pitches and complimented each other with our own personal strengths. Most importantly though, we had a fun time. I've heard stories how partnership goes sour on a big wall. Well, if we were strangers before the wall, we are now friends on Facebook. That has to mean something, right? Right? (I've only been on Facebook on and off for a year and am still trying to figure out what "friends" mean there.)
I remember seeing a couple of discussion threads recently about choosing the right climbing partner. I didn't get to read most posts, but the topic got me thinking. Looking back, I have always been lucky in this aspect.
I've had some best climbing experiences with strangers. 11 years ago, I flew to Denver, got picked up by John (a teacher on a summer break) and went on a 9-day road trip to Vedauwoo and Devil's Tower. I answered his climbing partner call on Denver's Craigslist (report). Last year, I met Gary when I was desperately searching for a teammate to participate in a 24 hour climb-a-thon. 5 minutes after we shook hands, we started our 24 hours of non-stop climbing, shared lots of laughs, and won our division (report). Two months ago, David from France answered my partner call posted to Camp IV bulletin board and we ticked off a long list of killer free climbs in 10 days (report).
Most strangers I hooked up with were a one-time deal. I won't feel sad about it. That's just life. With 7.4 billion life trajectories happening all around us in this world, any intersection, however brief it is, is already a rare gift. The fact that you, my reader, is reading these words strikes me with awe and makes our relationship just that much more special. I appreciate this brief moment of intersection in our two life trajectories. Hi, bye, my friend, and have a wonderful journey!
Back to choosing the right climbing partner… If he's 6'4", just go for it.
Okay, that was just a quick tip. I do have more thoughts on that, but I have to wrap it up now. I need to go back to watching Olympics before it's over. The gymnastics is always amazing to watch. I hear that Little Miss Meow just scored a 10.
P.S. Supertopo Thread