December 30, 2014. Day four, year seven, the Dawn Wall. Twelve hundred vertical feet climbed free, eighteen hundred to go.
We hear the wind racing from a half mile away, a roar in the darkness mixed with the pitch of a scream. The volume rises, drowning out all other sounds. We sit like gargoyles, legs stuffed in sleeping bags, backs against the wall. Kevin, my climbing partner, clutches the straps of our hanging tent and forces a smile. I can read his lips: “Hold on tight.” A deafening whap-a- pap-pap resounds with the cadence of a machine gun. It’s just fabric slap- ping the granite, but an involuntary shiver rattles inside me, shaking loose a decade-and-a-half-old memory born from the smell of exploding rock and visions of blood pooling onto the alpine tundra.
A sudden updraft swirls beneath the portaledge—our home, roughly the size of a sheet of plywood, with nylon strung between the aluminum frame and draped over its top. The floor begins to lift, and for a moment we hover in space, as if riding a magic carpet. I picture the three-eighths-inch stain- less steel bolt from which we and all of our gear hang. Then the wind abruptly stops and the portaledge crashes down, straps snapping tight.
Each morning starts the same. I wake thinking about how to unlock the puzzle above. We brew coffee in our little perch and sit in awe as first light graces us—this part of the monolith of El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley, Cal- ifornia, has long been known as the Dawn Wall. I brush my teeth, swish water in my mouth, and poke my head outside. I watch my toothpaste fall as I count one, two, three . . . at around ten the white blob disappears into the forest below.
I pause and stare at my nine fingertips, cut, raw, but holding together. I often think of how this massive climb hinges on tiny details. Millimeters of skin contact and molecules of healing will make or break our ascent.
I gaze across the glacier-carved valley, and to the peaks unfolding on the horizon. I watch falcons tackle swallows in midair. Each day I feel the magnitude of my excitement in my restless legs. It’s strange. In most ways I’m a pretty normal guy—self-conscious, shy at times, awkward. On the wall it’s like I come alive; this place changes me. It always has. I take a deep breath and turn to the sheer face rising above.
Nobody had ever believed it possible to free climb the Dawn Wall, using only one’s body (primarily fingers and toes) for upward progress, truly climbing, without relying on direct aid from the equipment to hoist oneself up. Legendary figures in the climbing world, some of whom I remember from my childhood, hanging out at our house with my dad, had long wondered if an ascent of El Capitan by any means was even possible. When the first ascent came, in 1958, it was a quantum leap. In subsequent years, countless climbers had made their way to the top following various routes. But freeing the Dawn Wall remained inconceivable. It existed as a kind of “here be dragons” on mental maps of the vertical landscape, virtually featureless and smooth.
Because of my father, I’d fallen for climbing long before I’d fallen for anything or anyone else. For me, free climbing the Dawn Wall is an act of purity. Getting to the top under my own power, unaided, is a way to express myself and my love of climbing and life in the grandest form and on the largest scale possible. If successful, and perhaps even if not, I’d validate not only my years of planning, but the entirety of my life.
When trying the hard pitches—which is pretty much all of them—I no- tice my mind an instant before my body. If doubt creeps in, even the tiniest bit, I hesitate. Just for a moment. Then my feet start to slip, my core starts to sag. I pull too hard with my hands, eroding precious layers of skin while trying to maintain my body position. To an observer, it happens in minute, imperceptible ways—until that micro shift pulls me from the wall and I soar through the air, racing toward the ground, sometimes falling as far as sixty feet but along a wall so steep that I hit nothing. The rope stretches, absorbing the impact and safely, softly, arresting my fall.
Sometimes, in those seconds after falling, a cascade of emotions flows through me. I drop my head to my chest in frustration and embarrassment. I question my strength, my balance, my willingness to endure. Other times, most times, I’m almost absurdly optimistic. In how many other areas in life do you get to test yourself over and over and over? How many other endeavors give you such immediate feedback? I analyze, regroup, and try again. You’ve got this. You know you do. Fears quiet, thoughts calm, mastery of the body and mind come into focus. Nothing else exists but that hold, that sequence of moves over stone, the information being sent from fingertips to brain. The vast world reduced to the size and span of my body as I force myself to override even the most rational doubts.
Rock climbing is a game of control.
When we aren’t climbing, Kevin and I mostly talk about movement. The nuances of body position, the angle at which our toes contact a nearly invis- ible ripple of rock, how we place our fingers on a dime-thin edge in just the right way, in just the right sequence, with just the right combination of bal- ance and body tension and footwork. At night I lie awake, visualizing the climbing, willing precision and perfection to wire itself into my body and brain. On the rock we rehearse the movement like gymnasts or ballet dancers, until we can flow from one position to the next. When things go well, we experience magic.
Sometimes, sitting on the portaledge between attempts, legs dangling over the edge, I think back seven years to the beginning of this journey- turned-obsession. To the countless days I’ve spent hauling heavy bags of gear and water up the wall, how I stuff my feet into shoes so tight that I sometimes lose toenails, and how I grab the same razor-sharp flakes over and over and over until my fingertips bleed and my muscles tremble.
In reality it’s been far more than seven years.
I turn my head and iridescent oceans of gold and white granite sparkle under a sea of stars. For the millionth time, a childlike wonder runs through me
One of my earliest childhood memories is of a raging blizzard, the wind roaring like it is now. My sister was six, I three, still in diapers, and we were nuzzled inside a single down sleeping bag beside our father, deep in a snow cave, high in the mountains of Colorado. I shone my little silver flashlight on the ceiling of the cave and watched it turn blue. I listened to the muffled sounds of the wind and my dad’s snoring just inches away. Every few hours he would wake, unzip his sleeping bag, put on his ski boots, and go outside to shovel the newly fallen snow so that we wouldn’t get trapped. Then, as he lay back down, he would wrap us in his arms and squeeze us tight. We would snuggle close and fall back asleep, knowing that everything would be okay.
My first forays onto El Capitan were also with my dad, nineteen years ago, when I was still in high school. I found the exposure nauseating. I would glance down for a spot to place my foot and my focus would shift. Straight below, giant trees that looked like miniature broccoli sprouts would begin to spin, and my concentration would slip.
After all this time, I finally realize that these years of training, rehearsing, memorizing—they’re as much, or maybe more, about building belief as they are about getting stronger.
The storm slows to a momentary lull, and I unzip the portaledge and peer outside, staring at the forest below, barely visible in the moonlight. El Cap meadow is, for once, void of human life. Roads in the park are closed due to the threat of falling trees. I turn my head and iridescent oceans of gold and white granite sparkle under a sea of stars. For the millionth time, a childlike wonder runs through me.
As I look into the night, again my thoughts drift. This time, my heart travels with them. A thousand feet below and less than three miles away, both close and terribly far, is the Upper Pines Campground. It’s where we park our van when I’m climbing. I picture the drawn curtains and candle- light, and a recurring scene described by my wife, Becca. Inside, she ten- derly strokes her thumb across the forehead of our one-and-a-half-year-old son, Fitz. Scattered around the bed of the van are books about animals. Tucked tightly in his chubby little hands, nestled under his neck, is a toy cement mixer. Becca sings good-night songs and Fitz’s eyelids fade to slits.
Something triggers his little mind and he sits up, looks around, and asks,
“Where’s Daddy?” Becca smiles. She brushes his head with her hand and says, strong but sweet, “He’s climbing El Cap.”
I’ve known this wall longer than I’ve known them.
More about the author