The few days leading up to this moment were tumultuous at best. I was learning how difficult it was at times to spend the majority of every waking second with my travel partner. Earlier that day Jon and I had just spent a few hours sitting in the motionless car in silence, in tears, in stories, in talking, in attempting to gain some sort of same page understanding.
But in this moment, the boys, Jon and Tom, were trying to convince me to take a swig of whiskey as a prelude to the adventure we had just agreed to embark on. Swigging the whiskey was symbolic of putting the lid on backing out. And if you know me, the first alcohol I swore off was whiskey. The smell to me is rank and beyond any level of enjoyable consumption. However, in the spirit of agreeing to not back out, I finally grabbed the bottle and allowed the bronze liquid to fill the pockets in my cheeks and shoot down the back of my throat. The boys watched all of the contortions my face made and laughed at me. Jon put his hand up in the air for high fives as he shouted famous phrase, “Yeah, fuck yeah! Let’s do this!”
There were only a handful of hours left before dark and fist fulls of tasks that needed to be checked off of our to-do list. We needed to make a food inventory, grab the last minute food supplies from the Valley Store before it closed, look at the Topo to make sure we all understood it, read about the hike, make sure we had all the necessary gear, check all of the gear for safety measures, make sure we had enough water, make sure we had enough warm clothes, make sure we weren’t going to be carrying too much, pack the haul bags, unpack the haul bags, re-pack the haul bags, double check, triple check, and quadruple check everything. There was so much to do and I am pretty sure I spent the majority of my time in awe, watching Jon’s process with Tom. Tom and I had never climbed a Big Wall before while Jon had plenty of notches on his belt. In some ways, I felt completely helpless because beyond gathering water, food, and photograph documentation there wasn’t much that I could do. I really had no clue.
I sat on a nearby log with another guy who was hanging out with us that evening. Meet Shayd. He was planning on doing Half Dome in a push the next morning and the gear featured in the above picture was his contribution to the light rack him and his partner were going to take. Shayd walked me through the Mountain Project site for the climb we had decided on doing: Lost Arrow Spire Direct, a 5.8 C2 trad, aid climb of 16 pitches. This is what Mountain Project had to say:
Description: Tremendous exposure. This is a great route to prepare you for aiding on big walls. The route requires passing a knot as you have to rappel into the notch with 2 ropes tied together.
Getting There: From Camp 4 take the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls. At the top, cross the creek and follow second-class slabs along the rim and you’ll see the spire (be careful if you slip — you die…)
After reading “if you slip — you die…” I looked at Shayd. He must have seen the instantaneous knot that had formed at the very pit of my stomach. If there is one thing I suck most at in the life of outdoorsy-ness, it’s doing sketchy hikes. I especially hate difficult descents. Anyone who has vigorously hiked, climbed, or ventured into unknown territory with me can tell you that I’ve cried. I’ve come to realize the #1 rule in climbing of any sort is what you are able get up, you must also be able to get down. This particular hike to the base of the Lost Arrow Spire was a Class 3 & Class 4 hike. I was beyond scared. I was terrified. Shayd reassured me that I was in good hands with people I could trust and gave me a bit of his wisdom:
“No matter what you do, you cannot let the thought of ‘I cannot do this’ enter your head. You have to know that once you start, you are in it for the long haul no matter what. You have to get to the top. Personally, I think you are going to have a blast; it’s just a lot of work is all. And, it’s work that you really don’t get paid for. Well, you do get paid for it but in the measurement of receiving extra helpings of character. So just know that you got this and no matter what, never, ever let the thought of backing out enter your mind. Go have some fun and get yourself some of those extra helpings of character as you make your way to the top. And remember, you’re badass.”
For the next little bit of our conversation, Shayd answered my questions and patiently explained to me the different types of “A” ratings and “C” ratings found in aid climbing. He also gave me a brief outline of what aid climbing was and what I could expect while I was on the wall. On top of feeling like I had just been overloaded with information, I was incredibly shocked when I was told I didn’t need chalk or climbing shoes for aid climbing. What’s climbing without chalk and climbing shoes?
By 1 a.m., we had planned and packed for a 4 day wall adventure. The haul bags were barely at a manageable weight. You are suppose to have a gallon of water per person per day. But armed with the knowledge that each gallon is about 8 pounds, we decided to take 9 gallons of water with us vs. 12 gallons. That’s 72 pounds in just water alone in addition to all of our food and gear. My haul bag, “Little Bertha”, was about 50 pounds while the boys’ haul bag, “Big Bertha” or “The Pig”, was just over an estimated 120 pounds. Imagining what it would be like to carry someone heavier than me on my back for the entire hike, I tried to put Big Bertha on just to experience what the boys were going to have to go through. I was barely able to stabilize myself walking on flat ground. I felt each of my steps dig into the dirt as the weight shifted from hip to hip. Jon walked with me with his arms outstretched and ready to catch me at any moment; it was obvious any little off-kilter step would easily put me on my ass.
It was sleep time; we had every little detail hammered out finally. Well, ok, that’s a lie. We had all but one detail figured out. The fate of how we would get down from the Spire rested in fate at the top. There were two options:
1) We were going to have to repel the entire Spire, adding one more sleeping day on the wall. This option is ALWAYS less than desirable. Repelling over a 1000 feet is atrocious. This is where ropes can get tangled easier and the haul bags become more annoying. A lot of mistakes can happen here and add countless hours to a descent.
2) There was going to be a rope hanging from the Yosemite Cliffs that we would be able to retrieve at the notch of the climb and tag up with us throughout the remaining 3 pitches so we could fix it to the top of the Spire. This would then allow us to traverse over to the cliffs and spend the night at the top of the Yosemite Falls Hike before hiking back down to Camp 4. This option was what we were all hoping for.
I laid in my sleeping bag under the stars and an almost full moon on the grounds of Camp 4 just a mere 3 hours until we were going to embark on our climb. My mind was racing and drifting in recollection and anticipation. I remember the first rest day I had in the Valley, I met Tom. He was a Valley veteran of sorts. He knew his way around and told me stories of all the nooks and crannies Tom even took me on my first rope swing into the Valley’s river. Splashing into the cold water each time literally took my breathe away. When Tom showed me the main village area in Yosemite, I looked up where the Falls were suppose to be spilling over the now dry edges. To the right there was a spire that separated itself from the rest of the wall. I looked at Tom, pointing, “What is that called?”
“Oh that arrow looking rock? That’s Lost Arrow Spire.”
“It’s beautiful. That would be so freakin’ sweet to climb.” At the time of that comment, I had no intention on actually climbing it. The thought didn’t even really cross my mind in the eyes of reality.
Tom looked at me with adventurous and non-present eyes, “Yeah, that’s what I came here to do. A wall that is. I came here hoping to do a wall for my story I’m writing. It’s what it needs.”
I was gently shaken. The headlamp was blinding and the crisp, cool air surrounded me immediately. We parked my car at the Valley store, went to the bathroom, and began our adventure in the dark. Tom started off with Big Bertha as Jon assisted Tom and also scurried ahead to make sure we didn’t get off route. The giant talus pile was hard to navigate and each step upwards felt like a one legged lunge. Within minutes I was shedding layers – we all were. Once we passed the first traverse we took a break. With heaving chests, sticky clothing adhering to our bodies with sweat, we looked out at the still sleeping Valley. The sun was just peaking over the mountains. I wondered how many people were on the side of a wall.
The hike was brutal. Heinous. There were parts on the traverses where I got incredibly scared. My eyes would tear and Tom or Jon would assure me it was okay and watch my steps. I kept imagining one slip on the washed out parts of the mountains that would send me down the wash and over the edge. I thought about falling through the air and how long it would take me to reach the ground. I thought about what my last thoughts would be. I also thought about my grandpa who passed away a few years ago and how he would keep me safe. You see, there’s a lot of Manzanita in Yosemite. My grandfather use to sculpt beautiful objects out of the deep orangish-red bark. Somehow, being surrounded by Manzanita, the thought of him, and the eyes of one of the men I was with made me feel better. Don’t let that fool you though – I was still scared shitless.
We had only taken one more break where we got a little off route. Taking advantage of the huge, flat rock we found, we laid in a row and napped for 20 minutes. As we neared the top I was able to be the route finder and we were hiking in 70 degree weather, under blue skies, and on super loose gravel. As Jon put it, each step was practically 1 step forward with 2 steps backward. To phrase it exactly, “It’s a bitch.” While I was leading, I managed to do some class 5 moves by myself without anyone watching me. I chalked that one up to victory of being surefooted (something that Jon has always reminded me to have confidence in). About 4 1/2 hours passed as we made our way to the base of the Spire. Exhausted and excited, we calmed our breathing, gulped down water, and looked at the Topo to plan the rest of our day.
We dug out the gear needed for the day. Jon went over exactly what I was suppose to do with the haul bags when it came time to haul them up the wall. He also went over the Munter Mule knot with me – how to tie it, how to untie it, how it works. Remembering the crash course Tom and I had in jugging, aid cleaning, and aid climbing, Jon went over once more how to do each of our tasks. We reviewed and made sure everyone was on the same page in terms of verbiage on the wall. Tom was going to clean aid that day and I was going to jug and help with the haul bags as they left the belay stations. We were getting into the serious part of our adventure. The ultimate goal was to have fun, but fun meant no careless mistakes.
The plan was to do 4 pitches a day. We estimated it would take about 2 hours per pitch to get everyone through it, Tom and I learning everything on the wall, and the haul bags to the belay station. Our day had burned about 5 hours which meant we were looking at another straight 8 hours of work. Oof. Let me tell you, I was absolutely beat. Tom and Jon were just as exhausted I’m sure.
Tom and I looked at each other as Jon began climbing. After all of the anticipation, we were finally on our way. I opted to link the first two pitches and the last two pitches. That meant I would have a while before I would actually jug a fixed line. I knew exactly what I was going to do to kill time. Nap.
I didn’t completely fall asleep, but I did doze in and out of consciousness before I had to help with the haul bag. I started to become nervous, reviewing all of the safety measures and steps in my head. It felt like a huge task to try jugging for the first time with Jon and Tom 2 pitches ahead of me. Convincing myself I was going to be just fine, I focused on the beautiful scenery and my breathing.
Jugging ended up being much harder than I expected. There was a film in the Facelift event where I saw a guy jugging up the rope in a running fashion. He made it look extremely easy. At first, my skills were sub par and didn’t get me very far. However, before long I had the hang of it and was able to reach the decent status. On my way to the belay ledge where Tom was already belaying Jon up pitch 3, I heard screams for help across the falls. Tom and Jon heard them too and Jon told us there was nothing we could do. Shayd’s words of wisdom came into my head as a sick feeling of reality hit me. Real mistakes happen. Accidents happen. People die. We still had days ahead of us. Another echo of “We need help” brought me out of my head. By the time I started to jug the last 2 pitches, the screams for help had subsided and we deduced maybe there was a party calling out to others in their group and everything ended up being fine.
We were ahead of schedule by about 2 hours. Jon was impressed and we were finally able to take our harnesses off for the day. I had a little bit of a headache and both of the boys reminded me I had to be better about drinking water. We had a little bit of time to kill before making dinner. So what do we do? Play of course! We explored the small bivy ledge, although I didn’t venture too close to the edge.
So we sat there, talking, laughing, listening to music, playing games, drinking Cobras and sipping on wine. When dinner time came, we ate. We ate ravenously and with great satisfaction. As we went to bed that night, frogs fell on our sleeping bags from the dark sky above us. Yes, frogs fell from the sky. It was a very odd experience that we all laughed about. This is how the conversation went:
Tom: “Uhhh, guys? There’s a frog on my sleeping bag.”
Jon: “Holy shit! There is. Where did it come from? Shay, where’s your camera?”
Tom: “This is super weird and random. I think it just fell from the sky. What do you think it means?”
Jon: “Well, it’s pretty harmless.”
Me: “Yeah, unless it’s one of those frogs that carries poison.”
Tom: “Shh. Shay! Why’d you have to go say something like that.”
We agreed to chalk it up to good luck. Jon tried to get some pictures but the focus turned out a little wonky.
I looked up at the moon, which was drowning out the sight of the stars. And then we slept. I was between my two companions, which made me feel comfortable sleeping without my harness on even though the ledge was pretty luxurious to begin with. It wasn’t a peaceful sleep nor was it fully restful as we only had two sleeping pads in an attempt to conserve space. Also, a cold and fierce wind kicked up, sweeping from the top of the cliffs surrounding us and down to our small space on the wall. We huddled to our own bodies inside our sleeping bags, covering our faces, and drifted in and out of consciousness. I felt small laying between Jon and Tom. I felt even smaller thinking about the tiny little space we took up on the huge wall ahead of us.
© /skin/ /ˈpōətrē/