Monday, September 28, 2009

The Zodiac, El Capitan

The note on the Camp 4 board in Yosemite stood out for its neatness and length, which exceeded the others, written on odd bits of paper, that went something like, "I wanna climb!" with a first name and site number scratched in fading ink at the corner. Here was someone soloing Zodiac and accepting a partner if one could make it before he was out of shouting distance. Timing would be everything.
I rose at seven the next morning, packed a toothbrush, food and climbing gear and ran up the half-hour approach to the east side of El Cap like Dorothy off to find the Wizard of Oz. To my surprise, standing directly at the base of a completed first pitch was a climber, just as the note had said. "Let's do it," I said, with an excitement that recalled the dumber notes on the Camp 4 board. We exchanged names and a quick hand shake and started climbing, as simple as that. The climbing was decidedly more complex.
When we went to haul the bags after the first pitch a giant bear (not a cliche, figure-of-speech-type giant bear, but an actual giant bear) scrambled out of the bushes and jumped on the bags. We hauled him three feet off the ground before he let go. An Indian mathematician, Andrew Barnes turned out to be a calculating, methodical climber (read: slow as a Sherwin-age glacier) and we suffered on the wall for several days before topping out to a gorgeous moonrise through clouds over Half Dome.
Already a day late and short on food, I insisted we hike off in the dark, despite his objections. But when he took two hours to pack his bag and put on his hiking shoes I reconsidered. I shouldn't have. At midnight, Andrew stood out of his sleeping bag below the same clouds that had made the moon so beautiful, now swirling overhead, and spoke clearly, "I think we must go down. The weather does not look that great."
I tried to ignore my resentment and analyze the situation objectively. A vast, dark blanket, so close I could touch it, choked out all traces of light in the sky and hope in the human heart, but I was feeling resentful, so I rolled over and said, "This is the Sierra Nevada. It doesn't rain here." An hour later it dumped. We dodged back and forth to a slot in a far wall, as narrow as a library shelf, and climbed in. "This isn't going to work," we agreed. We ran down a hill and found another shelter, better by a slight margin. Leaning over like a diving board, the fin of rock was enough to protect half of each of us, so we hunkered down for the night and watched as the rain turned to snow.
In the morning, with snow still falling, we abandoned everything, jumped into fresh powder and rivulets, and fled down the mountain, rappelling on wet, fixed ropes that sloughed their sheaths below our GriGri's and climbing off cliffs that acted as ramps for all the water. The snow turned back to rain, then let up as we stumbled into the valley.
I felt nothing but tranquility when I found that a bear had clawed the side of my truck, ripped out a window, and chewed up the cardboard boxes in the bed. Apparently it was just letting off some steam after the haulbag incident. It left the bag of bagels in my duffel bag for me to eat.