Wild and Airy

“Fucking chill.  Fucking chill.  Fucking chill, Christian.”  These were the only words my mouth could think to mutter as I fondled around the gear on my harness trying to find the orange Metolius which I knew would fit perfectly in a horizontal crack.  I felt stressed for some reason, the likes of which doesn’t happen to me very often.  My left leg was beginning to vibrate with the early onset of disco-leg, and it took a couple moments to breathe deep enough to get the distraction under control.  My right forearm began to talk to me now as well,  as the familiar burn began to creep up as I held myself on the wall with my fingers wrapped around an underclinging flake.  My left hand found the cam of choice, and I could feel my breath becoming louder as I placed it in the slot.  In an instant, my stress levels dropped and I frantically shook out my right arm, still breathing in loud, short spurts.  I looked left at the traverse I would be required to make, indicated only by the presence of an ancient piton some 20 feet away from me.  Behind the piton, the visible cliff ends and opens up to open and exposed air between us and El Capitan across the sacred Valley of Yosemite.  It was incredibly hot, and the breeze only occasionally gave me some relief from the sweltering sun.  I could breathe lightly now, stuffing my hands one at a time into the chalk bag below my back, and eventually found myself moving and then clipping the ancient relic with one of my slings.  A small bulge now made itself known to me, and I once again reached for the comfort blanket of the chalk bag before committing to the move above the ancient piton.  The rock felt very slick, and the smooth knobs that would have to work as foot holds didn’t exactly inspire too much confidence in me.  I could see where I would have to go next.  Above my head and slightly to the right, a solitary, white-tinted jug jug peered at me above a section of blank slab gave me hope.  I looked down at the piton which was now below me, and began to suddenly question the integrity of the rusty steel artifact.  I looked below the piton at the course slab which would act as a landing soon should I blow the move, and immediately thought of how two broken ankles would feel.  My mind then moved to the right of the grizzly scene on the slab below, and remembered the traverse I had made immediately before the pin, and traced the trajectory my body would make in the event the piton failed, causing me to swing wildly to the right, directly into a painful looking corner.  My hands would not stop sweating.  Don’t fall, Christian.

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Trudging up the approach in the sweltering heat. Bring lots of water!

At some point in this moment of ponder, my feet worked their way higher, and soon found purchase on the slick knobs below the bulge.  My right foot was now basically horizontal with my hands, and I felt scrunched as I rocked my weight onto that foot and reached my right arm as high as I could.  My hand grabbed the chalked-up flake, followed closely by my left hand.  My feet soon followed, and I was once again easily climbing to the promise of shade under a bay tree where I would build a belay.  I enjoyed the cooling shade as I slung my cord around the already-tatted tree and clipped my personal anchor to the wad of nylon and yelled to my partner below that I was safely off-belay and I was soon pulling up slack as they made their own progress up this second pitch.  Trouble was ran into at the traverse, and the quick weighting of the rope told me that a fall had occurred.  He was fine, just a little scared due to the exposure associated with where the fall took place and the swing which threw him wildly across the traverse.  He rallied, made the move, and soon found himself also embracing the shade of the belay.  Now that we both had whatever jitters the brutal approach had stirred up behind us, we were ready to tackle the rest of the Higher Cathedral Spire.  I knew it would be a special day.  Not for the fact that it was my first time up Yosemite’s Valley’s very first established route, but my partner for this adventure was none other than my own brother, Patrick.

Looking up at the monster during the descent. Unfortunately, we failed to properly document any actual climbing this trip.
Looking up at the monster during the descent. Unfortunately, we failed to properly document any actual climbing this trip.

We kept moving up the pinnacle of rock, traversing around the spire to its steeper, more exposed side.  The route follows the most exposed sections of rock, with many an airy move or traverse to keep the route exciting.  It was Patrick’s first time ever experiencing that kind of exposure, and each belay brought with it the promise that we would eventually be on hard ground.  There was an unease about him, but his mental state stayed strong as he overcame this newfound discomfort.  Nonetheless, I could tell that he was enjoying every moment of the climb as much as I was.  He smiles a lot despite being mostly terrified, and will never cease to see the humor in all things, like being on the side of 1,500 foot tower of rock.  The two upper pitches were mostly occupied by our usual random outbursts and senseless ramblings.  Even when we could barely hear each other, I could still hear him erupting in little outbursts that anyone who knows Patrick has grown accustomed to.  Climbs always go so flawlessly with Patrick thanks to the deeply routed teamwork that comes from knowing someone your entire life.  Climbing such a special route is only exemplified when you embark on such an endeavor with such a special person.

Just like every other climb ever conducted by anyone ever, all unclimbed pitches and what was once mystery will soon become past experiences we can look back on and enjoy.  The last pitch, according to the topo, climbs a 5.8 block to gain the summit.  I did not know this, and decided that this same block was too loose and hollow to safely support my weight.  So around the Spire I went, all the way to the large chimney squeeze on the eastern side.  I ended up running out nearly the entire pitch, which made for an interesting belay as I watched the rope move from one side of the huge pinnacle to the other as I slowly pulled in slack while admiring the absolutely grand view.  I untied from my end of the rope at some point, which allowed me to stand directly over Patrick as he made his way up the chimney.  I could tell that he was worked.  Not from the physicality of the climb, necessarily, but all the factors involved with this tedious climb left him mentally fatigued.  He looked up at me in the chimney, breathing heavily, all while slowly and thuggishly squirming his way up the squeeze.  I would later find out that he had thoughts of giving up here, but his strong mental-space kept him together to keep moving upward.  He rested a moment on the rope, and I smiled at him from only feet above.  I could tell that he was losing steam.  Nonetheless, a few moments later, my brother and I stood proudly atop the Higher Cathedral Spire, yelling into the valley in a brotherly embrace.

Patrick taking it all in on the summit.
Patrick taking it all in on the summit.

The summit of the spire is one very large, flat block which made us feel comfortable enough to take our harnesses off.  We sat on the summit together, drinking our Torpedoes (his idea) and watching the swift-tails dart past our heads with a surprising whoosh.  Like most walls in the Yosemite, the reward for minor discomfort is the best cell-service in the Valley.  We decided it would be a great idea to call our dad.  If I remember correctly, he answered almost immediately, and had no idea where we were when we first began to converse.  An excited laugh came through the phone when we explained our surroundings, and we knew he was 100% as stoked as we were.  We talked for a long while, and I gave him a brief description of the scene.  Immediately west of us, Upper Cathedral Rock’s northeast face stands gray and rough, with colorful lichen occasionally dotting the rock between the daunting and menacing-looking roofs and dihedrals.  Just to the right of the face, the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock sweeps steeply to the green valley, which now resembles a quiet painting found in small thrift stores.  The Merced River, flowing peacefully cold and green, silently meanders through the valley, giving life to the lush and thick vegetation which surrounds it.  Across from where we sat, El Capitan shone bright and gold under the relentless sun against a cloudless blue sky.  For the first time in my life, El Capitan appeared to be a reasonable size, for we were basically eye-level with the summit.  Just East, the summits and slopes of the Three Brothers contrast sharp and proud against the Yosemite Wall with the Upper Yosemite Falls quietly cascading down the unfathomable precipice, with the Lost Arrow Spire towering quietly near the falls like a guardian.  Indian Creek Canyon appears like a steep gully before the Royal Arches to the east disappear behind Chapel Wall.  At this point, the view begins to come back to the Spire now, with the first main feature on the return in the form the steep and powerful Sentinel rock, before the steepness and camouflage of granite gives way to the Lost Brother and the innumerable rock faces of the Southern rim of the Valley.  He listened to us talk about the climb, and laughed as he ran with his curiosity about what we just experienced.  Soon the phone call ended, and Patrick and I prepared ourselves to return to Earth once again.  It was hard to take my eyes from the sight as I put my harness back on and prepared the rope for the rappel.  I finished my beer.

We were quite hungry now, and our only source of sustenance for the expedition, one banana each, had become smashed and flimsy from the climb.  We did have breakfast that morning at Curry Village, but that was hours ago at this point.  The fact that we had barely eaten and decided Torpedoes would be a great top-out beer left my brain slightly buzzed, which is not a preferred state of mind to be in before committing to a rappel.  As time went on and we further prepared to leave, my head somewhat cleared and we were soon simul-rapping down the southern face.  Then, as always, our feet found the Earth and we were again on the atrocious approach trail.  We wound our way down through the trees which was much, much easier than going up,  and the trail gradually leveled until we could see cars passing through the trees.  It is always a pleasant feeling to return to the truck unscathed.  Yet, as we stood behind my truck, looking up at the Spire, I couldn’t help but ask the question of were we truly unscathed?  Although the climb isn’t technically that difficult of a climb, I felt changed.  After a brutal approach in the early afternoon sun, followed by a burly, steep 4-pitch route, I couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated.  I don’t know what it is, but I just felt different.  We sat at the back of my truck, guzzling water hungrily and staring at the tower of rock.  At some point, we both quietly got in my truck, and left Yosemite Valley.

Some stellar photographic work by your's truly.
Some stellar photographic work by your’s truly.

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