The sun was still well behind Half Dome when it was that my eyes opened to see the new day, leaving us crisp and chilled in the shadow of the silent monolith. My head was still inside my sleeping bag, with my face close to the opening; allowing small wisps of cold air to gently kiss my face. When my face emerged to greet the day, I looked over to see the motionless body stuffed completely in the sleeping bag next to me; Lis was still fast asleep. I looked to the sky to bare witness to a dance of beams of light shooting across the it, softly and perfectly bounding between the wispy, tangerine cream-colored clouds in perfectly straight linesw. A few birds chirped here and there as they do on beautiful and perfect mornings in the mountains, and the perfect calmness left everything perfectly still. The wall above us, which stood unchanged from the night before, framed the show overhead with power My arms were under my head as I laid there watching the show in front of me, and finally heard the person next to me move. I looked down to see a sleepy, solitary, hazel-gray eye peering at me from the blue sleeping bag. Her eye was smiling. “Good morning,” she said through a sleepy voice. Her sleeping bag came open, and both of her arms shot out of the sack and directly onto my sides. We laid for a while like this, allowing our brains time to get the juices properly flowing. I slept well that night, and was stirred from near-sleep twice by the sound of whistles coming ever closer to the ledge from above, only one of which startled me from sleep enough to warrant myself throwing my body over Lis. Both rocks flew by the ledge uneventfully and I slowly drifted back to sleep as soon as my adrenaline stopped and my heart rate slowed. Eventually, I slowly sat up on my sleeping bag and made us some coffee.
We moved at a smooth pace that morning, in no real rush to get going since we’d be climbing all day nonetheless. We ate breakfast, gradually put things away for the day, and at some point put our harness on to blast off for a full-day of exposed and steep action. I let out a “whoop!” before we left the Honeymoon Ledge to alert Adam and Harris below that we were coming down to join the party. They hollered back, and were already starting to jug their fixed line as Lis and I began stuffing our crap into the haul bag. Once everything was neat and tidy and put away, I crammed the haulbag into a crevice below the start of the pitch to ensure that it would still be there upon our return. Adam and Harris were now both at the anchor in the alcove above us, and I put on my approach shoes for the four pitches of annoying aid climbing which promise to present itself shortly.. Even higher still, the sun line made its way slowly down the face toward where we tied-in on the sandy ledge. One last double-check on the cleanliness and security of our junk on the ledge, then a double-check of our safety system, and I was off climbing the small ramp toward the steep and intimidating Kor Roof.
Up I went, making my way toward the large, overhanging slab of granite which protrudes some ten feet away from the wall. A line of bolts goes up and over the roof, and allows climbers to reach the thin crack above the roof where small pieces gear can be placed. The roof itself proves problematic to a lot of people, and regularly, parties have bailed just after this pitch due to the follower getting absolutely morally ruined while struggling to jug (following on mechanical ascenders) this section. To make things easier for Lis, I decided it would be best to get through the bolt ladder and only clip a draw on the very last bolt, allowing Lis to do one big lower-out (a technique required when facing a large swing after removing a piece of protection). Once I made it over the roof, the pace picked up as the aid-climbing became more straight-forward and routine. Following a crack system now, I made my way upward and slightly to the right, and was soon tying an anchor and telling Lis that her line was fixed. She made her way up her rope now, and I blasted off on the fifth pitch, belaying myself as I came out over the small roof and reached up for the traversing arch above me. We were off to a very stylish and smooth start.
Lis had made over the roof, jugging her way up the steeper part of the wall and was already acquainted with her long journey of cleaning a series of obnoxious traverses by the time I made it to the pendulum at the end of the short pitch. I stood on the small ledge after the pendulum for a moment and watched as she smoothly made her way past each piece. The use of ascenders was really no big deal for her any more, and she confidently cleaned the pitch in her bright yellow pants and white helmet. Slow and steady wins the race, and I felt like we were in first place. Adam and Harris moved quickly ahead of us, and our proximity allowed for some awesome conversations as we ventured forth. Lis and I both arrived at our respective anchors at around the same time, and she was quick to undo her anchor in the alcove below and to the right of me. She really had no time to hang out there, as I was already tying my end of the rope to my own bolted anchor, and she was once again following the fixed rope tying our fates together.
We moved slowly but steadily, both of us moving in unison; me one pitch ahead. I made my way across the final traverse pitch, placing bomber cam after bomber cam until, at last, I reached the thin seam blasting vertically from where the huge arch ends. Up the thin crack I went, and before long, Lis was at the anchor below me and putting me on belay for the final mandatory 5.7 move before the anchor. Nothing beats free climbing while wearing belay gloves and blown out approach shoes, but soon I stood next to Adam at the small ledge marking the start of Pitch 7. The wind was beginning to blow in its usual afternoon temper now and brought the situation to real life in its typical and powerful way. Lis’s hair blew wildly around as she clipped into the anchor next to me, and looked up at the pitch above us with that crazy look in her eyes. “I want to lead this pitch?”
Aid climbing is something that young climbers tend to avoid at first due to the misconception that it requires strength and experience to know the process. Yes, you do need to know the basics of placing gear in the rock, but after two pieces, you pretty much have it down. If you look at the history of climbing in Yosemite, the pioneers and grandfathers of this craziness were all a bunch of aid climbers. Every great splitter climbed in the 1950s was first done using ladders and pitons. The meaning of this conversation is the fact that we crawl before we walk, and we as humans will always go about new feats as simply and easily as possible. Basic aid climbing is as easy as placing a piece, clipping a ladder to it, and walking up said ladder. That being said, as you start venturing into more difficult and thought-provoking aid climbing, the gear gets crappier, and the fall potential becomes that for the psychotic or suicidal. Nonetheless, aid climbing is very simple, albeit monotonous (at least in my opinion). Lis understands this concept quite well, and was stoked to get on the sharp end for her first aid lead this high on such a steep and exposed wall. This girl is a true badass.
We took our time swapping gear on the small ledge some 1,200 feet above the Valley floor. She asked me a few questions about the next pitch, asking about what gear to use, what the pitch entailed, things like that. I told her that her best bet, since we were on the low side of small gear, was to get to the intermediate anchor halfway through the pitch, come back down and clean the first half, then return and blast off to complete the pitch. She told me that her confidence in her nut placements was sub-par, which was a little unnerving due to the fact that the pitch would take a whole bunch of them. I could tell that her stoke was at odds with the uncertainty and doubt which clouded her mind. She racked up confidently and quietly nonetheless. All that I could do on this tiny perch at this time was watch and smile.
She clipped her ladder to one of the anchor bolts and gave one last double-check to everything before she committed to this newfound unknown. “You’re on belay, Lis.” She climbed her ladder and assessed the thin crack above her head as the wind rippled her clothes violently.
“Holy crap this thing’s small, will anything fit?” She down-climbed her ladder and stood once again on the ledge.
“Of course something fits, a nut will fit into that constriction right there.” I pointed up to a small constriction in the crack, and she slid a small stopper into the slot.
“See?! It sucks! Christian I don’t think I can do this, do you want to lead this pitch?
“That piece is bomber, Lis!” I was staring at a solid nut slid perfectly into a crack. Lis apparently saw something else entirely. “Just give it a bounce test.”
“Christian there’s no way this thing will hold.” She said these words as she made her way up her ladder to give it another shot. Her eyes were fixed on the piece. “I really don’t know about this.”
“Just give it a shot. If it doesn’t take the bounce test, just try a different piece. Take your time, we are in no rush.” She was becoming unnerved about the whole situation, as we all are the first time doing something like this, and I loved every moment of it. She clipped her ladder to the nut. “You know what you’re doing, Lis.”
Lis turned her head down as she prepared herself to start throwing her entire weight onto the small piece of aluminum in hopes (or not, depending on how you look at it) of yanking it out of its purchase. Somewhat missing the first two, she began landing each bounce directly on the money and applying her full-force in a straight-shot with the direction of pull the piece would suffice in the event of a fall; slamming her weight as hard as she could on the less-than-inspiring thing. The piece remained unaltered. She said nothing when she finally froze and stared at me bewildered in the fact that it didn’t smack her on top of her helmet. A moment later, her attention was focused on the piece as she climbed onto it and removed her lower ladder. She was now fully committed to her first ever aid climb, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The updrafts were in full-swing now as she made her way up the small crack, making good and sure that each and every piece would keep firmly in the seam. Her unused ladder flapped wildly and completely horizontally as it dangled from her harness, only occasionally blasting upward and smacking her on her face. We didn’t speak at all as she charged forward in her battle with the wall. I watched her closely as she scooped as much gear as she could in one hand, looking back and forth between the crack, and the selection of metal dangling from her harness and gear sling. Only occasionally would she be unsatisfied with her first try, and would return to her inventory to select something different. The rope began humming as she made her way higher up the pitch, and her pony tail flailed frantically from under her white helmet. Lis was completely focused on the climb. I became overwhelmed, and a silly idea which would forever change our future popped into my enamored brain. I shouted to her at a near yell to overcome the wind, “Hey Lis!”
“What??” She yelled down to me in a mildly terrified and frustrated voice, also shouting close to as loud as she could.
“Will you be my girlfriend?” The words flowed out of my mouth almost without my provocaion.
Her head snapped around immediately. “Are you serious??” She was stopped dead in her tracks, staring down at me, frozen halfway up one of her ladders. The wind howled.
“Yeah!” I think I was almost laughing, but I can’t remember for sure.
She paused for a moment, more than likely still absorbing the enormity of everything happening at the moment. “Well, yeah. Of course I will!” She turned around and reached up to place another piece above her head, then without stopping, “We’ll talk about it.” We still have yet to have this conversation.
Speaking ceased at this point. Lis was too busy going to battle with the rock to even produce the thought of talking to me as she slammed her full body-weight into every piece, working her way gradually up the crack meandering silently toward the summit. We both had very similar thoughts giving momentum to our energy, relishing in the enormity of the fact that the cliff would bare sole witness to the enormity of the situation having just taken place. It had never really dawned on her that maybe this would come out of this trip (or maybe it did, I don’t know), let alone while leading her first pitch on a big wall. It felt good to let her know that I cared about her just as much as she cared for me, and nearly had a taste of history being written before our eyes and within us. Somewhere in the midst of the euphoria, Lis reached the top of the first thin crack guiding her upwards. She froze as she stared at the blank wall between her and a small ledge. “How the hell am I supposed to free this?” She turned around and stared at me. I had a feeling that this part would wake her up a bit.
She stood in her ladder for a few moments as she pondered the rock in front of her face. The crack peters out to nothing at this point, and a ledge just barely out of reach to the left is guarded by a 5.7 free move. Nothing too bad, but scary if you’ve never climbed out of your ladder high above the ground before. She played with some small pieces of gear, but nothing satisfied her. Finally, she reached up and found some small features. She wiggled a bit as she searched for her balance, each and every noise being completely shrouded by the powerful gusts. I looked away at some point, probably looking across at Half Dome or something, when suddenly a terrified shriek split the mighty wind in half. I looked up and saw Lis falling backwards out of her ladder, then came to a sudden and abrupt stop. I found myself frozen with both hands planted firmly on the brake-end of my belay device, then immediately noticed the slack on the end making its way toward Lis. “Wow that was sharp!” could be heard coming from above, and Lis was correcting herself back onto her etrier.
“Did you take a daisy fall??” I shouted up to her, knowing full-well that she had indeed fallen out of her ladder, and was caught by the daisy chain connecting her ladder to her harness. These slings aren’t designed to take dynamic forces like a fall, and the lack of stretch to them results in a painful and sudden stop.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Just give me a second. Sorry for taking so long.” Frustration added strain to her already abused voice. The fall had shaken her pretty good, and I was in absolutely no rush to get anywhere any time soon. She got back on her ladder surprisingly fast for taking not only her first daisy fall, but also her first fall on her own gear, which also happened to be a nut, on her first big wall, on her first aid pitch. Talk about full-value. She threw fer fifi hook into one of the loops on her daisy, and rested a while to regain her composure. A few moments later and with no provocation from me, Lis found a hidden nut placement to her left, and was soon standing on the ledge halfway up the pitch, clipping two quickdraws to the bolts at the intermediate anchor. “Okay Christian, you can take!!”
I pulled the slack out of the rope and slowly lowered Lis back down to me as she stopped at each piece to remove them from the crack. Her energy was very evident as she came slowly down to me, and I could tell that she was getting pretty worked. It’s not every day that you get to do all sorts of things you’ve never done before in one fell-swoop. She apologized as she clipped in direct to the anchor, then reached back for her water bottle with both hands, unscrewing the cap and asking me through thirsty gasps in the softest voice still, “Would you like to lead the rest of the pitch?” I knew that she was nowhere near to being defeated.
“Absolutely not, Lis! You are cruising this thing! You are making steady upward progress and the day is still very young. You would have to be crazy if you thought that I’d expect you to come up here and just grease your first every aid pitch, who is ever proficient at anything the first time they try it? I had every expectation that this pitch would give you some trouble, and I don’t think you’re at all ready to give up.”
“Well did you expect this?”
I was busy dealing with some anchor stuff at the moment, or maybe I was drinking some water as well, I don’t know. “Expect what?”
“Expect me to have a break down?”
It was then that I noticed the tears rolling down her cheeks, both of which were now turning pink from the sun. I grabbed the back of her head and pulled her in as close as I could. Her white helmet gently tapped my face as she began to sob into my shoulder, and I rubbed the back of her neck. We were about 1,200 above the ground on the small ledge at this point, and the wall is incredibly steep. The wind continued fiercely, and the sun beat down upon us through a beautiful and crisp September sky. Her hands squeezed my back as she pulled her head up to look at me. “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long,” she said as she pulled her sunglasses off to wipe her eyes.
I couldn’t stop staring at her. I grabbed her hands. “It’s just the standard big wall emotions, Lis. We have all been there. I cannot begin to tell you how great you are doing. Get that idea out of your head that you are going too slow for me. No one is rushing you, I’m not rushing you. Like I told you earlier, it’s not about whether or not you top-out that will decide whether this trip is a success or failure. The fact that you are up here and pushing yourself is an absolute success. There is no time limit for today. We have our head lamps, we have plenty of water, plenty of food, and we having one hell of a good time. No, I don’t want to lead the rest of this pitch because you would regret it. Take a break, catch your breath. The longer we take just means the more time we get to spend on this wall. And remember how much of a bad ass tyou are! You are doing way better than even I did the first time I came up here. We bailed. We got scared and bailed. You’re attitude makes all the difference.” Above us, the rope bent lazily sideways.
She let go of my hands and rubbed both her eyes at once, letting out a sigh as she gained her composure. “O man.” She smiled at me, then peered up at the ropes swaying above us.
“Have fun up there, Lis, because I am enjoying this quite a bit.” We returned to the silence as Lis stood up and grabbed the rope leading to my belay device, and began to pull. I pulled out the slack as she made her way to her high point, eventually disappearing just out of view as she stood on the small ledge halfway up the pitch. The wind once again consumed all noise as I sat looking up at the rope making its way upward towards Lis. I was consumed by the moment, drinking in the absolute perfection of where we were. I sat smiling on the small ledge, surrounded by nothing but moving air and adventure. There was nowhere else I would rather have been at that moment, and that brought me incredible joy. My serene state was eventually interrupted by the sudden sound of rattling gear as the back of Lis’ harness popped in and out of view as she bounce-tested her first piece to continue the pitch.
The sun had began its slow retreat to the western horizon by the time I arrived at the belay with Lis, who was laughing and giddy when I clipped in next to her. She reflaked the rope as I took my approach shoes off and replaced with my climbing shoes. We were children, goofing off and laughing at the stupidest things as we did the belay chores. We now found ourselves at a spot where the quality of the actual climbing would match the quality of the experience being had. I was stoked to take the ladders off my harness and stuff them deep into my pack. Lis followed-suit, getting herself fully ready to follow me up some wild and adventurous free climbing to the top. The sky was glowing a soft gold as Lis put me on belay and I stuffed my hands into the crack pointing the way to the top.
One problem that many young bigwall climbers (such as myself) run into on early expeditions, is an aversion to free climbing. Feeling stuck in the aiders is a problem that all new wall-climbers face, and must be overcome in order to get the absolute most out of these trips. Nothing is more empowering than making direct contact with the rock, so high and so exposed on such a steep wall. We go to these places to test ourselves against these timeless giants and seek what our bodies are truly capable of. Just as a bird at some point leaves a nest, we must leave the safety and comfort of these tools which make the top certain. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is cooler than free-climbing that high on a rock. Nothing. Lis wanted to taste it for herself now, and we were soon consumed by some splitter handcracks, thrutchy off-widths, and some wild traverses as we made our way upward.
* * *
The sun was barely below the horizon when Lis joined me at the top of the sandy gulley which occupies the last pitch of the route, leaving just enough light for her and me to reach the top of Washington Column without our headlamps. We found the huge flat bivy site at the top of the formation just as the sun graced the Vizor of Half Dome, perched in its usual location across the Tenaya Creek Canyon. The afternoon breeze had greatly subsided now that the temperatures were slowly dropping. We sat side-by-side, my arm around her shoulders, looking across the Canyon at Half Dome as the air around us began to slow. It was over. The climb we had been looking forward to for months was now but a memory. Yes, we still had the long series of rappels to return to Dinner Ledge which brings unique challenges and dangers of its own. But, the actual action of the climb was done, and we enjoyed the very apex of the formation on such a peaceful evening alone. The newborn highlights and memories of the climb were still rushing through our brains, making each other laugh with every bit and piece we’d remind each other of. She turned her head to look at me.
“Were you serious about what you asked me?” She was referring to the proposition of her and I becoming a couple I asked her on her lead.
“Of course I was!”
“I was hoping you would ask me that this trip.”
“I knew I would. I’ve known for a while, now.”
“So have I, Christian. So have I.”
A dozen stars now filled the sky above us, and the horizon to our backs still glowed in soft light. I have no idea how long we sat at the summit. Maybe half an hour? Maybe an hour? No idea. Eventually, however, our bones began to ache, and our sleeping bags began to beckon from the ledge some 1,000 or so feet below us. Our headlamps popped on, and we were soon simul-rapping (both of us rappelling simultaneously down both ends two ropes tied together) down the face of the cliff. Passing directly over the route we’d just climbed, we reflected on each and every highlight as we passed gently by and into the dark void below.
Six quick and easy rappels later, we arrived at the tiny ledge which would offer a place to sleep for another night. As per usual, our harnesses were the first thing to come off. The relief of this moment is always something to embrace, it’s quite a remarkable feeling.
On the main ledge below us, a couple parties laid quietly. Each a separate party, and each pissed that the other parties were there. They also took it upon themselves to move our haul bags, placing them precariously close to the edge of the precipice. Having noticed this, I really didn’t bother too much to be silent or turn off my head lamp as I walked over them to retrieve literally all the gear we needed to comfortably spend the night from certain disaster should somehow the bags slip. When the bags were safe in my possession, I once again staggered over the awkward mass and handed them one at a time to Lis who was also making it well known that we weren’t stoked on our bags being moved. That’ll teach ’em, right?
On our isolated perch, we sat on my sleeping bag and made dinner consisting of ramen being boiled in tomato soup (What great idea it turned out to be). The jetboil hissed as it blasted the substance with heat, and I could hear a few bugs chirping away in the night. The wind was completely quiet now, and the night was slowly drawing in; forcing us to ad layers of clothing to fend off the slowly encroaching chill. We ate our dinner, the gear was racked, and we were at last ready to slip into the sleeping bags which were now waiting patiently for us on our sleeping pads. Lis got into hers first, and I sat on mine for a few minutes and stretched. The night was still, with only an occasional gentle stir of air swirling softly around me. At some point, I crawled into my own bag and drifted slowly to sleep.
* * *
Voices calling back and forth above me woke me up from time to time the next morning, enjoying as long as possible the shade offered by Half Dome. Lis and I made ZERO effort to get out of our bags at any reasonable time that beautiful morning. Two parties were past the Kor Roof, and one party was starting when Lis and I finally decided to wake up and make breakfast and coffee. We moved just about as slow as we could that morning, basking in the warm sun which at this point had long crested Half Dome. As the morning slowly progressed, the sun began to slowly increase in intensity as we slowly prepared for our departure. On the ledge below us, the two young men we’d met the day we started were getting set to climb the Kor Roof pitch. We talked with them as we packed our haul bags and rigged the ropes to the anchor for the rappel. Once last double-check, and I was off down the ropes with the bigger of the bags dangling from my own belay loop.
The going was smooth for me as I made my way down the third and second pitches of the route. About ten feet below the anchor on top of Pitch 2, a brand new .75 Camalot sat stuck in the thin crack. I worked on the piece for a while, trying in vain to remove the booty and claim it as my own. I called it quits after about three minutes. Things were looking great and epic-free as I crested the final steep bulge before the small ledge above Pitch 1. However, just as my feet left the wall and I found myself free-hanging no more than fifteen feet above the ledge, I looked down to see the mess of rope knotted and messed just a few feet below me. Nothing that gave me any real pause quite yet, but a nuisance nonetheless.
I slowly made my way to the mess of ropes, contemplating the whole time of how I would hold myself in place with my ATC while fighting gravity and the additional weight of the filled haul bag dangling lazily from my belay loop and untangling the chaos. I hovered above the nest a few seconds, swimming between my options before attempting to fix the potentially desperate situation happening immediate below me. Roughly thirty-seconds into correcting what some obvious spawn of Satan had done to me, I realized that this was like no knot I had ever seen before. Every fiber of my being wished the situation was not so, but that’s the way things often go when it comes to walls climbing.
Some shenanigans including dropping the haul bag to a bite on one of the ropes, a micro-traxion, an ascender, three runners and twenty minutes later, I finally freed the end of the rope, and it ran knot-free all the way to the ledge immediately below me. I yelled up to Lis that I was off rappel.
I carried the haul bag across the ledge as the ropes began to sway back and forth as Lis made her way down them. She soon came into view, asking me what the hell had taken so long. I told her about the knot, and she told me that she thought a rock must have become dislodged and smacked in the noggin, or that something terrible happened. She was almost crying when she arrived next to me, and welcomed me with a warm kiss. Once she realized that I was okay and she made her way down to me, the thought also crossed her mind that I’d taken so long trying to get the stuck cam out. Apparently she yelled down to me a few times, even asking the guys above her if they could yell down to me to see if I was okay. I heard none of this. A whole gambit of emotions flooded Lis’ brain, and she was very relieved to be standing with me safe and sound on the solitary ledge. I could hear cursing from somewhere well above us as the party starting as we left struggled to make their way up the wall.
One more easy rappel and we were once again on the Earth after a three-day big wall adventure. The hiking poles came out, the haulbags became packs, and we were soon marching down the large slab beneath the East Face of the Column. The afternoon was high and the sun was hot as we wandered down the loose trail. I always look up after climbing a wall, always astounded that we had, in fact, been right there on that blank and steep face at some point in recent times. History is made with each and every ascent with each and every team. It is always a grant and magnificent adventure.
As we slowly and carefully made our way away from the the cliff, trail turned into a talus field, then eventually leveled off and eventually led to the bike path. Lis came up beside me as soon as the path was wide enough, and we walked toward the bus stop hand-in-hand. People smiled at us as we walked by them, knowing that we had just returned from some awesome and powerful battle with what Earth provided. Holding hands with a wall partner is something I’d never done until this point, and I have to say that it was something that I enjoyed doing very much. Just before the bus stop, we both turned around and looked back at the Washington Column which was framed perfectly between two trees. It seemed distant now, almost small. It’s hard to account for three days worth of excitement in a few moments of staring. I traced the route with my eyes, once again climbing the amazing second pitch, sleeping on Dinner Ledge, the overhung Kor Roof. I followed the two traversing pitches, and stopped at the small ledge below Pitch 7 where I’d belayed Lis only the day before. I saw where Lis asked me if was serious about dating, and then where she fell. I followed the Pitch 8 hand crack to the offwidth and through the adventurous upper pitches. My gaze came to and end when it found the very top of the huge formation of beautiful granite. Had it all really happened?
I began to hear a bus rolling up behind me, and a small nudge stole my attention from the peak of Washington Column. “Come on!” I turned around to see the bright green hat and soft gray eyes smiling at me. “Let’s go get drunk and eat pizza!” The bus let out a loud “PSSST!” as it came to a stop and the doors opened up to a crowd of potent-smelling tourists came pouring out. We grabbed our bags, and headed back to my truck at Curry Village.