Sylvia was crying. She had been talking about her children and her divorce, but what has brought it to a head just then seemed to be the heat, the weight of the haul bag on her back, and the overwhelming presence of El Cap above. Neither Sylvia nor Pete had been to Yosemite before, and neither had been on a big wall.
The presence of 3000 foot of granite constantly above you gets into you, gets right into your guts. You want it, but it scares you. We had been on Zodiac, which is rated A3. A3 means that you might get hurt if you pull a piece, and that if you aren’t careful, pieces will pull. I hadn’t been careful, I’d been lazy, pulled a piece and then the following three below that failed one after the other. Pete had been rocketed up off the belay, but the Grigri had done its stuff, and all was well, but nerves had been set on edge. However the real issue was the heat. It was mid-September, 92F and we were a still a long walk from the river.
A few days later the temperatures had dropped into the 80’s and hitting the wall once more felt sane. Kevin seemed the ideal El Cap partner: twice my weight, and therefore able to haul; had a massive rack of new cams; had already stashed some food and water on Dolt Tower, so we wouldn’t have to take so much; and he had done 14 pitches of trad in his life, so was almost an old hand. He had also climbed the first quarter of the route twice before, but his partners had backed off, so I knew he was keen. Just before we left the ground he told me he was a diabetic, hence the food stash on Dolt, and showed me what to inject him with if I ever found him slumped unconscious.
On Sunday we hauled all the gear four pitches up to Sickle Ledge then rapped down for a swim in the river.
Monday, 3:30am, and I’m having a fight with a raccoon whilst trying not to wake the whole of the campsite. Wherever I put my harness, helmet, wash kit, anything, it makes a dash for it. I finally make it to the van, we drive over to the Nose and Kevin says goodbye to his wife. We jug back up in the dark and start a pleasant day of climbing, pendulumming and hauling into and up the Stovelegs – a 300ft crack cutting through clean granite. When we reach Dolt we find someone has stolen Kevin’s food, despite the note he had attached to it. I knew I was happy on half rations, but wasn’t so sure about Kevin. He told me he would be fine, probably. And at least the water was still there.
Tuesday. We are woken by someone taking a dump on the ledge. He then smokes some dope, brings his partner up, turns on the ghetto blaster he has strapped to his harness and heads up our rope and into the dawn laughing while he jugs.
The day goes well with more granite, more cracks. We finish a pitch below Camp IV, on a ledge which isn’t even nice for one person to sleep on, so we set up my single portaledge. An unnecessary luxury, but we’re on holiday. It looks very small compared to Kevin but we manage to both squeeze on.
Wednesday sees us through the Great Roof and at Camp V. The only drama is when my jumar pops off the rope and I’m falling. The Grigri locks. Looking down we see eight climbers converging on Camp IV. We know there won’t even be room for some of them to sit down tonight. Just before bed we are joined by Chantel Astorga who is trying to be the first women to solo The Nose in less than a day. She has dropped one of her jumars and is having to jug with a Grigri. We lend her one of ours and she climbs off into the dark. Kevin is looking very tired. If he doesn’t regain his energy levels by morning, I might be forced to do my fair share of hauling.
Thursday. One bagel and an apple for breakfast and the food is all gone. Before the second pitch Kevin asks to sit down for a couple of minutes as he isn’t feeling very strong. He looks a different man than the one that left the ground three days previously. A pitch higher and we are met by the sight of a team cleaning Camp VI as part of the annual Yosemite Facelift. Not often you see people wearing face masks and protective clothing on a wall using long poles to fish for poo.
At the top we ferry the gear up the easy slope. The Poles have some dried pasta. As they had no water left they weren’t able eat it on the route. We have lots of water, so we trade and sit together with a couple from the Czech Republic talking, drinking tea, making friends and laughing into the night. By morning Kevin is recovered and almost strong enough to carry both bags down the hill, which is just as well because I’m bushed.
When we reach Yosemite Valley Kevin’s wife is waiting for all of us with a face full of smiles and a meal prepared. It tastes unbelievable. Maybe anything would have, but I’m not sure: it had obviously been made with a lot of love.
More cracks and corners. We don’t need to be fast. Just fast enough not to get tangled in the tide of rising climbers monkeying up the wall below us. By the time we are nearly at the top the sun is setting, the wind is vicious and it feels like it might snow. Kevin leads us to the top (it is his climb, he needs to own it, he deserves it). Unfortunately he doesn’t like the look of the belay bolts he finds, seems confused and is worrying about whether they’re safe. He refuses to haul on them, so tries to climb up the final easy pitch, but can’t. He decides to haul from the bolts. Then he changes his mind, again, but still can’t make the moves because of rope drag. I’ve been hanging for an hour and I’m hoping the stuff I’m meant to inject him with is where we put it. I’m joined by two Polish climbers who wonder what is going on, but are relaxed about the cold. Kevin finally hauls.