Pacific Ocean Wall

El Capitan

“Hullo, Mr. Bear,” I said.

The beast, black, urgent and inquisitive, was staring into my face, mere inches away. I put on my best Brit-abroad accent.

“I really don’t think you want to eat me, Mr. Bear. No, I'd be rather tough and gristly, don't you think, ol’ chap”

The bear pondered this as it stood and sniffed my neck, its eyes glinting in the full moon. It gave off an odor worse than my own; evidently, it too, could not afford to visit the Curry Company showers very often.

Climbing the two-pitch Bishop's Terrace (5.8) by the full moon had seemed like a fine idea … while swilling beer with Jim Gaun back in Camp 4. Things had begun well, and I had wrangled belay duty. Jim, after a confident start, discovered that the crux was hidden by the thick foliage shadow of nearby trees.

“I can't shee; wash me here … ” Those beers were not helping his usually pristine Western twang. “I can't shee the crack at all. I could take a big fall here.”

Then the large shaggy shape appeared. …

My relaxed conversation with the bear belied the frantic struggle going on above. Once Jim realized that his belayer might be eaten alive, he quit yelling. Down on the ground, the soft words were having a soothing effect on the bear. It fell for the accent—Americans always did back then. After a few more sniffs at various other body parts, it backed down and shuffled off.

Ahhhh, the joys of living in Yosemite in 1983. A funny time, when Yosemite was trying to figure out how it was going to grow up. As was I.

me on Honda 350

In the 1950s and 1960s, Steve Roper, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard and their friends wanted to do the hardest Yosemite routes—and how better to achieve this but by working seasonally, and actually living on-site in Yosemite for months at a time? That crew drifted away by the early 1970s, but had created something far greater than the routes they climbed: the “Golden Age” of Yosemite. They turned their little campground, Camp 4, into a site now on the National Register of Historic Places. There are climbers, and there are bums, and the major Yosemite Golden Age players—dubbed “Valley Christians” for their strict ethics—combined the two to create a distinct archetype: poor, socially inept, near-unemployable, frugal, disdainful of non-climbers and wickedly adept at climbing.

The National Park Service (NPS) furthered the legend. In most places, search and rescue is organized by well-meaning volunteers who care about people and know first aid, but are far from technical climbers. This approach was clearly inadequate in a place with Yosemite-size cliffs. The rangers struck a deal: A “select” group of climbers, Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), could stay in Camp 4 as long as they wanted, for free, in exchange for the willingness to go out and rescue people. Plus, there was pay for each rescue.

The Valley Christians had long since left by 1983. The separation of church and belay plate ushered in a new phase. In the 1970s, climbers carried on the Valley Christian traditions and established new and harder routes, such as the 1975 masterpiece Pacific Ocean Wall (VI 5.9 A4): Jim Bridwell, Bill Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East. Bridwell, who apprenticed under Robbins' generation, was the main driving force who kept Yosemite climbing skills and reputation one step ahead of other locations. He forged new layers of mystique and legend, built on the shoulders of Robbins, Harding and Kor but embracing a more cosmopolitan, low-profile attitude: Climb hard, create new routes, let the routes you create speak for themselves. This, to me and a whole generation, was it, right there. For me and Matt Dancy, the Pacific Ocean Wall spoke to us loudly and clearly.         

Jim Bridwell 2010

Above: Jim Bridwell in 2010, at Christmas Tree Pass. 

Welcome to spring of 1983. The then YOSAR team had developed their “style” to a fine, and very intimidating, art. Their attitude was macho, elitist and insular—but back then they were all men, they were an (NPS-sponsored) elite, and they were surrounded by huge walls that could hide insecurities just as easily as inspire brilliance. The beverage of choice was Olde English “800” (a malt liquor with twice the alcohol, half the taste and one-eighth the cost of any microbrew), complemented by other questionable habits. They created some interesting handicaps to keep things spicy, among which was the invention of the All-Beer Ascent, a logistically tricky feat pioneered by Walt Shipley.

The YOSAR team and their friends seldom spoke to outsiders (they certainly didn't wish to speak to me). Russ Walling, a.k.a. The Fish, a YOSAR denizen based in his Volkswagen bus (he kept several dead mice skewered on the antenna) and apparently living off rescue proceeds, had an endless stream of gory stories of body parts he'd found strewn about the talus of Yosemite. Bill Russell, another proud YOSAR team member in 1983, took things as bit too far and found himself “relocated” by the rangers to a new home outside of the Park. Tucker Tech was the proud owner of an old bread-delivery van big enough to stand up in, and Lydia Painkiner, the Pocket Russian, collected Camp 4 trash every day in exchange for free camping.

Camp 4 tent view

Myself? I was on an extended vacation. After working an office job for the Census Office in Britain for two years, I had saved enough money to live on for a while. Right before I left the U.K., I learned of the death, in an alpine avalanche, of one of my regular climbing partners, Steve Massey, then that of my friend Tom Hurley, who had slipped from a bivy ledge on Mont Blanc. The longer I stayed in the United States, the less connected I felt to what I'd left behind. I splashed out $400 for an ancient Honda 350 motorcycle. With the motorcycle and my bivy bag, I could do anything.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Back in Camp 4, Arizonian Dave Houchin wanted a partner for the Salathé Wall (VI 5.10 A3). He was convinced that I, despite having never aid-climbed, might be a good one. He fashioned a pair of aiders while I pondered what I'd use them for—surely it was shameful enough to hang on the gear; a ladder to stand in seemed almost too embarrassing. “Aiding?” I joked. “You mean you get to hang on those pieces? What could be easier?” I did have a pair of Clog jumars, but they had no handles nor any way of locking the rope into the device. We fired the Prow (V 5.10 A3) on Washington Column. After years of leading hard trad routes in Britain, where fiddling in devious RPs—and calculating how much of a fall each would hold—was normal procedure, clean-aiding up the beat-out pin scars on the Prow was not so challenging, after all. You don't get pumped and you have all the time in the world to optimize each placement.

Dave Houchin on the Prow

Next, we did the Salathé, and everything went swimmingly. Soon after, Dave left, and I hooked up with skinny, 6'4", stubborn and enthusiastic Matt Dancy. He was on a Valley vacation from a tree-trimming job in LA. We made a great team, Matt and I, ticking a ton of free routes. As it happened, Matt had some pitons. Perhaps enough for the Shield (VI 5.9 A3+). We'd heard a rumor that the route had gone clean, so we borrowed a couple of hammocks and went heavy on the RPs and light on the pins, which we didn't even use until we reached the Triple Cracks. After we summited in four days, Matt had to scurry back to LA and his trees, but we swore we'd join up and try something longer and harder in the fall—the Pacific Ocean Wall.

Matt Dancy

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In Mid-October, we met up in Tuolumne to free-climb and then headed to the Valley. And there it was: The Pacific Ocean Wall, wandering up the best part of El Cap, where it was tall estand steepest, right under where the BASE jumpers leap. Its 28 pitches follow a dreamy line of weaknesses just left of the big, black, North America diorite patch. Someone told us that ours would be the 12th ascent, roughly eight years after the first.

 I had no big-wall gear. Nothing except a pair of aiders and the handle-less Clog death-ascenders. But Matt seemed to know what he was doing, and he figured the same of me. We spent two days collecting any gear we either didn't have or couldn't improvise. I lent my motorbike and bug-encrusted leather jacket out in exchange for a handful of pins. We cut up a washing line for tie-offs, and I taped the head back on Matt's old Kmart claw hammer.

Me PO fixing claw hammer

We reasoned we’d be sleeping on portaledges, since the PO Wall has only one real ledge, but neither of us owned such a thing … nor had $300 to buy one. We headed to Mammoth Lakes, just outside the valley, to see what we could find. After a trip to a hardware store, Matt devised a sophisticated number with four-inch PVC for the frame, and ballistics cloth in the middle, stretched taut by washing-line wound around the frame through grommet holes. The unit was pretty sturdy for a  total outlay of $50. I built a ledge with a $7.95 Safeway chaise lounge, old rappel slings and four plastic Fastex buckles. The expense of rain flies was beyond us, so Matt draped an old tarp over his sleeping bag while I had my old homemade bivy bag. Proudly, I hung my $10 bed from a tree in Camp 4 and slept in it. We were psyched—ready for a long session on a wall, and we’d just saved about $540. Yosemite might be an expensive place, but $540 still buys a hell of a lot of beer.

sorting gear

The day before we started fixing, Russ the Fish, Bill and the rest of the YOSAR team recovered a climber who’d decked from 400 feet on Tangerine Trip and died, just 400 yards from the start of our route. We carefully made a wide detour around the landing zone during our three days of fixing and humping loads. Each fixing day would start sunny, then we'd be chased off by pesky afternoon showers. We had not seen any rain for the entire summer—why now?

“It's almost October, Matt. Perhaps the good summer weather is breaking up?”

Matt just grinned, and said, “This is Yosemite, matey, it’ll be sunny tomorrow.”

The next day we hauled our loads for hours and did one more pitch. As this was my first A4 pitch ever, and the first on the route for both of us, it sent me on 30-foot tumble as I learned how not to deal with hammering pins into expanding cracks.

matt cleaning

Meanwhile, back in Camp 4, the YOSAR gang was already warming up the slander machine, giving odds on the inexperienced bumblies who were about to tackle one of the Capitan’s more revered lines. “We gave them practically no chance,” says Duane Raleigh, a site member at the time. “We entertained ourselves for hours every evening at their expense.”

The next day, leading the crux, eighth pitch (given A5 in that old yellow George Meyers guide), I inched my way up on the first copperheads I’d ever placed, watching the “real” placements—a giant buried head and a bolt—sink far below. No expanding cracks here. In fact, no crack at all, just a little blind groove. I felt like an insect on a vast windowpane, exposed and vulnerable, tightly focused on the tiny area of rock in front of my face. This was nothing like the Shield. This was thin and hard and frightening.

“Watch me here, Matt!” I hollered, but my belayer was belay-bopping to Electric Ladyland on the Walkman, loading up his pipe and oblivious to all else. Hmm, well, why bother him anyway? I laughed out loud, and spat out a “F--k you, then!” Let Matt relax, he'd get his turn on the next pitch.

me on po wall

While I toiled and tapped at my copperheads, vague murmurs kept niggling at me. I ignored them. Tap-tap-tap-tap. But the murmurs became rumbles, and the rumblings became insistent. No! I had a job to do, and pasting copperheads into a shallow seam is slow work, requiring meticulous attention to detail and endless patience. I had to concentrate. Now the rock was turning dark. Stop it. Leave me alone … But something massive, dark and loud was creeping in from the west.

Tap-tap-tap-tap. I tried to focus on Matt's claw hammer and the tattoo of my cold chisel—not exactly the reassuring thwang-thwang of pitons, but more of an unsteady tick-tick, like a dying clock.

When you are perched on the southeast side of El Cap, you can't see weather approaching, so you listen and imagine ... the worst. A vast black curtain was being pulled across the sky, and the air felt thick. CRABBBOOOOM-BOOOM-Booom-booom! The confined corridor of the Valley makes for exciting acoustics, and the volume was cranked up to 11. As the storm closed in, the cliffs seemed to wake up, coming alive with each thunderbolt—the Cathedrals, the Brothers, Sentinel, each of them, in turn, bellowing, with an almost supernatural violence. I felt sick.

Between thunderclaps, I would begin to calm down, but the mad chorus would start again, more explosive than ever. The rock in front of me seemed to shake with the thunderbolts—I certainly did. The churning storm-cell blackness above, bored with just making noises, decided to up the ante, and unleashed its load. Furious torrents of water cascaded down the Cathedrals, boulders and trees in their wake. Anyone climbing over there, still on the face, would be doomed. Closer in, rainwater, pouring from far above, formed a vast rippling curtain, just behind me. I tried to focus on my copperhead. Tap-tap-tap-CRABBBOOOOM-BOOOM-Booom-booom-tap-tap-tap … Stick, you bastard … CCRAB-B-BOOOOM!-BOOOOM!-Boom!-boooom! … I wanna go down … whimper, bleat, whine, cringe. How many steel pins were wrapped around my neck? I suppose copper is a good conductor, too. Tap-tap-tap-tap-whimper-tap-whimper........

I expected to be hit by lightning. Instead, the cliff decided to throw me off; faster and faster I dropped. AAAAAAARGH! I screamed in terror, and went flying past a very surprised Matt, before coming to a halt perhaps 60 feet below where I'd just been.

“What happened?” asked Matt.

"I'd been on the same, fixed, copperhead for several minutes. It was holding …”

Matt frowned briefly—he hated losing ground—then grinned, “Sometimes copperheads are just little time bombs, matey.” He suggested we quit for the day, and I heartily agreed. We settled into our ”portaledges,” and watched the storm drift toward Tuolumne. The rain fell clear of our perch, and the beautiful curtain of water pouring off the top of El Cap stayed a couple feet out of reach. Its gentle murmurings lulled us to sleep.

me and red rope hanging free

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In the sparkling morning sun, I felt no fear, just an acceptance that I might, again, take the plummet as I pasted new heads into the same ripples. The thought of having to place them a third time was depressing enough to stop my clipping them into the rope. As I reached the time-bomb placement, 30 feet of lead rope flapped below me.

The next evening, on the Continental Shelf, 11 pitches up, we were serenaded by another curtain of water. It was closer now—if we leaned out, we could touch it, the water splattering over our outstretched fingers. Breezes ruffled the water, and it would occasionally spill onto the Shelf and splash us. I repeated Matt's words, “It's Yosemite, it'll be sunny tomorrow.” The weather, instead, worsened. The next few days were a blur of moist misery, and we spent our time dodging ever-growing wet streaks. For two days we were becalmed halfway across the A4 Central Latitudes traverse, hanging off RURPs and rivets in our makeshift ledges. Sometimes all we could see was gray cloud and a bit of cliff. We were adrift in our own little world, no longer vertical, just flat, remote and quiet.

All other Yosemite climbers were shut down by the rain. They amused themselves by congregating in El Cap Meadows, trying to spot us through the mist, YOSAR’s finest included, in fact. The YOSAR crew had posted a death-watch of sorts: “We were certain they were doomed,” says Raleigh. “And, were practically counting the money we’d soon make hauling their frozen bodies off the wall.”

Helicopters flew by, rescuing folks off the Nose and Salathé Wall. The rangers on the ground would periodically yell, “Climbers on Pacific Ocean Wall, do you need assistance?” Matt would yell, “No!” and turn to me say, grinning, “It’ll be sunny tomorrow, matey.” He had to be right eventually. Rappelling 13 pitches didn't seem so bad, but we'd each invested about $50 on provisions, which seemed like an awful lot. It'd be such a waste to just give up.

A roof jutted two pitches above the traverse, with belay slings hanging underneath. “If we bivy up under there, that's the top of pitch 16—as far as we can go and still stay sheltered,” I said. “We may as well wait up there, then when the weather breaks, we have only 12 pitches left.” Matt agreed: “Yeah, they're mostly easier too.” He even fixed the A4 Rounding The Horn pitch past the roof, a good effort carried out whilst pummeled by another full-force downpour.

Sometimes the most carefully considered plans go wrong … as Matt lowered and cleaned, water began to dribble from my belay crack. Soon it was pouring all over our gear, all over me, and once he arrived, with the dark, all over Matt. We swore, cursed and thrashed, but avoiding this new waterfall was impossible with our ropes fixed up above. The it'll-be-sunny-tomorrow banter seemed stale and stupid. Feeding ourselves was too much effort. We broke out our ledges and each crawled into a cold womb, which instead of giving life, sucked it out of us. Total blackness; sounds of water dripping, dribbling, running all around; the smell of sweat and fetid wet down; feeling of finally having pushed things too far.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I counted off seconds, minutes, invented new increments of time to endure, one by one. Sometimes my body would shake violently. I had to stay coherent; I couldn’t let hypothermia take over. My strategy was to keep very still, in a fetal position, and try, by force of will, not to shiver. I tensed my whole body and kept it tensed. It seemed better that way. Counting out loud helped. The layer of sodden down all around me would warm up a few degrees, and I’d feel a little less cold, but not actually warm. Each breath became a little victory.

A yell emerged from the blackness, waking me: “Shit, I might as well untie and jump off, just to get it over with!” Was Matt serious? I tried to think of something to say, but thinking was such an effort. “No, don't do that,” was the best I could do. “We’ll rap when the sun comes up, and if we can't manage that, we can just start yelling for help.” Then no more words for a while, just dribbling noises. “How many nights have we been up here anyway?” That was a hard one. Neither of us could figure this out—and we spent hours trying. ”Six nights … No, seven … But wasn't there another day when … ”

Any way we looked at it, we were defeated, exhausted, hypothermic. The torment forced us to poke our heads out to watch for any sign of dawn, or some way of measuring time.

“There's some stars; maybe the rain’s easing.”

“I think the rain's stopped; we're in our own little waterfall.”

“I see it; the sky's lighter.”

Dawn crept slowly, bringing clearer skies, and the lazy clouds vanished one by one. Silent, frigid, clear dawn eventually bringing the sun and the promise of warmth. It was a promise that sank in slowly and hardly registered. Exhausted, lost in disconnected thoughts, we leaned out and stared numbly at the Valley, glistening and sharp with little coils of mist over the Merced River. There was fresh snow up in Tuolumne Meadows. White sparkling trees looked close enough to touch. We were barely any lower in elevation, so it was no wonder we were so damn cold. Tortoise-like, we pulled ourselves out to dry. Our hands were puffed up, soft and white, like sponges. I wrung out my sleeping bag and emptied a gallon of water from my bivy sack. “Perhaps I should use it inside out,” I joked. Matt laughed, but not for long. A sudden cry, and I caught a glimpse of a large green sleeping bag swirling down the wall. “What happened?” I asked. Matt looked embarrassed. “The foot end was so waterlogged it pulled the whole thing over.”

me lawn chair

“Do we start rapping now?”

“Let's wait. I'm too tired to do anything.”

“OK. How about we rest today, and rappel tomorrow?”

“Yeah, let's rest a while longer.”

We roused ourselves enough to jumar to the next belay anchor, just to get out of the waterfall. I fixed another pitch—just to warm myself, not with any real intention of upward progress.

As we (unsuccessfully) warmed, and napped, our outlook slowly shifted; going up started to look no more demanding than going down. We had about 2,000 feet of air below, and above us the cliff arced out of sight; the top seemed close. We both thought—but knew each other well enough that we barely needed to say—“Maybe, just maybe, we can still go for the top.” We could just about muster the energy for the last 10-odd pitches—as long as nothing more went wrong. But who would get the remaining sleeping bag? Matt shrugged, and said, “I dropped my bag, so you keep it.” I pondered this, “How about I take the sleeping bag, and you get the bivy bag and all the spare clothes?” That sounded fair. “OK.”

me on po

A couple of showers passed over the next day, but we were past caring. Damp, wet, dry, soggy, there was no difference anymore. Leading a bolt ladder the next morning, I almost fainted each time I stretched for the next dowel. And, jumaring was becoming a real effort for us both. Matt led the last hard pitch—A4 hooking from a tension traverse—with no drama, though he complained that “standing up high in the aiders felt like doing a 5.12 dyno.

me jumaring

Eventually, we reached the top. I felt unsteady amid this horizontal world that extended in every direction. After all those days on the wall, (to be honest, we had no idea how many), we'd drunk only five gallons of water between us (on the summit we poured out two leftover gallons), hadn’t eaten for two days, and had finished one hell of a climb. The descent was grueling. We stumbled and fell, and staggered a few more steps. I shuffled more slowly, so Matt finally disappeared ahead. In my wasted state, I started imagining goblins and strange animals hiding behind the trees, trying to communicate with me. Suddenly, one large goblin stepped out from the trees and announced, “Hey, how about I take that haulbag?” I stopped and stared. It was no goblin, it was Russ the Fish! He smiled and shook his head, saying, “Ho man, we thought you were goners.” He had hiked up the descent trail to help carry our loads down. Somehow he’d missed Matt, but I wasn't complaining.

matt leading

The Fish cheerfully donned the haulbag, and we slowly made our way down to his waiting VW bus, festooned with a couple of fresh dead mice. He told me we'd been up there for 11 days, more than Matt or I had figured. Down in the Valley, we had become celebrities. Everyone recognized us—at least for a while. The Valley seemed different: smaller and less intimidating. Same with the resident climbers. We'd done the slowest ascent of the PO Wall ever, but we had gained some respect from the locals, who appreciated the idea of a tenacious disregard for the weather, the outside world and its comforts. Respect could come from climbing hard, but also from climbing with the right attitude.

Before we left, we spent hours searching below El Cap for our dropped gear. We watched two New Zealanders cruising up the crux pitches of the PO Wall. I grinned. “It must be nice to know what you’re doing up there!” I exclaimed. Matt laughed. We both envied the Kiwis and the splitter weather they were having. Then, just before we left the Valley, we heard that they had been plucked off the wall by helicopter, 20 pitches up, suffering from—of all things—heat exhaustion.

Crusher Bartlett, 2004. Originally published with the title Open Water in Rock & Ice, #139, Jan 2005

Photos: All photos of the route are copyright Matt Dancy. Motorcycle photo: Tim Toula

me portrait on top of el cap