A Long Way Down
150-Footer on the Nose.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 248 (February 2018).
For a moment, I was suspended in silence. Darkness rushed in around me, dreamlike. The panic disappeared, and I felt totally calm, accepting my fate. Was I about to die? For the next five seconds, I bounced violently down the slab, gear banging. Mike’s headlamp slowly passed by.
Earlier that morning, at 3:15 a.m., my phone had gone off, but it was not my alarm. It was my friend Mike Donaldson from Search and Rescue.
“Dude, are you awake?”
Shit! I was supposed to pick him up at the lodge 15 minutes before.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m running a few minutes late.”
We had plans to do the Nose on El Capitan in a day, to finish my season.
It was Monday, June 26. I had been climbing in Yosemite Valley for two months straight, but the hot summer temps were starting to sap my motivation. “One last climb,” I had told myself as I stared at the ceiling of my van in the Curry Village parking lot.
By 4 a.m., we were on our way to the base of El Cap to climb the most famous big-wall route in the world. Neither Mike nor I had done the Nose before, but we felt ready.
“How could I have slept through my alarm?” I thought as we navigated through the swampy meadow at the start of the trail. I never do that, especially on a day like today. Usually I’m too excited to sleep and wake up before my phone goes off. Maybe running up the Steck-Salathé with Timmy O’Neill the day before wasn’t such a good idea.
“Dude,” Mike said as the massive wall finally came into view, “there’s already another party at the base. Look, you can see their headlamps on the first pitch.”
“I guess we’ll just have to climb faster,” I said as we quickened our pace.
We arrived at the base to see the leader about 50 feet up. If not for me, we would have been here first. Mike was being nice about it, but I felt the need to make it up to him.
“Do you guys mind if we pass?” I called up, already in my shoes and tying in.
“Uhhh, sure,” he said. “Why don’t you just start climbing and we’ll see how it goes?”
That was all I needed to hear.
The first four pitches of the Nose, to Sickle Ledge, are notoriously funky whether you’re free-climbing or aiding. Even top climbers are often spit off by the slick, flared cracks on the first 500 feet, but I wasn’t thinking about that. All I cared about was passing the climber in front of me.
“Man, you’re climbing much faster than I am. You guys should be able to pass no problem,” the leader said at the first belay.
“Thanks,” I said, peering ahead.
“Wait, is that Jordan?” he asked. “Dude, it’s Nate!”
“Oh, hey! I didn’t recognize you in the dark,” I said as I climbed by. Most people don’t liked to be passed on a route, so it was nice to see a familiar face and make the transition a little less awkward. We exchanged a few words while I pulled up about 50 feet of rope, fixed it to the anchor, and took off, leaving a medium-sized “Pakistani Death Loop”—a term Timmy O’Neill coined after taking a “PDL” fall while speed climbing in Pakistan—below me.
Climbing the Nose in a Day (aka, the NIAD) has become relatively common in the decades since 1975, when Jim Bridwell, Billy Westbay and John Long were the first party to climb the entire 3,000-foot route in under 24 hours. Speed climbing is now an integral part of climbing history in Yosemite, its revolutionary tactics enabling outrageous link-ups. We were short fixing, a method allowing the leader to get a jump on the next pitch by tying off the rope for the follower and climbing on with a self-belay. However, if the leader feels the climbing is easy and solid, he or she may decide not to selfbelay but climb protected only by a further, more dangerous type of short-fixing, the “PDL,” which involves more risk the more rope you pull up to tie off. Regardless, the higher the leader climbs, clipping gear, the better protected he or she is. The lower, the worse.
I reached the top of the third pitch feeling fast and efficient. By that point, Mike and I had both passed Nate and his partner below, and I was eager to keep charging all the way to Sickle, the first natural bivy ledge on the route. I had practiced short-fixing a fair amount and felt comfortable on the Yosemite granite.
Blinded by self-confidence, I pulled up the rest of the rope and tied it off. “Line’s fixed!” I yelled down to Mike, and blasted off the belay. The next pitch was relatively easy, and in my mind I was already on Sickle. In fact, I never even considered falling to be a possibility. Without conscious thought, I proceeded with a huge “PDL” in tow.
I made a couple of awkward moves above the belay and grabbed a long sling dangling from a fixed piece. Safe! I yarded for another sling a few feet above. My fingers were almost through it when I felt something shift and instantly lost control. Panic surged through my body as I flailed my hands, trying to catch something, anything, but as the darkness rushed in I remembered how much slack was left in the rope. I hadn’t clipped a single piece of gear.
What started out as a dream quickly turned into a nightmare as I plummeted with no end in sight, then hit a bulge and went airborne. Grit your teeth, and prepare for impact. I closed my eyes and slammed back into the wall with a thud, finally coming to the end of my rope.
“Aaagh, what the fuck!” I cried, trying to right myself in my harness.
“Dude, are you O.K.?!” Mike shouted from a full pitch above. I could feel something warm rushing down my back, but overall seemed to be intact.
“Yeah, I think I just popped a piece of gear. Should I keep going?” I asked, looking up into the darkness.
“Why don’t you just hang out for a minute and clip yourself in?” Mike said. “I’ll be right there.”
For a moment all I could think about was finishing the climb. Then reality sank in: I’d lost my glasses and headlamp in the fall, and pain was rushing into my body as the magical effects of adrenaline wore off.
“Holy shit, dude. I thought you were going all the way. You just didn’t stop falling,” Mike said as he rapped down to meet me at the top of the second pitch.
Nate and his partner caught up to us, and after making sure I was all right, he quietly asked, “Hey, Jordan, I don’t mean to be a dick, but is it O.K. if we pass?”
We all laughed, and that’s when I knew it was over.
Nate started working his way up the next pitch as Mike and I prepared to descend. Experienced in rescue, Mike was able to lower me safely a couple hundred feet to the base. I wasn’t much help. My back slowly dripped blood onto the rock below me, and the skin on two fingertips was completely removed.
On my way down, irrational as it seems, I still found it hard to accept that Mike and I were no longer going to climb the Nose. I was thankful to be alive, but disappointed that my season in Yosemite had to end that way. Was it really worth it? I thought as Mike drove to the Medical Center to get me checked and cleaned up. Nothing would turn out to be broken, but I felt physically wrecked.
For the next week, penned up in my van waiting for my painfully stiff and scabbing back to heal, I struggled to process what had happened. At first I was convinced I had broken a piece of fixed gear and that the fall was out of my control, but then I realized that was just my ego talking. It didn’t really matter whether a piece pulled or, as I now think, my foot slipped, and I simply let go. Either way, I didn’t need to fall as far as I did. I could have waited a couple more minutes for a belay, but instead took an unacceptable risk that almost got me killed.
Over the years of climbing in Yosemite, I had created an idea that my first time up the Nose had to be fast, but after falling 150 feet I realized it doesn’t really matter. Unless you’re trying to break a speed record, no one really cares whether you climb it in four hours or four days. I was so intent on a respectable time on the Nose that I was climbing more to prove something to my peers than to myself, which is one of the worst mistakes you can make as a climber.
Back home in Bishop, I sat down with a respected friend, Peter Croft, who said, “You can either let this make you a better climber or a worse climber.”
For a while I was sure it would make me worse, but I’ve had a lot of time to think since then, and now I can honestly say I’ve learned to respect the process and not get too attached to the end goal, which can cause you to lose focus in the moment and make a careless mistake like I did.
There’s a big difference between confidence and courage. Over the years, I’ve learned that courage is the ability not to be ruled by fear, and every climber wants that, right? But you can’t be courageous if you don’t know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and the likely outcome, because if you do something without knowing it’s dangerous and survive, that’s not being courageous, that’s just getting lucky, which is exactly what happened to me on the Nose.
Jordan Cannon, 23, is based out of Bishop, California.
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