“Big walls are a lot of suffering,” Sasha DiGiulian explained to me. Chatting about her ascents of three 5.14 big walls in Canada last summer, she continued, “After each one it was almost like I got amnesia the next day and I was like, ‘Let’s do that again!’” It all sounded vaguely familiar from my experiences projecting hard single pitch routes, but I couldn’t really relate. I had never done a big wall.
As an athlete, it’s easy to keep focusing on things you’ve had success with. For me that’s mostly been single pitch sport and trad. It just so happened that Sasha and I were about to embark on a sport climbing trip to El Salto, Mexico.
Unbeknownst to me, that sport climbing trip would soon tip toward the big-wall end of the scale…
As we walked the canyons in El Salto, we were shocked by the height of the walls surrounding us. The further our eyes scanned upward, the more we lost focus on our single pitch plans. One particularly vertical and beautiful limestone face called out to us.
“There’s a bolted line on that wall called Samadhi,” Fernanda Rodriguez, proprietor of El Salto’s Rock Camp Pizza and Campground told us. I saw Sasha’s eyes light up. “We should do it,” she said.
Samadhi is rated 5.13a and rises 450 meters from the valley floor for 13 rope-stretching pitches. The first eight pitches are 5.10s and 5.11s. The last five pitches are 12c, 12d, 12d, 12b and 13a. It has seen precious few free ascents. Chris Weidner and Alex Honnold nabbed the first free ascent in 2009. Urs Moosmuller did the second. Urs told us that the rock, especially on the lower pitches, was very poor and chossy.
Lucky for us, people at the campground were generous, and we were able to borrow helmets—we had left our own at home for what we thought would be our single-pitch trip—a second ATC, and a couple of Personal Anchor Systems.
We would head out the morning of Saturday, February 18. We figured it wouldn’t take more than about six hours.
Saturday. 6:45 a.m. Our alarm beeped incessantly. Sasha and I both grunted awake. By 8:00 am, we were on the wall. We climbed the first few pitches fast. Urs was right: there was dozens of hollow, loose flakes and blocks. We ended up knocking several things off by accident.
When we got up to the start of the harder climbing, it was already close to 3:00 pm. There were sounds of ATVs and blaring music below us (apparently par for the course in El Salto). My thin sport climbing harness was already digging into my sides. Sasha onsighted the 12c, but not without a fight: I heard try hard noises along the way and sighs of relief when she got to the anchor. I followed nervously.
Next up it was my lead. The 12d looked long and runout. It followed some tufas up to a large wasp’s nest and then—blank. I found myself hanging out on a jug above the deadly den of yellow jackets, desperately trying to read the next sequence. It looked like a completely blank face, and there was no chalk anywhere. I got a few moves onto the face, screaming and grabbing onto tiny edges that weren’t quite holds. And then, I was off. One big whip later, I had taken my first lead fall on a big wall.
I started sniffling a little as the harness dug deeper into my sides. I was exhausted, it was getting late, and I didn’t send the pitch. I lowered the long way back down to the anchor, where Sasha was hanging. Sasha congratulated me on my first lead whip on a big wall, which instantly brought a smile to my face. She then took the sharp end, battling through the top section to hang on for the onsight.
I followed, and fell again. That top section! I could feel frustration and disappointment in myself setting in as I pulled on draws to get up to the anchor. “Do you want to try again?” Sasha asked. There was no way I was going to be able to do it clean right then, especially in the small amount of daylight we had left. I felt like I had let myself and everyone down.
But Sasha was super supportive. She reminded me that it was my first big wall, that we could still get a team send. In an instant I was reminded again how grateful I was for my partner. Fatigue really wears you out on big walls, something I had never fully realized before. A few moments later we were hysterically laughing at the fact that we were losing light and still had three more pitches to go—with the hardest still to come…
[Also Watch VIDEO: Molly Mitchell – Becoming A Warrior]
I was back on belay as Sasha again went for the lead on the second 12d. She powered her way up, darting back and forth, testing whether a hold was secure and whether it was the right sequence. Anyone else might have completely lost his or her patience and let go, but not Sasha. She fought. When she reached the anchor, she joked that it felt like either 5.12d or or 5.13b. I followed and fell so many times I lost count. Maybe holds had broken off, maybe it was just tough. Either way, Sasha’s impressive onsight was the motivation I had needed to keep trying.
As I hung in one section, baffled, I looked up and realized we were losing light fast. Sasha yelled down to me, “If you’d like, we can go down now so that we aren’t rappelling through the night; it might be safer.”
“I think you should go for the send!” I yelled back. “You can totally onsight this whole thing, you’re killing it!”
“I just am not sure I can even do it, I’m tired, and it’s getting dark,” she responded.
I could definitely relate. But in that moment, I knew it was my turn to support her. “I am gonna pull on draws and do whatever I can to get up there now! You should go for it.”
Sasha kept on, leading and onsighting the 12b in fading light. Next up was the 13a crux pitch, which she would have to lead by the light of a lone headlamp. “If I fall on this, I don’t know if I’ll have it in me to do it again,” she said.
Sasha set off, determined. She grunted and let out try-hard noise after try-hard noise. I waited. I saw her light floating up the wall into the distance, unsure of how long this pitch was or what it would entail. After a while of listening and anxiously peering upward, I heard her scream. She had onsighted the final crux pitch, in the dark. “Yas queen!” I shouted up to her. It was one of the most badass things I had ever witnessed.
But we weren’t done yet. We still had to rappel out and walk back to camp. We had asked Didier Raboutou, who happened to be in El Salto on vacation with his wife Robyn, to pick us up at 6:00 p.m. if we hadn’t shown up before that. But it was 9:00 now, and we figured he was long gone.
At one point, alone on the side of the wall as Sasha rapped below me, I could feel the harness lacerations deepening. I felt borderline delirious. We were out of water. We had been on the wall for 13 hours. I saw some car headlights in the distance and thought, This is it. They called someone to rescue us because we’ve been up here so long. I wonder what will happen. A few moments later, I realized it was Didier’s rental car. He parked at the base and turned off the car. He was waiting for us so that we wouldn’t have to walk back. Thank you, Didier.
On one of the final rappels, struggling with a pesky static rope and an unsettling kinking sound as it slipped through my ATC in fits and starts, a wave of exhaustion washed over me, the entire day’s weight crashing down all at once. Oh my god this is terrible, I said to myself. I started to cry. The tears would not stop. It was a mixture of exhaustion, pain, and fear.
But Sasha was a good friend yet again. She talked to me throughout the whole rappel and kept reassuring me that I was close to her and that she was there for me. She never once judged me for getting upset.
At 11:00 p.m., we finally reached the ground. It felt foreign after having been on the wall for so long.
Despite our complete and utter exhaustion, Sasha and I were laughing and whimpering and cheering about the experience. Didier gave us water and took us home.
When we arrived back at camp, Fernanda was waiting up for us to give us a large pizza she had made specially for us. She exclaimed, “Chicas locas!” I was so thankful I almost cried again. I poured us mugs of wine and we devoured our pizza in about ten minutes.
The evening was filled with polarizing moments of eyeing down our bruises and blisters in pain and the undeniable giddiness in our voices as we cheers-ed to the adventure we had just completed. My first big wall was done!I don’t know if I could have gotten through it without Sasha’s support. I had never seen this side of myself—it was exciting and terrifying all at once. I felt as if I had gone through a year’s worth of emotions, thoughts and feelings in one 14 hour stretch.
Sasha was right: Big walls are a lot of suffering. The next morning I awoke so sore I could barely sit up in bed. But I also could feel a passion stirring inside me that I had not experienced in a long time.
I may have gone into Samadhi inexperienced and naive, but I don’t know if I would have gotten as much out of it had I not taken this leap.
And the amnesia must have set in because now I can’t wait for my next big wall.