As if I wasn’t under enough duress already, the three Slovaks were bunching up behind Mario at the belay. When we met at the first anchor, they had said, grinning: “We climb Eastern European style: There will be blood. You guys go ahead.”
But they were not the presenting problem. That was less cultural and more geologic. I was at the famous crux of Yosemite’s Nutcracker. About midway through the sequence, there is a pocket that takes a small cam. It’s a sinker placement, but then you climb past it so that it’s at your feet. And then you have to pull the move. I had just accidentally kicked that piece out.
“Uh, that’s not good,” I said. Long pause. “That’s not good,” I repeated, while Mario watched, expressionless, as the cam slid down the rope toward his belay.
[Also Read SHORT FALL, LONG CONSEQUENCE]
“Breathe, Auden. B-r-e-a-t-h-e!” he said, tamping down his Guatemalan predilection toward something more colorful.
It was helpful, because my first inclination was to panic, which seemed like the right response. Now my options were a bucket-full of bad. I could try to pull this pitched-back mantle, but with pro so far below, a fall would mean I’d hit the sloping deck and break an ankle. If I down climbed, I’d probably fall—there just wasn’t much to grab—and so I’d be in the idiotic position of trying to burn vert to minimize the inevitable fall, with the Slovaks watching bemused.
Bad options, no insight: my specialty.
Almost fifty, I have wanted to get up Nutcracker since I was 18, when I started climbing in college, and read about it as one of the great classics. Each spring as we headed off to Cathedral Ledge to try the next 5.8 or 5.9 on our list, we delighted most of all in, as an old Aspen climber named Greg Davis liked to say, simply moving our hands over stone. Looking down over fall colors in September, we’d emerge like Martians into crowds of tourists at the summit. We loved it all: the feel of the rope, the smell of chalk, our white pants, the soft fleece of the harness liner. We carried stoppers in our pockets to try good placements around town.
My climbing never took off into harder terrain, in part due to lack of skill and audacity and commitment, but also because we couldn’t afford a lot of cams. I remember backing off a route with down-facing cracks because I couldn’t figure out how to make the hexes hold; I remember leapfrogging my only number three up the first pitch of Moby Grape on Cannon Cliffs; and I remember also, completely pumped, pulling around a corner and thanking God I had my buddy’s rigid-stemmed first generation Friends to slap in, as I never would have had the strength to niggle-in a stopper.
I continued to climb, on an off after I moved to Colorado, though it tapered after I had kids. But I never forgot about Nutcracker. Over all those years, I had never climbed in Yosemite, which seemed like blasphemy. And now, of course, thanks to Alex Honnold’s solo, people understand that place to be the venue for human acts as big as they come.
In 2015, I finally made it to the valley, talking to a group of North Face athletes about climate change. I top-roped at the base of Manure Pile buttress, where I looked at the first pitch of Nutcracker, but didn’t climb it due to schedule. In the campground, chatting with Alex Honnold, who was part of the group, I said: “I’ve always wanted to climb one route here: Nutcracker.”
Hey, I get it! Nutcracker has been soloed in under 8 minutes. While I was there, Cedar Wright took a first-time climber up and protected it with only nuts (like the first ascentionists, and thus the name…) It’s laughably easy for good climbers. But that didn’t bother me at all. I felt a precise kinship with the elites and the legends; I was just operating in a different universe.
The reality of my normal climbing life was that when I had the gumption and time to take on Nutcracker, I didn’t have the money to get there or the right equipment. When I finally had the gear, I didn’t have the time. And when I put it all together, I just barely had the skill, and almost none of the nerve. But I had some. Maybe enough.
“Do you have that same sized piece on your rack?” Mario asked. (Duh.)
As a matter of fact, I did! I reached down, replugged. Bomber. Then after a bunch of heavy breathing and deep personal introspection, reconsideration of possibly ill-conceived atheism, over-chalking, arm shakeouts, I exhaled, reached up to the jug, moved my left foot out onto the opposing face of the dihedral, and climbed up onto a shelf, out of danger, into beautiful, pinkish, well-protected and moderate granite.
I looked around to the valley below, the cradle of rock climbing, but also of environmentalism, my work, where John Muir and then later Yvon Chouinard had found their religion. It was now browned with dying trees, the product of a warming world, but it was still to me the most moving and beautiful place. Climbing to the summit, I placed stoppers out of joy and honor and history, and pulled over the final lip into a small piece of the same human and mental experience that Honnold found at the top of Freerider. It was, I told Mario, one of the great experiences of my life, to finally do this thing.
“Of your life?” he asked.
As we celebrated and snacked, I watched the Slovak team emerge. I greeted them: “Thank you for letting us go first even though you are better climbers. Thank you for your patience. You are good people.”
“It was no problem,” one of them said in his lovely, accented English. “We had a great day. One of the best.”