By 1981 I’d been climbing eight years and was embarrassed that I hadn’t yet done a route on El Cap. When my buddies Jimmy and “The Roach” said we should team
up and climb the Nose, it was as if a beautiful woman had asked me to dinner.
We were all green to big walls and unsure what to bring. “You won’t need shoes,” said The Roach, “we’ll climb in our E.B.s and hike down in them.”
The Roach was from Vermont and a frugal and strict New Englander. He slept on the floor of his house and often wore clothes he’d found blowing across the
Jimmy and I were from Oklahoma,. He differed from me by being twice as tall, and would go on to become a preacher, repaying, I imagine, the debt we would
incur on the granite crucible.
I don’t remember what Jimmy or The Roach packed for clothing, but it was probably similar to what I had: white cotton painter’s pants in the style of the
day, a cotton rugby shirt, and a down jacket, although the latter seemed unnecessary: Back home it was 90 degrees.
The evening before we blasted, I made a headlamp from bits and parts purchased at the hardware store. I took a big reflector with a bulb and wired it to
large six-volt battery that I’d wear around my waist taped to a belt of webbing. You turned it on by screwing the bare ends of the wires onto the terminal
posts on the battery. The battery alone weighed a pound and a half, but the rig was bright as a star.
Noon the next day we were in the Stovelegs, moving steadily for a team of three, a bad number according to Jim Bridwell, and a bad one if you like to climb
rather than account for a third of your time idly examining the toes of your shoes.
We hit El Cap Tower with daylight left, and shoehorned among the various other teams stretched out haphazardly across the ledge. We ate and curled up under
the sparkling stars.
Sometime in the middle of the night it began to sprinkle. When the real rain hit I jumped up and packed away my down bag and jacket so they wouldn’t get
ruined. Curled up in what was soon a deluge, I couldn’t have gotten any wetter, but I could have been warmer. When dawn broke I stripped off my painter’s
paints and socks and shirt, wrung a quart of black water from them and put my outfit back on. The clammy fabric gave me a shudder.
All other teams on El Cap, from the West Face to Zodiac and including everyone on our ledge except us, rappelled off that morning. This
was our first time on El Cap. We wouldn’t go down.
By mid-day we and our baggage were under the Great Roof, where we had a snack and reorganized. The Roach and Jimmy would lead the next two pitches including
Pancake Flake. I’d get the final pitch of the day to Camp V, our bivy.
The Great Roof sheltered us from the rain, but when we assembled atop Pancake Flake, we got its full fury again.
Darkness fell and so did the temperature. Unable to bear the cold, I dug out my down jacket. The moment of warmth it gave was invigorating, but within
minutes the duvet was soaked, heavy as a waterbed and wicking away what precious heat I could generate.
My teeth chattered. Jimmy and The Roach hung at the belay, heads down.
Water ran over my hands and into my jacket sleeves as I climbed, but that was a slight bother compared to the struggle with the headlamp. Back in camp
when I had measured and cut the wires connecting the bulb to the battery, I had snipped them just a bit too short. Now, when I looked up, they pulled
off the battery posts.
Ten to 20 times my fumbly fingers had to tackle the delicate task of reattaching the wires to the battery. Frequent flashes of lightening did occasionally
coincide with the headlamp going out, so that was an upside.
Sleet pounded the wall as I mantled onto Camp V. Jimmy and The Roach quickly joined me. We were all wet, out clothes stiff with the cold, and we were hungry.
We opened our cans of icy Beefaroni.
“A dog eats better,” I grumbled as I licked the greasy mixture off a knifeblade.
As usual, The Roach was as inscrutable as a sink disposal. Cold canned food wasn’t a hardship for him. It’s what he always ate.
A gentle snow was falling when we rolled out in the morning. I stowed my waterlogged jacket, pulled the Ensolite liner from the haul bag, wrapped it around
my torso and tied it in place with a runner. I felt like the Tinman, but was instantly warmer.
It took most of the day for us to claw up the last steep pitches, the exposure obliterated from us by blowing snow and mist. We pulled onto the summit
of El Cap and into a foot of snow.
“Which way is the trail,” one of us asked, looking across the blanketed landscape.
“That way, I think,” someone said, and pointed down in the general direction of Zodiac.
We shuffled off, postholing in E.B.s now frozen onto our feet. After about an hour, The Roach slipped off a snowy log bridging a stream and plunged in
up to his waist.
The falling snow obscured the lights of the Valley, and we navigated by instinct, carrying with us the nagging worry that we might be completely lost.
“Look,” The Roach exclaimed two hours into the march. “Footprints! Other people!”
We felt like shipwreck survivors who had spotted a sail on the horizon
We jogged steadily in the tracks, haulbags happily bouncing on our backs. When it got dark we switched on our headlamps.
The light beam hypnotized me and I imagined I was massaging my feet by the snapping warmth of the Lodge fireplace, now only four or five miles away, just
on the other side of a log crossing over a creek.
“Careful you don’t fall in,” The Roach said, chastened by recent experience.
We crossed the slippery log without incident.
It is a fact that without a bearing people in the woods will walk in a circle. We’d crossed that log before. The tracks we’d been following were ours.
We dropped on our backs into the snow.
I didn’t think I could take another step, and my condition wasn’t unique. Our feet were ruined from three days in wet E.B.s, we didn’t have a dry stitch
between us and we had gotten nearly no rest in three days of storm. We had now also walked five miles in a circle and were several miles in the wrong
direction. It was 11 miles, maybe more, down to the Valley.
Some of us cried.
Simultaneously, we rose from the snow, did an about face, and like automatons carried on in what we now knew was the correct direction.
The sun was breaking through the clouds when we limped into Camp 4. We fell into our respective tents and no one moved for two days. Jimmy’s toenails all
fell off and he had to crawl to the Coke machine that stood outside the Camp 4 gas station.
When I did see The Roach he seemed unfazed. “Eh,” he said in his high Yankee pitch, “How about we do Excalibur?”
With that, he popped open a can of Beefaroni and munched joylessly away. I looked on envying his armor of indifference, knowing that I’d survived my first
real epic and learned a few important lessons about climbing and life, but that no matter how much I suffered and strove, I’d never be as tough as
the Roach. I gathered my gear anyway and racked up for Excalibur.