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Marco Polo (Tempest)
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Apr 1, 2003, 10:36 AM
Post #1 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Nov 3, 2002
Posts: 1473

Marco Polo (Tempest)
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Marco Polo

Late October, 2001:

At the far end of the Valley, the last of the sunset's alpenglow slowly fades from the face of Half Dome. Across the way, and closer, the corners and crack systems on the Sentinel briefly flare into red-gold, as I clip the anchors at the top of Tempest. Half a year of planning, logistics, and sometimes superhuman effort have resulted in this simple, insignificant act.

Fifty feet above me, at the top of the slabs, Marco stands by the anchor tree filming my last gear-entangled moves over the rim of El Cap.

Below, Tom McMillan and Valerio Folco sip a Guiness at the penultimate anchor. The wall, for me at least, has ended. I could simply walk away at this point, leaving Valerio, Marco, and Tom to deal with the last hauls, with the transport of 500+ pounds of gear off the summit of the Captain.

With a backup anchor finally in place, I radio "Jug line is Fixed. We're there." then run up the fixed slab lines to check the anchor tree.

Em then radios her congratulations, and informs me that she has just reached the summit of the Captain via the Falls Trail. Our support/load ferrying team is nearly complete.

In deepening twilight I rap back down to the rim, suddenly experiencing the nauseating exposure characteristic of stepping to the edge of a 3,000 foot drop. Far, far below, the headlights and taillights at El Cap meadow look like tiny replicas on a child's toy landscape in a darkened room. Valerio reaches the rim anchor, and we discuss hauling strategy, he in Italian and I in English, communicating with gestures and simple phrases as we have for the past two weeks. He disappears up the slab lines as the daylight fades to a dim memory in the western sky.

Flipping on my headlamp, I set up for the first haul, backing up anchors yet again, adding redundancy never needed during the past nine days. We've come so far, let's not screw up now. Bone-deep weariness sets in, nd superstitions about the last pitch of El Cap.

But we're too thorough to die, this time. And too careful to dislodge rocks that would kill someone at the base of this sucking abyss. Slowly the mess is sorted out, the tangles of rope coiling around loose rim rock unleashed into the night, drawn up and carefully stacked at the tree, haul bags disappearing up into the darkness as Valerio and Marco do the slab hauls fast as I can muscle the pigs into position.

Maintain focus.

Tom waits patiently below, freeing each bag in turn. On the radio, Em reports that she is unable to locate us in the dark: "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!"

The last bag is free of the anchors. A pause as Tom requests me to send down an end of our sturdiest rope to back up his system. That done, Tom starts to clean the pitch in the darkness, plucking out beaks with his fingers, cleaning copperheads with a gentle tug. I scamper up the slabs yet again, deposit more gear at the anchor tree, shrug into a parka against the evening chill, and rap back down to the anchors to accompany Tom as he completes the cleaning. I know from past efforts that in the darkness, cleaning the last pitch of a multi-day wall can be a very lonely and spooky experience. And so I sit on the brink of the chasm, watching Tom's anchors, occasionally offering words of encouragement. After nine days on the wall, we are all so very ready for the climb to be over.

Tom arrives, again a tangle and a bustle of ropes, beaks, cams and rope bags, and I send him up the slabs, staying below to clean the last of the anchors we shared on this wall. I having been both the head and the tail end of our long caterpillar of disorganization finally heave myself up over the darkened rim, to the tree that represents our salvation from the wall, our release from the prison of our ambition, freedom from the mandatory company of each other's presence. The thread that comprises our team is unravelling.

I arrive at the tree. No Em. Tell the others I am heading out to try to guide her back. It's been more than an hour since she reached the summit, normally a short 10 minute hike from our current location. I'm worried. My three companions seem oblivious.

Fifteen minutes later, Em and I establish voice contact. I see her headlamp far across the slabs, a bobbing mote in the dark gloom, while I can still see the headlamps of the rest of the team below me, at the top of the route. Almost home. Just head back down to the rim, grab some bivy gear, and find camp. Em and I stumble back down the steepening slabs toward the top of the route.

As we do so, the lights of the team, down at the rim, start moving.

Away from the brink of the abyss.

I try the radio. No response.

Valerio!? Tom?

No response.

Where are they going? Should we go down to the gear while we can still find it, and lose touch with the team, or shall we follow the headlamps? Without lights at the top of the route, we'll likely never find the gear in the dark if we wander too far. Beyond the edge below I feel a ravenous sucking void in my mind, a well of darkness from which I have so recently crawled. I don't want to be stumbling around down there at the mouth of the Beast.

Like children chasing phantoms deeper into swampland, we follow the dim jack-o-lanterns of my wall brethren as they wander away from us, uphill. I now have no way to locate my bivy gear.

"Where are they going?" Em asks.

"yes. welcome to the climb."

Finally we establish voice contact:





The game ends at a bivy fire, and we are reunited with the rest of the team.

I am hammered beyond belief.

Over beers, smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels (delivered to us by Em,) I ask "What were you guys doing?"

"Well, we didn't know where you were, so we just headed to the bivy."

"did you try calling on the radio?"

"Uh, no, we turned the radios off."

"Uh, did any of you by any chance bring up my sleeping bag?"

"No. Are you going to go back down and get it?"

(Involuntary shudder) "Back down where? I have no idea where the gear is. And no, I'm not going wandering around the edge of El Cap at night looking for it. I've had enough for one day." Em and I huddle beneath her single thin Husky 8000 sleeping bag, and shiver the night away.


Tom and his wife Linda (who has just hiked up from the Valley floor) disappear down the East Ledges, picking up the remaining ropes and gear from the anchors on the way down. Valerio and Marco each take the maximum they feel they can carry then head out. Em loses it, sobbing, convinced that there's no way the two of us can physically handle what is left. V & M return briefly and take a few more items ("already I have over 50 kilos!!!"), then disappear down the Falls trail.

When all that fits is strapped and garlanded onto our backs, and the remains stuffed into a hand-carried plastic bucket, the loads are bone-crushing. Hunched over like troglodytes, stopping to rest every 50 feet, we stagger two miles to the Eagle Peak saddle, where, unable to continue, we drop our burdens behind a boulder. Em passes out in the dirt and pine needles while I split the loads, and cache half of each. With now only 60-70 lbs each, we face the next 6 miles with guarded enthusiasm, knowing our job will not be complete until yet another day of spine-crushing loads has passed.

The following day, Em and I return to Eagle Peak to carry down the last of the gear, but the effort seems both excruciating and futile, a final, empty gesture to a castle that the team built in the sky; a castle that will soon be washed away by the tide of our lives.

Will Valerio, Tom and I ever meet again as a team to build yet another castle in the sky? I doubt it. But stranger things have happened. Water passes under the burning bridges, unseen smoke stains the night stars. We turn corners down labrynthine corridors, rarely looking back, but often questioning. Certainty is as elusive and ephemeral as the steam drifting from the ashes of the summit fire. El Capitan is soon obscured in the rear-view mirror by the mixed conifer forest of the Pohono Quarry.

Early November, 2001:

This morning finds me deep in post-wall depression in a cluttered office, paper cup of cold company coffee beside the keyboard, wishing I was back there on the summit of the Captain, chasing lights in the night, playing Marco Polo and shivering the night away, suffering even in our triumph of survival.

Brutus of Wyde,
Old Climbers' Home
Oakland, California


Apr 1, 2003, 10:57 AM
Post #2 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Aug 16, 2002
Posts: 110

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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Thanks, Bruce, this made my morning. I may never personally know the feeling of a big wall climb, but for a few minutes there, I felt like I understood.

This site should have a "vote for best-of" a la Craigslist.


Now, back to the mundane...


Apr 1, 2003, 7:37 PM
Post #3 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Nov 25, 2002
Posts: 668

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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Very nice, very nice.
Thanks for such a vivid picture. For a minute, I felt like I was there. Ahh, the joys of carrying gear off of a summit… gotta love it.
Cool to see you guys send a proud line.
Great story!
Got anymore to share?

Partner calamity_chk

Apr 1, 2003, 8:03 PM
Post #4 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Apr 23, 2002
Posts: 7994

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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wow. i think i've just been converted from free-climbing.
excellent writing. fantastic narrative.


Partner tim

Apr 1, 2003, 8:22 PM
Post #5 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Apr 4, 2002
Posts: 4861

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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this is very tempting to make-Sticky.

Bruce you friggin' rule. I'm moving back to California, I'm getting back to the point where I can consider this type of insanity, and like I said on rec.climbing 5 years ago, I'd love to climb some backcountry deathwish with you any time you have a free weekend.

(Tom rules too. But he didn't write this trip report. :-))


Apr 1, 2003, 9:22 PM
Post #6 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Jul 27, 2001
Posts: 4317

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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brilliant. you can share the best aid climbing TR ever award with ammon's streaked wall story, and there was nothing about climbing in this. incredible writing- submit this to a magazine.


Apr 2, 2003, 10:14 AM
Post #7 of 7 (1502 views)

Registered: Jun 17, 2002
Posts: 4724

Marco Polo (Tempest) [In reply to]
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Second the thought about submitting it. Nice job! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

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