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Go West Young Man III - Back to Vegas

Submitted by admin on 2011-08-25

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We woke up around 4:20 again, completed the ritual of coffee, eating, and pooping and made our way into the Valley in the dark. Funny thing about climbing the Washington Column, one parks his car in the parking lot for the upscale Ahwahnee hotel, an atrocity if you ask me, that there is a luxurious hotel in a national park dedicated to preserving a natural environment. I say tear it down, and build more campsites and housing for the park employees who for the most part live in small and uncomfortable quarters. Regardless, it felt strange as we parked the Freedom Mobile next to all the nice BMWs, Hummers, and other vehicles for rich folk, pulled the haulbag out of the car and started hiking up to the wall.

As we were getting our gear together we noticed another duo doing exactly what we were doing. Since the South Face is so popular we figured they were getting on the same route we were. We werent exactly psyched on the prospect of getting stuck behind another party so we tried to get our act together, and start hiking to the wall. I led us astray at one point, hiking past the trailhead that heads up to the Washington Column, but luckily we got to the base of the route just before the other party, again, possibility for tension as they arrived just five minutes after we had. The first thing they said was, I hope you boys are ready to party on the ledge. We got some whiskey, and both Gene and I were relieved they werent going to be impatient with us.

The South Face of the Washington Column is a genius route to get acclimated on the rituals and mechanisms of big wall climbing, provided its not a traffic jam with too many climbers. One can climb the wall with only hauling the bag for three pitches up to Dinner Ledge, leaving them there after spending the night on the ledge, climbing to the top of the wall, and then rappelling back to the bag, much lighter after two days, and finally rappelling with the bag back to the ground.

So we fought and struggled with the haul bag for three pitches, maybe 400 feet or so, cursing and sweating, till we finally reached Dinner Ledge, a urine smelling, but glorious place to be. We basically collapsed on the ledge for a while, laying out our sleeping territory, taking our stove and food out of the haul bag and all the other little comforts we had to set ourselves up to enjoy a night on the wall.

Our new friends, Ben and Patrick, progressed below us at about the same pace we did, and we exchanged friendly remarks to one another as they came up to the ledge. They were able to find their own little perch to sleep on, just five feet higher and thirty or so feet adjacent to our own little camp.

After resting for a bit, we did another couple pitches. I led, as we were doing the climbing in blocks, and on the second pitch I started to feel comfortable in the environment. Id been here before. Half Dome, to the east, stood proudly, looking over us and seeming to give us its blessing. The aid climbing movement, stepping in our ladder-like sling aiders, much different than the progress of free climbing, using only ones hands and feet, finally felt right and efficient. On the second, the last pitch of the day, I was finally feeling a flow on the golden granite wall. I moved quickly, and Gene made positive remarks about my progress, which made me feel good. There was a small, easy, pendulum, which I completed gently swinging over, and I felt like a child lost in play. I clipped into the anchors and set the ropes up for Gene, while Half Dome sat there in the shade, trickling waterfalls loomed in the distance and birds circled us.

When Gene reached my point of the pendulum, he would have to do a lower-out, as I did on El Cap. I walked him through it, trying to remember how it goes. He looked as I must have felt two days ago, fumbling with the ropes, convincing himself that he was doing the right thing. Are you sure, this is how it goes? he said. I think so, yes, I mean it is.

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Photo by Luke Mehall

He finally figured it out, and we rappelled down to the ledge, leaving the rope fixed so that we could jumar up it in the morning.

We got comfortable on our bivy ledge, and it was one of the most glorious evenings of my life. Id stayed at this ledge once previously on a failed attempt of the route, and that night I never quite felt calm and at ease. For whatever reason this night was different, we stared at Half Dome, as it finally got some of the days last rays of sun: gray granite with black water streaks and hints of orange. I had the feeling I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Gene and I were proud, and we were on the heels of success. All we had above us was climbing, and we didnt have to worry about the pains of hauling.

The simple Indian food out of a Tasty Bites package tasted like the best meal of my life. The one and a half beers we had were savored in small sips. (We lost half of one beer as the can had punctured, slowly leaking out in to the haulbag.) We had two small speakers and a tiny i-pod, and the music gently serenaded us with the high vibes and spirits of the vertical world.

I thought of the past, I thought of the climber who was killed on this very same ledge, by rock fall dislodged from another party high up on the route, on pitches not recommended to do by the guide because another party is almost always below you on this route. I thought of his partner, and his family, and how the incident affected them. It was the same year of another tragic climbing death, in 1999. Across from us on the two thousand foot granite slab named Glacier Point, a young climber named Peter Terbush, from Gunnison had been killed by rock fall. So much reminder of death, yet we felt safe, peaceful content, alive, so psyched. I wondered what happened to their spirits, where they existed now?

I thought of my last bivy, unplanned and without sleeping gear on the Painted Wall, in the Black Canyon, a sleepless night huddled next to my companion, shivering, just waiting for the endless night to end. Perhaps that was why this bivy felt so good, so right, remembering the one that was full of dread and cold.

I thought of Layton Kor, the prolific climber of the 1960s who had established this route, (as well as the Black Canyon route I suffered on in the unplanned bivy). I read in the guidebook that he and his partner, Chris Fredericks didnt get to stay on this ledge, and rather pressed on for higher terrain eventually spending a sleepless night with his partner, hanging in slings. I thought about how drive and passion for climbing, can sometimes make one overlook the gentler, simpler fruits of life.

Most of all I thought how lucky I was to be up there with Gene. We were in synch, and comfortable with one another in the vertical. He wanted this as bad as I did, and we were getting along famously. The boys came down and partied with us, as they promised. They were high on the vertical world too, and we made obscene jokes as guys do without women around, and laughed as if we were old friends. Finally it was time to sleep as we drifted off with the cosmos. I was warm in my sleeping bag, and could only drift off to sleep after I tied in with the rope.

We woke up just with the rays of the sun, forced down oatmeal and coffee, and pooped as one poops on a wall, first into a plastic bag, then stuffing the bag into the three foot long PVC pipe, called a poop tube. Immediately Gene started jumaring up the rope wed fixed the previous afternoon, and I followed right up after him. Finally, I had a flow to my jumar techniques, and really felt good about how efficiently I was moving. We wanted to move quickly that day, both because success would be a big boost for our spirits, and because we wanted our new friends to be successful as well.

As Gene started leading up a small, thin crack we heard voices below, and it was Scott, with one of his friends climbing up to the Thanksgiving ledge. They were planning on a day climb of Southern Man, a harder route, within spitting distance of ours. It was incredible to watch their pace as I split my time of keeping an eye on Gene as he led, and peering down as they raced up the wall. Gene fiddled above with nuts and cams, sliding them into the crack, as Scott did the same. They quickly reached our level, close enough that we could talk as I picked Scotts brain about aid climbing questions, and we made obscene jokes and shouted loudly and just generally hooted and hollered, buzzed on life in the vertical.

Clouds began forming, some grayness looming in the background, but no thunder or lightning. We had a good chance to get up this wall.

Scotts big wall climbing technique and demeanor is unique. He was talking to himself, singing a version of some reggae song to himself and yelling at his partner the whole time, inching tiny stoppers and cam hooks in the cracks, Oh God this is sketchy, he said, all while having a smile on his face. A master at work.

Gene kept leading as I followed and cleaned. Our new friends below were progressing nicely, and all was well on the wall. Once they reached the belay where I was it would usually be time for me to set off and clean the pitch. Finally we finished the aid climbing section, and it was time for a few pitches of free climbing, our element. We ditched a bag with the aid climbing equipment at a belay, and I set off leading. The clouds were getting worse, and the wind was picking up. I tried to climb as fast as possible, while not trying to climb too fast and make a silly mistake, like a fall that would slow us down. As I climbed I felt so determined to get up the thing; this climb would define our trip.

At the second to last pitch, there was a point where there was an intimidating, off-width/squeeze chimney above; the one Layton Kor had surely led on the first ascent. To the right was another option, an ugly awkward seam that had been hammered with pitons. In our home multi-pitch area, the Black Canyon that would have been unacceptable to hammer an easier option just fifteen feet over from the true proud line. But, every area has its own practices, and I opted for the quicker mode of climbing, the easier, quicker seam. I did make a mental note, to return to take the more proud line. A great thing about climbing, those rocks will always be there.

Gene led the last pitch, with a funky, fun move over a small roof, and I followed up. Wed climbed the thing, we shook hands, and it was anticlimactic, of course. Clouds and winds increased, and we knew we just had to get off this damn thing, and we rigged a rappel. The wind blew our ropes all over the place, and rappelling was a mixture of prayers and experience, just hoping they would not get stuck, which could cause all types of problems.

We rappelled past Ben as he was leading up. He was struggling in a chimney section, and I remembered how he said the night before that he hated chimneys. I kept rappelling and noticed an anchor just to the right of where Patrick was belaying from, but didnt give much of a thought to its purpose and clipped into the bolts at Patricks belay. Gene did the same, and we pulled the rope, hoping to not hit Ben. It was a bit of a clusterfuck. As we pulled the rope it got stuck, we tugged some more and it was indeed not going anywhere. We frantically yelled to Ben, Can you see where its stuck.

Let me see what I can do, Ben said. Oh, shit I cant move,

Our rope had wrapped around his and his gear, and he could not climb up. He had to rappel down. We felt so bad. Patrick had finally lost most of his patience with us, but still was polite. What a guy! They wanted redemption and success on this wall, just as we did. Ben finally fixed everything, and as he did so I realized the adjacent set of anchors were for rappelling, and set where they were so that the rope would not get stuck in the chimney above.

Another lesson learned, but at the expense of our new friends, damn. I wondered if we would have had the same patience with them if the roles had been reversed.

We kept rappelling and the winds kept getting more and more intense as we came down. When we tossed the ropes they went completely sideways, horizontal, and we just prayed they would not get stuck. Luckily they didnt. We finally reached the Thanksgiving ledge, gathering up our gear, and quickly headed down three more rappels, finally reaching the ground. Success! But, I couldnt help but feel bad as we looked up, back at the wall as Ben and Patrick were rappelling down. We could see their headlamps. Not only did they not reach the top, but they had to rappel in the wind, in the dark.

We made it back to the Freedom Mobile, never hard to find in a parking lot, especially one with nice, shiny cars. We bee-lined it straight to the grocery store and bought beers to celebrate, meeting Scott back at the Green House for a humble dinner of pasta.

It stormed that night, and I slept that night in my tent to the sound of rain. Higher up it had snowed. As we were making breakfast we heard a knock on the door. It was a Scottish couple, who had an epic the night before trying to drive into the Valley. They were following the GPS from their rental vehicle that had led them down, a seldom used 4x4 road. By the time they realized they needed to turn around they were well down the road, and then got stuck, and had to spend the night sleeping in the vehicle. I wasnt surprised. In Foresta, it seems at least a car a day ends up in the area, as the GPS programming is wired wrong for the region. We were happy to help, and warmed them up with eggs and coffee, and sat by the fireplace.

Eventually we drove them into the Valley in the Freedom Mobile, dropping them off at the mechanic. Id anticipated possibly needing the help of others during this trip, so we were more than happy to lend a helping hand, building up karma points in case we needed help at some point. This was not the first wed helped others on the trip; wed already jumped two vehicles, with the jumper cables Gene had wisely thrown in the back. For some reason people knew they could reach out to the Freedom Mobile for help.

The rest of our time in Yosemite was a wash. It just kept raining and snowing, a sign to move on. Plus time was winding down, Id found a place to live in Durango, house sitting for a generous, retired couple who wanted to meet me before they took off to Mexico for the winter.

We spent a couple days chillin at the Green House, drinking beer like we would be forever young. It did clear up the day we were leaving, and we were able to get a couple last pitches at the Cookie Cliff, some of the best, shorter crack climbs in Yosemite. On our warm up Gene led, but had some difficulties near the top of the pitch. He had done the climb easily before on previous trips, and was frustrated with himself, and cursed. Id noticed Gene had more mental struggles than before his accident, but at the same time he was climbing so hard and well it was easy to forget hed just severely broken his hand. The scars were obviously not simply on his hand; his head space had been affected too. When he got down I could sense his frustration and we had a quiet moment. It didnt last long though, we decided to do one more climb and then make our way back home.

I got to lead the last pitch for Yosemite, it was a nice finger and hand crack in a dihedral, that made me want to linger and climb more there. But, we had to go. Our spirits were back up after that pitch, and we hopped back in the Freedom Mobile to leave Yosemite, grateful for our experiences, and hungry for more. We promised each other that we would return someday to climb El Capitan together.

Back to Vegas, Baby!

We decided to break the trip up, as the Freedom Mobile would not be happy with an 18 hour drive back to Colorado. So we headed back to Las Vegas, where we would climb for a couple more days, then make the last leg of the trip back home.

We drove that day into the night on a binge of caffeine and junk food, through the endless interstate of California, finally to the bright lights of Vegas. Weary, we set up camp where wed begun the great trip. I was haggard, but grateful the Freedom Mobile had started half of the journey back home.

In the morning we met up with my old friend Brent, who had been living in Vegas, and working as a rigger for musical acts, and other acts of entertainment. Id met Brent in my college days in Gunnison, and always looked up to him as a climbing hero. He was a big wall veteran, with everything from nine day winter solo ascents in the Black Canyon to scary, big wall aid climbs on El Capitan under his belt. Hed moved to Vegas on a whim many years ago with the prospect of rigging work, and told us his life story of recent times. Hed married and been all over the country with work. I hadnt seen him in six years, since hed given a slideshow at the college in Gunnison, after an epic alpine climb in Chamonix, France with the legendary and late Jonny Copp, where Brent had lost most of his toes to frostbite.

Brent took us to Calico Basin, a bouldering area wed never been, and we were delighted because we didnt have to pay an entrance fee. I was wondering if Brent still had the drive for climbing after all hed been through, and found out right away that he did, after warming up on a twenty five foot highball boulder problem.

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Photo by Luke Mehall

Gene followed, so I had to as well. It was a great bouldering session, and Gene came alive. I think he wanted some redemption after his last lead in Yosemite. Both of us were inspired by Brents climbing, given that he barely had any toes, and was still climbing hard. At one point Gene found himself fifteen feet up a boulder, with another twelve to go; that point where falling isnt really an option, and success depends on focus and gentle climbing. He was up there for awhile. I would have been worried but Gene seemed in control, calm, in meditation. He was sorting out things in his mind, and finished the climb with precision. Brent and I watched in awe, as he collectedly completed the sequence. Gene was searching for that mental state we all need in climbing, that peaceful calm in the face of danger. He was getting it back. The climb was so tall and difficult that neither Brent nor I dared repeat Genes boldness.

We cranked a bit too hard on that bouldering session, given that our bodies were dehydrated after the long drive from Yosemite, and we woke up that next morning with our tendons hurting. We decided to take the day for errands, and put some new tires on the Freedom Mobile. The guys at the tire place joked about the car, If I had a car like that, Id be screwing girls that were named Moonbeam. They were missing the point, but we didnt care, they seemed harmless with their jokes so we laughed along.

Eventually it was time for the last push back to Colorado. I felt drained. Wed been drinking beer, and eating just bread and pasta. On the drive I felt an overwhelming need for the healing, comforts of life: I longed for the soft touch of a woman, for a bed, a shower, for vegetables. Strung out from the road, and worked from three weeks of climbing.

Our luck continued and so did the enthusiasm from random people on the highway. Just entering Utah, an old woman with oxygen hooked up to her nose, sitting in the passenger seat of a truck looked over at us, and smiling ear to ear at the sight of the Freedom Mobile, give us a big thumbs up. At another gas station in the middle of nowhere, Utah, a group of mechanics smiled and said, That looks like something Evil Knievel would drive. We were psyched on that one.

Gene took over the helm of the Freedom Mobile for the last stretch as I sat shotgun. I hadnt spent much time in the passenger seat on the vehicle, and noticed some features Id never noticed. Looking over towards the steering wheel I looked at a small tray, similar to the ashtray that I used for coins. I opened it, and to my surprise there were two silver dollars, one from 1978, the year I was born. Incredible! Gene and I laughed at our luck, and fortune, as we finally saw that wonderful Colorful Colorado sign and the Freedom Mobile had made it home.

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Photo by Luke Mehall

All went well with meeting the couple whose house Im now living in as I write this. They still let me stay in their nice, plush home, even after seeing the Freedom Mobile. It looks like its been through a war, the woman remarked upon seeing it.

Im trying to keep the Freedom Mobile near Durango, if it should break down it would be nice to have it close, and not somewhere far, far from home. Its closing in on 220,000 miles, still using some fluids, but otherwise purring like a kitten. Durango has some other spray painted, art cars, and it fits in nicely here.

The leap of faith turned out well, as it usually does for me. Durango is a great winter climbing locale. The granite of El Capitan is still in my dreams, but it does not consume me, the time will be right someday. Ive been eating more vegetables and drinking less. I still depend on the Freedom Mobile daily for the seven mile commute into town. It might break down someday, but Im hoping it will make it to 300,000 miles; why not dream big right? In the times were in right now, people seem to appreciate the Freedom Mobile, and I need it because I cant afford a new car.

If it does break down, somewhere along the road, hopefully close to home, Ill do my best to sit back; to transport my mind back in time; back to a trip I never thought could happen in such a vehicle, with a climbing partner who believed in freedom and the risks necessary to live with it.

This is the final part of a three part article. View Part I - View Part II

For more of Luke's writing, be sure to check out his blog:

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3 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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"He was sorting out things in his mind, and finished the climb with precision. Brent and I watched in awe, as he collectedly completed the sequence. Gene was searching for that mental state we all need in climbing, that peaceful calm in the face of danger. He was getting it back. The climb was so tall and difficult that neither Brent nor I dared repeat Genes boldness."

-Beautiful, absolutely spectacular, thanks for expressing.
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Great articles, your writing made it as if I was right there watching you. I'd love to read more, whenever you get another great adventure to post.
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Really good writing, felt like I was there with you!

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