Fear. Anger. At the very least, aggravation. Those are the emotions I expect to see in my wife’s eyes. But her look, instead, is strangely calm.
My wife, Becca, and I have been adrift on a sea of blank granite for six days now, on yet another of my attempts to free climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Our home is a 3-by-6 piece of nylon strung between aluminum poles and suspended from the wall by straps. On clear days, the sun reflects off the rock and cooks us like ants under a magnifying glass. On stormy days, deafening wind and flying snow hit us from every direction. When the sun comes back out, giant plates of ice peel off the wall and buzz by us like flying saw blades.
For the six months prior, camaraderie and collaboration with my climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, had been crucial to my progress on this climb. Together, we had built a belief that the Dawn Wall was possible, and we’d laughed through the very worst moments. But when Kevin sprained his ankle while hucking himself across an eight-foot sideways dyno halfway up, he had to bail. That was months ago, and I’d been struggling to fill the void ever since. Then Becca offered to join me as belayer. I hesitated to ask her to endure so much to support me. But she seemed eager, and I felt lucky.
Free climbing the Dawn Wall in Yosemite has become an obsession that has spanned nearly five years and has provided me with endless richness and intensity. This climb, which ascends El Cap’s steepest and blankest aspect, has captured my imagination like no other climb on earth. For me, merely looking at the wall is like trying to comprehend a piece of God: My brain can’t grasp the immensity. Instead, I have to think smaller – about faint ripples, microscopic flakes; the meandering path of shallow dihedrals. I imagine dancing between them in choreographed sequences I’ve spent years struggling to perfect, struggling to link together the 3,000 feet of white granite.
I love the way this climb focuses my life. In the offseason, I lie awake formulating logistical strategies, then I jump out of bed at 3 a.m. and abuse my body ’til dusk: climbing, running – anything I can to prepare for the wall’s severity. The allure of completing this climb drags me to it like an overpowering magnet. But I’ve come to see that the Dawn Wall’s true gift to me is the pursuit itself: Would my world feel as rich without this project?
It’s nearly midnight on the wall. The wind cranks, dark water seeps menacingly from a crack 50 feet above us, and I try to climb a 160-foot-long incipient seam that’s been beating me down for two days. I’d tried it during the day, but the sun had cooked the rock, and the rubber on my climbing shoes melted off on the razor edges. As car headlights pass through El Cap meadow, I wonder which ones belong to my parents, who have taken leave from their jobs and come to Yosemite to live in a van and support me. I think about the work that has gotten me here and the people rooting for me. I don’t want to let them down – or myself, for that matter. After years of huge effort, the Dawn Wall still seems impossibly far away.
I shake off visions of a warm bed, hot food and flat ground as I look back at Becca. Yep, pretty unmistakable – a smile lurks behind those multiple layers of down. I stuff my feet into my climbing shoes and throw the rack over my shoulder. She pinches me on the butt. “Get up there and send this pitch.” I start up the sequence of moves I’ve rehearsed dozens of times. Right foot smear, left index finger in pin scar, hips tight, pull hard, breathe. I hear a shriek and look down just as the wind flips the portaledge and sends Becca flying to the end of her tether. I throw in a micro cam, grab it and yell to her, “Are you okay?” She rights the ledge, pulls herself back on it and giggles. “Yeah, I’m good!”
What the hell? I’m supposed to be the tough one here. I lower back to the ledge and get ready for another attempt. I feel the intensity of the entire project peaking inside me – and the power of my community pushing me on. Without that support, I would have abandoned this long ago. On my next go, I focus that feeling and it finally powers me to the end of the pitch. Becca’s cheers penetrate the wind, and I can’t help but smile. Then I look up.
There is still a long, long way to go.