Picture this: You’re halfway up the right side of El Capitan. Below you is a string of maybe-hold-bodyweight pieces plugged into the scaly grey stone. The footholds are crispy and slowly spitting gravel away at the sides, so you’re gently rocking your weight back and forth on each foot to avoid one snapping off altogether. The most feasible line heads left, around a bulge, maybe. It looks hard. There’s no way to tell if it leads to decent gear, or to better holds. All around you the rock is sharp, fractured and overhanging. Alarm bells are going off. This doesn’t feel right.
What would you do? Forge on, running on faith, trusting in your own abilities, or back off? Nobody would blame you at this point for throwing in the towel. They’d likely just call it good judgement. It is the smart thing to do. If you go, you’re deeply committed.
This isn’t a fictional story. Leo Houlding actually went for it around the bulge, yanked the smallest of micro-wires into a bottoming seam, then promptly fell onto it, core-shotting one of his ropes. He eventually completed the pitch, dubbing it “The Screamer.” Having been there, I can’t imagine a bolder effort. Some would use the term “reckless”, and they might be right in that description.
Bold? Reckless? Crazy? Where does one end, and the other begin?
When I sat down to write this story it was just supposed to be about this route in Yosemite called The Prophet which I completed this fall. As I started typing I realized that it was much more than just a route for me, and this made the writing process more difficult than just summing up a stack of pitches on a granite wall.
To tell the whole story I had to go back to the nucleus of it all: the inspiration I got from two young British guys, trying as hard as they could on El Cap.
I had read Leo’s account of the Screamer Pitch before the Prophet was completed, in Alex Huber’s glossy coffee table book, Yosemite. When Jason Kruk and I rode a rickety bus from Bariloche to El Chalten in Patagonia, I knew that Leo’s approach was the gold standard for big routes: free and onsight. When we disembarked the bus in the middle of the night, we started hiking immediately, decked out in the identical red suits that Mountain Equipment Co-op had given us. We were beyond excited to be in Patagonia, and eager to try something big.
The sun came up a few hours into the hike, painting Cerro Torre crimson red, and the enormity of the peaks dawned on me. The yin and yang: 21-year-old ambition versus sobering intimidation. We’d both seen Leo’s picture on the cover of the first issue of Alpinist, eyes on fire, bloody hands raised in surrender, blonde tufts of hair sticking out of his helmet. He’d ledged out on Cerro Torre, a shattered talus bone the penalty for pushing the onsight and free philosophy a little bit too far.
The complete west ridge of Poincenot snakes its way from the very bottom of the Torre Glacier to way up in the sky. A new route and the perfect place to test ourselves. We shouldered the packs and went for it. On the first day I started leading up a steep, orange, gravelly offwidth with my pack on. About halfway up the pitch I stuffed my last cam in, and peered up. Looks like I can layback up that, I thought. So I started up, gunning for a spot where I hoped the angle would slab out. Things did not go as planned. The rock got chossier, my feet started slipping, and there was no way I could swing back into the wide crack. Soon I was blindly pumped, looking at an enormous fall directly onto Jason’s belay ledge. I realized that up was the only way out, and just barely snagged a handjam before I pitched off. The roof of my mouth horrible, that bitter taste of pure fear. The image of Leo’s bloody hands flashed through my mind as I constructed a belay, shaking my head at the stupidity of that manoeuvre.
When we staggered into the Torre Valley two days later we had experienced things we’d never experienced before. A core-shot rope, two shivering open bivies, and a new route on a big mountain. We were elated, and physically wrecked. But it also felt like we had peered into a different world. Years later I read a Kurt Vonnegut quote that described the feeling: “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the centre.”
“Hey Will, how would you feel about hiking up in the morning and holding a camera for us, mate?” said Leo in his thick northern UK accent, with a cheeky smile. Leo and Jason Pickles were about to hike to the top of El Cap, and hopefully send the A1 Beauty pitch the next morning.
“Uhhhh… sure…” I stammered, trying not to sound too eager. The Prophet, Leo’s nine-year project on El Cap, was on the ropes, and he was making a film about the whole adventure.
I awoke at four the next morning and trudged to the top of El Cap. The Brits were nestled in a little cave atop the cliff in the predawn gloom making coffee.
Slithering down a static line to the right of the crack, I pointed my viewfinder at Leo, fumbled with the dials on the camera and watched the action. This A1 crack was awesome. Perfect, curvy and thin, it bordered a razor-sharp arête at the very top of El Cap. It was one of the best pitches I’d ever seen. He was hell-bent on success, climbing with gritty determination, laser precise footwork and boldness. I was inspired to watch a guy giving his all on a project that clearly meant so much to him. He led the pitch cleanly, and yelped with joy. Having led every pitch, all that was left was a ground-up push.
Afterwards, we rolled smokes atop El Cap, hunched under the scrub Manzanita, telling stories about girls, our favourite climbs, things like that. Time seems to stand still on the baking granite slabs atop El Cap. Worries are forgotten. Little things like finding shade and watching the shadows on the wall become paramount. A couple smokes in, I spoke about my near miss on that gravelly orange offwidth in Patagonia, about how Leo’s efforts and eventual injury, served as lesson and warning wrapped into one.
“Sounds like you learned your lesson mate,” said Leo, with a grin. I hoped I had learned, but didn’t know for sure.
At the end of October, Leo and Jason endured a savage 80-hour storm holed up in their portaledge. The meadow underneath El Capitan turned into a lake, and rain hammered the valley for days. I would drive out to the meadow and spot the Brits’ portaledge and rainfly, wince from the slashing downpour and shake my head at the toughness of those two guys. When the skies cleared, Leo sent the A1 Beauty, and The Prophet was a real route, bottom to top on El Capitan.
One thing was for absolute certain: I had to try it.
The next spring, in England, I pushed a little too far, and watched it all go wrong. An under-prepared attempt on a route called Parthian Shot almost killed me. My gear peeled a flake off the size of a laptop, and I decked out from close to 40 feet. I landed hard on a grassy slope on my left foot. I couldn’t breathe when I hit the ground, then I started retching blood. I tried to weight my foot, but it felt like the bones inside were swimming. My belayer, Tim Emmett, piggy-backed me down the trail while waves of nausea swept through me. I didn’t know it then but I had also cracked a lateral-process in my neck. My streak of good luck had come to a jarring end.
After a couple months, I got the go-ahead to walk again and gently applied pressure to my stiff left-foot. Everything felt wobbly, unnatural and extremely painful. But ever-so-slowly, I began to hobble around, soloing easy, easy stuff. I started noticing subtle things like weight-transfer, toe-pressure, the bite of granite crystals, and the wind rippling through the leaves of the maple trees in the Smoke Bluffs. That fall in England could’ve been the end. Being alive was a gift.
When I deemed myself more or less OK, I proposed The Prophet to Sonnie Trotter, one of my best friends and strongest partners. He gamely agreed, though I’m sure he had his reservations given my condition. In the autumn of 2011 Sonnie and I made repeated ground-up attempts on The Prophet. The easiest, most-efficient way of trying it would be to fix the whole route from the top to bottom, but we wanted to have the same experience as Leo. We continually terrified ourselves on the runouts of the first five pitches.
Those six weeks in the Valley felt more like an expedition than a climbing trip as we inched our high-point up The Prophet. It was demanding, exhausting and scary, but also fascinating. With every pitch, we were more flabbergasted at Leo’s audacity. He was leading blindly into no-man’s land, most of which was no-fall territory. We’d try, get the heebie-jeebies, rappel down, and eventually convince ourselves to try again. I was gun-shy, and my left foot was still swollen from the ground-fall eight months ago. Sonnie, knowing the demons that I was battling, gently took over the leads that I retreated from.
In mid-November, we marched to the base of El Cap with our haulbags to being our final push. We both freed all the pitches until we found ourselves at the base of the A1 Beauty. Sonnie, climbing beautifully, sent the A1 at sunset. I tried as hard as I could, but repeatedly came up short. With swollen fingers I admitted defeat, crushed.
At the top of El Cap, sorting our enormous pile of gear, I knew I’d be back the following autumn.
So, true to my promise, I drove down to Yosemite this past October to finish off what I had started. This time there was no Sonnie to make jokes with on the drive down, just me alone with my thoughts, eyes glued to Interstate 5, through Washington, Oregon and eventually California.
I got out of the van and hiked straight to the little cave above the Prophet. I rapped in to try the A1 Beauty. It felt desperate, just like last year. But, as with a lot of hard granite climbing, it began to come together little by little. The trick with this pitch is to stay calm in a very insecure position. The pitch gets really hard when the crack bends left towards the arête. The footholds are next to non-existent, but you must trust them 100 per cent completely. The crack isn’t so much a crack but a left-leaning crimp seam. You’re holding your breath, tip-tapping with the feet, and moving as fast as possible. There’s a little rest at the arête, then a final hard boulder problem before the anchor.
After a couple weeks of effort I did the A1 Beauty pitch on toprope. We began the final push in late October. Deeming myself more or less fit enough, I recruited my friend, big wall master Dave Allfrey for the final push from the ground. Dave was the perfect partner. He hauled the lion’s share of the weight and was a well of positivity. I climbed the lower pitches carefully and slowly, knowing that a single mistake could be bad. At every belay Dave would haul the bag cheerfully, exuding good energy, and that psyched me up for the next stomach-churning lead.
By mid-morning on day three I found myself gazing up at the immaculate A1 Beauty. Like last year, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach fluttering. It all came down to this one. A perfect crack, high in the sky, with a crux at the very top, it was the definition of a nail-biting finish. I spent the day tinkering with a T-shirt on the portaledge, stretching it out across the nylon straps to maximize shade from the glaring California sun. I tried to calm down. Dave’s phone beeped with a text message from our friend, Sky Ditray: “Fight to the death.”
The magic hour came right before dusk, when the rock turned an orange-pink colour. The shadows crept across from El Cap, swallowing up the corners one by one, urging me to lace up tight and try the A1. On the first go I climbed nervously, barn-doored out of the crack and thumped onto the end of the rope. Was this going to be a repeat of last year?, I wondered.
Enough of the past. It was time to be present in the here, the now. With that thought in mind, I immediately felt better. On the next try I arrived at the rest before the crux, a big foothold before the crack heads left to the arête. Big deep breaths, I told myself. I could hear my friends shouting encouragement from the meadow and from across the wall. Time to dip deep. Fight to the death.
I started the sequence out left, eyeballing the micro-footholds in the dying light, focusing on breathing and moving quickly. I barely caught the lunge move to the arête, clipped two equalized pins, and composed myself for the final crux at the very top. I was gassed, and I knew it. No time to dwell on the doubts; it was time to go. Before I knew it I was splayed out on my tippy-toes, squeezing two-sidepulls for all they’re worth, with the rope around the arete, staring up at the first good finger lock. This move is gigantic, at the very apex of my six-foot frame. I caught it, just barely, but not deep enough. Slipping out, body sagging, I made one last hail-Mary attempt to readjust it. This time it sank deeper. I composed myself, gulped a lungful of air wobbled to the anchor, clipped it, and slumped over in my harness.
Dave lowered me back to the portaledge and embraced me. Ferreting through the haul bag I whipped out two tall cans of King Cobra. We decided to bivy one more night and finish the route in the morning. One more pitch of 5.13a was left, but there was no way in hell I was going to let that stand in my way and the next day, after a few tries, I did it. By late morning we were winching our bags over the top. We shared the last King Cobra and staggered down the trail.
I’ll never forget the last night on the portaledge. I couldn’t sleep for the life of me that night. I alternated between staring at the stars and peering over the edge at the blackness beneath. My heart felt like it was going to burst with gratitude for Leo and Sonnie and their fiery efforts which I strived to emulate. Mostly I felt indebted to the experience itself, which had given me so much. The night seemed to drag on forever. But I was ecstatic, savouring every minute of darkness, high on El Cap.
Will Stanhope is a climber and guide based in North Vancouver.