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Pete Zabrok: El Capitan Man

In 1998, Pete Zabrok, AKA “Pass The Pitons” Pete, an insurance salesman from Hamilton, Ont., found himself in a potentially serious gambling situation. His partners, Sean Easton and Chris Geisler had challenged him to a game of rock paper scissors to see who would lead the crux A5 pitch of The Reticent Wall on El Capitan, considered the hardest aid route on the cliff, and possibly anywhere.

They were standing on the ledge beneath the pitch. The stakes were not theoretical.

“I knew these two hardmen would throw rock,” said Pete, “and so I threw paper, hoping I wouldn’t win, but I did.”

Aid climbing at the highest level is dangerous, tricky and slow. Five hours later, Pete had climbed only a third of the pitch. He hammered an aluminum head into a shallow crack, bounce tested it, but when he weighted it, the swage failed. He fell so hard onto another head that he tore all the tacks out of a shock-absorbing sling.

“Easton was laughing,” said Pete, “but I said, ‘I’m afraid if I keep going, I’m gonna die!’”

The next day, Geisler finished the pitch in another eight hours.

Pete was born in 1959, in the steel town of Hamilton in southern Ontario, about as far from classic centres of climbing as possible. Growing up, he became a keen fisherman and whiled away his spare time in the forests near his house, played the trombone and piano and was blissfully ignorant of climbing. Scrawny, smart and possessed of what he calls “a big mouth,” he took he took up wrestling for self-defense.

As an engineering student at McMaster University, he came across an invitation to join the caving club on a trip to West Virginia. “Caving came easily, unlike climbing,” said Pete. His first experiences on rope were underground. He ended up exploring miles of new caves and became a lifelong caver. More importantly, he also met British graduate student Chas Yonge, a caver, geology grad student and experienced rock climber.

Yonge and his friends put Pete through a typical Ontario climbing apprenticeship on small cliffs with bad rock, which he loved. He fell in with Hamilton climbing fanatics Steve de Maio and John Kaandorp, did the east coast rock thing, got married and settled down.

On Pete’s first visit to Yosemite in 1983, he climbed his first big wall, the Chouinard Herbert on Sentinel, with Hamilton local John Kaandorp. “We approached in the morning, did a shiver bivy, finished the next day. We also climbed the West Face of Leaning Tower with three litres of water, so not enough. I didn’t know how to haul or clean an aid pitch.” When his friends climbed the Nose of El Capitan, Pete was happy for them but jealous.

Act one of his valley sagas over, Pete returned to Hamilton. Five long years as an insurance salesman and local crag rat passed before he negotiated with his wife to take a second vacation in Yosemite.

His motivation was high. He had trained. He tried the West Face of El Capitan, a 20 pitch, mostly free route, and Half Dome’s Northwest Face, but failed on both routes. A couple of hundred metres up Half Dome, he said, his partner “behaved strangely, threw a can of water off, and said ‘We’re bailing, it’s all your fault, you’re not fun to climb with, you’re too bossy.’”

Later, Pete conceded both that his partner might have been right and that “there’s something about the 200-metre mark that makes people get scared.” They descended, and Pete had wasted a precious week without succeeding. “I burst into tears of frustration. Five years to negotiate a trip, and now I was fucking up.”

Finally, someone answered his note on the Camp 4 bulletin board asking for a partner for the Nose. Pete and his new friend, Kurt, ended up bivouacking in the Stoveleg Cracks, ran out of food and water and were saved by rations left behind by the Star Trek movie crew, and made it to the top in five and a half days.

“I wanted to do it again,” Pete said. “I wanted to do it more. I wanted to do it more than anything else in my life.” Unfortunately, a hero’s welcome did not await him in Hamilton. His wife wanted him to retire from climbing. They divorced.

In 1995, he returned to Yosemite for a month. He was in top free climbing shape, which came in handy on his ascents of the West Face of El Capitan and Salathé Wall. On the top of El Cap Spire, he had a revelation. There was no place in the world he would rather be than El Capitan, and when he got down, he made plans to hop on Mescalito, a big jump up in difficulty, straight away. At the magical 200-metre point, however, his partner started a conversation in Spanish with a friend on the ground about rapping off and heading for the beach. They retreated.

An ascent of Zodiac was more successful, but Pete was learning that not everyone who says they wants to climb El Capitan really means it. A partner who Pete calls “Big Wall Eric” jugged 50 feet on the first pitch, freaked out and rappelled because he was afraid of heights. Pete and his other partner continued for what he called “an absolutely clusterfucked ascent.” They ran out of water three pitches from the top, but after a week on the wall, summitted.

Big wall legend Chongo had gone off-route soloing another route and they lowered him a rope to jug out. At an impromptu camp out that night Chongo shared his esoteric knowledge of hauling systems and unusual wall rations, mostly saltine crackers and condiment packages. “Some of his tips were wacky, but some were good,” Pete said.

In 1995, Pete ended up ticking three El Capitan routes. “I loved every second,” he said, “I couldn’t wait to get back.”

In fall 1996, he returned. With a partner he just met, he made a three-day ascent of Lurking Fear. His Zodiac partner was back in Yosemite, and they hopped on Mescalito, “a struggle, but we managed to send.” “I felt like a hero then. I was getting the hang of it.”

By now, Pete was beginning to gain some respect among the cognoscenti. He was invited by Warren Hollinger to a small presentation on Mark Synott’s ascent of Polar Sun Spire on Baffin Island: “32 days in the cold. It amazed me. The best big wall climbers in the world were there. The old guys were heckling. I felt like I belonged.”

In 1997, Pete climbed the Pacific Ocean Wall and Sunkist. It seemed like he had truly risen to the challenge of being an El Capitan big waller, but Chongo undermined any complacency he might have felt with the suggestion that to be a real badass, he needed to join the El Cap solo club.

“‘And if you wanna be bitchin’,’ Chongo told me, ‘Do a route harder and longer than what you’ve ever done.’ And I thought, yes, I wanna be bitchin’.” Pete chose Iron Hawk, a difficult, overhanging, and rarely climbed route.

Back home in Ontario, Pete cut an unusual figure on the 20-metre outcrop of Buffalo Crag practicing solo tagging, hanging loads and recovering them with a fifi, zigzagging traverses, two-to-one hauling and self-belaying.

Chongo taught Pete to take enough gear and supplies, not just to survive the wall, but to enjoy it. To move slowly, and, in Pete’s words, “win by attrition.” That necessarily meant huge hauling loads, but he used Chongo’s methods for raising them. Passersby doubted that he could even get the load for Iron Hawk off the ground and were astounded to see it shoot into the air on his first haul.

Pete had given up on crag climbing and wasn’t in good free climbing shape when he found himself beneath the 5.8 and 5.10 free climbing pitches at the top of Ironhawk. He broke out a part of his big wall arsenal he reserved only for truly desperate situations. “I was pretty scared and prayed. God spoke eight words: ‘Step forth boldly; fear is not of me.’”

So, he made it, and although he had met Chongo’s criteria for bitchin’-ness, Pete realized that, in his words, “you’re never quite as bitchin’ as you think you are,” and he kept doing incrementally harder climbing.

Now things become a bit of a blur. Route after route, thousands of hook and pin placements, hundreds of bivouacs and hauls. “The secret to hard aid,” Pete learned, “is the bounce test, place the piece, look carefully, tug, gently weight it, then jump on it with all you’ve got.” If it stays in, do it again. “You don’t build an aid ladder out of question marks,” said Pete, somewhat enigmatically, “but exclamation points.”

Those in the know agree that A4 and A5 aid climbing are hard to define but both are very dangerous. On Native Son, he took a 25-foot fall onto a hook which stopped him after a flake above ripped. On The Real Nose, he hooked up fifty feet of imperfect rock with no real protection, only to reach a bad bolt. Then there were birdbeaks in a thin dihedral.

“You don’t go caving on adrenaline,” said Pete. “Aid climbing’s the same. Keep adrenaline to a minimum. Slow and steady. Keep your fear responses under control.”

Just as Pete fell into a routine, the internet became a new way of sharing information. On the wild and mostly unsupervised forums, Pete invented an internet handle, Dr. Piton, although he also told people his real name. “I was trying to be provocative and generate interest,” he said, but with “my big mouth and ability to type 50 words a minute, I said some things that annoyed people.”

He was accused, falsely, of adding two rivets to the difficult route, Lost in America when he soloed it. He said nothing, hoping the charge would blow over, but the accuser wrote that “his silence proves guilt.” When he denied it was him, there were a hundred replies renewing the accusation.

“I was never malicious, just a smart ass,” said Pete. “I liked being a wise guy.”

His epic ascents continued. He soloed Native Son, then Shortest Straw. With Canadian David Benton, he climbed Sunkist and Aurora.

Briefly, Pete wondered whether there was more to life than El Capitan. Chris Geisler brought up the possibility of going to Baffin Island and repeating the successes of other Yosemite climbers on a new big wall route: “Geisler says, ‘let’s run over to Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire and do Labyrinth,’” the hardest route on the cliff at the time. “It was plus 10 in southern Ontario, but minus ten on Cannon. I was so unhappy. I spent 24 hours trying to stay warm, then I said, let’s get the fuck out of here, I can’t go to Baffin Island.”

Pete’s next significant step up in difficulty was Jolly Roger with American climber Jon Fox: “It had only seen seven ascents. I knew who had done them. Two or three pitches stick out. There was crux free climbing, left of the ropes for Heart Ledges. There’s a bolt, then a long runout to a mantel. A Swiss climber took a hundred-foot fall off it.”

On Wyoming Sheep Ranch, Pete’s luck finally ran out. “I made a bunch of small mistakes, fell, hit my heel, broke my ankle and needed surgery.” A few months later, he hiked loads with crutches and an air cast to Son of Heart and climbed it.

Pete finally got his comeuppance on Wings of Steel, a route made controversial by the fact that it was so difficult that no one believed it was possible. “I could not do it,” he said. “The hooking on the 1,000-foot slab was so microscopic, you will fall. The first ascensionists took about 600 feet of falls climbing it, and one dislocated his ankle.”

With COVID, Pete has slowed down, which means that he’s only climbing El Capitan once a year or so. He’s become known for taking vast amounts of food, wine and other supplies up El Capitan. “You couldn’t do it on Cerro Torre, but in Yosemite, it’s possible. People made fun of me, I don’t care, I’m just a life insurance agent who climbs walls on my holidays.”

Pete’s spent so much time on the legendarily solid rock of El Capitan that he’s even had a near-miss with massive rockfall. In 2017, while climbing The Waterfall route, he witnessed 30,000 cubic metres of granite come loose from El Cap from just 30 metres away. It pummelled the lower part of the route they had climbed just the day before.

Just when Pete, (who somewhat improbably says he’s at best a 5.8 free climber), seemed no longer any good without his aiders, he climbed the Nose on Canada Day 2015 in 15 hours.

For now, he’s indulging his love of the outdoors in general, with canoe trips, fishing and rock and ice climbing in Ontario with his girlfriend, Debbie Fowler. Big wall climbing, after all, has always just been an extension of this passion for the outdoors. “I enjoy the whole experience about living on the wall in a hostile environment,” said Pete, “but having fun. Climbing A4, in a way, is just a necessary encumbrance to reaching the bitchin’est campsites.”

He also plans to be back on El Capitan. If he climbs three more routes, he believes he will have climbed more different El Cap routes than anyone else. Of course, he has a plan: “I’ll be climbing with Kurt Arend and Zach Orenczak, hoping to do back-to-back ascents of Realm of the Flying Monkeys and Mr. Midwest, which are way left of Lurking Fear. Long-ass approach, we are doing it in the spring so we can collect water in the stream beneath, bringing up freeze-dried food instead of cans, whisky and tequila instead of beer and wine—you get it. Fix the first five pitches, climb to Thanksgiving Ledge, tag the summit, rap the route, repeat. Then I hope to climb New Jersey Turnpike with Kurt and John Shultz. All three of these routes have a lot of free climbing for Kurt, and I have been training like mad to get fit enough to not end up dead!”

It’s hard to believe that he will retire after this, though. “Maybe I can hit 1,000 nights,” muses Pete.

This story originally appeared in the June/July issue of Gripped: The Climbing Magazine