There it was: El Capitan. On Thursday, May 14, 2009, after 38 years and a mostly uneventful cross country drive in Ezzie, the Captain loomed, huge and sharp, above me. The images of the Valley I had brought with me, a mixture of fuzzy memories and photos from guidebooks and magazines, were nothing compared to the sharp, overpowering reality of the magnificent rock walls. I immediately called Lois on my cell phone and gushed.
With advice from a friendly climber, I found a free, roadside campsite among the towering trees of the Stanislaus National Forest. Of course, it has no facilities, not even bear boxes to keep food safe from Yosemite's lumbering, furry pests. But it is a beautiful spot, and I am hoping that the bears accustomed to mooching people food will all be down in the Valley nabbing picnic baskets.
Saturday and Sunday I had Big Wall School with a guide from Yosemite Climbing School and Guide Service. The idea was that I would do the two day school and then a two day wall climb of a route on the Washington Column. We started at Swan Slab where the guide led a crack on aid. He then asked what grade I am comfortable free climbing, and I told him 5.7, some 5.8. He immediately said, "Well, this is a 5.9, you can warm up on it" [on top rope]. I took a deep breath and started up. It was hard, but I made it and felt pretty good until the guide said that someone my age who struggled on that crack would probably not make it up the Column. He reminisced about a similarly old client who had suffered a heart attack Maybe, he suggested, I should get in better shape before trying a wall.
Nonetheless, the lesson continued, mostly with practice jugging and cleaning routes. Steep ones and overhanging ones and low angle faces. Sunday, I jugged a 180 foot face 4 times with almost no rest. My guide assured me the Column would be harder. At one point, he said, "You've done this four times, now. You ought to be getting better at it than you are." He frequently repeated the opinion that I am not fit enough to do a climb on the Column.
About 3 pm on Sunday afternoon, as we took a water break, the guide askede if I had reconsidered doing the column that week. I repsonded by saying that you [the guide] seem to be quite frustrated with me. If so, I said, we ought not to go on a climb together. At this his tone softened and he said, "You're not the problem, Bill. I am feeling a lot of pressure and am not ready to take a client up the Column." When we got back to the guide service office, he arrange for another guide to take me on the climb up the column. Unfortunately, I had to cancel that climb a day later because I got sick.
After recovering, I spent the week doing solo aid practice using my Silent Partner. It went well. I led and cleaned the incredibly overhanging LeComte boulder and a couple of C1 crack routes.
On Saturday, May 23rd, Marc arrived from Las Vegas. It was the Memorial Day Weekend. The Valley was jammed with people and the roads were a bumper to bumper traffic jam. We did the LeCompte boulder that afternoon and then retreated back to the National Forest to camp. To avoid Valley gridlock, we spent the next two days (Sunday and Monday) climbing in the high country near Tanaya Lake, doing two fun 5-6 pitch routes: West End and South Crack. On the latter I led the 5.9 direct start, which involved very thing face climbing and a fingertip layback. Tuesday saw us back in the Valley doing a two pitch aid route, called oddly enough "Aid Crack." Each of the 90 foot pitches took us 2 hours to lead and clean. Decent time for two beginners.
On Sunday evening we made a trip to the Hetch-Hetchy dam and reservoir. Marc, who is the Chief Engineer for the Las Vegas Water Authority, was like a kid in a candy store running around to look at all the facilities. Although John Muir lost the fight in the early 1900s to prevent the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy valley, I had to think that on this holiday weekend, the flooded valley was a lot more peaceful than the "preserved" Yosemite.
Today is a rest day for this old man; I have beaten my feet up pretty well. Marc is off on a hike; no rest for him.