I’m falling, falling upside down past my belayer and long enough to think about hitting the ledge. I had heard my protection pop, and I knew I should have trusted my instincts moments earlier.
Lurking Fear, a route on Yosemite’s El Capitan, lived up to its name in many ways. It also labels the visceral gnawing of my nerves at the start of any wild adventure. Half the battle for me is getting off the ground and letting my angst fall away with each pitch. This is more acutely felt with women partners than with males. My emotions are bound to emerge.
Ironically, this climb’s reputation was the antithesis of its name, often alluded to as a “warm up” to the Nose and other, harder aid routes on El Cap. My partner, Leslie, and I had climbed the Nose the previous autumn, reversing this prescribed order and causing us to take Lurking Fear less seriously than it deserved. We returned to Yosemite this spring to climb Half Dome and enjoy some long free routes, but we had also committed to a big wall on El Cap with our friend Anju, with whom we’d only cragged a bit around our home town of Bozeman, Montana. After researching options, we landed on the idea of climbing the Salathé, a ‘moderate’ aid climb with some challenging free pitches up a proud section of the wall.
Full of classic pre-climb guide book stoke, Leslie and I drove from home in Bessie, my ’91 Vanagon, nursing its weak AC system through blistering 90 degree heat on Nevada’s highways, over the Sierra and down into Yosemite. It was hot - perfect conditions for Half Dome’s cold Northwest face. We promptly packed our haul bag and approached up the ‘death slabs’ to its base, an arduous 3 hour slog. A serene bivy was our reward. We were going “old school” and hauling the route. Our first 22 hour day questing up chimneys in the dark with a stuck haul bag got us onto Big Sandy Ledge. After a few hours of sleep, Leslie set out on the first block of climbing up the zig zags. As I was jugging up the second pitch, she yelled to me to set up an anchor. “I can see the core of the rope,” she said. I almost puked. With a butterfly knot around the core shot, we climbed safely to an unusually quiet and empty summit. Exhausted but not finished, we opted to stumble down the eight mile trail to the valley with our loads digging into our shoulders.
After a rest day, we climbed some classic, and obscure, free routes with Anju. At camp over beers, the boys shared the not-so-minor details of the multiple chimney and off-width pitches we would encounter on the Salathé. None of us loved the idea of bumping one number 6 or 7 giant camalot up 60 feet of wide crack with 2,000 feet of air below. We also did not want the stress of slowing other parties down on such a popular route. We decided to switch gears and routes.
Lurking Fear is a C2+ aid route without much moderate free climbing and 12 pitches shorter than the Nose or Salathé. As such, we naively approached this new goal as not too taxing or stressful with a chance to sleep on our newly borrowed inflatable portaledges.
Little did we know what lurked ahead. I believe in trusting instincts. The more I listen to them, the more I know they are telling me to pay attention. But all too often, heuristics trump instincts, no matter how hard I work toward the contrary. Mental shortcuts make decisions easier, and group-think encourages heuristics. Raw emotions are the overdrive of decision making.
As the youngest in the chaos of eleven children, I was doggedly determined to be my own person but was overrun regularly by family decisions, right or wrong. My first rule of adventure is that the more people, the more complicated. That said, three people on a big wall is usually more fun and less stressful. We had been psyched to climb as a team of three and share a big adventure in the Valley. Then Leslie and I got the beat-down on Half Dome and my instincts shouted at me to bail on another exhausting aid route on El Cap. But I did not want to be left out of a cool adventure with two awesome women. I convinced myself it would be fun and I silenced my body’s signals to the contrary.
After three shoulder surgeries, I often feel like an injured raptor with sewn wings delicately balanced on the edges of my torso. Jugging and hauling up a big wall is mostly construction work with a bit of engineering, about the least nurturing thing for one’s body, especially the wings. On the Nose, I had laid awake on ledges with pain shooting down my arms. One big wall on this trip was enough. My instincts warned me that another might put me over the edge, but FOMO won again. Instincts be damned.
At camp we tested our portaledges on the side of my van and squabbled about what rack to bring. After sorting food and clothes, we slogged the steep trail up to the wall on our recon day.
The scene at the base of the route lit up my instincts. Two young men, Dillon and Milo, had been waiting hours to start behind multiple parties still on the lower pitches. Dillon was twitching and trying to dissuade us from launching. Ignoring his nervous chatter, Anju and I used the passing hours to fill water jugs from mossy drips on the wall above us. We led up after them in the late afternoon. Two parties had set up their ledges at the top of pitch three with tons of daylight left. A bad sign. We fixed two pitches and rapped.
We descended to the comfort of my van in Lower Pines campground only to eat late, sort gear, and get some sleep before 6 a.m. wake up. As we launched the next morning, I think we were all expecting to retrieve our ropes and retreat once we got to the base of the junk show above. As we drove from Lower Pines to El Cap, the clear, crisp spring air became thick with smoke. My stomach sank. We arrived at the meadow to a controlled burn that was started the day before. As we walked to the base of the route, the smoke was black as night and thick as thieves, stealing our thunder, enthusiasm and oxygen. My instinct meter was the only thing lighting our approach.
We waded through smoke, exhaustion, and doubt but somehow found ourselves moving up the first few pitches. I was almost hopeful we’d have to bail, but push came to shove (almost literally) as we passed parties generous enough to let us play through, sharing leads and ropes in the general cause of upward movement. Finally, I led the double hook moves on what we considered the ‘traverse-pitch-of-no-return.’ We were fully committed.
Changing leads, two of us hauling our giant ‘pigs,’ we made it to within one pitch of a bivy ledge before dark. Anju solidly led a scary, long, ‘no fall’ pitch with minimal protection which torched her mentally and physically. The long, uncomfortable hanging belay and possibility of Anju not having enough rope to finish her pitch, along with a stuck haul bag, taxed Leslie and my mental states almost as much as Anju’s. We were all exhausted.
Leslie set off without much light or clear direction, in hopes of getting to a ledge. She reached the guys on their portaledge mid-pitch. Surly Dillon expressed opposition to sharing the anchor or space with us, forcing Leslie to yell down and ask whether she ought to keep going or retreat. It was pitch black and Anju promptly replied she should retreat before asking for my opinion.
Torn between two strong, competent women with two different but rational desires, I could agree with both, but ultimately trusted Leslie’s belief she could reach the ledge. This option would save hours of set-up time and provide a less stressful morning with a ledge to do our duties and make rational decisions about our following day. After expressing to Anju that it was worth the risk, I yelled up, “keep going.”
As I was lowered out with the haul bag 50’ to our right into the dark abyss, I was sensitive to the fact that our decision would tax Anju more than she needed. She had it in her to complete the jugging and cleaning of one more pitch, but at this point, we were each in our own worlds, digging deep to stay safe and keep it all together.
After fatigued-induced tension over where to put our inflatable ledges, we set them up, filled our empty bellies with dehydrated dinners, and gazed at the eerie orange glow of the controlled burn in the Valley below. Billowing smoke engulfed our lungs and enshrouded a full moon. Finally, I settled into my sleeping bag, marveling at my tenuous position on the edge of the abyss and relishing life’s precariousness. Dawn brought an uplift of clean air, clear minds and moods. I pried open my swollen fingers to brew up mandatory java and choke down some oatmeal. After a quick take down of camp, we rapped down to the guys’ ledge, which was still in full camp mode.
I led up an ever-thinning crack to another fabulously uncomfortable hanging belay. Voices reverberated all around - yelling from an approaching speed climbing party. I ‘politely’ asked if the two men were talking to me. I was unimpressed with their approaching egos as their leader clipped all of my gear and promptly came to a hook placement and was as baffled as I had been. Without a hook however, he used my assistance and pulled through the move and joined my belay, not asking if he could use my anchor but only “which” locker of mine should he use.
The rest of the day passed smoothly, Anju and I finished our blocks and Leslie quickly led up to Thanksgiving Ledge. The ledge was big enough to de-harness and hobble around un-roped. Beautiful moist moss decorated the cave. After serious rehydration, a relaxed meal and some laughs, we collapsed into our sleeping bags.
Sore, but excited to be only a couple of pitches from the top of El Cap, we all felt a little relief. I took the last technical lead up a steep mossy corner, where I passed an unseen anchor on the slab to my left. Down climbing to the anchor, I left a piece of gear above.
Leslie and Anju jugged up to me. We pulled the rope through the piece above and I asked Anju to grab it as she jugged up. I left the belay to finish our last pitch of low angle slab.with the two of them hanging out on one of our only comfortable belay ledges, clipped in with their daisies, relaxing in the sun.
We were ‘basically’ done, the time between really being done and when you easily let your guard down. We were fatigued from three days of aiding on hooks and hanging in hideous positions, but psyched to be near the top. I led up 30 feet and looked for options to place pro when my partners yelled that I should put in some gear, lower down to the piece, retrieve the left-behind-cam, and keep going. I was confused about changing our plan. “Why should I lower down instead of one of them just jugging off to the side and grabbing the piece?” I thought. I announced my piece of pro was in a flare without other good placements. I adjusted it and tested it twice. There was no obvious place to put another piece of protection. After aiding on hooks for two days, one cam seemed pretty safe in my head, especially since I was on a low angle slab. Complacency? Fatigue? A desire not to question my partners? A longing to be done? I don’t really know, maybe a combination of all of the above. I can be argumentative in my need to be right, lasting baggage from an upbringing I continually fight to overcome. This was a chance to concede and respect their request. Heuristics trumped instinct.
As I was lowered down about 15 feet and made the shift to the right toward the green alien, my protection popped. I remember hearing the wind or my body flying, flipping upside down, thinking this might be it, waiting for impact. I hit the end of the rope just before the ledge, whiplashed back upright and hit my helmet on the rock. For a moment, time stood still. I was alive, not paralyzed and filled with the guilt and stupidity of a poorly placed piece. I went into triage mode and started to jug up to my partners who screamed “No, stop! We are tangled in the rope.” They had me switch to the haul line as they tried to uncoil the pretzel that had enveloped them as the extra rope fell onto them and twisted them into the haul bag. Anju’s leg was torqued and Leslie’s arm caught in a harness. I had taken a factor two fall of 60 feet, one I never ever thought possible for someone afraid to take even a small fall on a sport climb.
We recouped at the belay. Anju assessed her leg and thought she could keep hobbling up the last pitch. I clipped a draw to the anchor and headed up the slab, carefully placing pro. From the next anchor I gave her a tight belay as she hopped her way up the slab to the final traverse that led to the base of the fixed lines. Anju then stoically endured a tremendous amount of pain to jug herself to the top of the fixed lines where her husband Aki and our friend Daniel met us to help take our loads down.
We stayed close to Anju as she hopped all the way off El Cap on Aki’s side. I carried a load of tremendous guilt and shame at injuring a friend due to a poor decision and poorly placed protection. Scenarios raced through my head faster than my shifting feelings. I tried to ignore the pain in my back and stomach from the whiplash, made worse by the hauling of the pigs up the slabs. My guilt was interspersed with anger and confusion over a changed decision that seemed originally so safe and simple.
There is an old adage that aid climbers are those who can’t free climb. I have a newfound respect for good aid climbers. It is an incredibly punishing endeavor that requires all faculties firing under extreme fatigue to be safe and effective on a big wall. But more than ever now, I prefer the freedom of free climbing. Thankfully, this adventure was a learning one and not catastrophic. For weeks after the climb, I rode a roller coaster of emotions, downloading often with Leslie and finally getting a chance to ask Anju what her reasoning was for having me lower down. When she explained that it just seemed simpler and a way not to forget the cam, I was finally able to free myself from my monkey mind. Maybe this is part of the uniqueness of tying in with women partners, the emotional awareness and willingness to openly and honestly share feelings instead of stuffing them away. Despite, and because of this adventure’s challenges, I feel once again inspired and empowered to tie in with great women partners.
About the author
Jeannie Wall is a world class skier and an ultra runner for decades. Currently, she is obsessed with climbing in all its forms. She's a rookie gardener who spent three years helping create and run a regional sustainable food cooperative in ID and is passionate about supporting locally sourced farm fresh food. In her early 50’s, she began to realize some of her biggest dreams, like climbing Monte Fitz Roy and the Nose on El Capitan with great women partners, and she still loves to backcountry ski. She has taken some of her passion and focus into actively caring about the world and inspiring women to be their true selves. She is an aspiring meditator and ‘picketarian’ with 25 years experience developing and designing climbing, skiing and endurance apparel for the outdoor industry. One of her nicknames is “The Energizer Bunny.”