On any given day, if I’m not rock climbing, I’m thinking about it, writing about it, or planning for it. Frankly, I’m obsessed and if everything were stripped away I would be left clinging to a piece of rock for dear life. The COVID-19 pandemic left all of us with our barest essentials, and for me – I was left pondering life from a lonely piece of rock.
I say lonely because rock climbing was a primary contributor to my recent world-shaking breakup with my partner of 8 years. The experience left me with a new quiet sadness and a broken heart for the loss of my best friend. As I prepared for my third big wall attempt, all made in the Year of the Pandemic, I couldn’t help but carry all of my life experiences begrudgingly along.
My partners for Lurking Fear, a 5.13c/C2+ route up El Capitan: 28 y/o Anju Samuelson, German born and an up-and-coming mountain guide with deep insights and a sharp intellect; 53 y/o Jeannie Wall, youngest of 11 children, a fast-paced and accomplished mountain athlete, and my mentor and climbing partner for life. By the time we launched on Lurking Fear on May 24, 2021, we had been in the Valley for over two weeks and were nursing sore bodies and tired psyches. Jeannie and I had recently climbed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, and the three of us had done several classic Valley free climbs. Jeannie and I were bouncing campsites in her van, and Anju was sleeping in the bed of a truck with her husband Aki. The springtime Valley family kept us well, with friends, campfires, Merced dips, and rest day companions in good supply.
Despite the goodfeels, Jeannie and I fought. Bickered, rather. We fought about who had more weight in her pack, which cams to bring, why we needed quadruples in #0.3 EVERY TIME, my inattention to the van, her fastidiousness with the van, my shirking of preparation responsibilities, her tendency to press me further when I needed space, my lack of contribution to shared meals. We engaged in regular lay-it-all-out-there arguments that proceeded regardless of WHOEVER was around. One such argument erupted while driving to the approach trail to Half Dome, with friends Lorna and Hiroki in the backseat. They later confessed that the display seriously made them question the impending climb; we gently laughed and thanked each other for our direct method of communication.
I was surprised that Anju still agreed to climb with Jeannie and I as a group of three after observing the spats that we made no effort to hide from the outside world. My tact towards Anju, a less familiar partner, quickly dissolved as well as I found myself barking to her on Day 1 about something so silly I’ve forgotten already. I beat myself up about it, for not treating these two women with the respect I prefer to afford others. The stress of climbing El Cap again was bothering me, and in truth I did not want to do it. I wanted to spend out my trip sipping beers in the meadow, free climbing on sunny walls during the day, and washing off the grime in the Merced before bed.
In the days leading up to our launch, the stress of the climb came down on me like a brick weight, and combined with some recent personal struggles, I was not a pleasant partner to plan and climb with. I barked my opinions and internalized more responsibility than was true or necessary. The day we fixed pitches 1 and 2, a steady stream of people crawling like ants up the first four pitches convinced me that we would surely retreat the following day. I asked Anju to remind me how to rappel with haul bags.
We bumped into four of these people on the ledge atop pitch 3 on Day 2. One party, a couple, was descending. The other party, Reuben and Robert, had food and water for five nights, and offered to let us pass. So we did, and so it was that I found myself watching Jeannie make insecure hook moves across the traverse on pitch 7, the planned point of no return. After that point, up was easier than down. It was the summit or bust.
Pitch 8 was never-ending and Jeannie and I sat with legs dangling, 1000 feet of air below us, like babies on the swings in a lonely playground. We flitted from easy conversation to logistics and speculation about the climb. Our emotional states changed with the wind and our co-stream of consciousness. Even though Jeannie had accidentally cut short the previous pitch, we thought there would still be enough rope for Anju to reach the top of pitch 8. Nevertheless, we stared at the dwindling reserves as the rope unrolled, inch by inch. It teased our growing tensions. Jeannie’s voice one minute – “It will reach”. Confident. The next minute: “It’s not going to reach”. Equally confident. I stood by and continued to ask the question, “Will it reach?”. I wanted to hear her confident answer.
It reached and I would have had a sliver of daylight to lead the last pitch had the haul bag not gotten stuck. Instead, we toiled away the last hours of the day lowering and swinging the haul bag, eventually rappelling all the way down pitch 8 to retrieve it and babysit it up the pitch.
But I had lots of energy in reserve and the dark didn’t scare me on that particular night. It was a clean pitch and I mostly knew where to go. It was the social dilemma that stopped me in my tracks as I headed up towards the ledge at the top of pitch 9.5. Anju’s voice calling out, “Don’t keep going. Come down and camp here.” As I crouched, smearing my feet under solid #1 hand jams, I was less worried about getting to the ledge and more worried about not giving my partners the discussion this decision deserved. I was almost level with the party above us, boys camped out on a bright pink portaledge thirty feet to my left. They had grown quiet; they were not willing to share their anchor. All was quiet in the soft night and I begrudgingly started to climb down. Loss of friends is the loss of life, and respect for my partners’ decisions was most important in that moment. Slowly I removed the #1 cam, hoping for Anju and Jeannie to direct me to move up, not down. I continued like a snail before hearing what I desired, a call from Jeannie in an unfamiliar and conflicted tone, “Just keep going.” Those three words were all I needed to hear and I didn’t ask further questions. I fired to the ledge, on little gear and motivation to avoid setting up three inflatable ledges in the dark at a hanging belay. The rope reached, just barely. Fifty-nine meters with one to spare.
I built an anchor, started hauling the bag, fixed the lead line. I started setting up loops of rope on the bolts above the ledge, for personal anchoring and for storing our gear. I unloaded what little gear was left on my harness. When I ran out of things to do I sat down and looked out, contemplating the night, enjoying the bliss of inactivity.
The scene from the ledge was haunting as I watched the prescribed burn taking place in the valley below. Bright red flames glowed from the valley floor, previously concealed by our position around the arete. The smoke billowed, white and puffy, stringing slowly out down towards the valley exit. I peered at my pride, at a physical fire below me and a metaphorical fire inside me. I felt the pain of past and present losses, contemplated my own aging, and pondered the concepts of love and true empathy. The fear that was lurking for me had little to do with the pitches ahead and more to do with the impending daily struggles of self and humanity.
Sitting on the ledge, I conjured images of home, family, and my recent life reformulation. Home was confusing; a couple weeks prior I had purchased a fixer-upper home in Santa Fe, New Mexico that had been occupied by the same Guatemalan family of renters for the previous 17 years. Joy mixed with guilt as I recognized that I would someday have a livable home and a local crag in spite of my embodiment of gentrification, which left a tightness in my chest. Recent experiences and the notion of home had provided me with fresh thoughts for the future. My mind ran wild with various fleeting thoughts as I pondered the feasibility of living outside traditional frameworks. Jeannie brought me back to the present when she arrived at the ledge, the home that I would share with two women on that fiery evening.
The night passed smoothly and the next day arrived all too soon. I rappelled from the bivvy ledge down to the bottom of pitch 10, and Milo pulled me by the leg over to their bright pink portaledge. I stood lightly on its metal frame and belayed Jeannie while chatting with the boys by the morning glow. No moment went unchecked. For many of us, the last year taught us to Savor a moment with a Stranger, and that morning was no exception even though the strangers were two dirty boys camping on a pink portaledge. My companions were a 26 y/o ski bum smoking hand rolled cigarettes and a 17 y/o teenager with a cheery demeanor who was spending his summer working construction and living out dreams of valley climbing.Before I left my comfortable perch, Jeannie called down. “Take the next pitch, I’m in a good position to belay”. I changed my shoes and was slightly annoyed when she changed her mind before I reached the top. Two passing speed climbers had helped by extending a few of the reachy clips. I wondered where her psyche was at.
We weren’t moving fast, and afternoon was setting in. We slowed the boys down after passing and I schemed all morning about how to make up the time later in the day. Nevertheless, I was in follow mode and didn’t want to take the roof pitch. Anju had been preparing for it, she had watched how the speed climbers had done it. She climbed the pitch in style with meticulous attention to the back-cleaning for her follower. I poked my useless legs as I hung, shifting so they wouldn’t go completely to sleep. She moved steadily with attention and purpose. She brought us, finally, to a ledge that allowed us to stand and rest sore hips and battered mind states. We could finally go pee, and the easier ground would persist for the remainder of the climb.
I knew well the sharp increase in morale that follows the crux of any route. The stress wearing down, our impending success after a long period of hard work in a harsh vertical environment. Jeannie and I went through this rollercoaster ride with every larger climb we did together, and I’d begun to tire of the all-too-familiar psychological journey. While leading my block up to Thanksgiving Ledge, I pondered the growth of the partnership and our personal selves that it would take to overcome this gut-wrenching pattern. The best bivvy in the world, Thanksgiving Ledge, lived up to its name, and we saw only sky, summit, and the valley view as we laughed and rested our tired minds and bodies that long evening.
We thought the climb was over, with only one real pitch left, but the last day brought an accident and a subsequent slow march to the cars. Jeannie fell 60 feet that last day, on the 5.3 pitch that led to the final scramble to the summit. The fall occurred after a last minute change in decision by the group to lower Jeannie from a piece placed about 30 feet above the belay in order to retrieve a piece of gear left on the previous pitch. “It probably won’t rip,” I thought, but the #1 C4 camalot did rip and the consequences I had thought through but not taken steps to prevent occurred. It was a Factor 2 fall onto the anchor with Anju tangled in the middle, twisting and damaging her right leg. Jeannie, surprisingly mostly unhurt, jugged back up to the belay ledge. We regrouped and assessed injuries before agreeing to push on to the summit. Time inched by as Anju tenaciously completed the climb with a hurt leg while Jeannie and I wrestled the haul bags towards the top.
In the last hundred feet of scrambling before the top, we were met by Anju’s husband, Aki, and Daniel, our friend and fellow climber. Aki patiently walked next to Anju the entire way down the East Ledges Descent, patiently offering a consistent shoulder to lean on. Daniel carried our loaded haul bag down to the bottom of the East Ledges rappels, where he was met by Jonah who shuttled the car, brought headlamps and water, and schlepped our haul bag the rest of the way out. Daniel walked back up to fix lines on tricky parts of the descent with un-roped scrambling and accompanied us the rest of the way out.
Ranger Chris from park dispatch offered little help in comparison to Aki, Daniel, and Jonah. Ranger Chris asked us how we were doing, listened to our story, assured us we were heard. Ranger Chris assured us that if we were making good progress and could get down in less than 10 hours, that was better than anything Yosar could do for us, apparently stretched thin that day. We couldn’t contain our laughter when Ranger Chris called back a few minutes later to ask the critical questions he had forgotten. Like, did we have food and water? First aid? Ranger Chris did help though, because he was so utterly hilarious.
It was slow walking and I had ample time for reflection. Anju’s tears when sitting close to Aki at the rappels brought fresh realization that I wasn’t afforded the luxury of full vulnerability in my partner-less state, and I was reminded of the times I had perceived negative feedback after displaying this kind of raw emotion to those closest to me. I hadn’t seen Jeannie in this sort of vulnerable state either, and I wondered if life eventually brought every woman to some place of hardness, despite our more natural tendencies toward openness.
I flashed back to the times I had been physically hurt and how I reacted. Predominant in my thoughts was an incident in 2015 when I accidentally slipped a filet knife deep into the artery of my left calf when working on a remote island in Alaska. The lodge owner loaded me into the dinghy and sped across the bay so I could visit the clinic in the native village of Chenega Bay. I remember trying not to cry in the presence of the stone-faced owner of the lodge. The bleeding eventually stopped and I showed my clients two days of good fishing that they must have enjoyed because they contacted me years later asking to fish again. I paid for my stubborn attitude, however, eventually developing compartment syndrome which led to a foot long scar on the inside of my left calf.
The remembrances and fun group dynamic helped pass the time and we all made it down before dark, with a new emotional story in tow and a tighter friendship resulting from the shared adventure. We showered, ate, slept, ate more, sorted gear, and began the slow process of recovery. The three of us would be parting ways – Jeannie towards the City of Rocks for an annual climbing trip with friends, Anju home to Bozeman, and me towards the Bay area for a week-long vacation with family and friends. We walked around in the Valley Daze as we made preparations to leave the valley, running into Milo for a last goodbye. As Jeannie and I began the drive up and over Tioga pass, I relished in the relaxation of my tired mind and body. For a brief and blissful moment I spared myself the burden of life’s reflections and finally thought of nothing more than peace and sleep in the night ahead.
About the author
Leslie Gains-Germain lives in Santa Fe, NM. She works as a statistical consultant in the environmental sector, building models for predicting location and movement of contamination in ground and surface water. She's a novice but aspiring writer and web designer. When she's not working at her computer, Leslie spends her time at the local crag or in the mountains.