Confronting Zodiac

If you just want to know how it went you'll probably prefer the trip report written by Paul. If you want to know why it went or just prefer the circuitous you're in the right place...

A Monday morning like all other Monday mornings: I sit at my desk and contemplate the day. Yesterday, that would have meant scurrying around a counter top sized ledge trying to repack the bag without dropping anything 2,000ft to the ground below. Today I'm wondering if I've brought enough muffins for my team meeting. Opening my day-timer, I peruse the quote of the week:

Our process was never merely technical, or one of getting to the tops of climbs. It was necessary rather to know the soul of climbing and the particulars moment by moment. --Pat Ament

Random emotions wash through me-- I stare at the grass outside my window before finally wiping a tear from my eye and going to my meeting to find out how far behind schedule the project is.

This trip began in the same way so many others have failed. A quick note to a friend-of-a-friend:

	  Date: Mon, 15 Sep 97 17:10:23 PDT
	  From: evan
	  To: paul

	  I hear from Clint you might want to do a wall this fall?

	  I'm up for The Nose, Zodiac, Mescalito, maybe something else...


A month later I'm waiting for Paul's plane to arrive from NY. 11pm and it's finally here. Like awkward blind dates we pick each other out of the crowd and introduce ourselves. Then it's off to The Valley. Problem is, we can't find the car. I clearly remember parking in C25, but that section no longer seems to exist. We wander in circles for 15 minutes before I remember I parked on the second level, not the first. Jeez, I probably have lettuce between my teeth as well.

In The Valley we bivy at Clint's mystery spot on the way to the base of El Cap. Above looms The Captain, stars twinkling, headlamps blinking, the full moon calling out the features in shadowy relief. It's after 4am, not an ideal time to be getting to bed before setting out on a wall, but at least it cuts down on the nightmares.

The nightmares are always the same, I'm high up on an exposed wall and paralyzed with fear. The next move is obvious, but my body is immobile. I'm a prisoner of the fear.

Clickety click, clickety click. I wonder how I get myself into these things. Clickety click, I look over at Michael, he seems calm and relaxed. Mentally I form my plan for dealing with the fear. I'll close my eyes, press against the bar and hold my breath until it's done. Clickety click, I begin the mantra: "Please oh please, just let me survive this and I swear I'll never do anything this stupid again, I swear, I swear, I swear." Clickety-- we top the rise and the Las Vegas strip spills out below the faux New York skyline as we begin our plunge to the street.

The roller coaster would end up being the only objective achieved on our long weekend at Red Rocks. When it's over I ask Michael if he thinks Zodiac will be scarier. He just scowls, but for me the question is sincere, the fear has been breeding inside me; I haven't slept for days.

After a few hours sleep Paul and I trudge our way up the talus. Zodiac is on the far right of El Capitan, with an approach that's longer than you might expect. We hike up to The Nose then traverse along the base passing beneath the Dawn, the Pacific Ocean, North America and the Atlantic Ocean Walls.

Just off the coast of Europe we run into the first sign of trouble. A party of two is packing all their gear out. Sure enough, they are coming from Zodiac and, things aren't looking good. They had been queued for three days and hadn't even started the route. The scene at the route itself is bumbly madness. There is a party of two Americans at the top of the second pitch with *three* haulbags! There are more haulbags and food caches scattered about the base. Supposedly the gear belongs to a party of three Spaniards and a Brazilian soloist neither of whom are anywhere to be found. They all have ropes fixed to the second pitch, but they all seem to be waiting for the Americans who bristle with incompetence and shiny new gear.

Paul sits at the base and hangs his head. He's flown 3,000 miles for this and it looks like a disaster before we even get off the ground. Being trapped behind any of these parties is sure to be a nightmare of entirely different sort than the type I've been enduring so far. We begin to discuss other routes. Paul wants to do Tangerine Trip or Lurking Fear, I'd rather give Liberty Cap a try. Paul is bummed and not liking the scene at all, but as we talk things through I begin to get hopeful. In the hour we've been pondering our navels, the Americans at the second belay haven't moved a bit. I convince myself things aren't as bad as they look and talk Paul into a new plan: do the first three pitches in good style. The Americans will see that we are obviously more competent and let us go ahead. If somebody goes berserk over us cutting the line we back off and all we'll be out is Paul's airfare and three good pitches of climbing. Paul isn't impressed with the plan but agrees to play along.

As Paul begins the first pitch I recline amongst the boulders at the base and resume my reconnaissance of the Americans above. I might as well be watching grass grow; they still haven't moved. My partner is tall and, in a karma denting statement, he bypasses the traditional first hook move and just clips the lowest bolt directly.

Paul and his patented Big Wall grin

With Paul halfway through the first pitch I notice signs of life from the second belay. At first it appears they're emptying their bladders, but then the retching sounds begin to echo down. They may be signs of life, but not of happy life. One of the Americans is puking his guts out all over their fixed ropes. When Paul recognizes the sound he flashes me down a Cheshire grin and a huge thumbs up. I get my worst injury of the route as I fall off my perch and bruise a shin laughing over Paul's new found enthusiasm. It's hard to keep a straight face as the sick guy raps down and staggers off into the woods. As I start following the first pitch his partner tosses one of their three bags. It hits the wall, tears open, and rains gear over the base of the climb. He raps off and they are done for the day. The road ahead is clear, at least for now. It hasn't taken much effort to pass Team Heave.

I lead the second pitch and Paul follows it. At the belay, amongst the jumble of brand new gear, I discover that all these fixed lines are attached to single, non-nonlocking, biners clipped to individual bolts. We do not want to be behind these folks on the wall!

The standard Zodiac plan is to climb the first three pitches leaving ropes fixed to your high-point. You then sleep on the ground and blast off the next day thus eliminating a night spent on the rock. As Paul begins the third pitch I notice signs of trouble on the ground, the Spaniards have come and they don't look happy to see us. I keep an eye on them as I belay. They alternate between pacing and lying on their backs with arms crossed, but one thing is unwavering: the hostile glare directed up at us.

As Paul finishes the third and I prepare to clean it, I notice someone ascending one of the fixed ropes up to me. He arrives just as I cut loose from the belay, and our conversation occurs with me dangling in space.

	Pablo: Hallo!
	Evan: No.
	Pablo: I Pablo from Brazeel...
	Evan: No.
	Pablo: I very good climber, wait three days, but no find partner...
	Evan: No.
	Pablo: Would like to climb with you?
	Evan: No.
	Pablo: Be party of three?
	Evan: No! No! No!
Eventually I'm out of ear shot. Pablo returns to the ground, picks up his haul bag and begins the long, lonely, trudge back to the meadow under El Capitan's unvanquished shadow.

Fear. It's different than other emotions: textured, palpable. It binds and suffocates: it's the claustrophobic velvet lining of a coffin. You can drown in fear.

My heart races, my breath is shallow and weak. I lean back against the rock and survey the moonless sky, trying to judge the tempo, waiting for the moment. My hands sweat despite the breeze. I instinctively reach for a non-existent chalk bag. The pressure in my chest mounts, my breathing comes harder. The fear constricts even tighter, my ribs feel near breaking. Something must give.

	    Evan: Do you see romantic potential between us?
	    Damsel: No.
	    Evan: Are you at all attracted to me?
	    Damsel: No.
	    Evan: What if?
	    Damsel: No.
	    Evan: Maybe--
	    Damsel: No.
	    Evan: Do you think that someday your feelings might change?
	    Damsel: No! No! No!
The fear cracks and is washed away by disappointment. My breath returns. Wounded but free of the fear, I turn and begin the long, lonely walk back up the beach. The foam from the waves dances in the wind. I carry the laughing damsel piggyback, but I walk alone.

At the belay, Paul and I discuss tactics. It's down to just us and the glaring Spaniards. They outnumber us, and they look sort of wiry, but we figure with enough bluster and indignation can avoid a possible lynching. As we abseil back to the ground, though, all is quiet. They have vanished as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared, although their haulbags still mark a claim on the route.

The only thing moving at the base is Chris McNamarra, a rising big wall star, doing a cleanup. He strikes me as being a personable guy. We have a great chat about the routes he's been doing (all infinitely above my head). It's always nice to meet people at that level who don't mind chumming with the Joneses. I wish him all the best.

A quick dinner and Paul & I carry our final loads to the base. Paul elects to sleep in the trees by Tangerine Trip, but I'm nervous about the clandestine Spaniards so curl up below our fixed lines, half expecting someone to show up in the middle of the night and jump us. I toss and turn in the dark until the full moon rises, then I toss and turn in the light. The daemons are prickly tonight.

Monday night, two days before I leave for Zodiac. The nightmares are fierce-- I'm almost afraid to shut my eyes. Sleep doesn't come easily, but eventually I nod off, snug in my bed. The next morning, I wake on the couch with no recollection of how I got there. The cats have worried looks on their faces. I can identify.

Me, on top of the Black Tower

Paul's bivy choice turns out to be poor as he is woken early and often by a party getting a predawn start on one of the serious routes in the area. At 6:30 he wakes me and we cast off from the ground into the land of the vertical. My lead of 4 is casual and Paul takes over the sharp end. Pitch 5 is a line of rivets that heads out left to what Charlie Porter thought would be an aidable crack. Halfway there he realized the crack was blank so the rivets then arch back right over the belay. It's now traditional to backclean all of Pitch 5, leaving in no protection and exposing yourself to a potential 100+ foot fall if one of the old manky rivets should blow. If you pull off this maneuver, you have enough rope leftover to make it all the way to the pitch 6 belay saving a significant amount of time. Paul isn't crazy about the idea, but soon he is out there looking down at a huge amount of unencumbered rope running straight down from him to the belay. Luckily, today isn't the day for one of the rivets to pop so I'm soon looking up at the Black Tower.

A casual bit of free climbing puts me on top of the tower and I'm looking up at what used to be a classic RURP seam. In the early 60s when they were invented by Yvon Chouinard RURPs (Realized Ultimate Reality Piton) represented the state of the art in hard aid climbing. A sliver of metal about the size of an airmail stamp slung with a thin cable, RURPs could be pounded into the most insipid seams, and sometimes they even held. These days the focus of aid climbing has shifted. Paul and I are hoping to do a "clean" ascent of Zodiac. We have hammers, pitons, and even RURPs, but we are hoping not to use them. Instead we will try to finesse our way up the wall using gear that doesn't require a hammer to place and remove, thus preserving the route in its current state. It is a "leave no trace" wall ethic.

There are many old RURPs fixed in place on the pitch off the Black Tower. Once the cables break they are virtually impossible to get out of the rock (and nearly useless for upward progress). Pitches like this one are the basis for the new clean ethic. Where once there was a tiny seam for RURPs there are now useless blobs of metal separated by oval grooves in the crack that are loath to accept any gear. These grooves, called "pin scars," are the result of banging ever larger pitons into the wall. Getting a non-destructive chock to set in the scar is the game of clean aiding and it's nervy work.

The tools of choice for this pitch are RPs. Fine wires attached to angularly shaped chunks of metal ranging in size from the head of a pin to a pencil eraser. These are bodyweight-only pieces. The wires themselves are typically rated only to a few hundred pounds and often the piece will shear out of the rock before the wire snaps. They are designed to hold your weight as you move up to place the next one, but in the case of the higher forces generated by a fall it's possible to tear out several RPs in a row until you get to a more robust piece. The more bodyweight placements in a row, the scarier and more difficult the pitch becomes. On a clean attempt you are often faced with the choice between yet another scary piece over a potentially long fall or calling down for the hammer and banging in a relatively secure piton. The challenge of conquering your fear and preserving the rock by chutzpah and technical ingenuity is what makes clean aid fun!

Why Climb?

[True Story]
There was this guy. He is driving down the highway on his way to work. Seat belt buckled, under the limit, all his ducks in a row. In the opposite lane someone cuts off a double gas tanker. The truck jack-knifes, jumps the center divider, lands in front of him and explodes.
Our hero is incinerated.

Why Not Climb?

Back on Pitch 7, I have placed nearly every RP we have out of 2 1/2 sets. Suffice it to say, the pitch has my attention. I'm facing one last hard section before the belay. I manage to make it go off a manky Tricam and finally reach the belay bolts. Our clean ascent is intact so far.

We earn our first asterisk on Pitch 8. Paul comes to a place where a rivet (literally, a bolt you would buy at your local hardware store pounded into a shallow hole) has blown. He looks for alternatives, but they all involve dangerous loose rock. Finally he has to call down for our cheat stick, a 3 foot pole that allows Paul to reach past the blown rivet to the next placement. But, is an ascent "clean" if you use a "cheat" stick?

Late in the evening, I take up the lead for Pitch 9. Our beta says this is one of the crux pitches, and it's been weighing on my mind ever since Paul and I divided up the pitches. I want to get it done tonight and not spend another night thinking about it. The pitch is thin, beaten out scars. The tool of choice here is the Cam Hook. Unfortunately, while benevolently magical for upward progress, the Cam Hooks are near useless for protection. In general, as soon as you step off one, it falls out.

It's simple but ingenious-- an 'L' shaped piece of metal. You put the short end into the rock and stand on a sling attached to the long end. The levering force holds it in pin scars that will not take any other gear.
The Leeper Cam Hook

50 feet out on this pitch, I'm struggling. It's been cam hook after cam hook with only the occasional junk nut as pro. I'm scared and focused, climbing at my limit. The world fades away and narrows to just the short stretch of rock in front me. Gone are any concerns about love, work, or life. My existence contracts to just making each individual move.

I reach up and fiddle an Alien into another awkward scar. I can get only two of the Alien's four lobes in, but hope that's enough. The piece I'm on is a cam hook, and I move low on it to bounce test the Alien. I bounce gingerly, then with some real force, the Alien holds, so I begin to ooze up onto it. As I do, it blows and I come crashing down onto the cam hook which miraculously holds, saving me from a long fall. With the blown Alien goes my confidence. I'm toasted. It's dark now, and I'm alone with my fear on the wall. All I want is to lower off back to the belay, but there isn't a piece nearby I trust to the task. It's my turn now to call down for the cheat stick and earn another asterisk for our "clean" ascent.

Usually I enjoy climbing at night. The headlamp illuminates only what I want to see. The daemons scurry about in the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. But, on this pitch I don't find any solace in the night. 100 feet out it's gotten no easier, but I finally get to a point where I can put in a few solid pieces and have some security. I call down to Paul and let him know that I'm beat. I'm thinking about calling it a night and coming back to the belay. He doesn't say much, but his silence screams out what he is thinking. I don't want to let my partner down, so I push on.

Earlier this spring I attempted to solo Zodiac. I'd just gotten thrashed on The Nose. The project I was promoted to lead at work had been canceled after two weeks. My companies stock was hammered by a merger. And, I'd been officially unrequited by the focus of my romantic endeavors. A wall seemed like a good place to discover what else could go wrong.

It wasn't. Attempt #1 was washed out by weather and lack of conviction. Attempt #2 was washed out solely by lack of conviction. Too much baggage and not enough energy. I did the first pitch (hammering in the only two pins I've ever driven) then sat at the base for two days drinking beer and reading books.

My life is no more together now than it was then. Even less together by some measures, but it makes an incredible difference having a partner on the other end of the rope. If I fail now, its not me, its us. On the wall that difference gets me through.

But in the real world?

The cheat stick comes out for two more asterisks, but I make it to the top of Pitch 9 and clip the "Bosched" belay bolts in a gush of relief.

This pitch ends on a blank wall so we'll be spending the night in a portaledge-- a sort of rigid framed hammock built for two (two munchkins that is). In the magazines, climbers on portaledges always look relaxed and sprawled out in seeming luxury. My experience is much more akin to a balancey carnival ride. You know, the sort that are at every moment conspiring to pitch you off into the hay. For every movement on the portaledge there is an equal and opposite affect on the other climber. I must creep over to one side so that Paul can stand on the other and pee. Such is teamwork on a wall. Eventually we settle down and Paul doles out the cans for tonight's dinner. Paul has beef stew, I go for salsa bean soup. Neither are inspiring unheated. We both finish quickly and are shortly asleep. Now, sitting at my desk, it's hard to imagine myself 1000ft up a blank wall, eating cold cans of soup for dinner and sleeping soundly on a tippy portaledge. But on the wall it all comes naturally.

Love that Big Wall gear

Good morning El Capitan! We wake slowly to the sounds of ringing pitons as some over-ambitious early risers go to work across the way. We've been gaining on a party on Zenyatta Mondatta, a route just a few hundred feet to our left. ZM is a much more difficult line, and they have been moving slowly. From the ground, they were just specs on the wall, now they are close enough for us to chat, and today we should pass them. As Paul prepares for the first lead of the day, he invites me to check out a party he has spotted starting Zodiac far below us. Nervously I let him know that I'm terrified of heights and will have to rely on him for bulletins from below. Paul gives me an lingering incredulous look. I can hear him thinking "anything else you want to confess now that I'm stuck with you 9 pitches off the deck?" but he just raises his eyebrows and quietly goes back to racking.

First on the menu today is "The Nipple," one of the famous pitches on Zodiac. Yes, it does in fact resemble a giant granite breast in profile. Paul goes to work as I try to make myself comfortable now that I have the portaledge to myself. I've just managed to strike one of those relaxed magazine poses when Paul starts shouting from above. As he was fiddling in a small cam, the piece he was on blew leaving him dangling by one hand from the unclipped piece! I take in all the slack I can and he lets go for a 15 foot pendulum fall. Shaken but not bruised he goes back up and finishes working his way along the bottom of the breast. Entering the areola the flavor of protection abruptly changes from small cams to wide gear. I send up our supply of big stuff brought along exclusively for this pitch. With the reach that comes with being 6'4" Paul hardly needs it, easily clipping the bolt that pierces the tip of the nipple.

All too soon he calls down "off belay" and I must give up my lounging on the portaledge and return to the world of the vertical. The wall here is deceptively steep. As I let the bag go it swings far out from the wall as Paul begins to haul. The Nipple is a tremendous pain to clean, it's constantly traversing, and I begin my elaborate dance with rope and Jumars. Clipping and unclipping, absorbing myself into the task at hand, blocking out the air beneath my heels.

The Zoro Roof marks our exit from the great circle that gives Zodiac its name. Instead of clean white granite I find myself working with rotting black diorite. At the lip of the roof I contemplate yet another long reach to the next fixed piece. Coming up short, I need to place one final piece in the ugly diorite. As I contemplate my options, I brush the roof with my shoulder and a small chunk of rock dislodges and begins its long trip to the talus below. "Rock! Rock!" Paul and I scream. The party below pins themselves to the wall, but it's for effect only. The wall here is so steep that the rock's trajectory takes it far out over their heads. Rattled, I double check the piece I'm about to move onto. Its in the same lousy rock but I lack choices so quickly move up on it, then high step off it to a good rivet.

The corner above the roof goes on cam hooks and bi-cammed Aliens. Just short of the first fixed head, my nerve fails me and I call down for the stick, giving our clean ascent its fifth and final asterisk. At the belay, I haul the bag and then relax, having finished what I think is the last "crux" pitch for me on the route.

On a steep route, "relaxing" means climbing into my homemade bosun's chair (a piece of shelving with some duct-taped foam) and settling in for the time it will take my partner to clean the pitch I've just lead and for them to then lead the next pitch. These idle hours at hanging belays have been both the best and worst of times for me. They are an excellent opportunity for contemplation and the thinking of deep thoughts-- but only when I can keep my mind from wandering to just exactly where my body would land should everything that's holding me to the wall cut loose. It is an irrational thought, but a virally contagious one. As I watch the lives of people around me it seems that a great deal of energy is spent escaping from such thoughts.

Paul arrives at the belay. We are in the wall rhythm now and efficiently go through the paces: put him on the Gri-Gri, re-rack the gear, attach the haul-line, then send him off at his usual blistering pace. I sit on my chair unusually at ease with my thoughts and life on the wall. Laconically, I pay out rope and survey the valley.

The whole time we have been climbing, a park service "controlled burn" has been going on in a rather uncontrolled fashion. The pattern had been that around 3pm the winds would reverse and The Valley would suddenly fill with stifling smoke. This was damned upsetting to Paul who was peeved at having come all this way to have his views (and breathing) intentionally disrupted by the park service. Today they either finally have the controlled burn under control or we are above the smoke, because our air is clean.

Smoke on the valley floor

Suddenly I notice its been a long while since I payed out any rope, and I wonder what's going on above?

Paul's version of this situation:

My next pitch looked casual, and one of the many topos from the Net we brought said the pitch ended with "hooking that will make you feel like a hero". I got up about 100' on the pitch and hit the hooking section, and it did not look fun! Up until this point I had only hooked about 5 times in my aid climbing career, and most of it was on this route! The hooking traversed for about 25' to the left, then ascended vertically about 10' to the belay. I got to clip a fixed pin about halfway across the hooking traverse, but only had a couple of rivets behind that. By the time I got to directly below the belay I was pretty freaked out. If I took a fall, I was going for 25' to the slabby section below. The vertical hooking to the belay put the finishing touches on my fear by requiring an undercling cam hook move off of a pin scar. I tried stuffing a piece of gear into the scar but the rock sucked so badly that nothing would hold! I stepped up high off the cam hook but needed one more hook move to reach the first bolt leading to the belay. I could feel my heart pounding as I searched desperately for the next hook placement. There was nothing save for a hollow sounding flake that I was sure would rip off the instant I weighted it. I sat there for several minutes contemplating the move and finally decided to hook the flake for lack of anything else. When I clipped the belay I decided that this would be my last aid wall for quite awhile.

He calls "Off Belay" and I give up the comfort of the belay seat and begin cleaning the pitch. It's casual until I get to the rivet where Paul began hooking. The rope runs from the rivet straight to the belay 30 feet up and left. I set up to lower off the rivet and scope the blank face as I glide by. At the belay the usual pleasantries are passed back and forth, "Wow, wild pitch, glad it wasn't mine..." "Sorry about the cleaning troubles, but I was maxed."

It's getting late, so I quickly set off on my pitch. According to our beta its another adventure in backcleaning; a left leaning ramp followed by a right leaning ramp. The trick is to backclean the entire thing until back over the belay. It should be a piece of cake, but as usual, it all goes to hell. The left ramp is casual, but when it turns back right I can't figure out how to do the hook moves. I end up free climbing high and right and dropping a large hook down over a loose block. I free climb back left and am just able to snag my aiders on the hook. But, when I get a good look at the hook, it's pretty bogus-- definitely too bogus for me to back clean all my gear and rely on it alone to keep me off the ramp below. I spend a long time pondering life and finally send down for all the lost arrows (a type of piton) we have. I hand place three of these behind a block and, in my demented state of mind declare this sound. I shout down to Paul about Daddy's soldiers being lined up in a row. He yells back the usual banal positives, but laughs only when he finally sees the placements.

All that's left is to backclean the rest of my gear, lower off a fixed pin back left, get off the bogus hook, and high-step from the LAs to the start of a rivet ladder. If you followed all of that, you are ready for the route! Unfortunately it takes a while and the next thing I send down for is my headlamp. The rivet ladder ends in one of the hardest hook moves I've ever done, but after that, it's mellow to the belay. The topo says 11a, but I'm doing half a free move between placements and in the dark it feels much easier than that. I'm again insulated by the night and in my element. At some point, I look down and realize its been a long time since I left a piece in for protection. But, it's one of those moments where everything seems balanced and correct in the world so I climb on. Not quite so correct for Paul though-- his headlamp batteries die and he gets to clean by touch.

The pitch ends at Peanut Ledge. According to Clint, a fine bivy for two. What we find is a peanut shaped ledge, ten feet long, two at its widest, barely a foot in the middle. Its comfy for dinner, but cramped for sleeping. I end up with my feet dangling over the edge and Paul with his on the bag. The sleeping pad he is using is on an inexorable creep for the edge, and Paul spends the night constantly shimmying back to the wall. Before we sack out though, Paul decides it's time to christen our dumper. This procedure is complicated by the fact that Paul has eschewed a big wall rig and instead brought his sport climbing harness. Three feet from my head he raps a sling under his arms, unties, strips off his harness, and goes about his business. I try hard to pretend I'm somewhere else.

Me hooking on the 2nd to last pitch.

Paul is woken early by our neighbors on ZM. Only a short distance across the wall, they are breaking down their ledge and the chiming of the pipes rouses him. I'm in denial and by the time my blood is flowing Paul is racked and ready to go. Without a latte to be found, I send him off on his merry way up the friend walk pitch as I rub the sleep out of my eyes. By the time Paul is half way up the pitch the urge to use the dumper hits me. Well prepared with a proper wall harness, I've got my leg loops dropped, my tights around my ankles, and I'm half way through my business when Paul yells down "Watch Me!" Tourists with binoculars be damned, I come to attention and do my belaying duty, cheeks in the wind. Cleaning this pitch is a drag. The rope turns the final roof over a sharp corner and the whole time I'm watching the rope for fraying.

My final pitch of the route is good clean fun. Hook traverse left, then a few hard moves to a solid crack, and another hook traverse left. At the end of this traverse I find a huge loose flake. It's 2 ft tall, 4 ft long and an inch thick. I find that I can lift it completely off the wall then gently replace it. Despite the hook scars across the top of the flake I elect to free climb past it to a bolt. Then there are easy pins and free moves to the belay. This pitch wigs Paul out on the clean. Lowering off slings on the shaky flakes rattles his cage, and he ends up leaving behind a wedged Camalot Jr.

We share a quiet moment, and Paul sets out up the final pitch. It's easy, except for a few dicey moves on old fixed heads, and Paul is shortly on top. The last bit is painfully difficult to clean. Less than 10 ft from the top I do an elaborate jig under a roof and finally flop onto the summit. Together Paul and I muscle the pig onto the summit and, as abruptly as our voyage began, it's over.

I once got an e-mail that said:

Didn't want to attend school. Didn't want to work. Needed a rite of passage to adulthood. Since there are none in our culture, I invented my own. It was the most significant experience and journey of my life. The only problem is the yearning to create *other* significant experiences afterwards.
Problem? What they label a problem is for me the essence of life: the search for significant experiences. For me, today, Zodiac has fit the bill.

The most exciting thing that happens on the descent is when I tell Paul to "Look out, this could be a bit crazy," and then accidentally cartwheel down a fourth class ramp with the haulbag (I didn't notice the fixed static line was attached to the end of a dynamic rope, not an anchor). At the Nutcracker parking lot, Paul wants to dump the gear and go for the car but I insist on walking the glory strut back to the meadow. Heads turn and fingers point. For a brief moment we are part of Yosemite's landscape. Just another site for the tourists to gawk.

On the walk back Paul almost gets waxed by a van But for me, I can feel the batteries charge! My skin tingles, I feel ready to combust, invulnerable. The challenge now is to capture this emotion and wield it in my life.

It's 4pm when we reach the car. We grab beers for the Chile -N- Lime Tostitos and lounge in the meadow staring up at the wall. In the center of the great circle we can see climbers just starting the nipple pitch. Paul calls over to me, "Hey look, there's the party below us!" Umm, well... sort of. Welcome back to the horizontal.


Scorecard: El Cap 5, Evan 2.

On the drive home Paul and I began making plans to do Mescalito.

The "party below" turned out to be some guys who work at Mission Cliffs. They managed to clean the cam we left behind on fifteenth pitch and even return it!

The contents of my "deep thought" pad:

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