Edge of Myself - Andy Kirkpatrick
- Saturday 21st March 2020
By Andy Kirkpatrick
My last day, my first ‘easy’ day, ended long and hard and painful as I scraped and scrambled, tired and tangled, Silent Partner locking and rope running out, on to the rim of El Cap. I had been alone on the wall for fourteen days, four of them on half water rations and the scraps of my food bags. I staggered, stood, staggered again, pulling hard in the still heat of darting lizards and baking dwarf trees with charcoal bark – away from the edge, away until I was sure I was beyond gravity’s high-water mark, safe from the Sea. I stood there for several minutes unsure what to do – how to feel, stand or sit, laugh or cry – my legs equally unsure how to address the horizontal world again. But then it’s always like that. I know the feeling well. It had been my fourth El Cap solo, my thirty-fourth route up the Captain. I know how it feels at the end; the relief, the sadness, so desperate for it to be over for so long, yet wanting to hang on.
Sea of Dreams is a route that maintains a mystique, a route that retains a grade of A4+ – ‘if you fall, you die’ – even though it was put up in 1978. Time has no doubt mellowed the climb, with several well-known features such as the ‘surfboard’ having fallen off it, as well as some bolts and rivets being added. Nevertheless it still deserves a Jim Bridwell grade of PDH – Pretty Damn Hard – in most people’s books.
Although an undoubted classic, the Sea is rarely climbed, maybe one ascent every two years, and there are many stories of teams bailing off it. Tales of loose and dangerous rock, run-outs, scary obligatory free climbing and bad belays – it is one of the few routes that still has mostly old bolts. Robert Steiner, the German translator of my books Psychovertical and Cold Wars, lost a finger on the route when a loose flake broke and chopped it off. No one I’ve ever met who has climbed the route has anything but respect for the first ascensionists; they had set out to create the longest, hardest and most sustained big wall in the world.
The first part of the trip was spent climbing Zodiac – for the seventh time – with my mate Charles, who wanted to lead a big wall, and my eye was drawn over to the North America Wall and the Sea. This area of the wall is like looking over at Mousetrap Zawn on Gogarth; tons of black, loose diorite, mega steep and obviously death on a stick. Tempest scared me a bit, but it travelled up solid golden granite, but the Sea scared me even more; the horror stories of pitches like Hook or Book, Peregrine Pillar and the Blue Room, and the expanding belay – cams placed in an expanding crack! – having hung in my mind for years, dispelling any desire to climb it. The Peregrine Pillar scared me the most – these words by Nate Beckwith have stuck with me since I read them online in the late 1990s:
After our third bivy on the wall, I took the Peregrine Pillar pitch that morning. This pitch turned out to be one of the hardest, scariest pitches on the climb for me. Starting out with a long stretch of no pro 5.8, I arrived at the base of two loose pillars which I would have to climb up the middle of. Watching my cams expand and contract in the loose diorite, I half free climbed, half aided to the top of the pillar. Next was some tricky nailing, with a bad fall to the pillar if things went wrong. A few moves up I started pounding in an angle. The rock started moaning and would not stop! I tapped on all the rock around me. All loose and hollow. The moaning continued. I thought surely the entire face was about to go. Finally the moaning ceased. I decided not to take any more swings at the pin. I tied it off and continued upward. Finally some better pins, then the belay. And not a moment too soon. This was a long pitch.
There was probably no other route on El Cap that scared me more than the Sea. But then why not do it for that very reason? Why should I let what others say or write about these pitches put me off, about death falls from a puzzle of skyhook moves, of car-sized blocks that rattle and move when you nail them, or pillars that hang like Jenga blocks that have to be free climbed, and from the top of which the hard A4 terrain begins? I had come to ‘sort my head out’ – to reboot my body and mind, something nothing can do like a hard wall can – why run from such a heady dose?I had already done Bridwell’s other classics on this part of the wall – Pacific Ocean Wall and Zenyatta Mondatta – and thought the Sea would be like these: hardish but OK, the shine gone from what were once state of the art, that I’d get the ‘tick’ but really it would all be in the minds of those who had not climbed them. Sure it would be hard, but I’d nail it and come down a hero – overcoming all the stories and just dealing with the hard facts.
And so up I went, a huge rack, thirty-three litres of water and ten days’ food that could be stretched a little, years of experience to guard me in what I might find. I was ready for a battle – but not a war.
It didn’t seem to take long to climb all the lower pitches, which although not easy were OK with care and attention, and reach the Continental Shelf and the Hook or Book pitch. This was the first ‘if you fall, you die’ pitch on El Cap and involves crossing a vertical wall mainly on hooks, with rivets and old pegs at the start for pro. At the halfway point you lower off a rivet – a five-millimetre machine bolt hammered into a shallow hole – and swing around until you can catch an edge with a skyhook. Then the fun starts, as you begin a game of chess with the rock, hooking further and further right, stepping high with hooks on tiny nicks and edges, searching for the next hook. You slowly get to the point that if you fall you will fall into the corner around thirty metres below. Luckily, protection is at hand halfway to the belay in the form of a nest of copperheads.
Unluckily, when I reached them I saw that all but one had fallen out. Getting out my heads I tried to replace them, but the depth of these heads is as shallow and ill-defined as if you pressed a matchstick into some clay. Fortunately there is a solid flake beside them, so I backed up the heads with a ‘bomber’ sky hook held down by my Fish tag bag (funny but I actually believed this to be true at the time). From there you press on – you never weight the heads; they’re only there for ‘pro’ – hooking further and further, hoping you don’t go the wrong way and end up ‘in the book’. And there’s the belay. It’s done.
It’s boring to describe every pitch, but I doubt I’ve climbed a route so sustained and mentally exhausting, an experience probably not helped by being alone. I was out of condition at the start and my hands swelled up so much I couldn’t get my gloves on; I just had to hope the speed with which they healed was greater than the pain. Again and again I got to a point where I could not puzzle out how to progress – one time I had to rap off and try again the next day – but each time I solved the puzzle by following my big-wall motto: If in doubt: get high. Yet over and over again I found myself top-stepping on some placement that defied reason to hold.
The days were hot and often still and windless deep within the womb of the North America Wall, and three litres a day was pushing it. I found no easy pitches, forcing me to get up at dawn and climb into the dark, the punishment and stress unrelenting, but I could not stop – I had to get to the top before I ran out of water.
And then one morning I woke up to find myself at the foot of the Peregrine Pillar. Again I won’t go into blow by blow details, only to say it begins with an unprotected traverse on creaky flakes where if you fell you’d probably break your legs as you swung down on to the North America Wall. Then you reach the pillars, a set of high blocks sitting on top of each other that look as if they would simply topple off if you laybacked them. Half aiding – with nuts not cams, so as to limit prising the blocks over –and half free-climbing (I call it ‘fraid’ climbing), I made my way up this tottering nightmare, unsure if it was C1 5.8 or C4 XS. Then with a careful mantel I was standing on top of the pillar, the rest of the pitch before me – A4 climbing with the pillar to hit if I fucked up.
The Blue Room was special; the wall was getting looser and looser, the very skin of it overlaid with cardboard-thin flakes that flexed and grated against my toes, flakes I feared would fracture and sail down and cut my rope. Any pin placed felt as if it could unlock the whole wall and cause it to fall down – the entire feature held on a hair trigger. Up there in the black rock nothing was safe – especially me, my lines getting hung up again and again on downward-pointing teeth of rock. Again and again I asked for a break – but never was one forthcoming, the easy snap of a portaledge corner or my finger finding an edge all I was given. Again and again I would find myself laughing at what I was forced to do: a hook tied to my hammer for a blind hook move out of reach, a cam hook behind a flake as thin as bone china, opposed beaks in a horizontal crack crowded with broken RURP tips.
My food ran out, my water was low. It was my forty-fourth birthday and my birthday tea was a packet of M&M’s and the final brew of tea before my gas ran out. It felt like a feast, me of all people, forty-four years old and still alive and out here in the middle of the Sea. My body grew thinner and harder, got strong like it does on a wall, then broke down, like it does on a wall. I slept with my arms above my head, as if I was surrendering, the only way to stop my hands feeling as if they were going to burst.
And then I was almost there – three pitches of the North America Wall: the end of the Sea. An easy day I thought. But alone nothing is easy.
And so I stood there, fourteen days on, at the end – again. A year older, but not the man who started, with all his doubts and thoughts and old troubles. I was broken down by the wall – skin and bone and fat and brain and thought rendered to junk by the toil of it all. I stood there and looked around, feeling the feeling you get at the end of all such adventures as this, at the rim of the wall, at the edge of myself.
This story appears in award-winning author and climber, Andy Kirkpatrick’s book Unknown Pleasures. A collection of works covering subjects as diverse as climbing, relationships, fatherhood, mental health and the media. It is easy to read, sometimes difficult to digest, and impossible to forget. One moment he is attempting a rare solo ascent of Norway’s Troll Wall, the next he is surrounded by the TV circus while climbing Moonlight Buttress with the BBC presenter Alex Jones. Yosemite’s El Capitan is ever-present; he climbs it alone – strung out for weeks, and he climbs it with his thirteen-year-old daughter Ella – her first big wall. Unknown Pleasures, is published by Vertebrate Publishing and priced at £24. You can buy it here
This article appeared in a back issue of Climber magazine. To get quality articles and more subscribe to Climber by clicking here