Climbing (a little of) El Capitan

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, August 27th, 2004 

If you think about about it, even briefly – say, for the time it takes a 190-pound rock to drop 100 feet – rock climbing is really weird. (Thud.)

After all, if the goal is to get to the top of a granite tower such as 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite and get a workout doing it, there are good trails to the top. Pulling oneself up a sheer rock face seems, well, inefficient. Not to mention difficult. And dangerous.

But as I discover during my first day of rock climbing, the sport has an advantage that outweighs all these disadvantages: It is a thrill.

Jeff Jurach, 48, knows this. And as a friend dating back to high school, he also knows me, and he’s convinced I’ll enjoy the thrill of life on the sheer face of a big rock.

And while it’s true that I am a thrill-seeker, I have avoided taking him up on his offer of climbing instruction. Until now. For some reason, I’ve run out of excuses. Or my curiosity has gotten the best of me.

And so, I find myself with Jurach, barreling down Highway 99 – statistically a more dangerous activity than rock climbing, he assures me – one recent weekend morning just after dawn. We’ll be at the base of El Capitan by 11 and climbing before noon.

I’ve already done time at Granite Arch Climbing Center, a climbing gym in Rancho Cordova that was so hot and humid, and the climbing so exhausting, that I’m less keen on the idea. But I’m committed. Or, perhaps, I oughta be.

By the time we reach the base of El Capitan – an Olympus-like granite slab shooting heavenward at nearly 90 degrees from the valley floor – I’m resigned and, to a degree, prepared.

I’ve looked over the equipment, which is a big part of climbing. I’ve looked over the face of El Cap, Jurach pointing out various features familiar to climbers and the different ways to approach them. As Jurach says, “Engineers love this sport.” Linguists would love it, too, for the jargon: Talk of “pitches,” “bivis” and “the crux” mixes with tales of “barn- dooring,” “back-cleaning” and “decking.”

I’ve learned to tie a figure-eight knot, which is surprisingly simple, considering that doing it right is literally the difference between life and death.

I’ve also got an idea of the rating system, which runs from 5.0 (the “5” denotes the climb’s classification; the rest of the rating describes the level of difficulty) to 5.15, which is so difficult that it wasn’t even accomplished until this year, by two guys, including Tommy Caldwell of Sacramento.

And as we stand at the base of Pine Line, a 70-foot “warm-up” climb rated at 5.7, I know, and respond to, the starting commands – “Belay on?” “On belay.” “Climbing?” “Climb on.”

And I’m climbing. It’s a weird feeling, going up a rock face with so little to hang onto. Unlike in the climbing gym, the handholds on the rock are less distinct, generally smaller and oddly easier to manage. What looks like smooth rock from a distance is actually quite complex, and even the slightest raised nub, chipped ledge or slight depression in the rock is a hold, to be negotiated and used to move up the face.

More than that, there’s a logic, a rhythm to it. I grab one rock, pull up. I get a feel for it, think it through, find a foothold and push up. The rock wall is a natural thing, and it feels natural moving up it, even though it is anything but.

It is surprising how relatively easy – despite shaking legs and sweaty hands – this seems. The nervousness never really goes away, but I am surprised, and pleased, by how little I need to stay fixed to the rock.

Jurach reminds me to use my legs, since hands and arms will wear out much sooner than feet and legs, which are much more accustomed to supporting my 190 pounds. I move steadily but not gracefully – my butt sticks out into the air, and my grip is a bit overeager and uncertain. I should have my pelvis pressed against the rock, and my feet, instead of being splayed parallel to the rock face, should be pointed toe-in, and “smeared” against the rock to get as much friction – resistance, or “stick” – as possible.

And with each adjustment, it gets easier. But every muscle in my body is engaged, literally from head to toe. My toes are sore from the rented shoes, which don’t fit well or protect my toes when they get wedged into a crack, and my head is sore from concentration and grimacing as I pull myself up the rock.

That’s perhaps the most surprising thing about climbing, this early in the process: Despite having a harness and a rope, and someone holding the other end of it, the rope doesn’t do any of the work. This is not like being craned up the rock face. The rope only comes into play if you fall, and it has so much give in it – to cushion such a fall – that you can’t use it for even minimal support.

So, it’s just me and the rock I’m hanging onto, pulling myself up inch by inch. And the constant tug of gravity is unmistakeable and inescapable. It’s just hard work.

And scary. Not frightening, says Jurach, making a telling distinction. It’s not that one is fearful of falling, though this sport is unlikely to be enjoyable to people with fear of heights. It’s just scary in the sense that it motivates you to push, to try harder than you might otherwise. Every sense grows sharper, and time is of the essence, because every second spent in one position is tiring. You rarely reach a point where you can just hang out, literally or figuratively. You’ve got to keep moving, spidering up the rock.

Knowing that if you slip, you won’t fall – at least not far – gives one some peace of mind. One time I miss a foothold and swing across the face of the rock – barn-dooring – scraping my leg a little bit. But it’s not painful and only a little humiliating. It underlines the challenge, which is to climb, not dangle.

Even now, my hands grow clammy at the memory of the climb. A therapist friend calls it a version of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t recall trauma, but I do recall stress. Climbing stresses every body part, every system in your body.

This stress has been long sought-after by climbers. On El Capitan, the first person to lead a climb up The Nose (the most prominent feature of El Cap) was Warren Harding (no, not the president), who completed it in 1958, after a climb that took a total of 45 days, spread out over more than a year.

Now, says Jurach, good climbers can take the face in a day, some in a matter of hours.

Which, having done a very tiny portion of it, is mindboggling. Sitting in the meadow below El Capitan, eating a lunch of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers that Jurach has packed, and looking at the sheer white face of the rock in the midday sun, it is beyond belief anyone could climb it at all, let alone in a day or less.

I’m ready for a nap, but Jurach wants to try a second, bigger climb, 130 feet and rated 5.8. I have private doubts again – that’s climbing up the face of a 13-story building – but off we go, a bit farther to the east, past El Capitan.

This pitch – a pitch is one rope length or, in this case, about 100 feet – is in the shade, which is welcome in the heat of the day, and not as much of a hike in from the road. It is called After Seven, and when we stand at the base, we have to bend our necks way back to see the top. This one is even more vertical than the first climb.

But like most sports, climbing is a matter of feel as well as technique, and above all, psychology.

And on this second pitch – after lunch, in the shade and with some experience under my belt – my psychology is improving. Jurach again leads, placing different-sized and -shaped nuts (metal wedges that are fixed in the rock to hold the rope, and thus, the climber) in the main crack we are climbing. This time, I know that, above all else, it is important to keep moving. Like jumping on rocks across a stream, momentum and going-with-the-flow works in one’s favor, even going straight up.

Ten feet up the face, I feel more on top of the process, comfortable enough to remove one hand from the rock and pull each nut from its crack, clipping each to my “rack” and thus, by the top of the 130-foot pitch, “cleaning” it.

It is at the top, full of a tremendous adrenalin-infused enthusiasm for life that I face perhaps the scariest moment of the climb: rappelling down. With the rope around my waist, holding the end that controls it in my sweaty right hand, and the rope anchored to an old tree, I make the first move, literally leaning back, out over a 130-foot drop. My hands sweat just thinking about it.

The rope gives as I lean back, and this moment, more than at any other, I have to relax and have faith that: Jurach has done this many times before; the ropes work; I have the control of the descent. Jurach has even rigged up a fail-safe rope, should mine (or should I) fail.

Still, it is challenging, and the body memory of that feeling has faded, but is not forgotten. Rock climbing may be a weird thing to do, but it is a tremendous challenge with palpable rewards. It’s not for everyone, but if you’ve ever contemplated trying it, don’t put it off for as long as I did.