Team Free: A Fool’s Errand on El Corazón

I can’t do this anymore. the thought played over and over in my head as my knees wobbled with every step, struggling not to cave under the heavy load. My pack was full of hundreds of feet of crusty old abandoned static ropes that I had just spent hours cleaning off the upper pitches of Crystal Dawn, my winter project (more on CD here). The climb had pushed me to my mental limit, and I was completely drained from how deep I had had to dig to see it through. I was so tired of it feeling like a mission every time I went climbing; I needed a little less type 2 fun.

Harrison and I still didn’t know where we were headed next, but we knew that after three long months we were leaving Vegas the next day; we’d figure it out as soon as we put a few miles between us and the scorching heatwave that had suddenly descended upon the city. To stall committing to a spring destination, we drove towards Mount Charleston to go sport climbing for a few days. Every evening I would ask Harrison where he wanted to go, hoping he would sway my own indecision, but I always got the same non-committal response. In both of our hearts we wanted to go to Yosemite; Harrison wanted to climb walls, I longed for cracks and community, and we both wanted to get the hell out of the desert. Still, it was far, and gas prices had been skyrocketing. Harrison was also cautious about the impact that big walling would put on his shoulder, and I feared I might lack the psyche to dig in to something big when just the other day I swore to myself I was done with missions for a while.

We quickly realized that it had been perhaps a touch too ambitious to try and climb at Charleston’s high elevation in early April, as huge snow banks guarded most of the approaches. As we sat in my van in the parking lot for the only accessible crag, neither of us could muster up the motivation to go sport climbing. It had only taken one day of clipping bolts for us both to realize that mission or not, we still wanted something more.

It had been a hard winter, with too much time in the city giving me strange anxieties that had created a tension between us. As we sat in that parking lot, finally talking about it, I had my answer: we had to go back to Yosemite. The side of El Capitan had been one of the places that I had fallen so deeply in love with him, as we quested into the unknown on the Muir Wall on an unforgettable adventure last May. After our climbing had been so individual for the past few months, I longed for us to be a team again, like were in Yosemite.
Since I started climbing with Harrison, all I have ever wanted was for us to be a team; putting down big routes with each other’s support. At first I lacked the skills for it really to be possible, but after a year of his patient mentorship and especially after Crystal Dawn, we finally stood on the cusp of being able to make it a reality. With that in mind, suddenly a big project no longer seemed like a nightmare, it sounded like exactly what we needed.
Yosemite it was then. We quickly realized that if we didn’t go climbing today (which neither of us wanted) and started driving instead, we could be on El Cap by the following evening. We would arrive just in time to catch the evening shade on the North America Wall where our objective, El Niño, lies. El Niño seemed like the next logical step in our El Cap resume; it was either that or El Corazón, but too many people we knew had their eyes on the latter this season. It made more sense to seek out the path less travelled.

After only a few days fixing and climbing on the first crux pitches of El Niño, we began to have second thoughts. I longed for crack climbing after so many months of hangboarding and crimping, and the slabs of El Niño left me underwhelmed. More than that though, the NA Wall sun/shade schedule did not work well for either of us. For two morning people, having to wait until 5pm for shade to be able to climb is pretty unmotivating. As we sat in the meadow waiting, our eyes were pulled toward the southwest face, still cloaked in glorious shade late into the morning, and different objectives crept into the discussion.

I had been wanting to climb El Corazón for two years now. It had been my original El Cap objective the first time I had tried to come to Yosemite in 2020, but COVID had had other plans. I’d kept a laminated copy of the topo in my van ever since, because I knew that one day I would be back. We also knew that there was already a significant amount of water up for grabs at various bivvies on the route; an opportunity we would be foolish not to seize. With the knowledge that several other parties would be attempting El Corazón mid-April and early May, if we wanted to claim the water and avoid the crowds we needed to get going as soon as possible. Just like our impulsive decision to come to Yosemite, we went from waiting for shade on El Niño one afternoon, to deciding to check out the Beak Flake (El Corazón’s first crux) the next day instead. 
We had only been in the Valley for about a week, but an entire winter in Red Rocks had prepared us well for long days on El Cap. We felt no need to acclimatize to the area; we had business to take care of. Another day later, we were hiking a haulbag with eighteen gallons of water to the base of the heart lines. With ropes fixed all the way to Grey Ledges, essentially halfway up El Cap, our plan was to spend two days pre-hauling enough supplies for twelve days, rest a few more, and blastoff for a ground up attempt.

We had gone back and forth over different tactics countless times in just those few days, changing our minds over and over again about which style we wanted to pursue. One idea was to hike to the top and rappel in, rehearsing the four upper crux pitches and stashing supplies to enable a fast and light ascent that would have a lower impact on Harrison’s shoulder, and ensure a higher chance of success. The other tactic was to go ground up, and account for much more time on the wall to work out all of the difficult pitches with no prior knowledge. We would be slow and heavy, but the amount of work wouldn’t be much different, since accessing the upper pitches would involve hiking huge amounts of rope up the technical East Ledges instead of just hauling more supplies from the bottom. In the end we decided that it would take the same amount of time for either, so why not have a proper adventure and try for the better style. There are only so many routes on El Cap that are within our ability to try ground up anyway, why waste one of the few remaining?

We decided twelve days ought to be enough time, accounting for a few days of rain that were predicted about halfway through our trip. The conditions looked favorable enough; four hot and sunny days should get us through the Beak Flake and all the way to Tower to the People (a huge bivvy ledge where El Corazón joins the route Golden Gate) just ahead of the storm, and by the time it had passed we would be well rested to climb during the next seven days of perfect seeming weather on the four upper cruxes that are all conveniently located above and below the Tower. We should have plenty of time to send each pitch, since after the squall it was supposed to be in the sixties and sunny every day.

During those two storm days however, it was supposed to be cold. On the Valley floor the highs were predicted to be in the low forties, so two thousand feet higher on the side of an exposed big wall that is constantly blasted by wind, who knew what it would be like. There was only one way to find out.

Our pre-hauling went as well as could be expected of transporting hundreds of pounds of food, water, climbing gear, and winter clothes halfway up a 3000’ cliff. Harrison creatively devised a strategy where we both attached ourselves to the opposite end of the haul line from our bags, so that by simply rappelling another fixed rope our weight would send the pigs skyward without having to use a 2-to-1 pulley system or do any standard hauling at all. The downside was that both of us had to jumar each pitch twice, so by the time we were done with the two days of hauling we had essentially jugged the entire height of El Cap, twice. While the jugging was far easier than regular hauling, it still left me so exhausted we had to take two rest days before we could leave the ground, and even then, I still felt a nagging pain in my right foot; one that would gradually worsen for the rest of the trip.

As we prepared to embark on our mission, the familiar pre-El Cap stress began to settle in, but I had a different relationship with El Corazón than I had with either the Salathé or the Muir. On the Salathé I was on a deeply personal journey through history, and on the Muir it had been a mysterious adventure about simply embarking into the unknown with no expectations. This time the intentions were far different; we were climbing El Corazón as a team. That meant we would swap leads and we would not move on until both of us were through each crux. While the difficulties are lessened by sharing the work, there are twice as many crux pitches because both people have to send each of them. Whether we sank or swam, we would do it together. While we were trying to do the route in good style by going ground up, we were less concerned with both leading each pitch; this was an experience meant to be shared, not driven by whoever was climbing better.

Having climbed the freeblast several times already, I led us up the first block of slippery granite slabs early on the morning of the first day. It was supposed to be nearly eighty degrees, so we raced to stay ahead of the sun. While the crux of the freeblast is only mid-5.11, I had never actually done it first try on any of the three times I’d climbed it. As I quested up polished granite pin scars on the crux pitch, I watched the sun creep alarmingly fast up the wall below me. It was already hot, but the moment it touched these holds these moves would become a full grade harder, screwing over not only me if I had to repeat the pitch, but especially Harrison who would be trying it for the first time.

I managed to pull it off just in time for myself at least, arriving at the belay right as the sun hit the slab. Had I been the one following in the heat it would have meant trouble, but since Harrison is an absolute wizard on slab he was able to follow the pitch with barely a hesitation on the delicate balance moves. We climbed the rest of the freeblast in scorching heat, the day already nuclear at 9am. Two pitches from Gray, Harrison took the lead on our final block for the day. As he hauled up our day bag, I began up the second-to-last pitch, a 5.10 that I had climbed just a few days ago. Suddenly I found myself taking the whip, having dry-fired unexpectedly off a very good hold and landing conveniently back at the belay. I must be tired.

By early afternoon we had arrived at Gray Ledges, dehydrated, sunburned, and feet aching from the twelve long pitches. We assembled our portaledge just below the Beak Flake and tetrised ourselves into a tiny cave that offered a shady reprieve from the blazing sun. Eventually we laid down to try and sleep for the night, only to realize our ledge was under some kind of drip that started once the sun went down. We forced the ledge into the rain fly by headlamp, but even then neither of us could get comfortable. Harrison kept lowering straps that I thought needed to be raised and vice versa, as we struggled to make the contraption lie flat. Had it always been this difficult? Neither of us could remember ever having this much trouble setting it up in the past, but eventually we settled for ‘good enough’ and said goodnight.

The straps pressed into my shoulder, sore from the long day as I constantly rolled off my pad. Sleep remained elusive, as I spent the night just waiting for morning instead of getting any real rest. It came as a relief when our alarms finally rang at dawn; and I immediately crawled out of bed. It was obvious from outside the ledge that something was wrong, the whole thing was at a severe angle; no wonder I hadn’t been able to sleep. As we checked in, Harrison revealed that he had slept poorly as well, and both of our hands and feet ached from the previous day.

[Something is wrong here…]

We reflected on our previous wall, during which we had exhausted ourselves with high volume and intensity early on in the trip and later struggled to recover when we needed to perform higher on the wall. In an effort to not repeat our past mistakes, we decided to take the day off. We had plenty of supplies, and the more we used up down low on the wall, the less we would have to haul later.

The day was long and hot, as we crawled in and out of the cave in between movies and podcasts, able to either be cool or comfortable, but never both. At least we had been able to figure out what was wrong with the portaledge. Things never cooled down, even after the sun set that night, but by morning we felt at least rested enough to give the Beak Flake a try. I took the lead, falling once at the opening boulder problem before starting over and managing to hang on until the end. Harrison made quick work of the pitch as well, joining me at the belay shortly after. We climbed one more pitch, the Beam Flake, before realizing that we did not have enough rope with us to continue any higher that day.

[cave life]

Our plan had been to base camp at Grey and fix as high as we could before hauling, continuing to use up our heavy supplies and take advantage of the only shade (the cave) that we were likely to find until we reached the chimneys much farther up. Our friend Elliott, who had climbed the route a few months prior, had insisted the next few pitches traversed too much for this to be a good strategy, but with Harrison’s expertise in rigging and my… lack of expertise to say otherwise, we had brought an extra static line and decided to try it anyway. In theory we had enough rope to reach the chimneys, or at least get within a pitch or two.
With the fourth day promising slightly cooler temperatures, we planned to fix the next three pitches past the Beam Flake using the rest of our rope while the rock was still in the shade, then return to base camp to pack everything up and spend the rest of the day hauling to our new high point when it was too hot to climb.

[Harrison cruising The Beak Flake]

Harrison took the lead for the day, questing horizontally on the “loose, scary” 5.11 traverse pitch. First he went up, then he went left, then down, left, back up, wandering all over the place across flakes that seemed to be attached to the wall by nothing more than guano and some kind of voodoo magic. Eventually he arrived at an anchor: two new bolts with a sling that looked to be where the topo said to go. I followed behind and he racked up for what, in theory, was the 12d pitch. We had been told this pitch was a sleeper crux, full value for the grade and hard to figure out. It was supposed to be a technical face climb up past beaks and heads before a cryptic traverse, yet what loomed before us did not match that description at all. We were under a roof that turned into an overhanging offwidth that was too narrow to chimney and too flared to jam. For well over an hour, Harrison struggled up the pitch as I offered useless tips about arm bars and foot cams that were impossible with how much gear was on his harness. Eventually he disappeared out of sight, and a few minutes later I heard his faint voice call down the last thing anyone wants to hear after watching their partner climb such a pitch. “We’re off route!”

From his vantage point at whatever anchor he had found up there, Harrison had been able to see where we were supposed to be: another few rope lengths down and to the left. He wasted no time in lowering down to the proper anchor, clipping his rope to a sling where I was at under the roof. What I needed to do to reach him should have been obvious, but after losing so much time on the ‘bonus pitch,’ I didn’t stop to think things through.
Getting him the supplies as fast as possible was my primary concern, so I clipped my own rope through the anchor to clean the sling and rappelled down. I tensioned myself around the corner until I could see him again, immediately becoming flustered when what I had planned for lowering out the bags did not work at all.

Also stressed by the errors, Harrison took one look at whatever junk show I was trying to correct and lost his patience. “What’s your plan, and why are you wearing socks!?” he shouted.

It had made sense to me in theory: get him the stuff as quick as possible, then return to where we had gotten off route on the traverse to put on my climbing shoes and finish the pitch. My approach shoes were down at base camp. From his perspective however, I was making one bad decision after another as my sock-clad feet slid around on the granite footholds I needed to be standing on to pendulum myself sideways. I arrived at the belay and unclipped my grigri from the rope so we could pull it through the anchor at the end of the bonus pitch, only to find that it wouldn’t budge. Since I had clipped it through the previous anchor as well, it was now running over too many edges, forcing me to lower back over around the corner to pull it from there.
By the time I corrected all of my mistakes and had re-joined Harrison at the correct anchor, we had wasted most of the morning and we were both deeply frustrated with ourselves and with each other. We snapped at each other tensely, turning the moment into a fight as we tried to vent.

“Maybe we should just go down. I’m completely drained” Harrison said.

I was crushed. The wall that was supposed to bring us together had just turned into the biggest argument we had ever had. I blinked at him through teary eyes and shook my head. “You got this,” I said, not doubting for a second that he still had the energy to climb the correct 5.12d.

“I mean mentally,” he said, to which I had no response other than to give him a hug and try to change my attitude from frustration and defensiveness back to support.

After holding each other for a few minutes, we both managed to calm down enough to get up the pitch before it went into the sun, getting us to a decent ledge and the end of our ropes. Believing that the worst was behind us, our attitudes improved as we reversed our path back to camp. We devised a complicated plan to get both our bags and ourselves across the 50m traverse pitch. It has been kind of my idea for once, so hopefully that meant I would be less likely to mess it up through misunderstanding what was happening with the ropes.

As I half-aided, half-got lowered out across the traverse, things seemed to be going smoothly. Our communication was clear and we both knew what needed to be done. Soon enough I was at the anchor, rigging up the ropes to haul the bags and get Harrison across. The only problem was that we were now out of earshot of each other, and I had just crossed into the no-cell-service dead zone of El Cap. By lowering myself a dozen feet down from the anchor however, I was able to see around the corner and communicate successfully.
Harrison lowered the bags as I tried to keep the ropes from getting tangled. The last thing we needed was for Harrison to have any problems lowering himself out after the bags were released. They were still soul-crushingly heavy, and would not be easily manhandled if he were to get tangled in them somehow.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan as he released the bags, and it became my turn to start hauling them up using the slow 2-to-1 pulley system. I yanked on the ropes a few times before I realized they were not moving; something else had gone wrong already. A quick look around the corner revealed that the haul line had gotten hooked over the tiniest flake imaginable, but it was somehow enough to create too much friction to haul. Furthermore, I feared that the sharp edge might damage the rope, or that the flake might suddenly break and send the bags flying into Harrison while he was jumaring up to me. Above all, I feared that we would get into another argument for some reason.

It wouldn’t matter if I could fix it before he got here, I thought, as I desperately tried to free the line from the flake. I tried everything, but nothing would work. I even tried yelling desperately to Harrison for ideas, but he was still too far away to even really hear what I was trying to say, other than suggesting that I try to pull it off the flake by hand, which I had already tried many times. Eventually I began to panic. I had to figure this out before he caught up; I had to be able to do something for myself up here.

I stared at the flake, forming a battle plan. The bags couldn’t weight more than a few hundred pounds. People lift that much weight all the time in moments of extreme adrenaline. If moms can lift cars off babies, surely I, a professional athlete, could somehow lift these bags with just the strength of my arms if I could bypass the limits of what my brain thought was possible. I heaved the rope with every ounce of gusto I could muster, and just like that, the bags were free, as they and I went careening sideways until we both stopped swinging directly below the anchor and allowing the haul to be finished uneventfully.

As we lay in our sleeping bags that night, we silently stared at each other. I was completely lost at how to debrief such a disastrous day. What could I possibly say? I felt so pathetic, so unqualified to be his partner, so unworthy of being up here at all. Before I could figure anything out, to my surprise he started laughing.

“What the fuck,” he said when he finally stopped. “That was the worst day of climbing I’ve ever had,” he said, then I started laughing too.

“At least we are finally done traversing,” I eventually said, and we agreed that surely the worst must be behind us.

While that had indeed been the low point of the trip, little did we know how many other, almost equally difficult challenges still lay ahead.

The next day we hustled to break down cap and get moving up the long series of chimneys and offwidths that lay between us and TTTP. We were on a deadline to get there by the end of the day, since by this time tomorrow El Cap was supposed to be buried under snow and ice. Temperatures were already dropping into the low fifties as the cold front moved in, and the large corner system we were following would prevent the sun we had so adamantly been avoiding from ever reaching us now that it was actually cold.

After Harrison’s ordeal on the bonus pitch the previous day, I volunteered to lead all the pitches that were even remotely offwidth. We reached a section where the hauling one again becomes less than straightforward, with the route weaving in and back out of an alcove with a gear belay. Since we had two static ropes, we devised a plan to just use one of them as a 30m docking cord at the gear belay, and then wait to haul with the other until I had reached the bolted anchor at the end of the next pitch. As Harrison pulled the docking rope tight at the gear belay, I released the bags, watching with apprehension as they swung out into space and out of reach. At least it should be a clean haul, though I was concerned that the ropes would get tangled as the wind had just started to pick up.

I followed the 5.10, managing to fall off for my second botched 5.10 in less than a week. Spectacular. After starting over, I raced quickly numbing hands to the belay, struggling through a final boulder problem that would have been easy had I been able to feel anything. Soon I was at the base of a massive cave. Twenty meters of wildly overhanging bombay chimney opened up above me: The Kirkegard, a 5.12 offwidth that was today’s crux.

[cold temps on the first of the chimney pitches]

I struggled and grunted my way through the steep terrain until finally pulling into a hand crack, totally exhausted from the physical climbing. To my dismay, the anchor had only one bolt and a dismally sloping ledge. There was no time to rest however, as it was now my job to begin the sixty meter haul from the last two pitches combined.

In the time it had taken us to climb those two pitches, the wind had spun the bags in dozens of circles, hopelessly twisting the haul line. As I yarded up the 2-to-1, the twists would slide through the pulley and block my microtraxion from capturing much of my progress. As I struggled to manage the twists, yet another problem arose as I heard Harrison’s worried voice call up from below that something was wrong. Looking down at the bags, I could see it too. Our top bag seemed to be sideways, despite everything else being attached to the bottom of it and the rope pulling from above.
My heart sank. I had been so sure I had rigged it perfectly, yet still something had gone wrong. Again. There was nothing I could do but keep slowly hauling, though by the time Harrison finished following the Kirkegard I had barely gotten the bags a third of the way up. He graciously took over as I descended the haul line to offer assistance as a counter weight. Eventually I was level with the bags and could see that the rope had somehow wrapped around the portaledge, pulling everything askew. Not ever a real problem in the end, but a serious source of stress until we knew the cause.

After that were two more 5.10s: the Splitter and the Nietzche. We agreed that we would just climb the pitches first, and then worry about hauling later when we could have both people work on it, instead of the normal system of the leader hauling while the other person follows. With the promise of no 2-to-1 solo hauling, I agreed to take the lead once more. It was called “the splitter” after all. There was an anchor just ahead, but it was far from the crack and there was no stance to speak of, so we wrote it off as some old aid anchor as I blasted past it, bumping the few hand sized cams I had for what felt like an eternity. An obvious ledge loomed just ahead, promising a reprieve from the runout, but once I arrived I was dismayed to find no bolts and the Nietzche chimney looming above me, for which I had not brought the gear.
Harrison tied our two half lengths of tagline (cut because of a coreshot) together, and I pulled the wide cams up from a comfortable stance, and rallied myself for the gaping maw that loomed above me. One more, I promised myself. One last chimney, supposedly easier than the others, and the climbing would be done for the day; just a little more hauling and a bit of aiding, and we would be at the Tower.
Now equipped with the wide gear, I burrowed deep into the chasm, wincing as sharp calcite crystals dug into my back through my thin shirt. Soon the wide chimney narrowed into a tight, flared squeeze. For what felt like an eternity, I squirmed and screamed up the 5.10 chimney, repeating over and over to myself that this wasn’t the type of pitch you fell on, it was the kind you only failed when you gave up.

Finally I grabbed the first hold I’d been able to wrap my fingers around in an hour of full body groveling, and was free from the chimney. After that it seemed like our day was finally coming to a close, as Harrison set out to quickly aid the next two pitches, the Coffee Corner and the Roof, cruxes to be climbed later, and we’d be done.

[The Nietzsche Chimney]

Harrison reached the tower and I lowered out the bags, fixing our second rope in a big loop so I could lower myself down and then jumar up to the Tower. Harrison had told me what to do to rig this, but in my delirious exhaustion I could no longer think things through, and hastily tied the rope as short as I could; less rope equals less jugging, right?

Wrong. As soon as I started trying to lower myself out across the 40m traverse, I realized my mistake. The gri gri lacked the slack to lower me, as I tried to pull myself sideways with a jumar and release tiny amounts of slack at the same time. I thought if I could just get a little farther it would get easier, since I would be going upwards eventually instead of just sideways.

It was fully dark by now, as I continued to try to extract myself from the grigri and switch to a microtraxion to allow for upward mobility. Harrison had long since finished hauling the bags, and I called to him for help. He essentially told me that I needed to go back, re-rig the rope, and start over. I was crushed with the idea of so much extra work, even though it would be less than continuing along my current path. Eventually I managed to make it back to my starting point and correctly rappel out on the line to begin the true final jug of the day.

Inch by inch I pulled myself up the free hanging rope, tears fully flowing down my face with frustration and exhaustion. I had been going for nearly seventeen hours now, far more than my typical limit, and had no strength left. Finally I pulled myself onto the ledge, hoping Harrison would have already set up the ledge and have dinner waiting… but in big walling the work is never done, and he was still busy docking the bags.

After taking a few minutes to get my emotions under control, I rallied myself to begin helping set up camp. It was 11pm before we were finally able to eat dinner. As I attempted to boil water on the sloping ledge, my tired and clumsy hand knocked over the stove. I caught it just in time, but I watched in dismay as the lid went flying over the edge into the darkness. My heart sank even more when I realized the lit stove had landed on an end of one of the ropes and melted it. Of course I would manage to end the day like this. With our last reserves of energy, I asked if today had at least been an improvement from yesterday’s ‘worst day of climbing ever,’ status, and Harrison laughed, and said that indeed it was.

The next morning we awoke in a cloud. Peeking my head outside the portaledge, I could see neither up nor down El Cap, as snow flurries swirled around us. It was an otherworldly sight.

How many people in the world have ever experienced something like this? I thought. Of the fraction of climbers who ever venture deep enough into the vertical realm to climb El Cap, even fewer would dare face weather like this. I felt both very lucky, and somewhat foolish. Was this greatness? Or was it madness? Only time would tell.

[the Roof in a cloud]

As the day went on, the snow began to clump on the outside of the portaledge, and as the wind picked up, flurries began to blow up the flaps over the doors, until it was snowing both inside the ledge and out. There was no escape. Condensation formed on the walls, so it became a game to keep them as far away from our sleeping bags and down jackets as possible; an impossible task when two six-foot-tall adults are sharing such a tiny space.

We burned through an arsenal of movies, taking advantage of the much-needed forced rest day. Early on we discovered that one of our two fuel canisters had somehow leaked, leaving us in concerningly short supply, especially considering how cold it was, and it was cold.

That night it was even colder, as soggy sleeping bags failed to do their job at keeping us warm. Harrison’s was far wetter, and he spent as much of the night shivering as sleeping. When we awoke the next morning, our spirits were low.

[trying to stay psyched]

“Tonight is supposed to be almost ten degrees colder,” Harrison mentioned on more than one occasion. Despite being a generally much colder person, I was less concerned, since it was supposed to get a lot warmer after that, but for the first time we began to wonder if we really should be up here. I cautiously asked if he wasn’t psyched enough to stay, but he quickly denied any thoughts of bailing, just concern over the upcoming night.

“Maybe the storm came early, and it’s already warming back up,” I kept trying to suggest, as the sun teased us from the valley below. Yeah, right. We had been expecting sun early, being at the top of the wall where it hits first, but as the morning dragged on the only patch of sun we could see on a far away panel of rock barely seemed to be moving towards us. “It’ll be here in like ten minutes, just wait,” I optimistically promised at around 10am.

At almost noon, the sun finally arrived. Our spirits were instantly lifted, as we began dragging all our wet gear out of the tent to dry in the sun. The game was back on.

We had barely been able to leave the tent for a day and a half, as ice coating the ledge made all forays out a risky game. At last we could stretch our legs just a little, as long as we dodged the constantly falling ice from above.

[melting ice on the Tower]

To our surprise, down below us we could see another party on the wall, hauling up what we could only assume to be Golden Gate. It was a shock to realize we weren’t the only ones on El Cap in such a storm. They made quick progress throughout the day, raging up water streaks until eventually stopping at a pitch that seemed more difficult than the others. That must be where “The Move” pitch is, we thought.

While the other party showed impressive resolve in climbing that day, it was still well below fifty degrees and everything was more than a little damp. The thought of roping up didn’t even cross our minds. We made a battle plan for the next day, to clean our gear from the roof and try the much drier Golden Desert instead, while the seepier pitches below us dried out in the sunny days we were expecting to come.

The following day we set to work, as I aided through the roof to remove the cams Harrison had used to get us to Tower three days ago. While I did so, he called down to the team below us, asking if they knew anything about the weather since we hadn’t had cell service since leaving Gray Ledges. We were expecting maybe a little more rain the following day, but what they told us turned out to be significantly worse.

“It’s not looking good actually,” came a man’s faint voice in a Belgian accent. What had originally been predicted to be just a little rain on Thursday, was now a little rain on Thursday, then a little more on Friday, and then a lot on Saturday. “Sunday looks good though!” he called out optimistically. Sunday. That was four days from now. Four days of bad weather would be nothing on the ground, but time has a different meaning on the wall. Most people climb all of El Cap in less than four days.

Back on Tower, we started to reevaluate. Worst case scenario, we were able to climb today and then would sit in the rain for another three days. Best case scenario, it only rained on Saturday. We had the supplies to last that long and then some, but would there be enough dry rock to still send all four of the crux pitches, get to the top, and then rappel all the way down? There was certainly a chance, but it was hard to say if it was much more than a fool’s chance.

The Belgians seemed to think it was worth a try. Harrison seemed to think it was worth a try. I wasn’t so sure. Were we going to end up sitting here for three, or even four days, only to end up bailing? That sounded bleak. The alternative didn’t seem any better though; how could we bail when it could just as likely go the other way? Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad and we could find enough windows in the weather to still piece this thing together. More than ever, it felt like we were walking a fine line between a miraculous, odds-defying success, and a soul-crushing nightmare.

My conscience was heavy. How could I justify so many days up here, just sitting around when I had a job that might need me? I had told my boss I would be gone, but what if something came up and I was unreachable? I definitely hadn’t told my parents out really anyone else what I was doing, and it weighed on my mind. Was this irresponsible, or was I just looking for excuses to take the easy way out?

Any time I voiced my doubts to Harrison he reminded me that this was what we had signed up for. We knew it was going to be cold, and we knew that we were going to be dealing with bad weather. We knew we were going to be on the wall for a long time, and we had the supplies for it. We had the rack back, and the Golden Desert was dry. There was no real reason we shouldn’t at least climb it. Maybe it would influence our debate about how worth it these weather risks were to take.

Finally half-convinced, I belayed Harrison up the Golden Desert. It took us both two tries, but just like that, we had one less crux pitch between us and pulling this thing off. The beauty of the pitch worked wonders at restoring my psyche, as we finally agreed not to bail, at least for now.

Still not knowing the chances of rain over the next few days, we got an early start to check out the A5 traverse the next day. It could be climbable all day, or the weather could turn to shit at a moment’s notice. We regretted not taking advantage of all the climbable hours we had wasted early on in the trip, and it was time to make up for it.

It didn’t take long to realize that we were perhaps being a bit too ambitious however, as our numb feet skated off small footholds and an icy cold pump filled our hands and forearms, making the pitch feel grades harder than it should have. Little progress was made, but the sun seemed to be almost on the wall. Things were about to be perfect… except the sun never arrived. In the time it took Harrison to give the short pitch his second try, clouds filled the sky and they looked ominous.

We quickly bailed back to camp, hunkering down for the second storm. Once again clouds surrounded us and snow began to fall, but we theorized that it was at least better than rain. Snow might not get the rock as wet. With the disappearance of the sun, our moods once again plummeted. While Harrison is an incredibly patient person, I’m not very good at sitting still. We were quickly burning through our movies, and my phone had died entirely, charger broken in the haul bag. I tried to relax, but the endless hours sitting around were starting to really wear me down. Harrison couldn’t understand why I was so concerned with always having something to do; to him it was just part of the adventure. While I’d like to be able to think that way, my mind would not stay calm. Entertain me! It screamed, and I was powerless not to comply.

Luckily, by the next day the storm had passed, at least for now. The roof hadn’t seemed too wet when I’d cleaned it the previous day, but it also hadn’t been totally dry. If it wasn’t climbable, or if the Coffee Corner was as wet as it also looked, there might not be a chance for us after all. We decided we should spend the morning at least checking them out, especially if Saturday’s storm was as bad as predicted.
I lowered to the belay of the Coffee Corner, intending to tag up a heavy load of our supplies that Harrison was rappelling with. In yet another moment of poor judgement however, I lost access to the rope he was on, and suddenly had no way to slide him the tag line. Now he had to jug up to me with a huge amount of extra weight hanging off his harness, a daunting prospect.

By the time I could get him the tag line and he got to me, I felt completely defeated. Why couldn’t I stop making this kind of mistake? Every day it seemed like something went wrong, and it was always something that should be obvious, and it was always my fault. I felt totally unqualified to be up here. Surely I was ruining this experience for Harrison. He would probably never want to climb another wall with me. These were the sorts of thoughts that consumed my psyche, just a few of which I tentatively voiced out loud when he asked what was wrong.

The psyche was so low between us that we once again began to wonder if we should bail. It didn’t help that the Coffee Corner looked completely soaked. Water was actively running down the crack. What hope was there anyway?
At this point we figured we would just scout it out for a future attempt. There was little hope at this point.

I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so what the hell. I’ve climbed on lots of wet granite. Time to do my home proud.
Wet hand jams turned to wet fingerlocks, before the crack eventually sealed shut and I entered a wide stem under a looming roof. I knew the beta here, I had watched the Huberbaum video of it countless times. That was, except I couldn’t seem to reach the holds he had used. I twisted this way and that, trying to find a way to escape the elevator shaft until something clicked. A strange understanding of body geometry and the faint memory of a passing comment from Elliot: backwards. I delicately spun myself around until I was facing away from the wall and out towards Yosemite Valley, two thousand feet below. From that position I was able to reach a thankfully dry hand jam, cut feet, and spin around once more into a more normal climbing position to finish the pitch. Just like that, hope was once again restored.
Since neither one of us was willing to lead the soaking wet crack, we both accepted a top rope send of that pitch. Given the circumstances, we were perfectly happy with the slight compromise in style.

If the Coffee Corner was climbable, surely the much drier looking roof would be too, so we decided to give it a try. We had discussed different strategies for working this pitch, and concluded that the best and safest way to do it would be alternating lead attempts on pre-placed gear, since all of the crux placements are completely blind, and cleaning the pitch is a nightmare.

I led across the roof, working out moves and getting the gear into place. About halfway through, I entered a section where the placement is completely blind. A few tugs of my trusty green Totem seemed good, but I figured I should double check it by hanging on a second piece that I could see just a little farther out. Reaching behind me, I placed a smaller finger sized cam in the roof over my head; a placement I had used to clean the route already. Even if the totem ripped, this one I could see was secure. I shifted my weight onto it, and suddenly felt the world drop out from under me, as the cam ripped a flat-screen TV sized piece of rock out from directly over my head.

The green Totem caught, pulling me out from under the rock just in time. The boulder, weighing probably twice as much as me, barely grazed my shoulder. I watched it disappear down the face of El Cap in horror, screaming “ROCK!” at the top of my lungs. Thank God the bad weather meant there were no climbers on the normally extremely busy Heart Ledges directly below us.

Shaken to my core, I abandoned all attempts at free climbing and slowly aided the rest of the pitch. I was barely keeping it together, as I jugged back to the belay to face my partner. Harrison was always cautioning me about placing gear in bad rock, but this time I had really thought I was making the right decision. I was being careful. I was doing my absolute best, and I had still just come as close to death as I ever had in my life, let along while climbing. He said nothing about any misjudgment however, just holding me tight as I started crying a little, and then a lot.

[don’t say it]

After a long time recovering, we managed to get back on the horse. Harrison tried the pitch, and then I tried it again, and then he gave one last go, finishing just before dark. We had the beta pretty well figured out, though there was a concerningly wet section of rock at the very end of the traverse. There was definitely a chance, if it didn’t rain too much tomorrow.

[Harrison in the roof]

The Belgians had reached our camp by now, setting up their portaledge on the other end of the narrow ledge. Seb and Soline had been on the wall almost as long as we had, through the first storm as well. They were on a much smaller portaledge, with a much less waterproof rain fly, had lost one of their sleeping pads, and yet despite their hardships they were in high spirits and fully believed they would complete the route. Their psyche made us believe in the impossible as well, because they were so unphased by the elements. Just this one more storm and the next two or three days promised to be not only sunny, but the warmest it had been in a week.

As night fell it began to snow. Snow was good. Snow meant the roof might stay dry. By morning it was still snowing, but before long the snow turned to rain. Then the rain turned into a downpour. Rivers ran down the side of El Capitan, obscuring the Roof behind an impromptu waterfall. For what felt like the millionth time, our faith in the mission came into doubt.

We hunkered down in the tent for yet another cold, wet day of watching movies and twiddling our thumbs. We were watching one of my favorites, 22 Jump Street, when Jonah Hill’s character, Schmidt, spoke an iconic line:
“You know what? I may drag you down sometimes, but every possible time you can do something dumb, you do the dumbest possible thing!”

We both began laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. Without saying it out loud, we knew we were both thinking the same thing: the line perfectly described what I seemed to be doing time and time again with all the rope mistakes I was constantly making.

By early afternoon the rain calmed down enough to venture outside the portaledge, where we were met with even more problems. While the first two storms had not managed to penetrate the haul bags, this one was another story. Our climbing shoes were filled with water, and chalk supply all turned to a muddy paste. We concluded that surely this must finally be the end of the road. Now that we would have to wait for our gear to dry, there simply wasn’t enough time in two days to still both send two crux pitches, climb six more pitches to the top, pack everything up, and still have enough time to rappel. After that, a game ending storm would arrive, promising over an inch of rain. There was no way we could still be on the wall when it hit. I almost felt relieved. Finally we could stop fighting so hard for this and just go down. I could finally stop shitting in bags, pre-soaking my oatmeal to save fuel, and re-inflating my leaking sleeping pad four times a night. I could finally stop trying to force psyche on wet rock and freezing temperatures. I could finally drink a beer. I could finally lie next to Harrison without a web of portaledge straps separating us.

I went to sleep that night at peace with surrender. The battle was lost, but at least there was to be no more fighting. I was so tired. By this time tomorrow I’d be back in my van, surrounded by friends in El Cap meadow. It sure sounded nice.

The next day we awoke to two psyched Belgians, and a whole lot of blue sky. Somehow the wall seemed remarkable dry compared to last night. The moment I stepped outside for my tenth wag bag shit that morning, I knew exactly what was going to happen. We would find a way to still keep trying, whether I liked it or not.

“What are you thinking?” I asked Harrison.

“You’re probably not going to like the answer.” He responded mysteriously.

“What does that mean?” I asked, even though I already knew. We had to stay, we had to try. We could still scrap this together somehow. Seb had given us some dry chalk, and we pretty much had nothing left to lose if we gave it even one more day. It was Sunday, and it wasn’t supposed to rain again until Tuesday. Even if we bailed tomorrow instead, we could still get down before the storm. How good would that beer really taste anyway, knowing we hadn’t actually done our very best? Knowing we had given up when there was still a chance? Knowing we had been through so much, and not stuck it out through just a little more that just might be all we needed to send?

Since Seb and Soline were climbing the A5 that day and then pushing for the summit, we decided to climb on the Roof. If it didn’t go, tomorrow we could still bail. Even knowing this was the right call, I struggled for psyche. After the toll of ten days on the wall, I couldn’t get myself to feel much of anything at all. I just felt depleted. Empty. Completely emotionally spent. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to go up, I didn’t want to go down, and I didn’t want to stay here. I wanted to put on my climbing shoes least of all.

By the time our shoes were dry it was already the afternoon, but it just meant more time for the rock to dry as well. I volunteered to take the first lead. It seemed like the best way to get the nerves that I was now feeling out of my system. I was finally feeling like going rock climbing at least.

To my surprise, we both fired the roof, and in just a few hours we were congratulating each other on Tower to the People. What had seemed impossible just yesterday, suddenly felt inevitable.

[the end of the roof traverse]

Our thirteenth day on the wall was the first day in a week that we did not discuss bailing. Today, we were sending. Our plan to rappel morphed into a new plan to haul to the top, though we would have to come back for our bags after the storm since we’d left the straps down on the ground.

Worried that the sun would warm the rock, we started early. I tried the A5 traverse first, once again itching to get the morning nerves out of my system. With no warmup, a crippling flash pump filled my forearms, and I fell in the middle, and again at the end. Harrison didn’t fare much better. With the sun moving towards us at an alarming rate, I decided not to rest longer and tried again. The pump settled deeper into my forearms, shooting tendon pain up my elbows and causing me to fall at the same spot. Fear crept in; perhaps this was not as inevitable as I had thought. Perhaps this was to be the ultimate heartbreak, rather than the ultimate odds-defying success I had envisioned. Harrison fired the pitch second try, to both of our relief.

Because we were sending this route as a team, there were really ten cruxes: five for each of us. Now nine of the ten were complete, but now the weight of the mountain now rested entirely on my shoulders. Now attempting the pitch on top rope, I fell yet again on my third try at the very end of the pitch. I had no energy left. This was it. El Cap had taken everything I had to give.

[sending the A5]

“I think you’ve got one more try in you,” Harrison said, though I knew at this point a fourth go was unlikely to be any better than the previous three. Still, there was no reason not to try again. There was just as much of a chance as there had been on any of this ridiculous adventure: just a fool’s chance. If that’s what it was, call me a fool, because somehow it was just barely enough. On my fourth try, after twelve days on the wall, I managed to reach the end of the final pitch of 5.13 without falling. I released a gutteral scream of relief. The tenth, and final crux was now behind us. For all of my many, many, mistakes, I had not failed in this final moment of truth.

We returned to camp to pack up our bags, and began hauling our exhausted bodies up to the top of the mountain. The hour was late and storm clouds brewed on the horizon yet again. Time to get the heck out of here. If you rush, you’ll make mistakes, I told myself. We made it through the last 5.12a, which felt like 13a in our exhaustion, and all of the spectacular overhanging hand jams of the razorblade pitches.

[the last pitch of 5.12]

I pulled myself over the ledge of the second to last pitch, to find that Harrison had untied from the sharp end and racked the gear for me. We had never discussed who would lead these pitches, but I had secretly hoped I wouldn’t have to. I was so tired of route finding, and hauling, and climbing in general… but so was he, and someone had to do it. Resigned to my fate, I racked up for the final pitch.

I power screamed my way up a 5.10 fist crack, fighting for every move. It eventually gave way to wet face climbing, which eventually zig zagged back and forth over a series of easy but wet roofs. I begged each one to be the last. The faintest hint of chalk from the Belgians remained on wet rock, guiding me in the right direction.

Finally the summit was in sight, but as I tried to move up, I found I could not. The rope was anchoring me in place, no matter how hard I pulled. Short on slings, I had not extended a piece that was now causing too much rope drag for me to continue.

I was twenty feet from the anchor, glorious chains that promised the end of this saga, but instead I had to build a gear anchor and rappel the haul line down to the piece that needed to be extended. Back on lead a few minutes later, I pulled over the final edge, to find myself once again stymied by rope drag.

Are you fucking kidding me? I wanted to scream.

I downclimbed this time, back to where I had built my gear anchor just took out the piece and ran it out. I didn’t care anymore. Then, at last, I stood on the summit.

The thing about summiting a big wall, is that even when you top out, you aren’t even close to being done. The final haul is always the worst, and this one was no exception. Rounded summit slabs and the myriad of roofs that had given me so much rope drag caused the bags to move mere inches at a time, as I threw my entire weight against the pulleys again and again. I grunted with exertion, salty sweat and tears running in streams down my dirty face as my foot throbbed in pain. Finally Harrison topped out too, and together we managed to manhandle the bags over the last few obstacles (and by together I mean Harrison pretty much carried up the bags that he insisted ‘weren’t that heavy,’ even though I couldn’t pick up them up anymore).

The sun set as we stowed our haul bags in a cave and began the weary trek down the mountain. Just a few days ago we had been almost excited for this descent, since it was the first time we had been able to walk more than a few steps in just under two weeks.

“I don’t know why I was looking forward to this,” Harrison said, as our knees ached from the steep downhill and hunger gnawed at our stomachs from our unwillingness to eat even a single more protein bar.

By 10pm, we were back in El Cap meadow where it all began, thirteen long days ago. In spite of every obstacle that stood in our way, we had persevered. Through three storms, soaked gear, falling ice, endless mistakes, epic rock fall, pre-soaked pasta, getting off route, many forced rest days, wet cruxes, a soggy portaledge, and constant doubt, we had not given up. We had stayed the course, hanging on by just a hope and a prayer that with our strength and willpower combined, it would somehow be enough.

I’d say it took everything I had, but when you succeed that’s never really true. I thought I had nothing left to give after three tries on the A5 traverse, or after the second storm, or in countless other moments, yet every time I faltered, Harrison had believed in my ability to dig just a little deeper and in turn made me believe it myself.

So many times it felt like we were on a fool’s errand, but I’ve also heard it said that ‘only fools fall in love.’ If that’s the case, there’s nothing I’d rather be than a fool for believing in crazy dreams, a fool for taking bold chances, and above all, a fool for falling in love with the greatest climber, partner, and person I’ve ever met.

They say she who goes fastest, goes it alone, but she who goes farthest, goes it with others. I would amend that saying to say that she who goes fastest, farthest, and with the most passion, vision, heart, and style, goes it with Harrison Teuber. There’s free, and then there’s team free, and when climbing El Cap, I always know which one I’d rather be.

2 thoughts on “Team Free: A Fool’s Errand on El Corazón

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