A Belayer's Thoughts …. Yosemite Valley, Spring 1952. Yo- semite again! The transition period between winter and spring brought its compelling force into play, drawing us to the bleak rockface barring the way to the Tree up on the face of El Capitan. A passing storm brought a foot or two of powder snow, and now, in the laughing sunshine of a new day, there were untold pleasures for the eye. Across the way, Cathedral Rock glistened with its coat of white; the smooth wall of El Capitan spoke of summer— there were no imperfections for snow to touch. Climbing up the talus, I recalled a previous year …. standing close to the face in the protection of the giant overhang a thousand feet above, watching as Phil Bettler climbed down from the alcove twenty-five feet above. We had gone as far as possible without using direct aid. I remembered also the endless rain falling from the mists.
“Tension!” Cold fingers tightened quickly to the command as Bob Swift pulled his 180 pounds up onto the bolt. Tedious business. A shrill whistle from above caused us instinctively to hug the rock. Other people play golf on Sundays, I thought silently, as a large slab of ice crashed into the talus, alarmingly close to the cliff …. yet, what is it that brings us here? Curse the thought. Must one have an answer? Far better to enjoy the sweetness and dispense with the inclination to study the physiology of taste! A wave of apprehension came over me and I called to Bob, around the corner from my alcove. The answer as usual was nearly unintelligible, but I gathered he was nearly ready to come down and rest a while. Working with those few bolt holes drilled in a previous attempt – not ours – was tiresome and risky. A blessing that we had brought baling wire and extra nails! The well-known whistle sent Siri and Dunmire, who were gathering water for the evening meal, rushing toward the safety of the wall. A barrage of chips and blocks loosened by the sun from the rim plunged into the snow, obliterating part of the long line of steps leading across this no man’s land.
Ail part of the game. A bit of risk to quicken the pulse. Fun, yet not fun, it you insist.
Bob began the descent, urging me to lower him always faster. He was a mass of sling-rope, hardware, and cheerfulness … similar, perhaps, to those who must climb around on telephone poles and high-tension towers for money. Siri was psychologically prepared to go up and beat his hammer against the wall, or might it be his head? Striking similarity. To our surprise he began putting in a piton! Is it possible? Sure enough—there was the head, sticking out from a hidden crack. This climb is becoming disgustingly easy, I thought. A few more followed the first piton, and Will came down, retiring for the evening.
Now we would see. For months we had speculated, looked through binoculors, and speculated again. Even with the naked eye, it was hard to say whether there was a ledge above this first lead. If not, we would best give up the climb and go home. All in vain ? Most of us had fallen arches from standing at the foot of the cliff, watching as the leader hammered and hammered! Isn’t that reward enough?
Morning brought its reward of freshness of spirit and muscle. We responded quickly to the challenge, each wondering – hoping that the other would volunteer his services to continue the lead. Had I dreamt of those falling slabs? Seems to me I could even, upon occasion, hear the sound of the individual fragments.
In the prusik slings again, swinging slowly round and round in the air. At the high piton, rest again. Oh for a hold, a small, tiny ledge for the fingers to grip! A slab of marble might have offered fewer holds. Recalling the structure of the “Wilder Kaiser” and the Dolomites, I supposed, in a moment of phantasy, the whole of this rock mass a finely fractured limestone banding. Away with those bolts! We were climbing onward. In a matter of minutes we were at the top of the sheer cliff, a record climb! “Fantastic,” said the voices, “impossible!” “The greatest thing since the Zinne Nordwände … reminiscent, indeed, of Dülfer’s maxim: ‘You go as long as it is possible, and when it is no longer possible, you make a rope-traverse and continue on.’” Simple enough, is this fundamental of climbing philosophy.
The carabiner gate clamped its jaws tight on my finger. Gone were the voices and the wonderful magic rock with its chisseled holds. A voice cursed the tiny implement so dear, oddly enough, to the climber. I always get those things in backwards, a difficult job even for the most meticulous of climbers. Finally, a large ledge, large enough to allow both feet to stand comfortably. Dunmire began to follow.
A good ledge it was, and we soon were sitting at the base of the “Tree.” Oddly, the sound of a tree frog was quite audible. Here was an isolated outpost of nature … unsullied by contact with its infinitely larger life-source below in the Valley. Just the sort of material for a jolly Ph.D. thesis on wild life, it seemed.
Throughout the two days, the cliffs had not budged an inch. Rock-climbing in its purest form is the safest of all the components of Mountaineering, I mused. Take river-crossing, for example … (I shuddered at the thought). Clearly a case of mind over matter, but quite a lively bit of matter. You step in a stream not knowing whether there is a bottom or not. But rock, well, it’s there to be seen and touched. You hit it, and it usually does not move. I like rock, but maybe I’m prejudiced.
As I said, other people like golf.