The story below is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. The photo above was found on the Internet. "John" and I climbed the buttress directly in line with the shadowed trail, the middle of the wall, its summit blade catching the evening sun. Middle Cathedral, 2,500 ft. of north facing Sierra granite.
Gravity’s Desire: A True Fable
The mute wall of stone hung over our heads like a dark wave, a shadowed, grey expanse of granite half a mile high. Called Middle Cathedral, the rock beckoned to the devout, those who worshipped vertical landscapes and found religion on the mountain faces of the Sierras, the Alps, the Andes. Here, in this famous, often crowded valley, John and I were alone in the hours before sunrise. No wind stirred the darkness pooled all around us, filling the valley with silence and foreboding. We were young college students, determined, bursting with romantic visions of glory on the high rocks of Yosemite. Classes could wait. Girlfriends could wait. No one cared if we climbed this wall or not, but it stood central in our imaginations, a symbol of who we were, who we might be, who we hoped to be.
A confusing mix of dread and excited anticipation burned in our hearts pounding in the slowly slackening gloom. This was to be our biggest climb together, a serious test of skill and determination to set our course for later in the summer when we would head north to Canada. This was the big show, two thousand five hundred feet of sheer rock. The bigger, even more fearsome wall of El Capitan taunted us from across the river. If we could do this, anything was possible, maybe even the Captain. We carried a small pack for the essentials, clothing and food. Ropes were tied to our backs; aluminum hardware clinked and clunked quietly on racks hanging around our shoulders, the elaborate equipment for safety, just in case. Our strength and training would carry us up the wall.
Warming with the effort, a little winded from scrambling through the dark pines and boulders, John and I at last broke from the trees and stood only a few yards from the base of the wall. We were a comical duo: he short, compact, I the lanky giant. We shared a passion for the mountains, and many evenings over beer we talked of climbs and ranges to visit, peaks referred to as if they were beautiful women, the lines and forms we so desired. The North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock was to be our shared conquest. As Lionel Terray put it, perhaps we were “conquistadores of the useless,” but that didn’t matter. If anything, the craziness of our quest only inspired us to greater effort, bigger climbs, higher risk. If the rest of the world thought we were fools, it only showed how right we were. They didn’t get it. They never would. It was us against the mountain, and the climb was all that mattered.
I uncoiled the nylon rope, the symbol and fact of our connection, and didn’t say much. The weight of the task ahead bore down upon us like final exams, and even though this was a test we were eager to take, there was no denying the tense emotions roiling inside us. We needed to get into action. This was all about movement, the dance against gravity and fear, and as with any dance, someone had to lead. The first lead fell to me.
Cool, firm, pleasantly rough to the touch, the granite filled my hands and focused my attention. Even on easy ground, the mundane world slipped away, dropping in steady degrees with each foot of separation from the ground. Quickly, without my willing it, without my notice, that other world became a long forgotten myth, an abstract mathematical formula without purpose, vague and fading. There was only the pull of gravity and the flow of upward movement. Reach, grip, work the fingers onto that edge, force the hand into the crack, stem wide with the right foot, shift—careful, easy now—shift the weight. Ten, fifty, a hundred feet above the rocky base, I followed the vertical puzzle until I was nearly out of rope. And there, an island, temporary sanctuary, a ledge to stand on. I slipped pieces of hardware into the rock, testing each for security, tied them together, then tied in myself—anchored. Time to bring up John. He followed smoothly, quietly, taking out the gear to be used again for his lead, a series of corners and cracks that would take us further still into the unknown, away from the safe, familiar world down there where the land was flat, where we could drop things, trip, get up again and move on without fear of disaster. Up here, all our actions were carried out with elaborate care, the passing of a water bottle, the handing over of equipment for the next lead. Firm grip, firm response. “Death grip?” I would ask, looking him in the eye as I prepared to let go of the rack. “Death grip.” Call and response, the consequences of dropping the gear too nauseating to contemplate.
We loved this part, too, the way even simple acts became significant, loaded with meaning. Ordinary life could not compare to this life where everything burned through our heightened senses. Down there, all muddled and mobbed, you could ignore things, forget, let go so much of life. The great fear was that down there was all there was, the fear of a different sort of death, of boredom, complacency, a slow, sloppy slide towards mediocrity and stifling oblivion. Up here, nothing was mediocre. As we lifted up our bodies five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand feet into the air, we hoisted the value of our experience to levels impossible to imagine in life away from the hills. We became the heroes of our own young lives and looked down on the world from hard-fought Olympian perspectives. Climbing was simple, intense, focused.
One after the other, we swung leads, the democratic sharing of risk and reward, praising and urging each other on: “Go for it, man!” “Well done, mate”—the talk of the day mostly business, where to go, how to organize gear, exclamations at the growing exposure, that hungry beast opening its jaws wider and wider the higher we climbed. Fear and fascination continually pulled our gaze downward. At our most intense, difficult moments, the void ceased to exist. The next few inches of rock, a smooth crack, a sinuous ripple of diorite became a universe. The yoga of ascent allowed nothing else. We became movement and concentration.
Almost fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, I finished leading a huge corner, an open book of ancient rock telling stories, leading upward. I burrowed behind an enormous boulder wedged into the spine of the book and scrambled, panting, onto the top where I set my anchor and pulled in the rope. We were cruising, eating up the pitches. Maybe we’d get down before dark. As I pulled in the rope, keeping John snug but not too tight, I looked out to the glowing wall of the Captain. Its smooth, vertical bulk defied imagination. Who could dream of such a thing? Three thousand feet of polished stone, a Sierra jewel that blocked out the sky. Below, the meadows and pine forest took on the feel of a model train set, the cars mere toys. Soon John arrived, breathing hard, grinning. It was his lead next, so I could relax for a while. I took the pack, the follower’s burden, and set it under my knees as I settled onto a rock to feed out the line for John’s lead, a crack system threading a nearly vertical slab to lower angled terrain above. Since we climbed a north facing wall, shadows cloaked our every move, keeping us cool, the tones muted.
John organized the equipment. Everything needed to be in its place. When the climbing got desperate, he needed to be certain where to find the right piece. His head covered in a blue bandana, he looked down and carefully studied the bandolier of wires and cords, lumps of aluminum and springs. The products of climbers and engineers we had never met, this hardware held us to the rock and allowed the breathing space to shut out the implications of a fall. Climbing was a game of nerve and denial.
At last he looked up and said: “Okay. On belay?”
“Belay on,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
I fed out the rope as he began moving up the wall. He leaned hard off a crack, cantilevered his body to the left and up, and paused to set his first piece of gear about ten feet off the ledge. It looked solid. He was safe, for now. He kept moving, using no protection for some distance, twenty, thirty feet above the ledge. His movements became uncertain, jerky. A faint crack, a hesitation in his progress, a slipping anxiety crept down the rope and into my hands. John, time to get in some gear. You’ll hit the ledge if you come off. His right foot was slipping, skating across the stone, but he worked in another piece. Good man, John. Keep going. His control, his physical and mental composure began to give way with his feet. He was losing it. “I think I’m going to fall!” he cried.
“Hang in there, John. You can fire this thing!”
Suddenly the rope was alive, a fat, pulsing nylon nerve that carried John’s building dread down the rock into my sweating hands. I gripped and re-gripped the cord, prepared to reel in slack and lock off the line to stop his fall. Do it, man, do it. “You’ve got it, John!”
But I could see he didn’t have it. His carefully constructed shield of focus and strength, faith in his ability, his youth, the certainty of success bled away into the clear breeze drifting across the North Buttress.
“FALLING!” he screamed.
Ten feet above the last gear, gravity won the battle. A faint scrape as his smooth-soled climbing shoes separated from the stone, the rope going suddenly slack, thirty-two feet per second, per second, the undeniable physics of falling objects mocked his intentions and every wish. Plans, agendas, the golden dreams of young men did not matter. Our longing did not matter. Only these mattered: The acceleration of a one hundred and fifty pound human festooned with equipment, two contraptions of aluminum and wire wedged into cracks, the rope, and my hands locked into claws.
I braced for the catch. John would fall past the top gear, twenty feet total. But each placement was a gamble, a negotiation between risk and resolve. How far are you willing to go? Twenty feet above that last piece? A losing bet gives the house forty feet and rope stretch. Do you have the power to stop and place more equipment? Or do you conserve your strength, keep moving, let momentum carry you to a good rest? John had wagered on the run-out, going far above his first piece before he placed his second. It was an all or nothing bet: If the second piece failed, the ledge was his next stopping place at least forty feet below his high point. I sat gripped in fear at ground zero.
The briefly limp rope jerked into a whipping snake, John’s plummet taking up the line as it ran through the gear. Time expanded, every detail sharp as it played out. Here comes the stop. But only the faintest tug rippled down the rope. The top piece shot from the crack, spit from its resting place like a watermelon seed—useless. John began to tilt out and away from the rock, his pants inflating with air as he accelerated. Dark shadows of the corner, gray brooding stone, a distant patch of blue sky, John hurtling downward, my world, the Universe According to Scott, slammed to a stop as the full force of my friend’s speeding body crashed into me and the ledge. So this is how it ends? The anchors have failed.
The impact knocked me back and spun me to the right, towards the edge of the abyss, the darkness deepening against the sunny glow of the Captain. We were plunging into a hole, a pit without escape, no redemption, no second chances. Twenty-one years old and it was over. My eyes stayed open as I rotated on my perch. There was John, sideways, airborne, pebbles from the ledge joining him in the drop. His eyes were huge, stunned, disbelieving. He was still falling, and he couldn’t believe it.
Then he was gone.
A violent jolt ran through my hands as the rope came tight, the lower gear holding steady, my hands clenched still. Somewhere out of sight, John came to a stop. Instant knowledge—I wasn’t dead, I hadn’t let go, the anchor held. An explosion of blood erupted from my head and poured down over my face, over my glasses, a crimson veil. Electric pain burst from my right thigh, radiating up and down my body. I let out a gasp of pain and suddenly remembered to breathe. I looked down in wonder at my hands clenched on the rope. Death grip. I yelled into the empty sky: “John! John!”
Nothing. My brain scrambled, survival mode—solve the problem, get it done. Shit, he’s unconscious. “John!” Nothing. Oh, God, he’s dead. The silence hung heavy on the line, the weight almost too much to bear. My head and leg were pounding, blood still flowing.
Then, faintly, from below, resurrection: “Scott! Yeah, I’m here! I’m okay!”
In a rush, the world came back. The veil lifted. I peeled off my nearly opaque glasses, the blood already starting to dry, and yelled down: “Can you climb back up?”
“Yeah, yeah, I can….” His voice trailed off, and he began to climb. The wound to my head eased, the blood moving with a slow, steady drip, almost in time to my pulling in of the rope, the blood ties, the heart line. In moments, my friend’s hands appeared over the edge of the boulder, his shaggy dark hair, then his face, ashen, and then he stood on the ledge, shaken but unbroken. I looked up at this climbing Lazarus as he stepped forward—straight onto my glasses, the lenses and frame crunching under his right foot. Oh, this climb was going well indeed.
Continuing was out of the question. Fortunately, although my vision was fuzzy, I wasn’t blind. The cut to my scalp was down to a slow, steady drip, drip, drip and almost stopped. I had no idea about my leg. It felt broken, and I could hardly move it without intense pain, but no bone protruded in unusual ways. John could lead the descent, and I could hobble after, weighting only my good left leg. We had failed at the climb, but we were determined to get down on our own. Self-rescue was a matter of pride. We were both so happy to be alive that engineering our escape from over a thousand feet up seemed a reasonable challenge. We felt we had no choice anyway. The Cathedral had rejected our advances, the rock declaring in no uncertain terms that we were not welcome. It felt dangerous, our bodies now weak, uncertain, the exhaustion of hours of serious effort and the lingering fall pulling us down. We had to focus even more fiercely now. We both knew most climbing fatalities happened on the way down, and we were determined not to add another number to the statistics.
We attached the ropes to an anchor and threw the ends off the ledge in preparation for the first rappel. Time and again we would need to find trees, splinters of rock, old anchors, or leave gear of our own to which we could attach the ropes. We would slide to the next ledge and pull the ropes, hoping, praying that each would pull free and not become hopelessly jammed in some crevice. To get down safely, we needed the full length of both ropes. They simply had to clear for use below. Without the full length, odds were that we could not reach the next ledge.
So we began, wounded spiders spinning down through the air on desperate thread. I hobbled and winced, yelped and continued on, following John as he established each new anchor, clearing the ropes. Every now and then, a small, fresh drop of blood would break free of my matted scalp and stain my pants, the rock, or drift on the air to plunge hundreds of feet to the valley floor. I would follow the red drop for an instant then refocus on my actions. No time or place for distractions, however poetic. At the start of each rappel, I leaned back, the ultimate leap of faith, looked down at the top of John’s head over a hundred feet below, a speck of improbable life in a desert of rock, and followed, sliding down the rope, holding tight. We were going to get down. We were going to do it. After I arrived at each ledge and clipped into the anchor, we both said a silent prayer and started to pull the ropes through the now distant anchor above. Occasionally, the line would snag, piled on a ledge or wrapped around a tree, but each time it came loose and flew zipping out of the sky, a gravity whip that lashed us on the ledge as we covered our heads and waited for the end to stack up or continue its fall beyond. My heart roared with the ripping sound of the cascading line, for it was impossible not to momentarily identify with the racing plunge of the rope.
How many hours later I could not say, but in the heavy evening shadow before night, John unhooked from the rope and stepped onto the ground, that other world, the mundane plain of existence with its promise of a second chance we had believed lost forever. And when I, too, unclipped from the rope for the last time, I screamed into the on-rushing night, an inarticulate rage of existence from an unknown place deep inside. We were alive, damn it all to hell. We were alive.
We pulled the ropes, coiled, stashed gear in the pack, and staggered down towards the road. Frequently, I collapsed and yelled out in pain. I couldn’t imagine what my blood-caked face looked like, but we had to hitchhike to the medical center because our friends had dropped us off before the climb. Veterans of our own private battle, we slogged beside the road with our thumbs out. At last, a climber with a van pulled over and slid open the side door: “Get in,” he said with a kind of bemused expression. “I’ll take you to the infirmary.”
A partial scalping and half a dozen stitches later, I limped out into a cool Yosemite night. The scar wouldn’t show once the hair above my forehead grew back, but for now, I sported a fine gash closed by heavy black sutures, an temporary trophy for our adventure. John would later develop a load of fluid under his left knee that would prove more debilitating than my massively bruised thigh or head wound, but he’d held together for the descent. That was the important thing.
After a few beers, we went back to camp, and I stood by myself out in the heavy dark of the trees and looked up at the grim silhouette of the Cathedral. I would be back. I was certain of that, but John and I would not be going to Canada. His knee would take months of healing. I later heard from other climbers that he had done this before, climbed himself into situations that he could not control and taken dangerous falls. Something was missing in his wiring, his ability to gauge his strength and read the rock. John and I would never again climb together.
The Cathedral was silent. It cared nothing for all this, our human frailty, the tenuous bonds we share. It didn’t care that I trembled, clenched my fists and stared up in the darkness. It didn’t care at all.