I was sixteen and my first attempt at soloing the Prow had seen my dreams of big wall glory crushed. For my decision to retreat I made up a variety of excuses both to myself and to others: my portaledge was wasn't working and... I didn't bring enough water and... it was too hot and... And in truth I was plain terrified by that massive expanse of granite. Who was I kidding; I had been dragged up on my first couple walls. I wasn't really a wall climber.
My dreams of becoming a master big wall climber evaporated, I decided to spend the next day walking the base of El Cap to look for gall fallen gear and ogle routes that I would now certainly never climb. When I reached the base of the southeast face I planted myself on a boulder, arched my head back and took in the infinite Granite Ocean above me. Just sitting there I felt a surge of adrenaline as I wondered what it would be like to be hanging from a tiny hook 2000 feet above the ground - I didn't have to climb El Cap to feel its power.
Moving my attention to the west I spotted a soloist on Zenyatta Mondatta. The guide at the time rated the climb the mythical grade of A5. Fucking A5! - That meant that whoever was up there was either suicidal, an aid climbing god or had just broken up with his girlfriend, maybe all three.
Then a strange thing happened. For reason still not clear I yelled up to the soloist: "Need a partner?"
From his height I was just a spec in the talus. He couldn't tell that I was freshman in high school or that the Prow had just humiliated me or that I had never really climbed a true big wall. But as it happened this soloist was probably in the "zone of doubt" - that mental space where one is equally torn between the painful and challenging prospect of El Cap solo glory or the readily available Merced river and pints of Ben and Jerry's. After a moment of hesitation the soloist called down "Sure I could use a partner. Go get your stuff and we will start up the day after tomorrow."
Ecstatic but terrified, I felt like a tee-ball player who had just been drafted to the major leagues. As I gathered my stuff and walked to the base over the next day, the gravity of the entire situation descended upon me. What the hell was I thinking!?
Blast off day. A fixed line led to my partner's highpoint on the second belay. Staring up at the fixed line two words came to mind: tooth floss. The rope ran upwards, gradually getting smaller and smaller to where it seemed so small it could slide between my teeth.
For next thirty minutes I delicately slid up the rope taking great care to bounce as little as possible. Reaching the belay I prepared to haul by bag. You would have though I was handling the plutonium the way my hands trembled as I grabbed a carabiner opened the pulley and placed the rope inside. One sixty-meter rope stretches from me to the ground but the exposure is so great that it feels like I am at least 1000ft off the ground. I tremble to think of what the exposure will be like when we are actually 1000 feet off the ground.
My partner led the next pitch and then I faced my first lead of the climb: pitch four A3. Looking upwards, a few shallow cracks ran upwards for 15 feet, then 15 feet of blankness to the first good feature.
I put in a nut for the first piece. Then I had to place a pin... ugh o. I had never really placed a piton on an real climb before and my ineptitude shined through as gave tiny little baby taps to the pin, like I didn't want to hurt its feelings. I did the same with the next piton placement. I gave it a few pseudo bounce tests where I didn't actually put any weight on the piece and then stood up on it...for a second.. and then.. PING. The distinct sound of jangling pitons and carabiners was followed by a jolt on my harness. I looked up and saw was ten feet below my belayer. My first ten minutes as a hard climber had seen me progress negative ten feet.
Utterly terrified, I was certain I had escaped being talus food only by some compact I had signed mid fall with Satan himself. At the same time I was relieved - I now had the makings of an excuse to bail on leading the pitch - after all - if I kept leading I was bound to kill myself. However, my pathetic pleas for mercy were met by words of encouragement from my partner, " You got it, Chris. It's no big deal, but ... try bounce testing those pieces!"
I regained my highpoint placing the same pitons - this time wielding the hammer with a heft that would make Thor proud. The pitons held! Above, I moved onto a series of hooks and felt my confidence grow. Suddenly I was having fun as I began to gain more control over the placements. After 130 feet I pulled on the ledge and triumphantly screamed "off belay." Right then I just about lost it and jumped up and down - acting like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. My body felt light and tingly and I wore a grin that stretched from El Cap tower to Horsetail Falls. Right then I knew I had found my passion in wall climbing and I was hooked for life.