Do you remember the first time feeling you had an “epic?” Maybe it was a rappel gone off course or not bringing enough quickdraws and having to figure out a way to the anchor. Maybe it was a first trad route and you felt in over your head…even though the only thing over your head was great gear.
Chances are if you’ve never had these kinds of experiences, you’re not as good of a climber as you could be. Every now and then it’s good to be out of your element, scared, in a predicament. Fighting your way through adds to your repertoire of camp fire stories, but more importantly, gives you the tools to face a similar situation down the road with confidence and calm.
Already an hour and a half into our descent off of Middle Cathedral, As Kris and I stood on a cliff’s edge and surveyed a canyon full of icy snow as far as we could see, we knew that our day had just taken a turn from difficult to daunting.
The guidebook describes the descent from the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral as a hike down the gully between Middle and Upper Cathedral: 1-1.5 hours. Though tired from climbing 1100 feet in 4.5 hours, we figured a chossy gully descent was simply the price to pay for climbing a classic. The first half hour went off without a hitch.
After traversing from the top of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral to Upper Cathedral, the descent normally requires two short rappels over a few steep sections and then a long rock-hopping journey more than 2,000 feet down the gully. We found the first rappel without issue, the only problem being a stream in our rap route. We tossed our line over a bulge down the waterfall and Kris started his rap. After only 15 meters, he stopped for a few minutes, finally yelling, “We’re going to have to stop here.” I couldn’t see the situation below and was a little worried by what awaited.
As soon as I cleared the edge, the problem was obvious. If we took the rappel to the normal end, we would find ourselves in a watery pit with two stories of snow above our heads. A huge patch of snow still sat in the cool canyon and was being eaten away by the very stream in which we sat.
An uninspiring chock stone wedged in the stream surrounded by moss and slings marked our stopping point. Our shoes, rope and much of our pants now soaked by the runoff, we set up another rappel, but not without some trouble. With so much rocky, off-vertical terrain, problems pulling the rope were likely. As I pulled the chord, the sudden stubborn stretch of a stuck rope coincided with an ‘oh shit’ feeling in my stomach.
With a stuck rope, you never know if pulling it harder is just welding it further in its trap or if a heroic effort will free it from the jaws of misfortune. Luckily, fate had had its laugh and our soggy line came whipping down after a Popeye tug.
With a mix of climbing and rappelling, Kris negotiated the snow and with not a foot to spare, we touched foot to solid ground a whisker after the snow pile cliffed out. (To make sure we didn’t leave the rope out of reach on the snow, while holding one end of the rope, I actually had to let the other end fly through my belay device and with a spot from Kris “fall” a foot or two to safe ground.)
We thought the worst was over, until we saw this:
At the site of what would normally be the second and last rappel to establish on the trail, wall to wall snow blanketed the canyon like a glacier for as far as we could see. No longer was this an uncomfortable exercise in keeping a positive attitude. We were faced with real uncertainty.
That’s what defines an epic. Uncertainty. When you take that first lead fall you face uncertainty. When the sun has set, you forgot a headlamp and don’t know the way, uncertainty fills your lungs and riddles your skin in goosebumps. When you’re three pitches from the top as black clouds roll in and thunder reminds you that you’re a small tourist in the big of nature, it is uncertainty that piques your instincts.
We didn’t know how we were going to get down. We didn’t know how far the snow reached into the depths of the canyon. But standing there at the cliff’s edge like spiders on a roof top, we knew we had thread, we knew we had light and we knew we had before faced uncertainty.
Also, with all the ill luck, we had a healthy piece of providence. Because the weather report called for a chance of rain, we had trailed a rope the entire East Buttress. We decided to soil Kris’s brand new chord and double rope rap as far down as we could go, get to the side of the canyon and take stock. We figured that at worst we could weld a few pieces and keep crossing the canyon on rappel. The biggest danger was a stuck rope.
Like the last rappel, we had to work around a cave of snow bored out by the stream. This called for some delicate traversing along the wall while on rappel until we could safely step out onto the snow.
Unlike most rappels, when you’re treading down a 40 degree angle snow field, you can’t throw the ropes far. The saturated ropes are heavy and sticky and easily become tangled. I spent a half hour on rappel, fighting knots and twists as my feet froze. Though we carried shoes, to be safe, we needed to keep wearing our cold, soaked climbing shoes. At this point we had been in our climbing shoes for nearly eight hours.
Every meter was like wringing a cold, dirty wet rag all over myself as the ropes passed through my belay device. I took the rappel the full 60 meters and was deposited in a small gap between the snow and the canyon wall. From there we chiseled our way along the edge of the snow for a bit to a grassy ledge system. We were relieved to pull the ropes without issue.
Kris climbed up a detached block to get a view of the snow field while I scoped out more rappel options. From his vantage point, he could finally see the end of the crusted snow. He thought with another double rope rappel we would be “close.” We down climbed the wandering roots of an old tree to get to the lowest ledge, giving us the longest rap possible. There we slung a tree and crawled through the shrubbery to start the rap.
Kris went first as my feet thawed. His rappel met the fate of my previous one and he spent 20 minutes fighting tangles and frozen feet. I was cold, wet, hungry, tired and happy when Kris yelled, “I’m passed the snow!”
It took both of us repeatedly pulling as hard as we could on the count of three to get the elastic and dripping wet ropes down. At that point, only another 1500 feet or so were left to the car.
Epics are relative. To an old hat Yosemite climber, our experience may have just been another day, a situation encountered many times before. But to us it was nerve racking. Though it could have been worse. Even at the time we remarked that it could have been colder, dark or worse, we could have only had one rope. When it was all said and done, the descent took 4 hours – almost as long as the nine pitch climb.
The most important part of facing such a challenge is having confidence in your partner. In a situation like we encountered, a partner can be a major liability or an empowering resource. Kris inspires calm and confidence. He is patient, experienced and selfless, not to mention that he is very technically skilled aside from being an incredible physical climber. I’m lucky to call Kris and so many others friends first and climbing partners second.
We returned to The Valley, enjoyed a bottle of mead and met with David and his awesome family. They cooked tortellini and we shared stories and poured over topos, dreaming of the future tales nature would let us tell.