Hanging Around
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© Mark Kroese

Last month, Mark Kroese, Sean Courage and 18-year-old wonderkind Miles Smart went to Yosemite Valley and climbed Zodiac on El Cap. For the teenaged Smart, the route was just one of half a dozen big walls this year; for Kroese, a journalist and accomplished free climber, the 16-pitch aid route was an educational experience.

Hanging around El Capitan has a peculiar effect on climbers. I'm not sure why, but the aura of The Big Stone has a way of generating memory lapses, false bravado and surges of testosterone in otherwise rational people.

The base of El Cap — the road by the east end of the meadow to be precise — is the unofficial epicenter of the modern big wall climbing scene. Many things happen here: Specialized climbing gear, such as copperheads, rivet hangers and funkness devices are bought and sold in tax free, trunk-to-trunk commerce. Climbing partners are found, and lost. Powerful telescopes are used to observe climbing teams speckled across the wall. And most of all, current route information, known as "beta", is exchanged.

Climbers about to embark on one of El Cap's more than 50 routes are regularly found pumping other climbers who've done the route for crucial information. Sometimes these discussions are straightforward and productive. But just as often they are indirect and ambiguous, laced with subtle understatement, posturing and selective recall. Getting good beta can require keen interpretation skills.









As my two partners, Sean Courage and Miles Smart, and I were racking for an ascent of The Zodiac, I found myself drawn into such a conversation with a Valley local named Brian. Brian had the look: tall, wire thin, sporting a ponytail, baggy Gramicci pants and well worn Garmonts. He sauntered toward us, pausing to inspect our disorganized mound of gear.

"How's it going?" I offered, as I assembled a rack of free 'biners.
"Good. So what route are you racking for?" he queried.
"The Zodiac," I replied nonchalantly, knowing a moderate trade route wouldn't interest him.
"Great route, you'll really enjoy it."
"You done it?"
"Yeah, a few years ago."
"How was it?"
"Pretty casual, lots of fun. I mean, it's a total trade route. The guidebook calls it A3+, but the new wave rating is A2+. Tons of fixed stuff; it goes hammerless. Gets almost as much traffic as The Nose these days"
"Any pitches that are really sketchy or difficult?"
"Nah. I mean it's a cruise". Just bring a medium rack and you'll walk it. Have fun."

As Brian continued down the road I began to question everything. Did we have too much gear? Was 40 liters of water excessive? We were taking this thing too seriously? I pulled my partners aside to discuss the situation. Fortunately, Miles, who had spent the entire spring in the Valley, was not so easily drawn into Brian's distorted orbit. Miles informed Sean and I that Valley local Chris McNamara (who at the age of 19 has done 35 ascents of El Cap) had just "cleaned up" The Zodiac, replacing old bolts and extracting about half of the fixed gear. Miles contended that the route was now closer to its first ascent condition than it had been in years, and recommended that we bring a comprehensive rack. Sean agreed. (And when your partners' last names are Smart and Courage, you don't argue). The hardware rack grew.

"The Zodiac continued to challenge us, but our mindset changed. We focused on the quality of the climbing instead of dwelling on its difficulty..."
The evening sun dimmed on the upper part of The Shield while we crammed the unruly heap of gear into our A5 Grade VII haul bag. As we humped our load to the base of the route, headlamps dotted the vertical landscape like a sparely lit Christmas tree. Sean and I searched for a bivy spot while Miles led the first pitch in the dark. The huge shards of granite at the base of the route yielded no comfort, so we opted for our PortaLedges, hanging just a foot off the ground.

At first light Sean blasted up the fixed line and led the second pitch, calling it "attention getting," a rare assertion coming from a no-hype guy. His remark made me wonder about pitch three, my first lead. Would my modest aid climbing experience be enough?

About 100 feet into the pitch, standing on a wobbly Chouinard hook, I found myself deliberating between a quick Leeper Cam placement and a slow but more secure Lost Arrow. As I pounded in the Lost Arrow, I scolded myself for having no balls and reflected on Brian's assertion that we would "cruise" the route. The climbing wasn't desperate, but it was thought provoking and time consuming. I reached the belay after two long hours, wondering if, by Brian's standards, I'd "cruised" the pitch. As Sean cleaned and Miles hauled, reality sunk in: for us, The Zodiac would be no cruise. Success would require an old fashioned, dawn-to-dusk, try-your-hardest, take-it-seriously effort.

Plodding up the seventh pitch, the last of day one, I was confronted by a steep headwall bisected by a flaring, quarter inch seam. The topo indicated this section was fixed. Looking up the headwall, I was surprised to see that the next piece of fixed gear was in fact the belay, more than 50 feet above me. I quietly thanked Miles for loading up the rack and got to work. The climbing was steep and wonderful — tiny HB offset nuts, an occasional Leeper Cam, a few double zero TCUs, but it was no cruise. "How's it going up there?" queried Miles as I was inching my way toward the belay. "Oh, fine, this pitch is a cruise," I replied. My sarcasm was obvious. It was a sporting pitch — more than I bargained for.

Flat on my back in the portaledge, I awoke as the 5am sun illuminated the upper pitches of the Dawn Wall. Since today's first lead was mine, I stood up to examine the pitch. "Wow, it looks steep," I mused as I slowly organized the rack. Miles sensed procrastination. Setting the tone for the day, he nudged me and quipped, "Hey, it all goes." I thought to myself, he's right, it does go, and all I have to do is get my butt in gear and start leading. Up I went, taking it one placement at a time. The climbing was outrageous — massive, clean features, beautiful rock, relentless exposure and went from just plain steep to in-your-face steep. As I closed in on the belay anchors, I realized day two was different. Fueled by a whole new set of expectations, I was climbing with more conviction and confidence.

The Zodiac continued to challenge us, but our mindset changed. We focused on the quality of the climbing instead of dwelling on its difficulty. When faced with a dicey move we'd simply recite our new mantra: "Hey, it all goes." Our interactions became more positive. We joked. We were having fun. We were getting "dialed in."

My hardest lead came on day three. As I was getting to the business of the thirteenth pitch, the wind shifted, redirecting spray from the nearby waterfall right on top of me. Water poured over the rock; I was soaked within minutes. What should have been 20 feet of straightforward free climbing turned into a sequence of tricky hook moves in a downpour. Earlier in the climb that lead would have sent me into an endless harangue. But after three days in El Cap's celestial orbit I was surprisingly unfazed by the whole affair. Sean cleaned the pitch with characteristic efficiency, arriving at the belay within minutes. "I bet that wet section was sketchy", he allowed, as if to compliment me for a bold lead. "Nah, it was fine", I replied casually. "I mean Sean, it all goes". Building on the momentum, he grabbed the rack and started leading without saying a word.

As Sean blazed ahead, Miles and I realized we were going to top out before dark. We also realized we weren't the same team that started this route three days ago. The climbing hadn't changed, but we had. Nothing seemed to faze us anymore. We took everything in stride: sore hips, swollen hands, too much sun and not enough sleep. Our communication became breezy, casual, understated. Success now seemed inevitable. We sensed a transformation taking place. Were we too entering El Cap's reality distortion zone?

Miles finished leading the last pitch around 6pm. Instead of racing down the East Ledges, we opted to bivy on top and descend in the morning. Once again, I slept in the portaledge, this time hanging from a fragrant Mariposa tree. After ten hours of uninterrupted sleep we packed the haul bag for the last time and headed for — where else? — the meadow at the base of El Cap. As we sorted gear on our trunk-side tarp, two aspiring big wall climbers walked by. Glowing with pride, they informed us that they had just completed their first Grade V wall: the ever popular South Face of Washington Column. And now, they decided, they were ready for a route on The Big Stone. Our fresh-off-the-wall look made them curious.

"So what route did you guys just do?"
"The Zodiac," I answered.
"How was it?"
"It's a great route, really fun."
"Was it hard?"
"Nah, it's pretty casual — you know, it's a trade route."
"Do you think we could do it after doing the South Face of the Column, or should we warm up on The Prow first?"
"Oh, do the Zodiac for sure, you'll cruise it."

Mark Kroese, Mountain Zone Contributor

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