El Capitan Yearnings

Twenty years ago I did some rock climbing. However, I never did lead climbing. I never did multi-pitch climbing. The truth is, I am scared of heights. In my rock climbing endeavors, both in the climbing gym and outdoors, I learned that when your shoes are 10 feet above “the deck” – which is the floor, and you fall, you can very easily die. You don’t need to be 100 or 500 feet up. 10 feet is enough.

So climbing up 100 feet on a top-rope to an anchor I had built myself taught me many lessons. Some of those are:

1. As soon as your feet are more than 10 feet off the ground, and you mess up, or your gear fails, you die.

2. Never climb with – and be belayed by – somebody whose skills you do not know and who you don’t trust with your life.

3. When you’re on the wall, gross-national-product land is gone. Worries about career, money, family, kids and health are gone. That next hand-hold is EVERYTHING.

4. Rock climbing is an excellent way to overcome all kinds of fears.

But I had a career, responsibilities, children to raise, and very little time. My climbing faded further and further behind, and it’s been years since I tied my last figure-eight knot.

Still, it’s in my yearning and my blood, and when I recently visited Yosemite, where El Capitan, the holy grail of big wall climbing in America, overpowers all other mountains and natural features, I can’t help but stop the car, get the camera out, get the binoculars and look at the majestic mountain.

Above is a picture of El Capitan, or El Cap, as climbers lovingly call it. I took this picture from the road in Yosemite Valley. It’s a sheer wall of vertical, rock, 3000 feet tall; that’s more than half a mile.

[Go click on the picture to enlarge it and display it on a large monitor, if you can. Do that to all the pictures in this post, to get the most out of them.]

Here is El Cap from another angle, from the right of the picture above. I am a bit closer to the wall now. Do you notice anything? No?

Well, let’s go exploring together. Click on the image below. It’s the same picture as the one above, but I have pointed something out:

At the red arrow, there is a lead climber. At the green arrow is the team’s haul-bag. A haul-bag is where they keep all their gear for multiple days on the wall, jackets, sleeping bags, bivouac, food and all the water they will need. At the blue arrow is the belayer, who follows the lead climber up and removes the protection devices as he climbs up.

Can you see them? No? I agree, they are too small to see. To actually see them, you need to look at the zoomed picture below. This is the same image, just closer.

Ah, now you can see a man at the red arrow and some gear hanging to his right. About 30 feet below him, at the green arrow, you see the haul bag, with a yellow bottom. And another 30 feet below that, at the blue arrow, his partner, getting ready to follow him up.  It might be fun to click on the original picture above and try to see them without the arrows. You can use the tree in the foreground as a guidance of where to look.

After spotting them there, I wanted to get closer. So we hiked up to the base of the wall:

Here I am at the base. At El Cap, you can actually walk from the road to the base of the 3000 foot El Capitan wall in about 10 minutes through the trees. I am standing on flat gravel, approximately where these climbers started their climb, possibly early that day. Where is that first step, that first hand-hold?

Being at the base of El Capitan, I can now look straight up at the mountain. This is difficult to do, since I have to crane my neck to an impossible degree. So I just lay down on a flat boulder on the ground and looked up. This is what I saw from that spot:

The branch sticking down is from a dead tree further away from the wall than my spot. I am looking up the wall of El Cap to the very top, approximately in the center of the picture. Can you see our climbing boys from this perspective?

I didn’t think you could, so I marked them for you with arrows:

Can you see them now?

I didn’t think you could, so I zoomed in again, and now here they are:

There again is the haul bag at the green arrow with the yellow bottom, and the two climbers in their respective positions. Look at the dark black spot on the left upper side of the picture. That’s an overhang, or a “roof” as climbers call it. Does it not look, from this angle, as if the climbers were right under the roof? It does, doesn’t it?

Now, just for kicks, go back to the first picture with the arrows pointing to the tiny climber specks and look for the dark spot of the roof. It is way, way, way above them.

This is one of the interesting phenomena with rock climbing. When you’re on the rock, distances and heights get distorted. Looking down looks endlessly far, even though you my have just left “the deck.” Looking up does not look that far to go, and sometimes it’s very deceiving. It can be difficult to tell how high you actually are.

Here is a parting shot of me with binoculars with another spotter, searching for yet other parties on the wall.

Then I got in the car and drove away, full of El Capitan Yearnings.

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