When my climbing mentor, Jude, asked if I wanted to climb El Cap when I first saw it, I said, “Oh, yeah.” But that wasn’t true-I was just psyched to be psyched. When I first saw El Cap, I didn’t know what it was, or that it could be climbed, or what climbing even was.
I was on a road trip with James, whom I had met on a river trip. When James pointed across the Valley and said, “That’s El Cap. I’m going to climb that one day,” I wasn’t even sure what he was pointing at.
We had been swimming in what I now know to be the Merced River. The shade had crept over us, and James’s arms were wrapped around his knees. As his eyes described El Cap’s angle of elevation, tilting his head and dropping his jaw, James’s vanity and El Cap’s size collided in some semblance of humility.
I looked at him, looking at it. Then I followed his gaze.
After a nearsighted lifetime spent reading books in Eastern cities, I lacked the ability to focus on the infinite, or even the distant. For the entirety of the first 24 hours I spent there, Yosemite Valley’s sharp planes kept collapsing into one another. In the vast scale of its surroundings, El Cap didn’t look that big, at first. Then it appeared to move, and then to shimmer.
Even without fully appreciating its size, I was struck by its shape. It thrust forward, like a ship. It had a Nose, and a name-“O Captain, My Captain!”-far more evocative than the words “Half Dome,” which were terse and scientific, boring, and English. But El Capitan had a persona. It was some wild Spaniard. It changes color with the light, but whenever I think of it, I see it rose golden as the hour I first looked.
But did I want to climb it? I wouldn’t have even comprehended the question, any more than I comprehend James’s statement. I assumed he meant walk up the back of it. At the time, still a few years B.C. (Before Climbing), my concept of climbing was limited to vague notions of top-roping at a crag or freezing to death on Mount Everest. I didn’t know about Port-A-Ledges or haul bags or hanging belays. Asking if I wanted to climb El Cap was no different than asking if I wanted to eat it.
Three years later, I returned to the Valley to climb. I had asked James for his recommendations in preparation for a camping trip to Joshua Tree. He had advised me, in no uncertain terms: to go to the Hidden Valley Campground and ask to see the Space Station. I had followed these instructions and stumbled into trad climbing, where I found willing mentors ranging in age from 20 to 60. I thought of them all as my Jedi Stonemasters, and I fell into the rhythm of their seasons, trying to learn all I could about their Force, to make it strong in me.
My first summer in the Valley brought El Cap into focus. Living for a few weeks in El Cap’s shadow, ambling through the meadow or driving the road and finding it looming above, following someone to the Alcove Swing tucked into its base and trusting their grigri and the fixed rope there to send me wheeling and shrieking over the pines, seeing it from different angles, waiting out traffic jams as helicopters buzzed and swooped over it to pluck off the lucky unlucky, and climbing with a succession of partners who went off, two by two, to climb it themselves. I got to know El Cap, its history, subculture, and poetry-the Nose and the Great Roof and the Stovelegs and the Changing Corners, the King Swing and the link-ups and the speed records and free-climbing records and the meaning of the word “push.” It seemed to contain an entire mystical, vertical land-a dark blotch the exact shape of North America, a system of ledges that formed a perfect heart, a boot, a pancake, a Wall of Early Morning Light.
A gruff man named Tom Evans encamped daily on the bridge below and took pictures of the climbers, then posted them to a blog called the El Cap Report. Tom Evans let people look through his cameras, or a telescope he had set up for this purpose. He would be more amenable to this, I discovered, if you brought him some cold King Cobras.
I was learning how to climb by wheedling Camp 4 randos into taking me cragging on their rest days. After they packed up their haul bags and headed off to the base, I dutifully checked on them in Tom Evans’s telescope on the way to and from my own moderate adventures.
It seemed right to gaze at El Cap through a telescope. Climbing had opened up a universe of the unknown to me, and El Cap was its biggest planet. Even though the Nose was rumored to be littered with the climbing equivalent of space debris, I knew that if I ever went up there, I’d feel like an astronaut.
After all this started, I was home visiting my parents in Long Island, New York’s flattest suburb, when I stopped short in front of a framed Ansel Adams print on the wall outside the downstairs bathroom. I had seen El Cap before, I realized, before James and Jedi Stonemasters, before Tom Evans and King Cobras and Ranger Danger. I had seen El Cap thousands of times in my previous, earthbound life.
That Ansel Adams print hung above every dentist’s chair in Long Island and behind half the therapists in Manhattan. I had logged hours getting my braces tightened, gazing at it, suffering. Maybe this had been preparing me to gaze at it one day up close, suffering. Like many Jewish children of privilege, I had looked up at it while trying to untangle the neuroses of my Jewish childhood of privilege, not knowing that the escape from those neuroses lay not with the other neurotic, privileged Jew in the leather chair before me, but on the rock in the photograph above them.
What I had known all my life as a high-contrast art object, a pretty picture, a flat thing, had acquired a third dimension, a personality, and a name. It wasn’t an anonymous, innocuous piece of dÃ©cor. It was a world.
Photo by Eric Leslie
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