It’s 4 a.m. and I’m wide awake, coming round with a start in a hot motel in Mariposa, my first thought being, “She did it!”
Ella, my 13-year-old daughter, is sleeping in the bed next to me as only a teenager could, a sleep so deep it would take an earthquake to break it, and she deserves it: Last night she was sleeping on El Cap, having climbed Tangerine Trip over four hot days and nights. If there’s any teenager on the planet who deserves to sleep in today, it’s Ella.
I’m sure for everyone who thinks it’s amazing that someone so young could find the strength to climb El Cap (both mental and physical—as she had to jumar free-hanging ropes for 700 meters), there will be those that will be appalled that a father would risk his child’s life in such a way. To be honest, I find myself on both sides, and this adventure has been one of great soul-searching and stress, as well as laughter and moments that made me want to cry with joy.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
For many years, I’ve brought my kids Ella and Ewen along to my slideshows, as well as events like the Kendal Mountain Festival. They’ve sat through dozens of talks, sometimes even sitting on the stage at my feet. At first I felt a bit uneasy with this; did I really want my kids listening to all these tales of derring-do? But climbing and its rewards and risks made me who I am, and the lessons it has taught me are those I’ve tried to pass on to my kids. Adventure is in my DNA and so it’s in theirs, too. They should see what I do when I’m away and understand the striving for impossible things.
I’ve never been a pushy climbing parent and I always wanted to leave it up to them to decide how to explore their boundaries, exposing them to wilderness and danger the way my dad did, while keeping them on a short leash.
One question that kept coming up at talks was, “When are you going to climb El Cap with your kids?” to which I’d reply, “Oh, not until Ella’s 13,” thinking the youngest girl to climb El Cap was that age. (Turns out, at the time the record was 14, but a 9-year-old girl has climbed it since). This always got a laugh, mainly because it was obviously a crazy idea. Then Ella turned 13 and she asked the question, “So, Dad, when are we going to climb El Cap?”
My first reaction was, “Why not?” Having climbed it nearly 20 times (soloed it three times, climbed it in 18 hours, spent 11 days doing its hardest route and nearly two months hanging from it), I thought I knew enough to keep her safe. Also having climbed it with two people with disabilities, I also understood just what was possible. When you’ve seen a woman do 4,000 pull-ups and use only her arms to climb El Cap, you know that it would be easier for a 13 year old—well physically, at least (if not easy).
And so I said, “Maybe we’ll go in the spring holidays next year,” having no real plans to do so.
But Ella is persistent and when we went climbing she would want to learn how to jumar, how to abseil, she’d ask me how she would go to the toilet “when we” (not “if we”) climbed El Cap.
Very soon her mum (my long-suffering ex-wife) said, “What’s this about Ella climbing El Cap?” to which I replied, “Oh, it’s just a phase—she’ll soon forget about it,” thinking that at 13 she’d soon be thinking more about boys than big walls.
But like most adults, I underestimated my child.
She had made it her goal to climb El Cap and I realized that to let her down was something I couldn’t do. I had to make it happen, no matter what it took.
The first person who needed to be convinced was Mandy, Ella’s mum. I left this task up to Ella, knowing full well the persistence of a child is the greatest force in nature to change an adult’s mind. Her answer was a yes—but only on the conditions that Ella would be safe and that my mate Paul Tattersall was there—the only climber that Mandy trusted. Paul agreed to come if I could cover the cost of the trip and so with much reluctance Mandy gave Ella her blessing.
If you set out with purpose to do something amazing, you invariably find that circumstance will lend a hand. I have always lived by the motto “act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid.” The first force was a talented filmmaker named Ian Burton, who contacted me for a film about climbing El Cap with former Royal Marine sniper Aldo Kain.
“How about we take Ella along as well?” I suggested, and so the idea was born. Best, Ian could cover all the costs of the trip.
A date was set and we started to train with more focus, Ella learning wall safety, aiding, self rescue, how to pass knots and clean pitches. She would have to miss some school, but permission was granted—that’s what I call a progressive school. The months turned to weeks and then days before we were due to go.
And then it all fell apart. Ian couldn’t get a visa to enter the United States. With no money to pay for the trip, it fell through. Although she put on a brave face, Ella was deeply disappointed. When I saw her reaction, I knew it was more just a climb.
We’d had a plan to go as a five-person team, with Paul leading, Aldo cleaning, me hauling, Ella jugging, and Ian filming. The technique was based on the Russian four-person big wall system (two pushing up ropes, two hauling up kit behind), which although heavy was very safe.
Telling Ella that we weren’t going was hard, but even harder when she relayed that my ex-wife had expected it to fall through. “Well, Dad, you are a bit unreliable.” That was it—this was no longer about Ella climbing El Cap, it was about a father fulfilling a promise.
Again, forces came to our aid. Aldo was happy to pay his own way, happy to climb a big wall, while a check arrived for my first royalties for my book, Cold Wars. The check cashed, I spent the lot on two tickets to San Francisco, showing the confirmation to Ella.
We were going!
And so, two weeks ago we finally reached Yosemite, arriving at night, Ella’s first impression of El Cap being its bulk blocking out the stars, the border between wall and space blurred by the pinpricks of head torches high on the Nose.
We were unable to climb until 5:30 a.m. on the following Monday morning due to our filming permit, so hung around the valley doing very little due to the heat, the coolness of autumn still absent. In fact, I’d never felt such heat in Yosemite, even in June, the temperature up in the 90s. I began to wonder if it would be possible to climb in such heat, as beyond the Nose the wall was almost empty.
At the same time, Ella was champing at the bit. She had begun to immerse herself in the Valley, its strange collection of people, its names and rules, bus circuits, and cafeteria menus. One day I said, “Maybe if we finish early we could go to San Francisco and visit Alcatraz, to which she replied, “Can’t we climb Lost Arrow Spire instead?”
Eventually, Sunday came around and I knew we just had to make it work, carrying 90 liters of water up the base (we planned on three hanging bivys) the night before. We set up in the dark to bivy at the base, dodging two rattlesnakes laid out on the rocks enjoying the slow release of heat from the heat locked in the talus.
Oh, how I wished I’d been cold-blooded on the days that followed.
As usual on a big wall with such a big team, day one was a disaster. We all jugged for about 100 meters, then I began hauling while Paul and Aldo pushed out the ropes. The weight of the haul bags (90 liters of water, four days of food for five people, three ledges, plus assorted junk) was insane. Ella, Ben, and I were at the belay all day as I inched the haul bags up while being roasted in the sun.
I spent most of the first day either hauling or telling Ella to drink, paranoid about her getting heat stroke. Finally the bags arrived, but so did the night, meaning we bivied where we’d been all day, only hoping tomorrow would be better. The only consolation was Ella had overcome her second-biggest hurdle: weeing on the wall, which although messy for me (she weed on my legs and boots), was quick and effective.
The following day was better but still slow and it was marked by more heat and some massive lower-outs for Ella, Ben, and me. In the morning Ella had conquered her biggest fear by having a crap in a wag bag (hanging her bum over the edge with the wag bag clasped around her), so I felt things were looking up. My biggest worry now was the amount of water we where drinking. Again, Aldo and Paul pushed the ropes up and we followed.
On each pitch Ella had to jumar a fixed rope (backed up by a shunt on the haul line), inching her way up on her jumars. As each pitch progressed she got more and more tired, becoming slower and slower. A few people had asked what I’d do if she couldn’t get up the wall and my reply was, “Well, she’ll have to!”—I never actually considered what I do if she couldn’t.
That night she was so tired (as was the rest if the team) that I had to take her shoes off and help her into her sleeping bag, witnessing the deep fatigue that only a wall can bring.
The following morning we were only half way up the wall and it was tough getting her started, but started she had to be, as we needed to move as quickly as possible to get to the top before we ran out of water. The sun had become something dreadful, drawing near at dawn and bearing down all day until finally losing its grip just before dark. Worse still, El Cap was devoid of the usual winds that cool you, and again and again I kept getting that T.E. Lawrence line in my head: “In the desert there is nothing, and no man needs nothing.”
On this third day Ella needed to be cajoled, bullied, and distracted up the rope, her fatigue obvious. Having done many walks, climbs, and paddles with my kids, I had a great deal of experience with this, but this was serious, as I found my own fatigue hauling the bags too much to deal with. The low point came when I lowered Ella off a belay and she realized she’d dropped her iPod, a gift from her mum and engraved with her name. She started to cry and just hung on the rope at the end of her tether.
I shouted up to Ben and Aldo that they should be prepared to haul Ella up the next two pitches, as she was too tired to do it, and in that instant she came round and shouted, “No! I want to do it myself! If I don’t I’ll only be disappointed.” With this, she slowly made her way up two more rope lengths to the belay. I was stunned by her strength, grit, and determination. This was the show of will I had wanted to tap into all along, a inner strength that I knew she had (and we all have). Even so, I had to find my own strength not to cry.
That night Ella fully endorsed the dirtbag life of a wall climber, drinking a can of Pepsi, eating a tin of pineapple, tuna mixed with soft cheese, and cold beans and sausages. I asked her what stopped her crying and she said, “I just thought that my iPod would always been in this beautiful place and that was okay…plus, you said you’d buy me an iPad.”
The last day on the wall was beautiful, as the sun finally lost its hold and the wind came, cooling us as we climbed the last three pitches. Big walls are always like this. They grip you so tight you feel as if they will kill you and you’ll never reach the top, and then, in the moment you relax and finally understand their lessons, they release you to the end of your journey.
On the final pitch Ella wanted to free climb, so I belayed her, easy climbing for her in her trainers, but still on the edge of the world.
There was no room for celebration as haul bags were pulled up one by one and kit sorted. As I pulled up the last bag, Aldo pointed and I saw Ella sitting cross-legged in the dirt, her head bowed forward and resting on a tin of beans and sausages, fast asleep.
As with all such climbs, there is much to unpack—both physical and emotional—and I think it will take many months to do so. To spend two weeks with Ella was amazing and also startling: I saw this little girl grow before my eyes. It was also a little sad, as I knew she hadn’t become this person there on the wall, but over the 13 years it took her to get there. Before me was this human being who could jumar herself, carry a big pack, and remain positive at the lowest moments, someone who thought her own thoughts and could look after herself. She tied on as my baby and untied as an equal to us all.