FOURTH ASCENT OF THE WEST FACE OF EL CAPITAN 1971
FOURTH ASCENT OF THE WEST FACE OF
Charlie Jackson came to the Valley in 1971. He was a strong, short, good-looking teenage climber from
He immediately had made sure to meet Bridwell. Jim was always open-minded and on the lookout for promising talent, fresh new faces and so took him out some. Jim could even be thought of as a kind of Welcome Wagon Neighbor. He introduced CJ to the rest of us, giving him his imprimatur. I had recently finished the Salathe Wall solo and was ready to do much more after a couple of weeks of deep rest. Having just backed off a solo of a second ascent attempt of Tis-sa-ack when I realized I had only one hammer, I really wanted to still get up more big routes right away, but maybe with a partner or two instead. Solo tedium had become more than I could face again. I was thrilled to be going up on a big route with an actual fellow human this time, certain it would be much more fun than days of backbreaking solo work.
I don’t remember, CJ and I must have done a small climb or two together in the days before we walked up that afternoon, all the way past the major lines, and on into El Cap Chimney, where the West Face began. This four-year old route had had only about three or four ascents by this point, was nearly untouched, was still aided A4, and had some 5.9 and 5.10 on it. So no one was seriously looking at it as a free route yet. Twelve years after the first ascent, it did become a 5.11b climb in 1978 of incomparable quality. Royal had placed only one bolt on the whole FA and from the few accounts, it was a fun interesting venture, highly featured, reasonable and wonderfully remote with some big ledges available, perfect for CJ’s starter El Cap route.
Establishing a makeshift bivy in the talus at the base of the sweeping smooth slabby lower portions of this remote wall in the summer afternoon warmth deep inside what is called El Cap Chimney, we climbed some sketchy mixed hard aid and free moves to sink our teeth into the wall getting a steep slabby pitch fixed with our spare time. I was in well-practiced form, and he told me as he watched, that he was really encouraged starting this 20 pitch wall with someone who was experienced. His comment surprised me, as his usual approach towards everyone was reserved, a little standoffish and watching. We had fun that afternoon, and were both excited to be going on this adventure, way away from the current summer madness further toward the road, down the complicated terraces up which we had just labored in the Valley heat. We had our own private gorge, and a beautiful El Cap wall above us, still radiating warmth all around us as the sun left for this August night.
At dawn, we ran up our line fixed the night before to begin the route in earnest in the chill. This lead involved a mixed traverse to a vertical section that contained the only original bolt on the entire wall. Reaching this spot, my plan had always been to bypass RR’s one and only bolt if I could and when I got there, I saw a hard hook move would do this. But it was a very difficult hook move that dumped me onto a lower angle apron 15 ft below when the badly designed Chouinard hook pivoted. Having all the wisdom of years, of course I had a big Swiss Army knife in my front pocket, and landing on that apron with this stupid piece of equipment in there, I sustained a significant hematoma, a bad disabling bruise on my thigh. Suddenly my climb was now painful, and somewhat one-legged. Although the fall was a short 25-30 footer and must have seemed unimportant to CJ, for me everything had just changed. The young climber found he had a leader who was now in pain, had to work instead of glide upward all while making faces and groaning as if it really hurt. And eighteen pitches more to gain. But going down did not occur to me; we did not discuss it; I was willing to go through the process with this new trouble at hand and would not turn back.
I redid my hook placement, succeeded in passing the bolt and so reached the belay a few feet above the hook move. We just kept going. But every step up with that leg meant a surprising amount of agony, and not one to whine or garner sympathy, I had a hard time thrilling to the wonderful things around me or to the elaborate trail we were following up the multi-featured and ornate wall.
I felt CJ sink back into himself as he was forced to functionally share in someone’s misfortune, however mutely, as if I had him hostage. Even though we continued on swiftly and in fact ended up doing the fastest ascent of the route to date and even though we could obviously do the route, he disdained the emotional aspect of my predicament, the grimacing and what must have seemed to a young guy, almost a maudlin “acting out” by me as I made myself work with what I had regardless of how harrowing this pain was. He silently kept himself engaged to the task of getting up the wall, perhaps also still worrying that his safety might fall in jeopardy despite the fact we were doing very well.
We gained a long slanting dihedral a couple of hundred feet long where the crux aid was purported to be, and a hanging belay was set up for the last pitch in this formation. CJ took this engaging lead, climbing brilliantly, and in preparing for it coldly and hardly jokingly said something about how he had all his belayers do something or other, concerned with racking of equipment, as if he were the seasoned old pro and I was just a helper housekeeper. I have to imagine I had made a mess of the rack to get to this belay. It was a comment that in other circumstances would have been funny and a cute teasing jab by a younger man at a slightly older slightly wiser one, but in our state, it rested between us, ugly, as his only pronouncement and acknowledgement that I was hurt and suffering; instead of being a concession to me in friendship it took on the mantle of disrespect and distaste.
So just as the fall had in a second changed the spirit of the climb, suddenly upon this utterance I no longer had to keep wondering if teenage CJ had any humanity towards me. I concluded that his determination was really his picture and as the rest of the climb unfolded I now would feel pointlessly alone in pain, and used in the sense that this young guy and I would not have been up here if it weren’t for my background but that he would enjoy denying me common respect and friendship. It seemed we were both soloing now. Because I was somewhat disabled and worse, in real pain, he could entertain the fantasy he was up to the challenge alone, discarding me on some level in a narrowly conceived boyish competitive fantasy, regardless of whom I was in the community.
Later we found a spot for the one bivouac we would need and on which we had planned. It was a ledge comfortable for one man and a very unusual squeezy horizontal slot nearby that could house another climber. I quickly evaluated the choice and knew to play a ruse here. I wisely yielded the ledge to CJ and took the slot, mostly vanishing from sight in it and at first loving its imagined embrace, enjoying the nearly complete shelter from night breezes along the giant El Cap face. Also I avoided having to be side by side with this partner with whom I had become unhappy. Later on peeing would prove to be a big hassle from the slot and staying in one head orientation for hours and hours with only an inch or so extra space for me in this kooky space was also annoying. CJ really liked his copious, classic open ledge for a while but later had to face the elements as night wore on, growing cold.
By 4 PM the next day we reached the summit, 20 pitches above the ground, thinking the route was intricate, interesting and not horribly hard. We did not really think about making it go all free very much although looking back, it could have gone even in 1971 eight years before Lakey and Jardine bagged it. The summit meant the end of our having to work together and the certain delicious return to really true selfishness enjoyed on the ground and in camp. CJ left for home soon; I went on to climb the Hourglass left side among other routes, and in a few years was no longer climbing on a professional level as law firm and estate construction grabbed most of my time and energy. I heard that CJ started an arborist business back in his hometown in