The Left Side of the Hourglass: recollecting the first free ascent.
Peter Haan in Tuolumne several days before the historic ascent
The Left Side of the Hourglass: recollecting the first free ascent.
Much earlier version published in Adventure Journal spring, 2000
It was the summer of 1971 a year after the National Guard had seized
For a decade already, the country had been gripped simultaneously by an historic battle for civil rights and a terrible war in
My first solo ascent of the Salathe Wall in July of that year confronted me with life’s big questions. The El Capitan solo had been a massive undertaking and experience. I had arrived on the summit having shed 5-1/2 days and twenty pounds, briefly able neither to recognize my friends, Bridwell and Klemens, nor understand the expressions on their faces. And yet I was still powerful and thought I could go onwards and upwards, forever. I had not seen a human for what seemed a lifetime; I had nearly left everything behind. I had begun a personal transformation. Level ground was also strange after so many days in the realm of the vertical; reaching the top, I was also content to finally stop ascending and quietly walk away, and what seemed magically, tread softly into the primeval forest towards my home, an aging VW bus temporarily parked by Bridwell for us a few miles away at a remote campground above the rim of the Valley. In the ensuing weeks my strength returned while I was shedding the bark-like skin and calluses from my brutalized hands, and the fear that nothing had really changed began again. So my gaze was lifted once more, to what, I didn’t know. It was also a question of creativity: what could I see in this art that others had not?
This vertical rock world of Yosemite, for all its natural violence, sublime drama, and world-class human provincialism, symbolized more and more, how I actually felt inside. Very little was comfortable and the beautiful granite shrieks surrounding me had come to symbolize something more than lifeless random features of the natural world.
On my rest days, lying by the river in the mother sun, I could find simple joy for a few hours and such days seemed as if this must be how life should play out, idling upon a river beach with all the time in the world; in a world that loved me and went on forever. But within---just below the surface---still worked away a strange young agony, terrible longing and sense of unbelongingness that had been subtly mounting for years and would not stop. And I could recognize this obsessive dilemma in many of my other climbing colleagues. It was pushing me towards some unknown but exquisite edge, my body some fine instrument, longing and preparing in its peak years to play its own ultimate ferocious music upon those Valley walls. And in my personal life, I was unloved, unpartnered, sleeping alone, really adrift in society uncherished, a strong young thing in pain, marginalized.
When at the age of 23, I then made the first free ascent of the left side of the Hourglass later that Fall, this little-known but gorgeous aid climb quietly became the first or second unrehearsed 5.11 free climb in Yosemite and American history. Done 32 years ago, this dangerous ascent was climbing that has rarely been seen in America but was nonetheless very expressive of those times. Hopefully this highly detailed and emotionally unusual recollection will capture the spirit of that strange, bold era and some of the private, termitic moments that occurred to many of us after the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing had subsided, during those nebulous few years leading into what Bridwell titled in his article from that dawning period, "The Brave New World" of current modern climbing. Understand that our sport and art had reached a certain critical mass given the simple equipment and frankly primitive techniques we had and several of us were making ultimate efforts, living in deepest commitment, searching, not just slothfully hiding in a subculture stunned and powerless.
Without knowing it, our efforts had their context, really, in the Beat movement and the angst of our enormous social and political struggles of the time; and in those days very very few people, and mostly just men, were climbing. Hardly any serious climbers had interest in material things or fame. Many of us lived in our crummy old cars, campers, and tents year around. It did not matter what we had, but only what we were doing with our time here on earth and as far from authority and a laughably banally corrupt modern civilization as possible, with Yosemite promising to be our spiritual center towards which to kneel. There it was, practically a heaven on Earth, originally a long-kept secret of the Indians until the mid-nineteenth century. In the previous decades, these same beliefs, freshly thrashed by the experience of the two World Wars, had been the origin of the Beat movement, spawning a really poignant phase of American art, music and literature.
This was also the beginning of modern speed climbing and the radical unroped free-soloing movement that really flourish today. Soloists had discovered along the way that by transcending equipment---leaving it all behind and just simply climbing with shoes and a chalk bag, they climbed at their critical peak and much was revealed to them only in this way. Imagine the excruciating aesthetics and vistas, from thousands of feet above, while completely shorn of equipment! It was long before cams, ingenious wide crack protection, and sticky shoes; long before climbing comfort and protocol finally became almost oppressive and perhaps now masking a few of the secrets past eras had discovered. For decades, progress in the climbing art was not towards safety (as it later turned out to emphasize so strongly) but into ever more transcendent flights of self-risk and existential knowledge with less and less equipment, more and more awareness and inexplicable power.
After my ascent, and typical of other climbers before me, the accomplishment and rite of passage were partly why I could finally bow out of the central camp scene and its infinite loop of harder and harder climbing. I especially was thinking of Gervasutti and Terray. So at last I could be released from its interminable social struggles and the great trouble that being in the vanguard spelled for each of us. Perhaps thus enlightened, I turned to new thoughts and still deeper ways of looking at my life, as my youth ended. You have asked so here is my story. Here for the first time in the many seasons that have intervened, I have finally written about this moment in my early years and what took place, unknown to the rest of the world that quiet afternoon in September 1971, in an obscure little spot at the edge of the forest near Ribbon Falls. This radiant, complex, and astounding memory has since been with me privately almost every hour and in ways served for me as an armature for so many situations to come, even though three decades have transpired, and my powers have subsided and I have long since disappeared from the central climbing scene.
In the second year of my climbing and already truly committed to the sport, I had found a way to organize and approach life that would be entirely my own while growing up in Berkeley. Basically a fifteen-year-old climbing fanatic already disinterested in the social gyrations of that era and yet probably mirroring them, I was taken to the Hourglass, a gorgeous 350-ft tall, uniquely monolithic flake on the vertical wall of the Ribbons Falls East Buttress. It was 1964; the huge Valley faces floating ethereally and mass-less around us truly terra incognita, completely mysterious and mostly unclimbed. And for me, it was my first real encounter with advanced climbing, hanging belays in bay trees, bright orange overhanging cracks, gigantic polished granite walls, and even the curious, powerful fragrances of these nearly sacred places.
Frank Sacherer had recently freed the imposing right side aid route but this drew little attention. Les Wilson and Max Heinritz who really liked obscure nailing adventures, wanted to climb this feature out in the boondocks still entirely by aid with weird devices we had invented, called Crackjacks! The effort of course was completely a personal outing of ours with no relation really to what was actually developing in American climbing. I remember now nearly forty years later, walking by the even more dramatic left side route then and thinking as a fifteen-year-old does, here was where the real climbers had been. This left side was a notorious A4 aid route of great difficulty and peril in that the first pitch with the wide cracks and big roof in those days had to be nailed for many feet with pairs of bongs back-to-back, crosswise, and slung; it was an enormous house of cards. Bob Kamps, the first ascent leader, was a formidable climber and worked on this pitch forever obviously in a great deal of peril. I think it might have even gone on for more than one day. Pratt proclaimed in the late 60's this route was the last remaining important free climbing problem in Yosemite. Although he was hugely wrong, the statement surely places this climb in context. I am not even sure if it had had a second aid ascent before my party appeared to climb it free one morning, nine years later. This majestic climb had been completely ignored for the thousands of other climbs closer in. And yet I had seen it, and begun to identify with it, all by itself out there in the woods.
and of course the right side:￼
The three of us arrived at the base of this dramatic feature, after an hour balancing up the steep talus, past hulking malodorous bear caves and through the many oaks shielding an overwhelming view of an enormous glistening cliff ahead. We had been skirting the creekbed that runs from the thunderous and deep 1000-foot portal of Ribbon Falls; hardly anyone ever goes up here---the other cliffs closer to the road get all the attention. The feeling of autumn had not quite come, but the suffocating heat of a Valley summer had just left a few days ago. It had been a really big year for me, and I was deeply wondering about so many things. I was even tired of it all, dispirited, with nowhere to go, and yet paradoxically climbing at my very peak. My powers had never been greater. Was climbing colorful enough to make a whole life? Could I just go from here and fill up the rest of my years with this art? I was no longer certain, but had counted on climbing to mean everything important; it was beginning to seem that the center did not hold (Yeats) and all kaleidoscopically gyrated away into where?
And too, the ever-increasing extremism of our climbing had me worried, as it seemed it could ultimately lead to only one thing, asymptotically, nihilistically. As we hiked the slopes leading to the climb, I began to turn inward, collecting myself for what I knew would be undoubtedly the most serious lead of my life. We hardly spoke at all. Already I sensed there was some kind of end to this all.
So finally at our rendezvous atop steep brushy pedestals, the immense left side of this monolithic hourglass-shaped flake hung above, spiraling and soaring for nearly 400 feet on the Falls' East Buttress, a much larger, vertical to overhanging wall, the whole awesome shimmering image finally disappearing out of sight 700 feet above, everything in sight consisting of the finest granite in Yosemite, not even one loose pebble all those static feet somehow soaring above. At our backs was one of the great vistas of Yosemite: the immense face of El Capitan, the Leaning Tower profile and the Cathedral Rocks and Spires, all this from a unique angle and elevation.
We could see the leader would start off above a very disturbing chopper flake stuck in the ground, sharp, tall and upright---such a chilling artifact! Climbing a 50-ft steep left-facing offwidth (5.10a/b) to a very old single 1/4" compression bolt on the vertical main wall awkwardly located behind his back, he would then encounter the imposing roof. We figured clipping into this bolt correctly would be a really unique, irritating problem, as the leader has to then spin around in the opposite direction while tenuously leaving the offwidth to face and then instantly undercling, the six inch roof crack, without any starting footholds and one's center of gravity several feet below the underclinging edge, stuffed under the 4-ft thick roof. The bolt had been put there near all these wide cracks for Kamps' desperate aid lead of nearly a decade before. Arranging the spin successfully, the leader would then strenuously climb this dead vertical feature to the left---maybe 15 ft to the one and only foothold. It was a poor slanting polished edge, where nowadays he would put in modern protection for wide cracks, with the roof continuing left another eight feet more.
Underclings are climbed not by simply putting your feet right below your hands and pulling like hell, but by an artful process of complex shifting rhythmic balance and great fluid power, picking out small smears---some low, some very high, as there is always a "best place" on natural rock---on the main wall for the feet, and actually moving quickly in a very expressive, surprisingly set-and-release sort of way to avoid the omnipresent issues of a self-imposed and simplistic energy crisis. Almost always this is the secret to underclings, not allowing yourself to get locked up by the basic position but using speed, rhythm, stemming, friction, as ghastly, tenuous and contradictory as that might seem at the moment, especially if one's hands have to be far above one's body.
From the one little rest edge that we could see from below, the leader would resume this underclinging and continue left to turn the corner. He would convert to relentless liebacking of the edge which at this point has now become, weirdly, a delicate white fin in a region of the climb that is smooth as glass from serving as a water course since time out of mind. Looking up I really worried I would break the fragile fin off pulling hard on it, so I knew I would have to try to modify my use of it to prevent disaster on lead by reaching deeply around it to reduce leverage, spending even more precious energy in an even weirder climbing posture.
I could not assume anything; it was all new country. Ascending this feature for about 10 ft, we thought the leader finally might be able to swing into an overhanging offwidth and stance on top of the fin. At this point, at least 30 ft of rope would be out from the old single 1/4" bolt located well below and far to the right under the roof. That bolt is perhaps 40 ft above the chopper flake and the ground a little further. A fall from just left of the rest edge would mean a savage pendulum back towards the chopper flake and any higher up, a cratering free fall to the ground. I thought the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would live if a fall occurred. Such situations did exist to some extent already in Yosemite cracks, but only rarely and not to this extreme. The incomparable ascent of the Twilight Zone by Chuck Pratt had established a somewhat similar peril, with the Zone's chopper flake smiling just below the second pitch crux and the twenty-five feet of hard 5.10d overhanging offwidth above. Many of Chuck’s other ascents presented the same issue: to ascend them you had to be ready to leave everything behind and wriggle through some spiritual portal of terrible beauty and rhythm, hopefully emerging cleansed, transported and living.
Again looking up, we saw that from the offwidth stance on top of the fragile fin, the climbing although more conventional would be still quite significant, overhanging, and could easily become the cause of a disastrous fall for a tired or uncareful leader, oblivious on some level, tricked by its subtleties, trying to gun for the safety of the belay spot. From below, it was not clear how to protect this section at all---there was still just this wide wiggly crack. It looked to be about 5.10c by itself and clearly could catch your knee in its throbbing variations. It soars upwards at least 40 feet to where it lessens eventually to the belay stance, a glistening lap-like basin in the dihedral where I would clearly be able to place the anchors. From the ground we could see the climbing continues up more gorgeous rock for two radiant and elegant 5.8 pitches to the top of this very astounding steep slab and its sharp freestanding summit.
When I began that day, I swarmed up the initial offwidth and executed the weird rotations by the bolt, aggressively went to the rest edge in the middle of the undercling, hung out for a brief moment, but then suffered a violently urgent desire to get the hell out of there! I was not ready for it. The climbing up to this point was of a completely different type and the contrast posed a challenge in itself. Although I knew that the problems would begin very abruptly, so stoutly, alarms nonetheless screamed in my head. I was hardly warmed up, flashpumped even. It felt so hideously committing, so repulsive, so strenuous, so tense, and so very dangerous. Too many questions, too many feet of very hard rock above. It was a new, higher level of climbing problem, unconventional, far less structured, and had little comparison to any of the great test pieces I had already accomplished. And I was a very careful climber, having only taken a couple of insignificant leader falls in my eight-year career.
Knowing to organize all my concerns in order to cope and climb through each of them, I tried to make a mental list. For one, I still worried about that fin further up breaking off in my hands---we could see it from the ground and it seemed really extravagant and weak. I was very doubtful after taking this first feel, that I could last the entire undercling and then the lieback and still be able to swing into the offwidth in control, even though the fin had a good top to it. I tried to remain optimistic and not to picture myself rocketing off the lieback while I would try to enter the slippery offwidth cleanly and statically. And too, would the offwidth provide the stance necessary or deny me, sending me to certain doom? Just getting to the roof had been significant, and negotiating the bolt clip was a nasty paradoxical mental puzzle in the midst of big power moves, so perfect planning had been an absolute necessity to avoid becoming upset, wasting time and energy. And we worried about this bolt since it was very old and a scrawny little 1/4" compression unit.
So I scrambled back to the beginning of the roof at the top of the first offwidth, nauseated, my mind spinning, planning on probably retreating, my party below watching me in silence, oppressed as well, but differently. I knew then that my hands would be horribly empty forever, unless I risked everything, my life. I saw that I would not be able to solve this riddle of my youth: who was I really and what was this world? And so now I would be lost. I had come to that deadliest and most crucial moment in a climber's life and thinking. I thought I could only answer these big emotional and spiritual questions in terms of this one climb, so to retreat now was also a major undertaking---it meant my complete demoralization and the trivialization of all eight years of my hard climbing and my search and yearning for true integrity.
My partners were Rick and Mike, about on par with each other as intermediate climbers. I grew up in a neighborhood in Berkeley where Mike also lived and we went to the same school. In childhood, Mike and I had an uneasy acquaintance, compounded by all the knowledge we had of each other's grimy boyhood struggles. He was a year older, was nervous and grasping and I think had problems at home. In 1971 he was still bony, and sharp, and still had trouble concealing his belief that everyone including me thought too highly of ourselves. I imagined he planned to be around when at some point, defeated at last, I finally would realize he was oh-so-right and I was wrong; and perhaps then he would be able to stand on top of my vanquished body, his life finally better from another’s loss, and his big questions somehow but speciously answered. Even though in his way he was still paradoxically a Camp Four buddy or at least we were still somehow connected. After all he had known me when we were little, but Mike didn't grasp fully what I had been doing since, and what calls I was now trying to answer. I think this might well have been the only climb he and I did although Mike went on to climb in the Valley for some years afterwards. Rick at least had been a partner and very close new friend. He was a very kind considerate larger guy for whom climbing was difficult and was already more of a social phase than a crazy religion. He became a hotel manager later on. These two men came along because the puzzle of my life required I be on this major quest with no real competitors, only friends and hopefully, neutral parties, and enough bodies to handle my likely emergency. And guys that could keep our efforts a secret until the experience was complete.
What a predicament I was in as I strenuously hesitated and stewed back at the start of the roof! My anguish was rapidly starting to affect my overall condition. My whole climbing career was in front of me at that moment. I lashed at myself with this question: was I really going to do IT or was I going to be just another one of many who climbed in the Valley for a while, undistinguished, and then forgotten, left to bumble through the rest of a dim life empty-handed in some big spiritual way. I had seen many meet this fate already. Mike was on the ground looking up thinking what I knew he was thinking, I thought. And back in camp, there would be others who would surely come in my place one day; they had swarmed over other projects. But fretting there at the start of the roof, I still deeply believed that I was really talented and I still believed this climb was my kind of climb, so I could not give up either, I could not let go, although release from this horrendous thing beckoned me, was practically required. Now after nearly a decade of rigorous Valley experience, I clearly recognized how dangerous this was going to be. But I began to feel I might reach even further into myself just then and climb deeper than the danger itself, far deeper than I had ever before, and out of some kind of ultimate love. I wanted to be on the inside of the art. I believed this was probably my way in forever, and finally I acknowledged that perhaps it was the only way in that would come up for me ever. It seemed already that the meaning of this event would extend through the rest of my life however I played it.
So, having already climbed part of it back and forth and lingered away, I conned myself into at least taking another feel, and so swung up into the undercling once again from the first offwidth with devised calmness, knowing that I might have squandered too much energy already. I gained the sloping foothold far more cleverly and easily this time, really surprised and encouraged by a new intuitive much bolder approach, and so stayed there briefly in a poor but dramatic rest position, strangely leaning nearly horizontally to the left on my one foothold, a right arm and foot loosely up in the roof crack high above. It was supposed to be just a light-hearted second look with retreat the likely result again. But quickly, an absolutely blind determination built in me as I found myself seriously focusing---almost as if in a bubble of my own, sensing for the first time a secret tunnel for me up through this terrifying situation and that I might overcome the hideous nausea of defeat and nothingness I knew all too well from other climbs. By having familiarized myself with this segment of the climb, I could see more in it, feel more recruited and powerful with it and it was becoming easier. And I continued to hear the call.
Finally, at last centered and willing to leave the ordinary world in search of the answers and extreme beauty within this place, I ferociously pulled back up into the undercling, swung around the corner, delicately liebacked the ivory-smooth fin and wall to the rest pod, oh so carefully finding I could, yes, slide in. And there I moaned for a few moments. Hearing me, my party called up through the quiet, warm alpine air, not quite understanding that for a brief time, I had left them and this valley and this life, as many had before me, in obscure spots upon the rocks, lands, and oceans of the world since time out of mind.
Here I had begun to feel my hands just starting to weaken and open up as I pivoted into the wild rest spot. The athletic, cardiovascular aspects of the whole effort were incomprehensibly massive as well. Nor was it over, as I knew the next 25 feet hung above me, threatening to take all this away by dashing me on the ground absurdly. Getting these final feet actually protected still had to take place somehow from the pod and above, although at first I did not even care, the situation was so extreme. All protocol had gone by the wayside for the special needs of this place. I eventually discovered the only protection possible at this rest was a bong placed endwise. This piece I hauled up from the ground by pulling slack from my lead rope, abandoning its protection such as it was for the moment as if I was unroped, and feeding it down to haul from the rest stance. Leading something like this with a separate second haul line would have been a hideous complication I could not accept beforehand. Putting the bong in was not easy as it was below my waist and the result was quite questionable, maybe ludicrous. The waterpolished overhanging stance on the fin kept me crowded to the crack, nearly unable to hammer. Once I got it in to protect myself, I think I rested for at least an hour, maybe even more.
I was stripped of nearly all my powers but still my training saw me through. Eventually clarity returned in rest although my feet stuck in painful offwidth positions, had been falling asleep. Finally climbing this last section, I was now clearly, completely unprotected and would have grounded out, perhaps without even so much as a swing. I was never more impeccable in my life, essentially unroped 70 feet off the ground doing 5.11, going even higher. Fortunately I had a long solid history of unroped solo ascents and speed climbing to support me then in this culminating effort. The visitation of sparkling images, moments of total power from those past climbs came to me as I ecstatically ascended the final hard section to the lap-like polished basin ending the lead.
Gaining the belay nook, my experience was flooding, ultimate, fervent religious gratitude. The great change had finally come to me. It was not just that I was alive. Bestowed upon me, were the immortal gift of this ascent and the brief visitation of enough power and courage to make it and live for that moment in such seemingly limitless grace, clarity and impeccability. I did not feel exalted and huge; I felt merely to be a pure light-filled conduit to the event, transparent, humbled, and hardly distinguishable from the rock itself, simple and cleansed, in a home like only that in a dream. My partners were floored absolutely, realizing that something both horrific and transcendent had just taken place. When the bolt was drilled, the belay arranged and they eventually got going up my line, they couldn't follow the lead at all but ultimately had to Jumar. Trying to access the undercling from the offwidth immediately defied them, even though we used double ropes and belays for their attempts. They despaired and did not fully comprehend what they had seen, but wanted to find it too.
When we gained the sharp Hourglass summit in the warm dark, Mike was the first to reach me. Sitting next to me cloaked in night air, he quietly told me that until now he had believed that I was not as good as I thought I was, that there had been a lot of negativity working between us and he was apologizing for it, that the ascent was unbelievably hard and brave. I told him I knew this too, and it was okay, we were all okay, it had been miraculous, and thank you for being honest and coming along and being with me and we were together in this and now we have been given the answer and it would be different from now on. I still felt immaculately void, a plain vessel washed by a force, huge and beyond me, and my heart lay open but strong. The world seemed a miraculous and mysterious place and I found myself now peaceful, a deep and small part of it.
In the blackness, we made a wild rappel bypassing the usual airy hanging tree by tying ropes together reaching the ground on the other side by knot transfer, the exact and familiar spot where I had begun my Yosemite climbing career, nine years before. We were not prepared to bivy at all, but did anyway for a long hike down the huge, steep talus and woods in the night without lamps would be deadly. More significantly I think all three of us felt something huge had happened to us and to return right away to the "world" would have been to also abbreviate and then end it, allowing it to become just another illusion, this treasured state, all those many years ago. The next morning we jumared and cleared the single line rappel and left.
Here was my last major climbing achievement. I left the Valley a day or so later, got buried in my construction career and never really returned with the same fervor. Although I did climb many very hard routes in following years and climbed perhaps better than ever with a freer heart, and now have even returned to serious modern climbing in my fifties, I was set free so long ago, to go ahead, have a bigger life, to start to take in a broader messier world, to try to be effective in that larger wildly hopeless place that seemed all so complex, troubled and wrong and to which I had had no sense of belonging. After all, I had been there, to what I thought was maybe, the other side or at least had found one big answer within. This was also the challenge that faced Beat philosophy.
Looking back, I suppose my fulfillment was to have seen that yes in this world, there was something more inside it all, past mundanity, which if somehow reached, took one in or took one back rather, as Blake has said. I believed that embedded in the physical grace of climbing, was a great natural truth, perhaps not another realm such as a heaven. This truth was understood in those moments when everything was impeccably risked, climber approaching a reductive state in which his "subject" and the rock's "object" became indistinguishable, intertwined. The rock and climber weaving together, as John Gill, Castaneda, and Merleau-Ponty have all written. This bond, chiasm and truth was physically experienced, rather than theorized by mere cognitive or religious means, and so was only found hidden inside activities like deep climbing itself and perhaps yielded no other answers but itself and the simple fact that we are of this earth and our manner of perceiving is inextricably bound up with it. But such joy! Just as we know that a painting is a visual experience and cannot be rendered in or fully experienced by a written description, so it is with climbing---one must climb, and climb quite hard, to find and have this deep aesthetic union in the living world, to be englobed, or intertwined with the mother world, once again, and perhaps over and over again. This would be our very powerful defense against the nauseating prospect of complete Nothingness and crucial isolation that otherwise we each are caught up in and which, raw and unvarnished, I faced so long ago.
Twenty-nine years later, I sat at the base of the great climb at the age of 51 during a light snow storm in March 2000.