"I have a proposition for you," J. said the night before. "Proposition" takes on a whole new meaning with this guy, and I was intrigued. 22 years old. Climbed el cap for the first time when he was 18. Conversations thick with climbing jargon, crazy stories from big wall life, portaledges and seventy foot whippers, dirt bagging and portering eighty pound loads for fast cash. But, his experiences all gritty and dirty and unglamorous and natural in a way that only people who give their whole lives to something can posses. No osprey packs and sparkling new gear, no patagonia soft shells and black diamond climbing helmets. Just some ratty t-shirts and an arsenal of stories of wayward adventures. So when he asked me if I wanted to climb to the top of el capitan by taking a hiking, scrambling, climbing route his friend had set up in the west gully, I responded with an emphatic "hell yes."
His friend Richie was a climber who lived for weeks on end in little shelters and homemade bivys in secluded spots deep in the valley. He passed away a year ago in a climbing accident. One of those harrowing stories about an indestructible life coming to an unbelievable and illogical end. We were going to follow a trail he set up that wound up a boulder-filled creek on the west side of the captain, through wild brush and loose rocks, and up sheer granite faces. Totally off trail, no “trail” to even really speak of. That’s where adventure begins.
Up and over boulders the size of small cars, trekking through a steep gully in a canyon that would somehow take us to the summit of el capitan. Richie’s cairns were still there to lead the way, as were the ropes he fixed to aid climbs up rocks with no holds. J. had never been all the way to the top of the route himself, so the trail seemed even more like a pilgrimage - a journey guided by the spirit of his friend that seemed to live in the uniquely piled stones that pointed us in the right direction, the worn ropes bolted into walls that probably only he and us had ever used.
Summit. Fresh, light air and wind, blue skies. I lied down on my belly, peering over the edge, imagining the ascent, the top-out, the undeniable adrenaline, the jubilation.
Then, scrambling over to the east ledges where those who have climbed descend, and I get a little taste of what it’s like when we rappel six-hundred feet to the ground. At the end of the day, my legs were beaten and battered and bloody and bruised, my chest a burnt red, and my hands dirty and blistered from the ropes. “Battle wounds” I later called them, as I hobbled off to pass out in my tent.
There’s something about this California light. As cliché as it is, the light is markedly different here. Santa Cruz at sunset: a diffuse, warm orange glow that automatically infuses the air with chill vibes, highlighting tanned, golden skin and sun-bleached hair. So different from the light back home - all sharp lights and shadows and sarcasm.
We parked at the side of the road and got our of the car, giddy with glee. The mountains had tapered a bit around us and we felt foreign in a landscape suddenly devoid of towering monoliths closing in on us from all sides. The novelty of a roadside grocery store was staggering, and I bought a six pack of Magic Hat and a mason jar with more excitement than would seem normal to an outsider.
I’ve been living in Yosemite Valley for almost three months now. I flew here from New York with little more than a backpack, call a canvas tent my home, work full time selling tourists burgers and milkshakes, and count down the days until my weekends so I can take off - hike something, climb something, rinse and repeat. As a result, time moves quickly. And it only really dawned on me how different my life had become when we entered civilization to go eat at a local taco truck. Real food! A reason to put on clean clothes! Live music! Different scenery! What would have been so normal back home - stringed lights, a two-man indie band, an outdoor bar with picnic tables and crowds of young people that made me feel like I was back on a rooftop in Brooklyn - felt positively luxurious. And so we stuffed ourselves with carnitas, al pastor, and carne asada like kings, and happily retreated back into the valley, refreshed with food and life.