Skimble guest writer, Keegan Wilson:
When contemplating where we currently are in life, we tend to make a commonly used statement regarding the significant events that have since occurred. Often, it can be simply to show shock at where we have landed or how naive we were to the twists and turns of life. In other situations, it seems to show that we once lacked confidence in our abilities or that we felt unworthy of a certain undertaking. Which, if this is the case, we are hopefully left with a light feeling of achievement for breaking one’s barriers. But regardless, we’ve all said it before and will undoubtedly say it again: “If you had told me ‘x’ years ago that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Photo: at the end of my first lead block and excited for it to finally be light out!
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would climb The Nose in a Day, I would have inquired, “What is the Nose?”. I was fresh out of the back woods of Montana and had little knowledge of climbing rocks beyond scrambling around. The idea that climbing would ever take me anywhere wasn’t even a thought in my mind that first time I tied into a rope. We were just a few young college kids looking for adventure and almost found more then we bargained for. When I think back on it now, I cringe at the thought of the unsafe techniques that were used. After that first climb in the gorgeous mountains outside of Boulder, it wasn’t long before climbing became almost all I wanted to do with my time. Second only to my studies, of course. I had finally found a hobby that sufficiently combined my thirst for adventure, my love for the outdoors and the natural physical abilities I have been blessed with. Still, I never could have imagined that climbing would take me to the places I’ve been or show me the sights I have seen.
Photo: Sam scouting the way forward, pitch #18
Yosemite Valley is undoubtedly one of the most amazing places I have ever been. It’s towering granite walls and soaring waterfalls are beyond proper description. It’s enough for most people to walk around the valley floor craning their necks to view the massive sheer cliffs. I knew when I first arrived that viewing the rock in awe was not going to be enough. I would have to get up there to truly experience them for myself. El Capitan is the crowning jewel of Yosemite Valley. It rises nearly 3000 feet from the floor in a monolith of glacier polished granite. The Nose is the line of first ascent, the most classic route, the dirrectisma, and what some call the best rock climb in the world. It takes a near straight and vertical path from the outstretched toe of El Cap and up the center of the wall. You would be hard pressed to find a more striking, as well as intimidating, line. The average time of ascent is currently around 3 days and some have done it in under 3 hours. For mere mortal trad climbers such as myself, climbing The Nose in under 24 hours has become a badge of honor. Even starting The Nose in a Day, or NIAD, is a commitment that should not be taken lightly. For most it will push their body and mind to it’s limit and test all their climbing abilities, from technical knowledge to pure physical endurance. A completion of the NIAD is truly a feather in one’s cap and will almost certainly up your pay grade (if we actually were paid for this).
After graduating from college, climbing became less of a hobby for me and more of a way of life. On one side, my life was slipping though my fingers in failing to enter the work force or graduate school in my chosen field. In climbing, on the other hand, I was really beginning to excel and more of my time was devoted to furthering these abilities. At some point, I gave up on a career in physics and began focusing all my attention to climbing and making enough money to climb. Not that I’ve ever had a hard go at life, but being a poor climber is not easy on you or your family. Such a lifestyle does not come without its cons but certainly has its pros. I am especially grateful to those who supported and stood by me as I found my way through those years. Still though, if you would have told me 5 years ago that I would do the NIAD, I would have laughed and said, “I would likely never be that strong or fit”. The longest climb I had done up to that point was probably under 300 feet and El Cap was no where on my radar. At least at this point, I knew what it was. It’s difficult to have confidence that you can do something if you don’t even understand what it would take to do it. I set my sights on smaller goals and gradually increased their length and difficulty. Never knowing, nor caring for that matter, where they were taking me but up, with a smile on my face.
Photo: Sam Schabacker after leading The Great Roof:
Then came the best decision I have made yet for my climbing career. I moved to San Francisco, putting Yosemite in my backyard. I soon found a very reliable partner, Sam, and was quickly ticking off bigger and bigger objectives in The Valley. Being within day trip distance from such a big wall and long route mecca allowed me to train in the only way I know how, by climbing. Soon the NIAD was not only on our radar but we were confident that with a little extra training we could pull it off. I was hoping three months of additional visits to the gym and weekly bike rides across the Golden Gate Bridge would be enough. It is hard to know if your physical conditioning is enough when your goal requires you to push further than you have ever pushed yourself. Forget about mental fitness, that can only be evaluated while you’re up there. After a few practice goes on the lower half of the route and a look at the weather we decided it was time. Sam and I would start at 1 am Friday morning and go as fast as we could for as long as we could. Our hope was to make it to the top before 1 am on Saturday, thus completing the NIAD.
Photo: Intense exposure after The Changing Corners (#27) in the last light of the day.
It’s dark again, as I’m getting into my second lead block of the climb. We’ve been at it for 19 hours and are 400 feet short of the top. My exhausted mind mixed with the night’s darkness has forced me into a bubble only as big as my headlamp will allow. I haven’t looked behind me to see that from our vantage point the city-lights of California’s central valley brighten the horizon. I make move after methodical move without even thinking about them. Suddenly inevitable mistakes are made and I am cartwheeling down the wall. Our methods take these mistakes into account and we protect against falls causing any serious damage. Soon my previous piece of gear and Sam catch me and I’ve only fallen 10 feet. So this is where I am: 2500 feet off the ground, in the dark, and hanging upside down staring out at the world. After some confusion, I realized that I am looking at the inverted and illuminated cities with the stars seemingly below them. I would like to say that I had some revelation about the insignificant world at that point, but I can not. The only words that went through my head were “Gee, that’s beautiful.” I flipped myself back upright, continued climbing and four more hours spent in a frozen delirium sees us to the top with no further incident. It’s 12:25 and we’ve completed the NIAD with 50 minutes to spare. Unable to understand what has happened for the past day, Sam and I trade a few words, a handshake in congratulations and stumble the 4 hours back to camp 4.
When I think back to when I was dangling from that rope, I realize that there was more to what was going through my mind. My words were not only describing what I was looking at, but the situation as a whole. That place, at that moment in time, is where climbing has taken me and its taken me there in the best shape of my life. It may not be a corner office in a skyscraper, there are certainly no crowds watching and cheering us on, and obviously the pay is not substantial. None of this matters to me though. I have my stone skyscrapers, my loved ones cheer me on, and I am given a high salary in the form of experiences that will last forever in memory. I’m not sure what my future holds but if someone were to tell me that 5 years from now I would be standing on top of Cerro Torre or that in 10 years I would be post holing alpine hell in Pakistan, I would now say, “Bring it on, one pitch at a time”.