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Bird's Eye View


Layton wasn't the only one who'd begun to invite me climbing. That summer, 1964, I found myself finally accepted into the elite circle, where an elegant wardrobe of bakers' pants (50 cents) and a white dress shirt (35 cents), purchased from a nearby Merced thrift store, was the unwritten dress code. Any time I got the chance to go with hard climbers like Kor, Chuck Pratt and Frank Sacherer, I tried to learn whatever I could.

I felt especially lucky when Frank asked me to do the North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, an old Harding aid route. Frank was far more selective about his partners than Layton was, and here was a chance to join up with the driving force in modern free climbing. Evening after evening, it seemed, the freckly, stern, twenty-four-year-old Sacherer would arrive in Camp 4 to eager audiences awaiting his latest aid eliminate or one-day ascent, visionary feats that seemed impossible to the best climbers of the day. But if Layton exhausted his partners, Frank terrified them: he called both Eric Beck and Steve Roper "chickenshits" on separate occasions—Beck for pleading with him to place a piton as Sacherer climbed, protectionless, high above the belay stance, and Roper for backing off a sixty-foot runout on the Crack of Doom.

Soon I learned for myself what being his partner meant. At the base of the North Buttress, he sized me up. "I don't know if you can do this, but we'll soon find out," he said, and then he took off up the climb, unroped. I soloed after him, cautiously, until we reached the first aid eliminate and he allowed me to tie in. We unroped again as the pitches grew easier near the top. "Don't fall here," Frank warned me, "because I'll never hear the end of it."

We eliminated all four aid pitches on the North Buttress in five and a half hours, including three pitches of 5.10, the highest level at the time. I must have pleased him, for we went on to do the second free ascent of Crack of Doom together. "You're the best partner I've had this summer," he told me. I was flattered—and inspired: such dangerous values would color my climbing for years to come. When Steve Roper left for Europe, he informed me, "You'll probably be dead when I get back."

It seemed as though all Frank had to do was simply envision something wild and it came true. "I want to do the Nose in a day," he said one night in Camp 4. If anyone else had said it, all the residents would have laughed. Instead we listened with awestruck silence, as Frank explained that if the Stovelegs Cracks went free, the remainder could be done in under twenty-four hours. In 1964 he took me on a reconnaissance of that pitch, and a year later, when he left to pursue his physics career, I felt as though he'd willed his vision, and the Valley, to my generation.


Interlude: Camp 4, late 1960s-1970s

And what a bequest: the hippie era and the free-climbing revolution were both in full swing. At Camp 4 we purloined the Park electricity, running an electric cable from the bathrooms to my Arabian-style tent, where we hosted an almost continuous party, playing Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones. In exchange for helping to organize the first official rescue squad, the rangers let me and my friends stay for free—and for the time being, left us alone.

Yvon Chouniard began manufacturing nuts, and aid climbers started doing pitonless ascents, while talented free climbers pushed the grades ever higher, through 5.10a, b, c and d, and finally the unbelievable 5.11. Purists like Royal Robbins and Henry Barber perfected a ground-up, meet-the-rock-on-its-own-terms ethics. Ray Jardine, on the other hand, introduced hangdogging and 5.12, along with the first working models of the spring-loaded camming device, creating the possibility for harder and harder trad routes.

Although I joined Barber to bag the second free ascent of New Dimensions, the Valley's first 5.11, I also kept honing my aid skills, which still seemed necessary for big-wall climbing. El Capitan and the Nose remained my goal.

The center of the universe, ca. 1975: from left to right, Ron Kauk, John Bachar and Mark Klemens in the Camp 4 parking lot. By the early 1970s, Bridwell, influenced by a Yvon Chouinard article, had started looking at the Valley as a training ground for big climbs in remote venues. [Photo] Jim Bridwell

My First Big "Wall": Aquarian Wall, 1971

When you first look up at a big wall, the immensity of the rock weighs down on you; but once you break contact with the ground and get high enough, it begins to feel lighter and lighter, as though with the shift in perspective, the laws of gravity can change. In 1969 as Kim Schmitz and I wandered around the base of El Capitan with binoculars, we struggled to see the furrows and blemishes within its monolithic bulk and strained our imaginations to turn them into lines that could be created without too much drilling. At first the lower third of the wall appeared smooth, but on closer inspection, a series of arches emerged.

Kim was even younger than I was, and a little quieter, but we shared the same ambition. At the time there were only a few routes on El Cap; all their first ascensionists were famous climbers. Like me, Kim was a relative newcomer to the Valley—he'd learned his efficient aid climbing skills in Smith Rocks (which in the days before sport climbing was known for aid). We felt not only the weight of the great stone, but also that of the names of our predecessors: Harding, Robbins, Kor, Frost.

We crept up the wall, intimidated, using small loops of webbing that we draped over nubbins, tips of the newly developed Leeper Z pitons that just held my bodyweight, and when we could find nothing else, aluminum dowel bolts that we hammered into shallow holes. The smallest mishap would send Kim into a panic; once I heard him screaming, only to find out nothing was wrong other than some rope drag that had caused his swami belt to cut into his waist.

But in our Mexican beach hammocks, strung between two anchors, we lay back and enjoyed the October sunset, basking in the knowledge that we'd crossed a vast slab already, with only forty bolts and dowels—until the glowing cumulous clouds turned from beautiful to menacing. Wind battered us against the wall, tearing apart our hammocks. In that short space winter had arrived. The next morning we rappelled straight down, our spirits crushed. Yet we left behind two gallons of water at our high point—a sign that we intended to return.

The water went bad; all the next summer and fall, the heat kept us cowering and grumbling on the ground as other climbers attempted our route. Finally the second spring, my arm still weak from a skiing accident, I grew sick of waiting to heal, and Kim and I passed another team's high point. They'd left behind an unusual piece of equipment: a fishing pole with a skyhook attached that they'd been using to reach past hard aid placements to the bolts above them. I was determined not to let technology mediate between me and my own direct experience of the wall.

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