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Bird's Eye View


 

During the remaining time it took to complete the route, we'd indeed feel the full force of the elements: a drip of rain became a waterfall, filling our Bat Tent with four inches of water, then turned to enormous snowflakes so cold my hands grew purple and swollen, and we had to nail back down. In late June, when the weather improved again, we came to what we named Coral Corner: calcium formations that tore our fingers and clothing. Silverfish wriggled over the rock, as if the stone had come alive. A last, 5.9 A1 pitch baffled me, each placement expanding or bottoming out. The haulbag swung and got stuck on a ceiling sixty feet to the right of the route. With loud curses, I dropped it, traversed across to the West Buttress and topped out.

The sense of weight had lifted; on future ascents we'd move faster and lighter. We called our route Aquarian Wall, put up during the "age of Aquarius." Robbins made it clear that what we'd climbed was not actually a "wall," but who was he to tell us what to name our route? Although we admired him and his high standards, we were beginning to feel that it was our generation's turn to improve them. And if he had named his routes "walls," why couldn't we?

The Nose in a Day: June 21, 1975

The full moon lit up the south buttress of El Capitan: shades of silver, gray and black rippled up 3,000 feet to the sky. At 4 a.m. we started, without our headlamps, climbing by moonlight and memory—we'd already rehearsed the first four pitches and knew every move and every nut and pin placement by heart. With us we had three nine-mil ropes of uncertain age and condition, twenty-five nuts, twenty-five pitons and one and a half gallons of water.

It had been eleven years since Frank had first given me the idea, and eight years since I'd freed the Stovelegs pitch with Jim Stanton; in the meantime, I'd been too caught up in my own first ascent projects to go back. But that spring, I'd started feeling the lure of alpinism. I'd read a Chouinard article in which he'd described Yosemite not as an end in itself, but as training ground for big walls in the Greater Ranges, where the future of climbing lay. Around the same time, Frost had persuaded me that pure technical difficulty wasn't enough; there had to be something else to climbing, a level of commitment and adventure that made it spiritual. While climbers like Robbins seemed to go too far in making the sport into a quasi-religion, I was curious, dabbling like a lot of the others in my generation in Buddhism and Hinduism. I didn't want to be just a rock climber; the high mountains seemed to offer something more, and I felt that speed meant safety up there. A month before, as Bill Westbay, Jay Fiske, Fred East and I finished opening the Pacific Ocean Wall, probably the hardest aid climb in the world at the time, I realized that the key to alpine big walls for me would be the ability to use aid through sections I couldn't free quickly. And I became sure that I had the patience, skill and creativity to get through any obstacle.

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I had begun to think about Cerro Torre in Patagonia; the Nose in a day would be good preparation. I haunted the Mountain Room Bar, searching for the right partners. More and more climbers now filled the Valley, and I had a lot to choose from. One promising candidate was John "Largo" Long, to whom Jim Donini had introduced me in 1970, when John had arrived in the Valley as a brash, naive young climber with an ambitious ticklist. John told me he'd heard I did sets of a hundred pull-ups, tore three phone books in half at once and pulled a stop sign out of cement to throw at a car that wouldn't pick me up hitchhiking. I had a good laugh over such myths, but belaying John up his first offwidths, I'd been impressed by his determination, and we'd become good partners. I knew his strength and large hands would be perfect for the wide cracks in the segment between the Sickle Ledge and the Boot Flake.

I also recruited Billy Westbay, a climber from Colorado, talented at switching between aid and free. Billy agreed to take the middle part of the route, which was a combination of the two. Finally, I figured we'd all be too tired for free climbing by the time we reached Camp Five, and as I'd worked on improving my nailing skills over the past few years, I was the obvious choice for the last pitches to the top.

I'd developed a system in which we'd lead in "blocks": the leader trailed one rope and led on another. The second man cleaned the gear, while the third jumared the trail rope, as quickly as he could, dragging another rope. When the third person arrived at the belay, he switched the rope ends with the leader, who then set off on the next pitch. In theory, this system would allow the leader sufficient time to smoke a cigarette and light another for the next belayer. With thirty-four pitches ahead of us, we rationed ourselves to a pack and a half each. It would be a vertical run on a Midsummer Night, the longest day of the year.

Shortly before we began, we found out that another party planned to be on the route before us. Worried that we might get stuck behind them and lose time, John walked over to their campsite. "You guys better get the hell outta the way and let us pass," he said. "Or else." Typical Largo diplomacy.

Bridwell and John Long, joking around on their fifteen-hour 1975 Nose-in-a-day climb. Frank Sacherer had suggested the project in the mid-1960s, but it took a decade for Bridwell, Long and Billy Westbay to bring it to fruition. [Photo] Billy Westbay

6:15 a.m.: the two climbers John had tried to scare were bivying on the top of Dolt Tower. They woke to see us emerge in our purple and pink double-knit pants and paisley and African print shirts—our attempt at an ironic, Yosemite avant-garde uniform. We must have been a strange apparition: already bedraggled, panting, wild-eyed. We'd left two nuts behind, forgotten in a moonshadow. I'd been so absorbed in climbing fast that I hadn't even noticed the dawn; I'd merely felt the increased heat, peeled off my sweater and thrown it into the void.

"Where's your haulbag?" one of them asked, looking around him with glazed eyes. I pointed to the small rucksack on my back.

John had been training hard for this climb; although free climbing that section had become ordinary by then, his short-shrifting of protection in favor of speed astonished us. Soon he was clipping his way toward the Boot Flake, four pitches higher, his thirteenth lead. My own muscles were starting to cramp from the relentless pace. Without pausing, however, John left the final bolt and went straight into a committing lieback. Neither Billy nor I realized John's arms were cramping, too, until his handjam began to slip. His free hand shaking with effort, he stuffed a hex into the crack and clipped into it just in time to avoid an eighty-footer.

Billy took over the lead. He made the King Swing pendulum on his first try and then headed into doubtful, wandering sequences, reminiscent of his home crags in Colorado. Pitches rolled by, and at 1:30 p.m. we took a five-minute break at Camp Four. Finishing within twenty-four hours now seemed certain.

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