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Bird's Eye View


At the Great Roof I lowered John out and across, until the rope ran straight up to the belay where Billy was stationed, some fifty feet to the right. When I let go, the rope looped around a rock horn. John roared as the rope stretched taut. He pulled on it, his arm muscles bulging to Herculean proportions. The horn quivered and lifted off into space. The notion of someone being able to pull a stop sign out of cement didn't seem so comical anymore.

3 p.m.: Camp Five and my turn. Last year I'd been on a rescue in these upper pitches, and they had been covered with fixed gear. Someone must have since removed all of it, an effort that now considerably slowed us down.

I went as fast as I could, mixing aid and free climbing, balancing speed and care.

"Hurry, man—we gotta make it down before the bar closes," John shouted up, and I combined two pitches into one. A rope stuck in a crack, but John got it out. I dropped an aid sling, but Billy caught it midflight like a routine fly ball.

On the final bolt ladder to the summit, the metal had grown rustier since the last time I'd been there, seven years before. I wondered how much longer this monument to Warren Harding's persistence would remain.


Kim Schmitz on the first ascent of Zenith (VI A4 5.8, 1,800') in 1978. Schmitz was Bridwell's partner for his first new route on El Cap, the Aquarian Wall, which they established in 1971. [Photo] Jim Bridwell

7 p.m.: We stood for a moment on the top; I dimly remember a sky golden with smog. Then John reminded us that there were only a few hours left until closing time, and we began to run down the East Ledges.

Just as my feet struck the pavement, night fell and the moon once more illuminated the great stone. My EBs had filled with gravel on the descent, but I'd been unwilling to stop. I hobbled to the car. I wouldn't be able to wear shoes again for three days.

Friends had stationed a scout along the way, who screamed, "They're back!" and raced ahead of us to the bar; we were met at the door with more drinks than I could hold. But my best memory came from the next day, when Warren Harding, the man who had done the first ascent of the Nose, gave me his fervent congratulations. I thanked him, then limped toward the cafeteria to steal some coffee.

Sea of Dreams: October 1978

"I guess it's like a mountain side / You gotta climb it to the top / Floating in a sea of dreams / The only thing that you can see / Is the view above the clouds." I took the name from the Electric Light Orchestra album and picked out the line using a Questar telescope I borrowed from the Park Service. On the wall each morning we'd discuss vivid dreams that came to us partly because of the music or other influences. I believed in prophetic dreams; once I dreamed of falling off a ledge and spreading my arms out like a giant swallow. When I saw that same ledge, awake, on the P.O. Wall, you can bet I was careful.

Dave Diegelman starting the Hook or Book pitch (A5) on the first ascent of Sea of Dreams (VI 5.9 A5) in 1978. The route included nine A5 pitches; Bridwell recalls using his hearing more than other senses on the route, "riding the waves of sound and movement and concentration" to the top. [Photo] Jim Bridwell

Dale Bard, Dave Diegelman and I were exploring the edges of our perception and the standards for big walls. As we went, we had a competition to see if we could drill less than forty holes. Nine pitches were A5. Moving over tiny features as the wall seemed to undulate below me and pool into mirages in the summer heat, I had to control my fear—and not overtest placements that barely held my weight. I tried to listen to the rock and the pitons, to use my hearing more than any other senses. I developed a half-blind rhythm: step on the piece, head down, then look up at it, see what it's doing, move up, set another piece, again and again, riding the waves of sound and movement and concentration toward the top.

In the end I placed no bolts on any of my pitches, except for on one belay, where we had six RURPs as an anchor: Dale wouldn't come up unless we placed a bolt—which pissed me off, even if it was understandable. Altogether we drilled only thirty-nine holes. Today there are nearly 200.

From my bird's eye view at the top of the wall, anything now seemed possible. If I could imagine a route, I could climb it. Climbing had become a cause to live for—a way to prove the freedom of my mind.

Cerro Torre: January 3-4, 1979

In your most chaotic nightmares you'd create Cerro Torre: a cold, desolate tower, high above a glacier; storms that can last thirty days; winds over 100 miles per hour; and rime ice formations more than 100 feet high. It was a place that stretched the boundaries of my imagination even to conceive.

I prepared myself to succeed at almost any cost. When my carefully chosen team of Mike Graham and John Bachar, two of the era's strongest climbers, bailed, I talked a hitchhiking American, Steve Brewer, into joining me on an alpine-style attempt of the Compressor Route. By climbing fast we'd make ourselves moving targets, at least, for the icefall and the weather. We took the minimum amount of clothing (jacket, pants, sleeping bags), food (oatmeal, sugar, soup), equipment (twenty-five pitons and nuts, twenty-five carabiners, six ice screws, a small bolt kit, two nine-mil ropes) and four of Ray Jardine's newly created Friends.

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