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Bird's Eye View


Steve had a way of standing around, slackjawed, that might have warned me about certain peculiarities in his character. The most stubborn person I'd ever met, he refused to lengthen the slings on his jumars for increased speed.

"Nope," he said. "I have my ways and they work for me."

But a summer in Peru had made him a good ice climber, and he led the lower ice pitches, placing a token screw every 150 feet as I simuled after him. I took the lead whenever the pitches were rock, mixed or aid. Sometimes I had to climb offwidths without protection, their inner surfaces shimmering with ice. As we rested below an overhang, ice shattered toward us. We smeared ourselves against the wall until the shards had passed, and only my heartbeat sounded in my ears. Crystals floated through the blue sky like tiny stars.

More ice hung above us; there was no way of knowing when it might let go. I scooted up the chimney. As we clipped up a long diagonal bolt ladder, the evening light made the harsh landscape around us turn to warmer colors of red and gold. We'd climbed 3,500 feet, higher on Cerro Torre than anyone else had in a day. That night we chopped out an ice ledge and bivied amid the ice towers. Starlight illuminated the surreal, glassy formations. I woke periodically to check the sky. The west wind now blew with signs of storm. We had no fixed rope, no bivy sacks—only two ropes and food enough for one bivy.

As the wind turned to a howl, we began to race the tempest, passing ropes and racks that hung from the wall, evidence of previous retreats. Near the summit I had to chop away six to twelve inches of ice to get to the bolts. Clouds circled above us. Maestri's compressor appeared, an ugly 300-pound hunk of machinery, and I marveled at the effort it must have taken to muscle it up this beautiful spire. Seven broken bolts led up and to the right toward eighty feet of nearly blank granite. I went left, using knifeblades, copperheads, and where there was no crack, placing aluminum dowels in hand-drilled holes. At last I chopped a groove in an icy crack and set a Friend. To my surprise, it held. I traversed left, free climbing, with my feet on steep friction and my hammer pick in the ice above, and pulled onto the summit snowfield.


Steve soon followed and we shook hands, hugged, and got the hell out of there. The wind was sixty miles per hour and rising while we rappelled over the same ice pillars that had threatened us on the ascent. From our bivy, we watched squalls dart across the deep purple and slate-colored sky.

The morning brought more wind and a world hidden in white. The glacier was a pale flicker below us, between the swirling clouds. On the descent, down-clipping bolts with the same complete anxiety, I felt a relentless deja vu. Suddenly panic: the hammer loop ripped apart and I seemed to watch myself fall, an odd, flailing figure silhouetted against the snow. Then—wham—I reached the end of the rope, and it seemed to stretch forever (and there was time for a thousand thoughts, about my new wife, Peggy, on the East Coast, serving up breakfasts at Micky D.'s to help pay for my adventure and Lord knows she doesn't do mornings and will I see my unborn child and will I go all the way to the ground and is this how Jim Baldwin felt and why am I screaming when I know it doesn't do any good, why can't I just shut up and fall) until the rope came tight and I bounced up again.

Bridwell on the summit of Cerro Torre, January 4, 1979, after making the second ascent of the Compressor Route. It was the route's first alpine-style and first integral ascent (Cesare Maestri's team stopped below the summit mushroom). Bridwell would take a 150-foot fall on the descent, breaking ribs and chipping an elbow. Steve Brewer/ Jim Bridwell collection

"I'm OK!" I yelled up. "Just slipped a bit."

I'd fallen about 150 feet, broken ribs, chipped an elbow and bruised a hip. I climbed to get my weight off the rope, clung to tiny, icy holds, waiting for Steve, and we began again, downward into more cold and more pain.

"Muy rapido, muy rapido," the Italians shouted when we stumbled into their camp. Only half joking, I told them we moved so fast because we were frightened. Warmed by their soup and rum tea, I felt the pain fade into satisfaction: my wild, improbable vision had indeed taken form.

Zenyatta Mondatta: September 1981

Peter Mayfield on Pitch 6, the Lightning Bolt Roof, during the first ascent of El Capitan's Zenyatta Mondatta (VI 5.7 A4) in September 1981. [Photo] Jim Bridwell

Back in Yosemite I learned to see lines over what at first appeared to be featureless rock, and then to trace them out. On Zenyatta Mondatta, disconnected, barely perceptible slopes made an improbable passage across an otherwise blank wall, one that could be accomplished with hooks and a single drilled hole. Fascinated, I watched the route's intricate design unfold in three consecutive A5 leads. As Charlie Row jumared up to join me, I gazed above the belay. The overhanging rock foreshortened my view, giving no hint that anything would change. This was the beauty of the route: it gave us nothing to hope for, only short vistas of the rock before us, the here and now of our copperheads, tied-off knifeblade tips and blind hook moves, a steepness that required airy, delicate acrobatics. Later that day Charlie and Peter Mayfield lowered me gently off an overhanging pitch and stretched their arms out, until, fully extended, they just touched mine, and they could pull me onto their stance. One by one we rapped down the cord, turning like spiders on silken threads, calculating the precise arc to arrive at our bivy, where we could, all too briefly, rest.

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