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Bird's Eye View


Our small community on the route was close-knit, yet below us, Yosemite was changing. The line completed, we arrived at the base of the wall to find one of our haulbags had been stolen. I left the Valley with only twenty dollars in my pocket, uncertain whether I'd come back. The brotherhood of the '60s and '70s was gone.

Dance of the Woo-Li Masters: March 1981

"What the hell are you guys doing here?" That was the beginning of almost every conversation that winter in Alaska; when Mugs Stumps and I arrived in Talkeetna, it was -17 degrees F, and dogsleds were racing through the streets. I was thinking to myself that there must be a perfect ratio between a cup of coffee and an hour of bullshit. Three cups and three hours in an outdoor cafe in Grindelwald, Switzerland, had taken me and Mugs from the topic of our failed attempts on The Mooses Tooth (mine the year before with Dave Diegelman) to what suddenly seemed like a reasonable experiment: attempt the east face in the winter, when the snow and ice conditions might be better than the poor-quality rock we'd encountered during the regular season.

The caffeine buzz faded, we decided to climb something else, but when we flew over the gorge, our objective had failed to form up, so we made a quick, impulsive choice to try The Mooses Tooth after all.

As the sound of the plane became muted in the distance, the cold seemed to burn more intensely. All was silent, except for our breathing and the squeaky crunch of snow. My imagination recoiled at what lay before us. I went about setting up our tent, until I'd gathered enough courage to inspect our line. The 4,800-foot east face rose up like a hoary specter; through our little telescope a snow cornice, thirty or more feet high, overhung our chosen route. As I turned to discuss the danger with Mugs, a giant avalanche swept down the face: the cornice was gone, and the snow had been consolidated for a fast ascent.


Just as Steve and I had on Cerro Torre, Mugs and I minimized our gear for speed: eighteen pitons, a set of nuts, seven ice screws, four cams, four days' worth of food and fuel. Mugs wanted to bring a bolt kit, but I insisted it was too heavy. The lower half of the climb consisted of avalanche chutes, and if a storm came in while we were still on the wall, retreat might be suicidal. The first clear day we timed the avalanches, trying to guess whether there was some hidden pattern. The night before we started, we drank a third of a bottle of scotch with hot tea: facing the next morning with a hangover somehow seemed easier.

With no possible protection we climbed nonstop for hundreds of feet; spindrift sloughs blinded us, and the belay anchors were illusory. As the sun warmed the ice and snow, the sloughs turned to avalanches thundering around us. Mugs breached the last few feet of sugar snow onto the ridge, but the slope would no longer hold my weight and I had to find a different line.

The next morning ice-chocked chimneys formed the gateway to the upper half of the route. Neither of us spoke of the difficulties while we forced our way up WI5, but watching each other's rapid progress gave us hope.

On our second bivy the cold rendered our ultralight stove ineffective; apart from a few cups of water and coffee, we'd be dehydrated for the rest of the climb. Heavy snowfall, increasing spindrift avalanches and snow-covered slabs created a precarious reality that at any moment could slip out beneath us. I was gaining a deeper appreciation for Mugs. Toward the end of the third day, seeing me slumped over, nauseated with thirst, he took over the lead by headlamp. When I arrived, he was already digging a cave into a cornice, his body covered in white, like a living snowman.

At 1:30 a.m., the cave finished and some tea and coffee brewed, we collapsed into our sleeping bags. Midmorning, light returned through the cave entrance, at first faintly, through thin clouds, then intensifying to an undeniable yellow glow. The storm was past. We crawled out of the cave at 11:30 a.m. and climbed four pitches, reaching the summit at 2 p.m. After a bivy near the top, we woke to -30 degrees F. Ice formed on the top of our water as I tried to make coffee; after two cupfuls, the stove died.

Mugs Stump on the first ascent of Dance of the Woo-Li Masters (VI 5.9 WI4+ A4, 5,000') in March 1981. The pair, who were plagued by frigid temperatures and a malfunctioning stove, climbed the route in perfect style without a bolt kit. In 2001 Bridwell returned to add a direct start to the route: The Beast Pillar (VI 5.10b A5 WI4+ M6, 4,800'). [Photo] Jim Bridwell

Rappel after rappel, the snow turned to crumbly rock and rotten flakes. I began to realize the potential consequences of alpine style and thought about the bolt kit we'd left at base camp. Mugs stared with wonder at one of my marginal anchors, where all I'd found was a spot for a single number three Stopper. "That's it," I shrugged. He later told me that he'd almost unclipped from the anchor, only to decide a quick death was more appealing than a slow one in case it failed as I rapped. Each time we weighted the rope was a gamble; at one point I stopped and hung motionless, overwhelmed with a rush of sad love for my family at home. My son, whom I'd named after Layton, was almost two years old.

When we returned to our base-camp tent, we laughed and joked and drank hot liquids, but something haunted us: the purity and success of our ascent might not have been a result of our commitment to a bold vision, but rather a unique combination of weather and conditions. Our survival might have been simply luck: the cornice that fell at the right instance, the avalanches that came so close.

Some Native Americans believe that crazy people are blessed by the Great Spirit. Mugs and I never climbed with each other again. Maybe we thought we were too dangerous together, or maybe we knew we could go to hell and come back with devil's tails.

The Big Chill: August 1987

I didn't always leave the bolt kit behind. When I turned a corner on The Big Chill, a new route on Half Dome I was opening with Peter Mayfield, Steve Bosque and Sean Plunkett, my heart sank. The angle from which I'd examined the dome through the telescope had been deceptive: there were no cracks. Thirteen times the drill punctured the skin of the rock. Each hole left a scar on my soul.

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