Full Value

Posted on: September 1, 2008

"AMMON MCNEELY," the voice boomed from everywhere.

Holy shit, that's me... What was going on?

I stood up from the ledge, still holding the cracked helmet in my hand, my fingers sticky with the tacky, clear goo oozing from my skull. A few hundred feet below, a number of Search and Rescue vehicles were grouped at El Cap Bridge.

"Do you need a rescue?"

What the f—-, I thought. Of course I didn't need a rescue.

Thwack, thwack, thwack: the sound of a helicopter came roaring down the Valley, louder and louder, until it landed and the engine shut down. The air was quiet again.

"Go away!" I yelled—perhaps a little aggressively, but I'd just taken an eighty-foot whipper and cracked my head. I was still trying to figure out where I'd gone wrong.

There'd been a detached flake, a little shuffling about to keep from weighting it, a nut popping: that was it!

But what I really couldn't believe was that I'd managed to epic once again.

I GUESS YOU COULD SAY I'M A BIT ACCIDENT-PRONE, but I like to think I'm not some lumbering bumbly who's botching it all the time. I'm just always pushing myself, ambling into that tiny realm in space where badass stops and dumbass begins.

While I made my way up the talus toward the base of El Capitan, the dull ache in my ankle reminded me that it had yet to heal fully. It had been less than five months since I'd dislocated my ankle in a parachuting accident. But now, as my hand swept slowly across the smooth granite, a familiar, comfortable feeling washed over me. So what if I couldn't find a partner?

Having made that first small step back into the realm of the dumbass, going a little farther became irresistible: I'd bring minimal supplies, and I'd climb Surgeon General, a route by one of my favorite big-wall masters, Eric Kohl, well known for putting up macabre, unusual lines. I wanted a truly raw experience.

As so often happens, I found it. The first pitch is called the "Velcro Fly": the gear sticks like Velcro, just long enough to hold weight before you fly. Most of my pieces stuck, except for one, which started me off nicely with a twenty-foot ride.

The third day, about fifty feet up Pitch 5, I got off route and onto an enormous, detached flake. Any gear might pull the flake off, so I continued free climbing, running it out. Near the flake's top, I stared blankly through the gap behind it, then at the rope going over a sharp edge, then at the crack at the base.

The flake began to wobble. I began a little jig, faster and faster, shifting my weight between one foot in my aider on a sketchy nut, a hand jam and a hip/leg/foot smear inside the flake. A few minutes later, I decided to down climb to safer ground. As I took one last rest on the nut before retreating, it popped. Suddenly I was flying close to the rock.

Then it went dark.

A FRIEND ON ZODIAC later told me he looked over and saw what he thought was a BASE jumper falling in a flat track, perfectly symmetrical, until he heard the loud impact on the rock and realized it was me. Another friend, watching through a powerful lens from El Cap Bridge, reported that I hung from the rope in an upside-down V for at least five minutes, my head touching my feet. He was the one who called the rescue.

When I woke up, my head was throbbing and I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. The world was vast, empty, blurry; tiny creatures fluttered together, squeaking at each other. Tiny toy cars barely moved along a miniature road. Nothing made sense.

Instinctively I rapped back down to the belay ledge, where I took an inventory of body parts and functionality. Impact areas—head, back, shoulder and elbow: sore. I removed my helmet and was surprised to see the three-inch crack. My fingers instinctively went to my head. As they pressed down, I felt something soft and gooey, but when I looked at my fingers, instead of blood, I saw only a sticky, colorless fluid.

Yikes—that can't be good.

At least I don't have a partner, I thought; a partner would insist that we bail. As the captain—well, as the only one on this ship—I had time to chill out and assess the situation. Yep, no pressure. I'll just relax for a bit on this ledge.

Then I heard the megaphone.


"Save your breath," came the reply. "Answer the question—one arm for yes, two for no. Do you need a rescue?"

I held two arms high.

"Do you want us to go away?"

One arm.

"Are you injured?"

Two arms.

As their questions went on, I started to forget which arm was which. I was getting annoyed.

"Are you on Half Dome?"

Oh, man: now they were just messing with me. I gave them two high ones. (Later, Werner Braun would tell me that the chief ranger reported I "flipped off the rescue mission," but I honestly don't remember that.)

After several more questions they seemed satisfied that I was sound enough to continue. I slumped back onto the ledge, fighting a strong urge to hurl.

Suddenly I was staring through a tube of blackness. Reality shrunk into a small visual display. The crowd flickered like specks on a screen. I knew every move I made was still being evaluated, but all I could think about were two things: beer and pipe. Either one could get me into trouble.

I turned toward the wall, trying to hide from my observers. The alcohol relaxed me, while the pipe made me paranoid enough to get moving. They wanted to see some normality? OK, then: I'd deliver.

At my high point, the tunnel vision returned. Maybe it'll make me even more focused, I thought.

And perhaps it worked: this time I stayed on route and got through the crux. A few minutes after I clipped the anchor, the helicopter pilot started the engines. I gave him a wave as he buzzed me on his way out.

That night I stayed up late, not wanting to sleep. I'd heard rumors of victims not waking up after head injuries. The air felt thick and tingly, as if a storm might be brewing, but I wasn't sure if it was in the atmosphere or inside my brain. Weather's coming; good thing I'm slowing down, I thought, trying not to laugh. I certainly couldn't let myself be rescued now; I was having the time of my life.

The next day I climbed a pitch dubbed "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome." Each hook placement seemed to tear a hole in my head. The extra mental effort, though, was becoming strangely enjoyable. I'd wanted a raw experience; now I was getting an extra challenge for free. An image flashed through my mind: Brian McCray had taken a huge fall on this pitch and nearly hit his head on the ledge. What would happen if I hit mine twice?

On Pitch 11, I found myself making tricky placements—expanding blades and beaks—on another scary flake. Edging up the crux bulge, I started to get rattled. My attention slipped. Gear ripped violently away from the rock as I fell. Once again I bounced deathly close to a ledge. Fifty-footer, fifty-footer, wheeee....

I started back up... and took another one.

Why hadn't I bailed when I had the chance? Why didn't I just walk across the ledge and finish off on Zodiac, an easier route?

I started remembering all the accident reports I'd read: it always seemed that most fatalities could have been avoided if the climber had made just one different choice in a series of mistakes. Was I making that choice now? Had I already made it? How much judgment did I have left? It was a gray area.

Gray area, gray matter.... OuuaAahhOaAhOh.

I was losing it.

I started up the pitch for the fourth time, head reeling. Hours ticked by as I worked at the thin nailing. Each hammer strike shot pinpricks through my nerves. At last I pulled over the bulge and started to free climb on a loose diorite slab. It got dark. Then it began to rain. I slipped, muttered a few obscenities at the first ascensionists, and continued up through a hooking and free-climbing maze.

A WATERFALL BLASTED OVER MY HEAD. I huddled, soaked and wet-assed on a sloping ledge, happy as hell. I yelled into the storm, "Dano! Walt! Jose! I love you, bros! Thanks for showing me how it's done!"

The storm blew past and the weather eased to a drizzle, accompanied by a sideways mist as the wind kicked in. I gingerly nailed an arching crack and pulled onto the summit shoulder.

Wow! What a ride, I thought, giddy, then rapped back down the cliff and set up my portaledge for one last night on the wall, savoring my isolation. No one could even think of trying to rescue me now. With my headlamp off, I was hidden, alone—free.

I looked down beyond the border of the ledge. The realm of the dumbass now lay in the invisible void below. Once more, I'd escaped. But for me, that's what climbing is all about: tiptoeing right up to the edge of the abyss, then bringing back those stories you'll remember forever—until, that is, you take your dirt nap for real.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.