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Posted on: October 15, 2008
In his new book Psycho Vertical, Andy Kirkpatrick fuses his life story and an account of his adventure soloing Yosemite's treacherous Reticent Wall into a single comprehensive narrative. In the following excerpt, a chapter entitled "Psycho", Kirkpatrick writes in vivid detail about his ascent of Pitches 13 and 14 of Reticent Wall while reflecting on his youth and the events in his life which brought him to that moment on the stone of El Capitan.
Alpinist thanks author Andy Kirkpatrick and publisher Hutchinson for permitting us to feature part of Psycho Vertical for our readers.
Excerpted from Psycho Vertical by Andy Kirkpatrick. Copyright (c) 2008 Andy Kirkpatrick. Published by Hutchinson. Available wherever books are sold. —Ed.
I woke at dawn. I lay there for a while and waited for the sun to arrive at the ledge. Almost at the top of the wall the sun came early. There was no rush. It was colder here than down below. Now I could see snow out on the Sierras. I was glad of my warm sleeping bag. I snuggled down into it. It's not every day that you attempt to climb the hardest, most dangerous pitch of your life. I thought about what it had taken to get here—not just the hundreds of metres of rock directly below, but the hundreds of pitches, kilometers of rock, ice and snow that I'd climbed in the past to get myself to this point in my life. It's just climbing, don't be so melodramatic. The sun lit up the wall. I sat up and went and dangled my feet over the side of the ledge, enjoying the drop, and ate my last bagel, watching the light spreading down the wall below me. How long would it take for a crumb to fall? I thought about the pitch, what I'd been told, what I could see. The first part was yet another expanding crack. If you mess that up you might get away with just a broken leg. The next section was a leftwards-trending seam, probably requiring tiny copperheads and birdbeaks. Got to be careful there. I considered the consequences of a fall. Maybe I would survive, but I would probably hit the ledge on my side. Maybe it would be better to die straight away. You don't want to lie smashed and semi-conscious, feeling sorry for yourself. At least close to the top I had some chance of a rescue. Only if someone sees you fall. The crux itself involved hooking a fragile flake. With no gear to hold a fall, any mistake would be terminal: a two-hundred-foot fall onto the ledge. These are only facts. It was strange and unexpected, but I felt no anxiety, no fear, no emotion. A river of clear water flowed through me. Everything I had ever done had led to this point and I was ready.
I began by emptying all the water that remained in my bottles, and along with those I had already used, placed them in my haul bags, to turn them into makeshift crash mats. The trick was to half unscrew their lids, so the air would escape neither fast nor slow. That way they would neither crumple too quickly nor cause me to bounce over the edge. I positioned the portaledge below the first part of the pitch. If nothing else, this took my mind off the rock beneath, and might even turn a break into a sprain. Lastly I emptied out the water from the bladder I carried on my back like a rucksack, inflating it instead. I knew I'd be too busy to drink. It would save a little more weight, and being inflated meant it might protect my spine. It's all an illusion. Next I laid out all my equipment: cams, nuts, pegs and hooks, checking each one for damage before I clipped and racked them on my harness. We had many things in common: tired, beaten up, scarred with a thousand wounds, a thousand placements. We were older. My hands were still swollen but now the pain felt good. They felt like the hands of someone who could feel. Either way, you'll soon get a long rest. I clipped my hammer to my harness, its once square head now rounded with abuse, its hickory handle stained with sweat. I thought back to they day it had arrived in the post all those days back, new, shiny, a blank page. Now every scrape, scratch and impression told a story. We had traveled a long way together and I was glad we'd made it this far. I stacked my ropes, once a hated task, now one I savoured, a therapy of hands and Perlon, first the lead line then the haul line. I felt for damage as they passed through my fingers. I put on my helmet. New when I began, it was now scratched and beaten, sponsor's stickers flapping like old skin, unimportant now. Lastly I slipped my sore naked feet into my shoes, left then right, always the same. I tied my laces, thinking back to how difficult I'd found this simple knot as a child, just as I found it difficult to tell the time, to read, to write. I wished I could go back in time and hug myself then self, take away the feeling of inadequacy, and whisper that one say all these things wouldn't matter, that one day I would be more amazing than I could imagine. It was 9 a.m. A beautiful cool morning. The snow stretched clean out across the Sierras on the horizon. It was quiet. There had never been a more perfect moment. I began.
A Lost Arrow. A Skyhook. A small cam. The climbing is automatic. There is no emotion, no fear, no doubt. There is only the correct option. A knifeblade. A cam hook. A knifeblade. The hours pass more slowly than the metres, but this is immaterial. I can only climb as well as I can. A birdbeak. A birdbeak. A copperhead. I finger peg scars in the rock to judge what once fitted them best and fill them again. I bounce as hard as I dare on the gear to test its strength. I don't look down at my landing. I won't fall. A copperhead. A copperhead. A birdbeak. I hook up to a huge crumbling flake, a rock celebrity. It's unstable, it's weak, it threatens to kill, that's what I've been told. I have to ride it, as if it's a wild animal. I put my hand on it and stoke it calm. It's misunderstood. I hook it and step up slowly. It lets me. A hook. A hook. A smaller hook. The flake ends. Thank you. I hang there for a moment and wait for my fearometer's flickering needle to settle again, breathing slowly, conscious I mustn't rush. Savour this moment. I feel so at peace, conscious that this is not what I had expected. Something has changed in me. I feel calm. I'm enjoying this! I look down and marvel at my position, immune now to the exposure. I try to take in everything around me. I won't be here again. I notice a few people standing on the rim of El Cap a few hundred metres away. It seems strange to be watched after so long alone. Then one of them begins shouting: 'Psycho, psycho, psycho!', the words drifting over the huge void between us. It makes me feel that people are thinking about me. I wave back. I can see a crack up to my left. I know when I reach it I will be safe forever. That will be it. I will survive. Between me and salvation lies a blank stretch of rock, its surface covered by a mosaic of small round pancake-sized exfoliating flakes. It seems you could peel them off with your fingernail. Like me, they barely cling to the wall. I look hard at the flakes. I must hook one, the one that is attached just enough to hold me. Make the wrong choice and that's it. Pick the right one and that's it. There is no hesitation, only thought. I imagine what others must have thought. I choose the one which looks the most secure and hook it, stepping, swapping my weight over to it. It holds me.It defies reason to do so. This flake is a time-bomb, but I already have the next piece in my hand, ready to fire into the crack. I step up higher, my hand outstretched, the cam retracted waiting to spring. Once 8,000 kilometers stood between me and tomorrow. Then only 900 meters. Now it is measured in centimeters...and now millimeters.I hold the cam's trigger back, knowing that when I let it go, the cam will expand and lock within the crack. That will be it. But instead of letting go, my fingers will hold tight. I am no longer connected to the world. I enjoy the sensation of the void all around me, of choices, so many made to reach this moment: everything I ever did, the good and the bad, all I wanted, every experience coming to just this moment.This very moment.I let the trigger slip from my fingers.
I lay in the dirt with my shoes off. It was almost dark. A cool breeze carried away my smell and replaced it with that of the manzanita bushes all around me. Alone for so long I'd wanted to find someone, to tell them where I had been, what I had done, not for ego or glory, but so I could believe in myself. But there was no one there to listen. I realized then that I had not spent so long alone since I'd been in my mother's womb. I wondered if I should have a cry. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. Don't be so melodramatic. Happiness can make you cry. I looked at the pile of hardware and ropes beside me, my helmet, shoes and harness, spotted my dad's wire, and wondered what he'd say. What would anyone say? I felt sorry for all my pegs and hooks and cams; life savers for so long, they meant nothing to me now, simply heavy things I had to carry back down. It seemed appropriate to thank them, my ropes, and my haul bags, and my body, so I did, then said it again to no one in particular. I pulled out Ella's toy train and held it up against the sky. Then I kissed it.
The crux had taken less then four hours. A blur. Clipping the belay had meant nothing, I already knew I was safe. Once it was over, I raced to climb the final easy pitch, a crack that led to a roof. I should have known that it wouldn't let me just walk away. It surprised me, harried me, played tricks and scared me. I became frustrated, annoyed it was making life tough; hadn't I suffered enough? Didn't it know who I was, what I'd done to get there? I was too tired to realize that this was all part of the wall's grand plan. It had one final lesson to tech me. I reached the roof, the path across it a line of old pegs, placed by my heroes, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding and Charlie Porter, and many others. Clipping from one to the other I became aware of how they must have felt as they passed this way, with many routes converging on this last section. I looked down at the tiny trees, nearly a kilometer below, and felt a tingle of vertigo, a shiver of fear. Some would think of me as a hero for soloing a route like this, but climbing a wall only makes you feel mortal. I had just soloed one of the hardest big wall in the world, but, probably like my heroes, I felt only humbled and transformed. I had my answer. I pulled over the roof an arrived at a small ledge, the wall leaning back now, the top very close. The smells began to change, from an austere stink of toil and fear, to the simple aromas of earth and trees and life. I kissed the rock one last time and scrambled on to the summit. Now I lay on the soil. I closed my eyes and listened. The world sounded more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. There was only silence, both without and within me. Like a junkie, his arm full of heroin, I no longer thought about my next fix. I had overcome myself. I lay there for a long time, relishing the new-found space, along with the lack of clawing gravity. I can't fall off the world anymore.
Finally, I knew it was time to go, so I packed one haul bag, leaving the other for later collection, and began walking down from the summit, along the rim, heading for the series of abseils that would take me back to the base of the wall. My legs felt weak under the load; my body was much thinner than when I'd begun nearly two weeks before. My headtorch picked out the right path down steep slabs, yet all of a sudden I felt exhausted. I sat down again and tried to compose myself. Then I noticed something, something so beautiful it's impossible to describe. Voices. I followed the sound, scared for a moment that I'd imagined it. It had happened many times before. Then I heard it again. Then laughter. Now I felt like crying. I stumbled down and came across two men sitting in sleeping bags behind a rock. We were strangers, but we were also fellow travelers. They smiled at me. I smiled back. We were the same. 'Hello, do you mind if I sleep here with you guys?' I had been a long time since I'd talked to anyone but myself. 'Sure thing - pull up a rock,' they said, switching on a battered CD player. New music spilled out. They were silent as one rolled a fat joint, which he offered to me first. 'No thanks,' I said. 'Why?' 'Smoking's not good for you,' I said. We all laughed. 'Where have you come from?' asked one of the climbers as he dug out their remaining can of beer, wrapping it in their last few wet wipes to cool it down. 'The Reticent.' No one said a word. 'How was it?' asked the climber with the can, pulling the tab. 'Not too bad,' I said. After all, it couldn't have been, I'd climbed it.
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