Don’t Be A Stranger


  Much to my chagrin and way too late I just found out that the Wall Street Journal has an “extreme sports correspondent”.  If anyone out there knows what he gets per column inch please don’t tell me.  It would probably make me throw up.

Anyway, the most recent bit* was about climbing The Nose of Yosemite’sEl Capitan.  The route goes up the line between light and dark in the photo above and the top is some 3,000 feet above the valley floor. (The Burj Khalifa is about 2,700 tall) The first ascent in 1959 required an effort spanning thirty days.

Record time now is just over two hours which blows my mind.  Nose in a Day (aka NIYAD) – summit in twenty-four hours – is a relatively common occurrence and I’m close to convincing myself that with a bit (well, lot) of training and a young partner I could maybe accomplish that feat.  The considerable traffic over the last fifty years has made the path quite plain and clean.

Interesting thing is that though there is risk in opting for speed, there is also an element of safety.  The weather can change quickly, trapping those halfway through the more typical four or five day vertical journey.  Climbers die there every year.  Not long ago a pair froze to death not far from the finish.

In about 1975 I climbed up the dang thing with an amazing guy by the name of Ted Davis.  Ted’d left the states and the draft forCanadasome years before, but in those days of border porosity it was no problem to go back and forth with anonymity.

I’d never met a “draft dodger” and was predisposed to disrespect.  My number in the draft lottery was 101 to which the board never got close so military service got little serious consideration in my numb naïve mind.  Grizzly Ted took great pleasure filling in all of the blank spaces.  Including gratitude for those who did find themselves in harm’s way.

Politics had never come up with any of my other climbing buddies.  Neither did Buddhism, meditation, vegetarianism, or the environment until I met Ted.  He railed against the clear-cut decimation of northern forests and operated a company – Yossarian Enterprises – that replanted by the thousands.

Ted had climbed the Nose the previous year and invited me to accompany him for an attempt up a route more difficult and less traveled.  Two days in, about half way up, tired, hot, and cramped, we found ourselves atop a huge flat ledge.  It was wonderful to be able stretch out and reorganize our gear.  But then sun went down and stopped evaporating what turned into a waterfall.  We got soaked to the bone.

Water and green slime characterized the next few rope lengths (150’ ea).  The 25th was vegetated, rotten, running with water, and punctuated with a few dead mice(!).  Whenever you’d extend an arm to the rock, whether to place or remove protection, the water would course down your sleeve.  We should have turned back, difficult though that would certainly have been.

Day later we got to the tiny and sloping Sous Le Toit ledge.  Out of the waterfall we hoped to dry out.  Weather took a turn for the (even) worse.  It got much colder, windy, and began to snow.  Ropes froze.  Blizzard.  We put on our cagoules and climbed into our bivy sack.  Knees to chest we were for twenty-four hours.

We played umpteen games of twenty questions of which I won only about five.  We talked about his journey north and how his family felt about it.  It’s been a long time, but I clearly remember him describe his family’s disagreement, but still fervent support.  This was tremendous food for thought and I’ve come back to it again and again as first a brother and later as a parent.

Next day as clouds began to pull away from the Captain we began to hear the swoosh swoosh of helicopter blades.  I started to move around to get organized and recommence our upward progress.  Ted told me to “hold on a moment.  They’re here to rescue someone and we don’t want them to think we need help”.  I didn’t think we did either, but would have enjoyed a sympathetic fly-by expression of concern.

We topped out the next evening and started the hike down, but it was overcast and pitch black.  We decided that it would be dangerous to continue and best to spend one more night in the other realm.  Ted had some matches and we stoked a small fire till just before dawn.

That summer was the last time I laid eyes on Ted Davis.  We kept up correspondence and had several near misses, but never again crossed paths.  He died of cancer a few years ago and it pains me no end that but for a few miles and weeks we could have hiked together with our kids in Colorado several summers in a row.

Few days after he died daughter called with a big decision to make and had spent a lot of time alone in contemplation.  I told her that was a good approach and quoted from a book Ted had given me: “Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are… Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but who we never really wanted to meet”**.

*Wall Street Journal February 2, 2012

**Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

***The route Ted and I did, the Salathe, is left of the Nose, goes up to the heart shaped depression, around its left edge, then straight up.  The ‘document’ just above is the topo we drew with the help of several other friends who’d recently climbed the route.

One Response to “Don’t Be A Stranger”

  1. gierk Says:

    This was cool to read! I want to be that columnist!!!

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