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First Time On the Big Rock - A Tale of Inexperience and Ant Juice


 

by Warren Teissier

June 26, 2002

June 1989, we are standing next to the van, parked along the Merced River looking at El Cap. Our gear is strewn next to the van and the stench from my purple rope is still overwhelming.

It’s hot, really hot and as Deb jumps into the river to cool off, I am totally dejected by our failure on El Cap. Shit! We weren’t even attempting one of the Real climbs, we had just bailed out of the East Buttress route, how pathetic is that?

In hindsight, and with the experience gained over the years, I have now come to cherish our “East Buttress” debacle. Our mistakes that day seem obvious and naďve. Yet, the thrills we experienced in our “adventure” are as crisp today as they were on that day. Rather than pushing us away from climbing, the experience took me to the very core of what climbing is: a continuous balance between my ambitions and my fears.

I had been climbing for a year. I got hooked after taking a 1 week course and through that year had worked myself up to being able to lead 5.9 trad. In the last day of the course, the instructors gave a slide show from their previous year’s ascent of the Nose and Half Dome. I knew right then that I had to climb in Yosemite the next summer.

Armed with the route book and too much beta from my friends, I felt invincible as I prepared to leave for Yosemite. Then a phone call, my partner had just shattered his wrist in a gymnastics accident…

I am standing in line at camp 4, hoping for a campsite. It’s drizzling and the magnitude of It All is starting to sink in: the rocks are huge, the folks around me appear to be way more experienced and I have no partner. There is a group of 3 people in line in front of me. We get to talking, one of their partners never made it; we wind up linking up. This serendipitous meeting has led to a 12 year friendship and climbing partnership with Deb…

Over the next few days we climb After Six, some 5.9’s on the Apron and Snake Dyke. Through all this, we have talked about doing the East Buttress. The day before our attempt we start getting nervous and decide to fix the first two pitches to save time the next day (believe me, it made perfect sense to us then). We spend that morning climbing Reed Pinnacle Direct and in the afternoon we hike to the base of the East Buttress and proceed to fix the lines.

I lead the 5.9 chimney, my first chimney no less, and by the time I am stemmed out, run out and contemplating the move into the off-with below the ledge I am scared shitless. I try to cheat by yarding on my pro but am so stuck in the OW that it ain’t working, in hindsight, I realized that until that day, I had never climbed an OW... So this is what climbing in El Cap is like? Welcome to the big leagues kiddo. To this day, I can’t remember how I made it onto the ledge.

I belay Deb and she proceeds to lead the 5.10d pitch that everybody “cheats on” by pulling on the time tested piton (beta from my homies). But being young and idealistic, we choose to free it. The fact that neither one of us was able to lead 5.10 didn’t seem like an issue at that point. Three lead falls and 20 minutes later she yards on the piton and disappears above me.

WT: Deb?

Deb: yes

WT: remember not to fix the rope on the tree at the top of the pitch, my buds told me that there are ants in it

Deb: OK

In the meantime, its gotten dark, “huh, didn’t bring a headlamp”. Deb raps down with a headlamp on, and as she prepares to rap down the second rope into the darkness, I ask her what she used for anchoring to the second rope,

Deb: The tree

WT: But I thought…

Deb: It was dark, had no pro left…

WT to self : Shut up! She has the only headlamp.

As we rap down in the dark and find our way back through the boulder field I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Dawn finds us at the foot of the wall. Man, the climbing pack is heavy! We are concerned enough about our endeavor that we are carrying two racks. Since we have fixed lines we have our set of Jumars and etriers. “Wait, we need bring our approach shoes for the descent” and “what if we get benighted? We’ll bring extra clothes and some food, just in case”…

The rest of the climb reads almost like a three stooges episode:

Deb: The pack is too heavy to jug with…

WT: Don’t worry tie it in, I’ll haul it… shit! It’s stuck in the chimney, don’t worry, I’ll rap down and free it, and jug up again behind it…

Deb jugs up the second rope, I follow with the pack on my back.

Deb: Oh My God, the ants are biting me, oh, ouch, ouch!!!

WT muttering to self: told you so

As I reach the top, Deb is fighting the ants, still tied into her Jumars, standing on the ledge. They are crawling down her neck; she’s hopping frantically swatting with all her might. As I jug the final few feet, the rope is black with ants coming at me. The Jumars are literally dripping with ant juice. The formic acid smell is unbelievable. To this day I look at that rope with a suspicious eye, what are the long-term effects of bathing a rope in ant juice?

Finally clear of the ants, I set off to lead the 5.5. As I turn the corner after the 20 foot traverse, the HUGE face of El Cap comes into view together with some 200 feet of exposure under me. I am GRIPPED. Smooth holds, no pro, only 5.5 right? Eventually and after posing for a photo, I reach a pin, not sure its the right spot for the belay… never mind…I start belaying Deb up.

The pack is too heavy and is pulling her sideways as she sets up for the arete. Is she gripped too? After a few attempts she finally yells that she can’t climb with the pack, we’ll have to abort the climb… rather than being pissed, I am relieved… I bring her up without it, we take some pictures and we rap down once again… It is well past noon by the time we reach the van.

It will be quite some time for me not to feel bitter about my debacle on the Big Rock.

Only later did I recognize some simple facts that I then either ignored or was to green to grasp:

I had very little experience in multi-pitch routes

Our rack was clearly overkill

We carried enough stuff in case we were benighted, virtually guaranteeing that we would and fixing ropes should have been the first sign that we were going about this all wrong

In summary we were way over our heads…

Can’t wait to have the chance to get back to El Cap and try myself at this unfinished project. I’ve promised myself to be more respectful of the endeavor, this time though, I will not bring my Jumars, just in case the ants are still there…

P.S. I never got to see the pictures, a couple weeks later, Deb lost her camera while we were climbing the Becky route on Liberty Bell…



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