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N.E. Buttress and Braille Book of Higher Cathedral Rock Bifecta Solo


by Karl "Baba" Bralich

December 29, 2001

Most of us experience an altered state of consciousness during and after climbing. The intensity and one-pointedness of mind that climbing demands can strip away the fluff of our lives and connect us with our essential being. Some days I make a special attempt to take this philosophy to a personal extreme.

One of my favorite ways to go about getting naturally high is a long day soloing. The solitude and opportunity to move continuously combine to help me beat the "self" out of myself. It is a delicate balance. Soloing is inherently insanely dangerous. If you solo until you are near the edge, you have to be very careful not to cross it. My slowing metabolism, office job, and inability to crank even 10 pull-ups make the edge a sharp drop-off. I have to admit, my inherent laziness has taught me to climb without wasting undo energy.

This is the May 1997 installment of "Chase the Edge and Live to Spew About It." The attempt to solo two long routes in a day.

The day always starts at the crux: getting out of bed. My first mistake was not setting an alarm, reasoning that I would will myself to get up early when my body had achieved rest. I woke up feeling refreshed and looked at the clock: Midnight! Way too early for free-climbing in the butt-cold. I woke up feeling much more tired and looked at the clock: Three am! No Sale. I woke up at 4:30 feeling undead. It was light enough to see when I started hiking at 5:30.

The soaked-in-sweat march to the base of Higher Cathedral Rock never fails to clear the head and pores. I marveled at how I could sweat like a pig even though it was pretty cold out. I reached the base of the Northeast Buttress and sat down to meditate and collect my energies. The Sun dawned on that spot shortly after I closed my eyes. I felt the sensuous changes in the air as the radiance of our good star enveloped me. Life is Good!!! Now for the Cranking!!

The NE Buttress is 12 pitches of cracks and chimneys between 5.7 and 5.9 with a few 5.10 moves here and there. It has a reputation for being burly for its grade and has a wall-like atmosphere. I bring a rack and rope to rope-solo two of the harder pitches and use a screamer-daisy chain combination to protect miscellaneous tricky moves.

It was a beautiful day on the stone but outside of the beatitudes of nature, here are a couple of things that I remember: First, my..uh..unit kept getting caught between my leg and harness when I would step up to make a move. I really had to concentrate to keep those sharp pains from distracting me while free-soloing. I had to question if it would be ironic somehow if my dick got my killed, but I regained my focus and pushed on. Secondly, I forgot my small pack on the cozy ledge on top of the Fourth pitch and realized it on top of the Fifth. I had to free-solo the Fifth pitch three times to get my pack. It is an easy but wildly exposed face traverse. The smaller holds forced me to actively transcend the 600 foot drop between my legs. Longtime Yosemite climbers know that happiness is a bomber crack. I had to ask myself why I thought I could pay perfect attention climbing when I couldn't even remember to carry the pack with my water and food.

I will spare you the blow by blow of the climbing moves. It was like one continuous activity; moving and stretching over a stream of holds and jams. The top was not the goal but the immersion in the experience. I had a short but blissful nap in the sun near the top of the climb. Then, I was safe and sweet on top. When I reached the summit, there was a glimmer of accomplishment, but also the cessation of the adventure. Many of goals and purchases in life share this transitory quality of short lived pleasure. We have to be alive in each moment to have more than sporadic fulfillment.

Before I knew it, I had hiked back to the base of Higher Cathedral Rock, where the descent passes the Braille Book. Suddenly, I was playing games with myself. I didn't know what time it was, but I thought I might still have time for another climb. Part of me was saying, "The Braille Book looks steep! You have only done it once, and it was one of the most serious 5.8s ever!" The other part was saying "Go for glory man!! I mean...You are having a beautiful day climbing and why stop now! Think of it!! You get to climb Braille Book as a bonus without doing the usual hour and a half approach!" The first part responded "What is so energy saving about climbing Higher Cathedral AGAIN and doing the descent AGAIN!"

I seduced myself by saying I would just head up part of the first pitch and see how I felt. Before I knew it, I was totally committed to the climb and it was scary! Braille Book is a steep six pitch 5.8 that combines some crack climbing with a very knobby wall. The result is that the climb is damn steep for 5.8. When I had a crack I felt OK, but the face climbing demanded concentration and judgment. The problem is that those big knobby holds often have fracture lines around them and it is easy to imagine flying rapidly down with a big jug in your hand. I chose smaller holds over larger ones if the smaller ones looked more permanent.

I climbed Braille Book uneventfully. By uneventfully, I mean without terror or near-death experience. Soloing a relatively unfamiliar route entails being chairman of a mental committee constantly judging the difficulty and commitment of each move and entertaining doubts about the direction of the route in general. I met some nice folks who were bailing about the time I reached them. I switched my mind into social mode for a moment, and then reconvened the mental board of directors. The difference between the soloing mind and everyday associative thinking is that the consequences of soloing inspire clear and concentrated thought. Spending hours intensely focused and undistracted by everyday pettiness and insecurity summons more energy than it consumes. By the time I got to the top I felt better than when I started hiking that morning. In fact, gradually during the day I was entering "the Zone" more and more. The Zone is that state where everything is heightened and you act strongly and efficiently. This time, I virtually ran down the descent. picking up the pace until I was jumping over logs and rocks on the steep, makeshift descent trail. I had to pay perfect attention not to tumble, but I wanted to beat every last bit of shit out of myself. Since I had come so far, I wanted to finish the job.

I drove back home to Wawona and visited the house of three close friends. After a day of solitude, it was being with people again that brought out the fruits of the day. They fed me food that tasted like the rewards of heaven. I felt the energy of their lives expressed and animated by their every word and action. My friend Heffe played his own guitar music with genius. It was like he was drawing on the Spirit and attention of everyone present, fueling his inspiration with it. What a Day! What a good Life!

For me, there is one sure sign of a truly epic day; one that fully leaves my ass kicked. When I left my friends house and entered the cool night air, I started shivering violently. I had to crank the propane heater in my van and heat myself thoroughly before I could trust myself to drive. That's the sign! When my body can't naturally generate heat on its own, I'm fully cooked. I can't say why that feeling is so great, but it is. By approaching the edge maybe I can carve out a wider spectrum of Life. By emptying all of my energy one day, I make room for renewal the next.

I hope this report wasn't too long. It goes without saying that the rewards of climbing are personal. Most of us don't get laid or paid for climbing. If you go out trying to find your own edge, you must do it for yourself in your own way. There is no glory in making it dangerous. You can hike to the edge as easy as climb to it. Peter Croft can solo the Rostrum and for him it's OK. For me, it would only be suicide.

Peace and Love and Good Cranking to all!.

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