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Balancing on the Pillar of Despair


by Melissa Michelitsch

August 20, 2002

One of my weaknesses has always been a tendency to obsess over endeavors for which I care deeply. As a result of repeatedly tossing all of my eggs into the same basket, I’ve seen every last one of them crushed again and again. So, in an attempt to find a balance point between my urbanscientist life and my wannabeclimber life, I decided to retreat to the Valley. I figured that with some distance I could gain new perspective on my personal relationships and that if I climbed hard enough, I’d have it out of my system for a while allowing me to regain some focus on my research. Of course, since my obsessions are generally by definition the elements in control, it was just not possible for me plan an entirely rational and balanced retreat…The little chip in my brain kept insisting that I do a multi-day wall climb first.

The plan was to head to the Valley late on Tuesday to meet up with my partner Allen, get up early Wednesday, head to Half Dome where we would fix the first 3 pitches of the Reg. NW face, spend one night on the wall, top out Thursday, and be back to camp by Friday. Following my wall assault, I planned to spend a few days alone clearing my head. Then Michel, a partner with ropegun potential was going to come out from Tuesday until Thursday to do what I hoped would be a few long classics. Finally I would wind the second weekend of my trip up by leading my friend Ari who is even more newbie than me up a couple of the classic easies. These plans now seem comical. No matter how much I wanted this trip to be about finding balance, at the outset it was really about doing my first wall. Period.


I can barely sleep for days before the trip. I’m not as afraid of the climb itself as I am afraid of the heinous approach options: 1. the trail which would break my back and suck monstrously for a really long time or 2. the slabs which would suck for less long most likely because I would fall to my death on them before making much forward progress. But the little chip keeps insisting that I do a wall and that it be a grade VI and that it be on a monolith that I have repeatedly beheld in awe. So if we won’t be heading up Half Dome, the chip insists that the alternate route be on El Cap.

The exhaustion from my pre-trip jitters finally catches up to me around midnight on Tuesday about 200 meters from the park entrance. I awake to the sight of a speedometer registering ~45 mph and the front of my car pointing towards a ravine. I slam the brakes, crank the wheel, and pray that my car does not roll as I skid around for a 270 that aborts when the junk from behind my seat falls and knocks my car out of gear. I take this incident as a bad omen and then choose to ignore it.

At camp I discuss the chip’s plan to do El Cap with Allen. Even though he’s done a couple of routes up El Cap (the Nose and the Salathé), he decides that he’d rather do another El Cap route and save Half Dome for a partner that is quick enough to take it on as a one day assault. The route we choose must go clean and must have natural ledges since we aren’t equipped with pitons or a portaledge. We decide to do Lurking Fear….

Day 1

We spend the morning getting a site at Camp 4 and then engage in a loop of topo-staring and gear-sorting that takes several hours. Lacking some of the necessary gear, we head to the store to spend some more money. By the time with are loaded up and ready to head to the base it is 3:00, making our original plans to head into Half Dome in the morning and fix the first 3 pitches seem absolutely absurd. Another glance at the topo reassures us that the approach is only about 10-15 minutes to the base of the Nose and another 20-30 minutes to the base of Lurking Fear. The late hour does not seem like a problem. Barely able to move under the weight of my load, I end up questioning Chris MacNamara’s definition of 4th class on the approach, and am grateful that I am not “4th classing” the Half Dome Death Slabs.

As we pass the Dihedral Wall on the way in, the party on it a couple of pitches up asks us if we mind hunting around for the Aliens that they dropped. Wanting the good karma, we happily oblige. When we arrive at the base at 6:00, I am already whooped and again wonder in what alternate universe does this approach take a half-hour. There is just enough daylight for my partner to fix the first pitch and get the pig up to the belay. He cleans it on rappel. I don’t even leave the ground.

On the way out we see that the party that had dropped the Aliens is just coming off as well. We stop to chat, telling them they owed us a beer per Alien and walk out with them. Nice guys from Wyoming. After talking to them for a while, the name on their haulbag jumps out at me: “Skinner” and my little pea-brain realized that these guys are working on freeing this awesome line next to the one that we are hoping to jug, stick-clip, and aid up every last inch. I keep my cool and avoid telling them that I got a book detailing their free wall ascents for my birthday last month and have been reading about their exploits almost every night while getting psyched for my wall. I tell them that if all goes well Lurking Fear will be my first, and they genuinely act as though my plans are just as cool as theirs are. I wish them the best.

Day 2

We dink around a little more than we should have at camp in the morning. The approach is less heinous without the loads, but I still insist that parts are 5th class. We arrive at the base around 7:00. It’s after 8:00 by the time we jug up to the 1st belay. The second pitch, basically a bolt ladder, looks like it may be the easiest of the whole route. It’s to be my first big wall aid lead. In spite of C1-ness of this pitch I do a really slow and sucky job on my lead. A short but horrifying tension traverse to gets things started, and the worst is over. I’m scared to get in the top step of my aiders, but I’ll never reach any of the bolts without doing so. I’m scared to hang on the fifi, but I do that too. I am especially scared to jump onto the hangerless bolts, but I need to make progress somehow. A few moves into this pitch I swallow my pride and bust out my stick clip: one of those commercially available plastic gadgets affixed on the end of a “rabbit ears” TV antenna. Bingo. I get in the groove and start making some decent progress. I even get to aid off of a couple of gear placements in the middle of the pitch. At the top I set up the pulley, cowardly giving myself about 15 feet of slack for body hauling. Body hauling turns out to be a lot of fun. I swear that the next time it’s my lead I’ll give myself more slack and start looking forward to the faster ride that I’ll get when the load gets lighter. Allen joins me at the belay. The pitch takes about 2.5 hours. Oops.

It’s afternoon by the time we get situated at the 3rd belay and it’s obvious that there is absolutely no way that we will be able to make it to the ledge near the 10th belay by dark. Both my leading and my following are clumsy, slow, fatigued, and fearful. I am realizing how far I am in over my head and am thinking that perhaps we should cut our losses while retreating is still straightforward. Allen tells me that he didn’t expect me to be a wall ace. He says he’ll lead all of the pitches the next day until we are sure that there will be plenty of time for me to lead and still reach our ledge by dark. I feel weak and cowardly but long to be bad ass. Sheepishly, I agree.

That night I am ill. I am participating in the vigil of my probable death and an assured epic of terror. I call up people that I care about and tell them so. Yes, I will be paying more attention to these non-climbing aspects of my life if I survive this trial. I do not sleep. The Germans in the adjacent camp build a fire and sing “Oh Susanna” with a harmonica accompaniment at 11:30 at night. I wish them a sun like hellfire and a thousand seatless hanging belays when their turn on the wall comes.

Day 3

Getting up at 4:30 is pretty easy because I never really sleep. I depart for my doom in haste. The approach gets easier, but I still insist that the last bit is 5th class. The jugging to the 3rd belay goes smoothly enough…kind of like running a 400 on my arms. I wheeze while Allen sets off on the first lead of the day. My jugging and cleaning techniques are improving. I know that my line will cut eventually though. Part of me hopes that it happens before I reach the 6th pitch, a C2 traverse of hooks and hangerless bolts.

My line holds until the 6th belay. After womanhandling the pig off of the anchors to lower it out for the haul, I have to figure out how to lower myself out and jug sideways without torquing my ascenders off of the rope. Every time I lower out onto a hangerless bolt, I’m sure the wire is going to ping off it and drop me into a giant wall-slapping pendulum. Miraculously this does not happen. I refuse to take even the smallest of swings, so I end up girth hitching my 25 ft. cordalette to my harness for quick little lower-outs. When I get to the last bolt, the cordalette doesn’t even come close to getting me low enough. I take a deep breath and cut myself loose. Allen sees the look of abject terror on my face as I take the plunge and nearly pees himself laughing at me. OK, it is kind of fun once I just give myself over to it. Pitch accompli. However, once again my tentativeness has cost us precious time.

We work furiously to attain our goal of the ledge around the arrête from the 10th belay. As we polish off the 9th pitch the sun is beginning to set. We get out the headlamps and double check each other’s helmet clips to make sure that they are secure. It gets dark quickly, but Allen keeps plugging away. I’m completely exhausted and barely functional when from my zoned-out mental space I hear the sickening thud of large, expensive gear being dropped. I shout up, “Was it the #5?” No. Worse. It was Allen’s headlamp. Since the belay ledge is around the arrête, we are not sure how to orient for it without proper light. Realizing that although things were sucking quite a bit at the moment, it is still quite possible for them to suck more, we decide to hunker down at the 9th belay, the first modicum of a ledge that we’d seen since leaving the ground.

A desperate look at the topo tells us that we are spending the night on the “Pillar of Despair” and offers a tale of a first ascent party that once-upon-a-time shared in our discomfort. I have never been so emotionally, physically, or spiritually drained, so I immediately relate to my bivy’s name before even considering its dimensions.

The Pillar of Despair is a 6-inch square bit of rock on which one can balance by placing a butt cheek on either side. I start the night on the Pillar. I make my bivy a little bit more comfy by leaning against the haul bag and suspending my legs outward in two aiders. Allen sits on the haul bag. He has dinner and tries to talk, but I am so exhausted that I immediately fall asleep on this instrument of torture. He fidgets and never really finds sleep on the bag.

In the dead of the night I contemplate which is more excruciating: the sharp rock in my rear end, the heart-attack-inducing anxiety of the dramatic end that I am sure to meet the next day, or the body-wracking exhaustion that I can not escape on the Pillar of Despair. As I begin to disappear into this vortex of negativity, Allen reaches down and squeezes my hand for just a minute to pull me out. I relax and find enough comfort in this simple gesture to settle in for another round of sleep. Since our cycles of misery are slightly out of synch, we are able to take turns pulling each other through these most difficult times. We do this almost telepathically throughout this awful night and through the darkest parts of the days ahead. I recognize this synergistic empathy as the essence and beauty of this climb. Perhaps it is also the reason that my climbing relationships have become such a powerful presence in the non-climbing parts of my life.

Day 4

As soon as the sun comes up we gladly leave the Pillar of Despair. From the 10th belay we are unable to see the putative ledge around the arrête. We think that our choice to sit tight may have been the right one. We hope to get to the “great bivy for 4+” at the 14th belay quickly and spend the rest of the day catching up on our sleep. But the pitches on Day 4 are the hardest of all and go very slowly. There is another entirely traversing pitch called the “Grand Traverse.” It consists of straightforward gear placements and C2+ hooking. Lowering out on bolts with pre-attached slings was pretty trivial for me to follow. This pitch is much more of a challenge.

The mental crux of this pitch is watching the rope make a sharp 90-degree turn right at what appears to be a razor-sharp edge at the end of the traverse. To compound the heinousness of this sight, the short quickdraw on the last piece of the traverse seems to have the rope pinned down precisely at the edge. I try to aid across to clean so as not to weight the doomed rope. However, my reach is so much shorter than Allen’s is, and I don’t have any hooks so I must clean on the jugs and pray that the rope does not cut for a few more pitches. I curse Allen all the way across, repeatedly telling him to use longer runners.

The final couple of pitches before the ledge also go more slowly as the hauling becomes precipitously more difficult. On the final pitch I jug towards an edge and see a telltale fluff of white around the rope. I move as smoothly and swiftly past the “blow-out” as I can and then keep chugging for the ledge where I tell Allen that he has nearly killed me. He pulls up the rope and reveals a minor abrasion in the sheath. I am overreacting again. Still he promises to use lots of long runners on the rest of his leads.

The ledge is hardly great-- certainly not great for 4+, but compared to the Pillar of Despair it’s the Ritz-Carlton. I get out my handi-wipes and enjoy a ‘bath’. Then I open up a positively delectable can of cold Spaghetti-O’s. I bask in this luxury for a short while and settle into a sound sleep for the night. When I awake, I allow myself to look down for the first time since leaving the ground.

Day 5

The objective is just to get off as quickly as possible. We are so over this climb. The route becomes more featured and lower angle allowing much of the remaining leads to go fast and free. However, hauling is miserable and jugging continues to feel like a crap-shooting match with sharp, rope-hungry edges. The day goes by in a blur of tag-team pig-shoving and body-hauling. We arrive at the “top” and rope up again for some encumbered slab hiking.

We stop short of the summit and spend the night on some safe but nicely exposed ledges at the rim. Since I skipped dinner on the Pillar of Despair, I still have a can of chili left that I share with Allen who has only Clif Bars. Although Allen did nearly all of the leading, I am feeling good about getting up the wall without any major meltdowns or disasters. I contemplate the meaning of it all by the light of the full moon. I feel safe again, and all of the reprioritizing of the elements of my life and deals that I’d made with God on the way up fade away. Most of my romantic notions about doing a wall revolved around the amazing feeling of falling asleep and waking up on a ledge with spectacular exposure. For the first time since we first left Camp 4, my experience matches my expectations.

Day 6

In true mountaineering style we learn that reaching the summit is only half of the journey. Even though Allen has done the East Ledges descent twice, we are spent and decide to take the trail down to avoid anything that remotely feels like more rock climbing. Instead of paying attention to our orientation, we simply take the most well worn trail. After a couple of hours we come to a sign that says “El Cap 5.5 miles, Valley Floor 13.x miles” and decide that we’ve screwed up.

About 5.5 hours and 11 miles after setting out with our 50+ lb. loads, the old paved road that we hit upon spits us out about a quarter of a mile from my car at the base of El Cap. I leave Allen with our gear as I go to fetch the car. The journey is over. Without my load I feel like I weigh about 30 lbs. I float down the road with eyes fixed on the Captain who looks a mile tall. I am lost in a wash of strange physical and emotional sensations. I feel a sob well up in my chest, but I am distracted from it by my staggering efforts to regain my land legs. Somehow I manage to drive back to Allen’s resting spot without wrecking the car. We load the pig on the back of my Miata and head to his wagon at Manure Pile where we had originally planned to emerge.

We take long showers, and I treat Allen to an awesome meal at the Mountain Room. Then Allen, a chiropractor in training, treats me to a spinal adjustment and a massage before he heads back to the City.

Nothing about my life is different from before I left the ground except for the fact that I have struggled up El Cap and survived and in the process have had the opportunity to examine my priorities from a vantagepoint where the simple notion of existence has gravity. I fall asleep hoping that this perspective has brought me some of the balance that I came to seek.


Our gentle epic on the wall consumed the days of quiet reflection that I hoped to spend alone in the Valley. The day after I get off my next partner arrives. Luckily he’s not too ambitious about ticking lots of long routes and is pretty content to just laze around camp and enjoy my buzz with me while my body recovers. (I still have a virtual harness of bruises a week later and a delicate manicure of blood-ringed cuticles.)

Unfortunately, one of the relationships from which I had hoped to gain some distance and thereby some perspective unexpectedly and unpleasantly presents itself on this first recovery day as well. I learn that when a supposed friend effectively gives me the finger in broad daylight, I don’t need to go spend six days on a wall to understand that I was never worth much in his eyes.

All of this enlightenment doesn’t make the dis hurt any less though. I cry...a lot. Then I treat myself to a fat dinner with a nice glass of wine and follow it up with a great Port. Buzzed, I go to El Cap meadow and behold the most beautiful site imaginable. By the light of the full moon the SE Buttress is aglow while the West Side lurks in its shadow, the Nose sharply dividing the two spectacular realms. I become inflated with euphoric empathy for every person who is up there fulfilling a dream on this ocean of perfect light. And, although my heart is very sad, I feel righteous.

As I drive away, the power of El Cap helps to move me away from sadness towards an empowering anger. When I get back to camp, my new partner provides me with a bottle of wine from the object of my despair that I drink with the full intent of ending the day in such a way as to make remembering it impossible.

Between the exhaustion from the wall and the worst hangover that I’ve had in years, none of those excellent grade IV’s that I’d hoped to do materialize. I do climb Bishops Terrace and After Seven though, both of which are incredibly aesthetic one pitch climbs. I also enjoy the company of a new friend whose support comes as quite a surprise. When my partner for the following weekend starts to waffle, I am more than happy to offer him the easy out. I bail on the rest of the trip.

The notion of climbing a wall to find balance in my life was probably just a justification to further my obsession with climbing. But, I got up El Cap, and no matter how bad I screw things up on the ground in the months ahead, that fact will remain. Since I’ve been back home, the urge to do another wall, something shorter and with a portaledge so that there aren’t time constraints that prevent me from leading, has been festering. But the reality of the corporate job awaiting me that will finance this ascent also looms omnipresent, and I intend to become more responsible in this respect. I doubt that I will ever find true balance between my two worlds, but I do hope that I can learn from my climbing partnerships and stagger their cycles of pleasure and despair to help keep both turning smoothly. And when I find myself on the dark side, I will try to remember that there is a glowing side that I cannot see, and that the most striking beauty is only found when regarding the juxtaposition of these opposites from a distance.

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