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A Day on the Wall, a Night in the Open

 A Day on the Wall, a Night in the Open

by Erik Sandelin

August 30, 2002

"We're aaaall gooonnaa diiieee!!!". The thoughtful words of our neighbors echo across the golden granite of the southeast face of El Capitain. "Yes, but you are gonna die first!" my partner Norman replies and then we laugh. Our attempt to climb the route 'Mescalito' on El Capitain turns out to be a social affair. To the right of us we have the two young "We are all gonna die!" rock'n'roll climbers on Sea of Dreams. Kindly enough, they provide us with their philosophical words, accompanied with the latest death-metal tunes from their getto-blaster. Further to the right there's parties on Tangerine Trip and on Zodiac. They are too far away for us to know their taste of music, but their presence helps us fight the exposure-induced loneliness we feel. Hanging in the middle of an overhanging featureless sea of granite, we feel as lonely and vulnerable as if we were trying to cross the Pacific Ocean in a small dinghy. Although they are too far away to help us if we would get into trouble, just the sight of them still makes us feel safer.

Once in a while a biker-looking caver from Atlanta pops by. Yes, I said, "pops by". The day before a rope suddenly appeared from nowhere twenty feet out in the air. Rescue was our immediate thought. We were delighted to find out that we were wrong when the first 'rescuer' appeared on the rope. With large tattoos, shorts, army-boots and a helmet with two flashlights and a video camera it was evident that this was not a rescuer. A short conversation ensued. He belonged to a group of cavers from Atlanta who planned to rappel and jumar for a couple of days from the top of El Cap. He didn't understand why we wanted to spend a week on a rock face and we didn't understand why he wanted to do long jumars just for the fun of it. Jumaring is not fun. It's scary! At least we agreed we didn't understand each other and told him to bring a pizza the next time he came by.

To the left of us we have a German solo climber on New Dawn. Enviously we watch him laying in his sleeping bag on the spacious Lay-Lady ledge while we are struggling for yet another night with a hanging bivy. Every evening it is the same thing: I, the theoretical physicist, reach the belay, tired and hungry after a long day of hauling, cleaning, free-jumaring and leading. In front of me are three or four bolts on a blank face rock face. Nothing else. With my lack of organizational skills the task ahead of me is daunting. I need to create a belay with a fixed lead line for Ola, a jumar-line and a chicken-line for Norman, and two haullines. This is a complicated task in its own. But I also need to set the belay up for a bivy. The haullines should be set up so that the haulbags are accessible but still won't interfere with the two portaledges. In addition there should be a tether for each of us to tie into while sleeping, and last but not least, all this should be set up so that there's a free rope for Norman to start leading in the morning while Ola and I break down the bivy.

I am not up for the task in my tired state of mind. Hastily I fix the lines and hopes that Norman with his engineering mind will have a master plan when he arrives at the belay. Under normal circumstances Norman always has a plan for this sort of things. An engineer by profession and fixing racecars on his spare-time, his brain immediately sees how complicated mechanical systems should be set up. However, the route is steep and the rope Norman is jumaring is free hanging. It's no surprise he is wasted by the time he reaches the belay and he does not have the master plan I was hoping for.

Ola hanging out in the portaledge Enter Ola. Each evening he is our savior. He doesn't show it, but he is probably disappointed that the bivouac is not already set up by the time he has cleaned the pitch. Instead he has to take charge or we will be sleeping hanging from our harnesses. Luckily Ola has the perfect wall-mind. He never seems to be stressed. Even if he is tired and hungry he performs his tasks methodically and carefully. He hands out direction to Norman and me and slowly our bivouac is unfolding: First we need to untangle the rope-web strung across the belay. The free lead rope Norman will use tomorrow morning should be put in a rope-bag and clipped out of the way. The two haul lines need to be recoiled from the end to make sure they will feed out smoothly when Norman hauls them up to the next belay.

When we have organized the ropes and made sure the rack is out of the way it's time for the portaledges. With only three bolts we need to position them on top of each other while making sure we can still access them. We decide the best solution is to have Norman's single portaledge at the top on the left bolt and Ola's and mine double on the right bolt slightly below Norman. Ola downjugs to the haulbags, grabs Norman's portaledge and jugs up with it. He hands it over to Norman while they exchange our most common words: "Got it?","Got it!". While Ola returns down for our portaledge, Norman starts to assemble his. It looks like he is wrestling with a blue dragon when he unfolds it. The hollow aluminum tubes makes the horrifying noise of something falling, "cling-clong", when they bang against the rock. Of course they are all attached to each other with a wire but it's an unnerving sound I never get used to. Enviously I watch Norman laying in his portaledge when Ola and I start to wrestle with ours. Assembling the frame is quite easy but when it is done it looks like one of Escher's impossible geometrical figures. Unfortunately I am hanging in same bolt as the porta so it's my job to adjust the straps to make the porta flat. Ola calmly tries to direct me in the fading daylight, but he might just as well be teaching ballet to an elephant. I pull this strap and that strap but to no use. The portaledge still isn't even close to flat. Even Ola looses his temper, tells me to get out of the way (which means I high-step in the bolt the portaledge is hanging from), and in a minute it's flat. Now it is time for food and sleeping bags. While Norman and I are sitting in the portaledges, giving our hips a well earned rest, Ola jumars up and down to the haulbags with food and clothing and hands it over to us with the usual exchange of words: "Got it?","Got it!".

Finally we have everything we need for the night and Ola prepares to enter our double portaledge. As he enters at one side I carefully slide my body to the other side to balance his weight. The portaledge creaks and moves a little bit when Ola enters but seem to hold up pretty well. Terrified by the exposure I sit next to the wall, trying to not think about what is outside the safe haven of the portaledge. Carefully remove our shoes and helmets and clip them into the anchors. Dinner consists of canned food as usual. Norman has a tasty can of Campbell's soup for dinner while Ola and I settle for Stagg chili. Some canned fruits finish the dinner and it's time for bed. Ola and I have to coordinate our movements when we slide into our sleeping bags. It goes well and the portaledge doesn't flip over. Laying two persons in a portaledge is claustrophobic enough even without the fly. I pray the weather will hold. The small size of the portaledge tempts me to stretch my arms outside the ledge when I try to find a comfortable position to sleep in. However, my mind kicks in and when I think about what's out there I feel like I am sleeping on a raft sticking my arms out into a shark-filled sea. Quickly I pull back my arms. Eventually exhaustion takes over and I drift into a dreamless sleep looking up into the starlit sky.

Erik Sandelin

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