The Last Climb by Dan Woll

dan woll further north of highway 8

An excerpt from Further by Dan Woll

by Dan Woll

“I don’t want to write about climbing; I don’t want talk about it; I don’t want to photograph it; I don’t want to think about it; all I want to do is do it.”… is what Chuck Pratt said.

I never met Pratt but he was my climbing hero. Whenever I went to Yosemite, I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to repeat his hardest routes. If he had lived longer, I wonder if he would say that. Yosemite dreams still haunt me, the photographs grip me and no matter how many times I tell them or hear them, I enjoy the same stories when old climbing friends get together.

This is the story of a great climb with a great friend. It was a good way to end my career. For now.

The Last Climb

It was 1980 and I had proposed to Beth, a woman who loved the idea of honeymooning in Yosemite. She was less enamored with the good idea that I go out early with friend Al and climb El Cap. Beth and Als wife would meet us after the climb. With the same tolerance that has allowed her to put up with me all these years, she acquiesced, if we promised to be “careful.” I avoided a discussion about how “careful” has limited application on big walls.

A second good idea was to advertise for a rider to share expenses. We got a bite, a young woman eager to get to the Valley. The morning of the trip I took my 1975 red Chevy truck, packed with gear and food, to the local pretty good garage for an oil change. Then I started off to pick up Al and our paying passenger. Five miles out of town, there was a loud sibilant noise, as deadly as the hiss of the sunbathing rattlesnake that bit a boulder hopping hiker in the Tuolmne River toward the end of the unique honeymoon.

The truck had apparently had a massive coronary. I hitchhiked to town and called a car fixing friend. He helped me tow it to the garage. Sensing the approaching crisis, Beth allowed me to take her pride and joy, a new Opel, a little yellow car with a black stripe. The Opel would come to regret this. I transferred all the gear. What fit comfortably into the back of a pickup truck, barely made it into the Opel.

When I arrived at Al’s, he didn’t say much other than, “You know this girl has a bike?” We crammed Al’s gear in. I had made a vow not to drink beer until the climbing was over, but vehicular catastrophes change the rules. I exacerbated the packing problem by stuffing in a case of beer. A half hour later we pulled up in front of rental housing in Madison to look for our rider. I don’t recall her name. My guess is that she has erased ours from her memory. She stared at the back seat jammed with gear, books, and beer. I explained it was not ideal, which is also one description of the Hindenburg’s landing.

She chose to ride shotgun with Al. I wedged in the back, glowered and opened a beer. After we crossed the Wisconsin border, and a second beer, I began to relax. My companions did not share my sangfroid. Conversation was chilled. I opened another beer and a new book called “The Shining”. By the time we were halfway across Iowa, I was engrossed in the book and beer drinking and not a good choice to drive.

After I finished the book and the beer and napped, I shared in the driving. We were on a short timeline. This was not a crew to share a friendly sleeping site. We drove relentlessly until we reached Yosemite. I will never forget the look of relief on her face. She was the bank teller let out of the safe after being held hostage in a stick up.

We found a payphone and deposited enough coins to call home. Beth informed us that the garage guys had not screwed on the oil filter correctly. They had fixed the problem in a half hour. We unpacked our stuff and dragged it over to Camp 4, a zoo of climbers, scam artists, stoners, posers, crooks, alcoholics and other ne’er do wells.

Al wanted to go to the Arch Rocks. We started on one of the easier tens, in the sense that flogging was an easier medieval punishment. Yosemite rock is abrasive granite with edges sharper than your older kitchen knives. I had had another good idea back in Wisconsin, which like the climbing honeymoon, began to show flaws in California. I brought along my old karate gi—a white canvas jacket. There was a problem. It was loose. The minute I stuck my arm into a crack, the sleeve pushed up leaving skin exposed forcing a decision to let go or flex my bare arm and pull up. By the time I got to the top of the first lead, my arms looked like raw ground beef.

If I were to climb El Cap, I would need to not injure myself any more, which meant assigning the ugly leading to Al. Just to make sure I did not have it too easy, Al chose a climb that was harder, New Dimensions. Rather than rappel, we descended by crawling and lowering ourselves through steep gullies chocked with manzanita and other bushes. A week later we figured out that the mystery foliage was poison oak. I figured it out more than Al because my karate gi sleeves pushed up in the bushwhacking.

I joined in the Camp 4 debauchery and B.S. ing that followed the day’s climbing. Al ate a banana. The next day we climbed Quicksilver, a fierce, thinly protected climb on the Cathedral Rocks. It was a newer route featuring steep face climbing protected by bolts. The word was that the bolts on Quicksilver were not so good. There was a rumor that some deviant had chopped on them to weaken them. I declined to lead which made Al happy because a fall would be the ultimate test of suspect bolts. Being roped to me several hundred feet off the deck, he was not in favor of that particular space experiment.

We had one more day to acclimate. Al chose the Nabisco Wall which had only been freed a few years earlier and was considered a hard climb when done from bottom to top in one push. The first pitch, Waverly Wafers, featured jamming that my thin skin was not ready for. The second pitch, Wheat Thin, was one I had been pining for. A gigantic flake had separated from the main wall by a few inches. It was my specialty. I looked forward to the long lie back. They had not told me that there was an unprotected move after a traverse to the start of the flake. It should not have been a problem because the traverse was easy, but then there was that one thin move up and off the traverse ledge to the flake and a good hold. The move did not look that hard, but a slip would have been monumental because the fall would take me down in a pendulum across the face. The chances of slamming into something were good.

I rationalized that I could not get hurt before our big climb on El Cap but the fact is that something was changing in my climbing mentality. It first showed up on Quicksilver where I lagged behind on the approach and took the easy way out on the climb by avoiding the hard leads. This was a change in my attitude. The year before I had led the Hollow Flake, a notorious unprotected pitch on the famous Salathe Wall,where a fall can result in a hundred foot screamer. The Hollow Flake crux was harder and more exposed than the move to the flake, but my confidence was lacking. I asked Al to take over. I still regret that, because the flake turned out to be easy. It would have been a wonderful lead. Al quickly led up to the belay point. I followed and prepared to belay him on the final pitch, Butterfingers.

It is a crack climb with difficult moves right away. As Al led up above me, I leaned back in my hanging belay. A leader fall would have resulted in Steve Komito’s boot work being imprinted on my forehead but Al navigated the difficult section easily and cruised to the top. Lack of rest plus too much beer and lacerated arms had diminished my climbing confidence.

What little was left was vaporized on the Cookie, the climb that began the tailspin of my career. The Cookie was only rated a nine. There is a man in the history of the Valley who mastered the horrors of off-width climbs. All off width climbs are ugly, strenuous, dirty and dangerous. His were the worst. He was Chuck Pratt, R.I.P. Half a century later, his climbs are still horrors. If the Cookie were to spit me out like a watermelon seed I would go far before an ancient manky piton, maybe placed by Pratt himself, might stop me before hitting something hard. I thought of a friend of mine, who gave up climbing after the Cookie. He was skinnier than I and yet he was ejected. The piton held the slighter man, but his glasses went flying, were not recovered and he never went back.

I went up and back, each time closer to the point of no return. I tried facing both ways but I could not find secure purchase. Below on the belay stance Al was looking at his watch and tapping his fingers. I said, “I can’t do this.” The final bit of air went out of my climbing ego. We went back to pack Big Arnold.

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