Intermission 24: What I did on my Vacation


Upwards and upwards we climbed towards the valley rim. Patty turned back (someone has to turn back on all the best quests or it’s not a proper quest, so she took one for the team), but Terry, Leslie and I pushed on. We crossed the river on a wooden bridge where Terry and Leslie tried, with mixed success, to instruct me in the gentle art of selfies so that I could get a picture of the water in the background foaming over tumbled grey rocks (or not…see below), and climbed some more until we reached the approach to the falls.

In spring when the flow is at its fiercest walkers need to put on waterproofs at this point to protect themselves from the spray and there’s no way you could leave the path. In autumn the flow was much less but still beautiful. The falls were a slim line of white dropping into a deep basin at the base, where the rising mist caught the sun in nets of rainbows. It was cameras agogo for pretty much everyone. There are metal railings along the path to stop Darwin awards candidates from trying to get a closer look, and I’m sure that in spring I would have stayed the right side of them, as a river in spate is not to be trifled with. As it was, a number of us climbed over and made our way down relatively well-worn trails almost to the lip of the basin.

At this point I’ll take a slight diversion to mention my shoes. I was wearing Keens walking shoes, which I bought after owning several pairs of Keens water sandals. There is an actual link here, since the first pair of Keens I owned were bought in San Francisco during the weekend I spent there after the Grand Canyon trip on which I met Leslie, Patty and Terry, having seen and admired Terry’s Keens during the trip. The whole trip we were in and on the water, so the advice from the tour company was to bring sandals which one could wear in the river, and I had a pair of Tevas, which are very good walking sandals.

However, the Keens were even better, since they had been designed for Colorado raftsmen (really), were made out of neoprene with huge thick soles and bumpers across the toes to protect feet from the rocks. Plus they came in a range of gorgeous colours; Terry’s were a delightful shade of dark blue. I was deeply covetous of them, although even if I had managed to bump her off and dump her body in the river sans sandals one dark night it would not have done me any good, as her feet are a lot smaller than mine. (And she is a really fabulous person and a good friend. Also murdering people is wrong, even for their lovely sandals. So a bad idea all round, really).

What I did do during the weekend I subsequently spent in San Francisco was to hunt desperately for a pair of Keens of my own. They were (are, for I still have them) bright green, as that was the only colour in my size; my feet are big and the sandals are bigger, so when wearing them I looked a bit froggy, but I didn’t care – my very own Keens! This was, of course, back in the day, before globalisation had fully got its claws into us and Keens were at that point unknown in England although now they are common and lots of people wear them. The downside to this march of everything everywhere is that one has somewhat lost the delightful novelty of travelling to a foreign city and finding the shops full of things and brands one would never see at home (yes, Eddie Bauer, I’m looking at you). The upside is that I now have three pairs of Keens. I still own the original froggy pair, now much repaired but still going strong (Keens are wonderful if you like a sustainable product, as they provide replacement fastening cords for their shoes free of charge and also a link to a helpful YouTube video which demonstrates how to fit them). In addition I also have two other pairs, one bright pink and one purple. I lust after a berry red pair but feel that four sets of Keens is possibly a bit much for one person, even for one who likes Keens as much as I do.

More shoe (and waterfall) related stuff tomorrow!

Intermission 23: What I did on my Vacation


Right, onwards! To our second full day in Yosemite, featuring waterfalls! views! herons! coyotes again! and corvids! (I love corvids, don’t you? If you ever wonder what happened to the dinosaurs, just imagine a crow the size of an SUV. There you go.) Leslie recommended a hike up to Vernal Falls, about three miles there and back. Elaine decided to stay around the village and go for a wander, but the rest of us set off for our hike. We were distracted momentarily at the start by the sight of numerous climbers on the rock wall looming over the trailhead car park. It was much smaller and closer to us than El Capitan to the road, allowing us to see the climbers upon it with the naked eye, picking them out largely by the flecks of colour provided by their clothing – red, turquoise, green and yellow. Although they were relatively close to us they were still smaller than ants on the vastness of the valley wall. Leslie also pointed out the place where a rock slide some years previously had come down and crushed some of the cars below it. Fortunately no rocks fell whilst we were there 🙂.

And then we set off, down a trail alongside the delightful Merced River. As this was autumn the river was low, since all of Yosemite’s rivers are fed by meltwater from the winter snows and therefore are at their most impressive in the spring. We could see the mighty Yosemite Falls from our accommodation and whilst we were there it was the merest white thread sliding over a rock lip stained and carved over a much wider area by the spring deluge. It was like going to see Usain Bolt and finding him stretched on a sofa in his dressing gown having a little nap. No matter, the rest of the park was still totally awesome. As we walked along the river I regretted not packing my swimming gear, which I’m sure I wouldn’t have been thinking in the Spring as the waters roared down the valley.

As the trail proceeded up the river it and the river diverged, the river running at the bottom of a deep gorge carved by its waters over numerous winters and the trail climbing the gorge sides. We went past moss covered rocks, tumbled boulders, leaning trees decked with gold and red autumn leaves, and views, views, views, through pine forests acrosst the gorge to sharp grey peaks lit by brilliant sunshine outlined against azure skies. I kept expecting Gandalf to appear and announce that we were nearly at Rivendell. It was completely different to the hike of the previous day, and just as impressive.

More shortly!

Intermission 22: What I did on my Vacation


Oops! I said “More tomorrow”, I actually meant “More next year when I can get my act together…..”. Well, I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New Year in the meantime, and here, have a bonus longer edition to make up for the break 😃.

So finally we return to our heroes, halfway up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Tommy Caldwell has just reached Wino Tower, from where it’s a pretty easy* climb to the top. Kevin Jorgesen, meanwhile, was stuck below Pitch 15, where he had given up the attempt to conquer the Dawn Wall free climbing, and had turned to supporting Caldwell in his climb. All Caldwell had to do was go on and reach the top and the successful completion of a challenge which had occupied him for seven years. And he couldn’t do it.

When he reached Wino Tower, he realised that completing the climb without Jorgesen would be meaningless. The two of them had worked together for so long to conquer the wall that to do it without his buddy would take all of the pleasure from it. Bromance! Honestly, if Hollywood wrote this you’d reject it as overly slushy and contrived. No matter. Caldwell determined that he and Jorgesen would climb the Dawn Wall together or not at all. He declared “I went into full-on support mode”. In other words, he decided to go back down and help his partner to catch up with him, whatever it took.

At this point, Dawn Wall goes into Hollywood mode itself and gives us a swelling music, triumphant hugging version of what happened next, and if you want to see how Kevin Jorgesen made it past Pitch 15 and The Dyno and to the top with Tommy Caldwell, you’ll have to watch the movie. But the bit that was most interesting for me was barely alluded to, except in one small comment that Kevin Jorgesen made when he was waiting to make yet another attempt on Pitch 15. Caldwell was doing everything he could to support him. His family and friends in the meadow were totally behind him. Strangers around the world were rooting for him. But having acknowledged that, as he prepared to step out onto the stretch of rock that had previously been his nemesis, he said “Now it’s down to me”.

How well I know that feeling! If you’ve ever done anything which requires you to take a step outside your comfort zone to meet a challenge which is almost beyond you, you will know that at the end, however much support you have, you have to meet it on your own.

Now, I am someone who loves being part of a team and I adore both experiencing and watching the joy evinced by individuals when they are part of a group which achieves something by working together. To take an example, I have been involved in amateur dramatics for more years than I care to remember, and one of my most treasured memories comes from almost the first show I was involved in, Ring Round the Moon. This is a play which revolves around identical twins, and, since most directors don’t have access to matched pairs of actors, the twins are played by one actor. As you will doubtless have surmised for yourself, this leads to lots of incidents when Twin A exits stage left in a bowler and moments later Twin B enters stage right in a top hat, exclaiming “Is Archie here? Dash – looks as though I’ve just missed him!” Of course the audience is in on the joke and realises that the actor has merely nipped across backstage, changing his hat as he goes. In this particular play Anouilh (for it is he) has a bit of fun with this in the third act, by which point the joke is well established, when Twin A exits stage left and Twin B almost immediately enters stage right in a completely different set of clothing, thus confounding expectations and delighting the audience.

In the professional theatre, with dressers and wardrobe who for all I know create two complete suits of clothing which the actor simply steps into and Velcros up the back, this is relatively easy. In amateur theatre with a limited budget, not so much. The team deputed to change Dermot, the actor in question, was four young men who played his friends. At every single rehearsal they strained every sinew to get him changed in time for his cue, and at every single rehearsal they failed. Dermot would come on stage late, doing up his tie, and since the dramatic effect entirely depends upon the actor in question coming in dead on cue looking perfectly polished, this killed it stone dead. There’s no way an audience is going to be delighted if the line “Oh, here’s Algy now. Hello, Algy, old boy!” is followed by an awkward pause and the entrance of a flustered Algy with his shoes on the wrong way round.

Reluctantly, the director decided that the joke would have to go. Some lines would be added to make the change possible. The team concerned were distraught at this news. PLEASE could they have one more try? They knew they could do it. And there were still two dress rehearsals until the show. Ok, agreed the director. One more chance. If it’s not right for the first dress, we change it. It will be! they promised. And they practiced. Oh, my goodness, how they practiced! They practiced like practicey things. Came the moment: “Hello, Algy, old boy!” Everyone held their breath. And came the answer “Hello, old chum!” as Dermot stepped onto the stage, suave as a well-dressed cucumber, settling his tie in an urbane fashion. Everybody in the cast cheered like crazy, and each night thereafter his timely entrance brought an audible gasp from the audience.**

I remember this so well because I witnessed the quick change every night, sitting waiting to go on, and I watched the perfect choreography as each carried out his role, whipping off jackets, doing up trousers and shoes and slipping already tied ties over Dermot’s head as the final shirt buttons were done up. I saw the delight and the high fives and the silent air punching of the gang of four each night after they had got their man onto the stage in time for his cue. Nobody else saw this and they got no reward or applause for it (other than from me – I applauded them silently every night) but it still filled them with palpable joy, the joy of working as a team and supporting someone else as part of a larger effort. It’s a wonderful thing, and to be a part of it is its own reward. But the point here, for I have digressed a lot, is that in many of these situations, the team effort is to get one person to a point where it is down to them.

Of course, in this case, although it was definitely down to Dermot, it wasn’t exactly a step into a void, because he’d literally just come off stage, was in the latter part of the play, and was therefore fairly comfortable with his position. But often, that moment when it’s down to you is pretty momentous, lonely and scary. You can have as much help and support as you like, as much encouragement and input, the greatest team or the bestest buddy or buddies ever, but the point comes when you have to step into your own Pitch 15 alone. From going on stage when you’re shaking with terror to jumping out of the plane for your first solo parachute jump to going out to play in the singles finals at Wimbledon, the feeling is probably much the same. As I have said, I know it very well, and it’s both one of the loneliest feelings in the world and one of the least lonely, because although you know that it is indeed at that final point all down to you, you are also comforted and upheld by the help and support you’ve received from others. But you still have to be willing to take that step, alone, into the void.

I’m not really quite sure how, but this reminds me very much of the great CP Cavafy Poem “Che fece….il gran rifiuto”*** It’s a poem I absolutely love although I can’t claim to understand it. But I do think there’s a moment, when you get to the point when it’s all down to you, when you have to say either the great No or the great Yes, and I believe everyone knows those moments and has their answers to them. There are times in my life when I’ve said Yes, and times when I’ve said No, and the poem reflects both of them.****

Che fece….il gran rifiuto

CP Cavafy

For some people the day comes/when they have to declare the great Yes/or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the yes/ready within him; and saying it,

He goes forward in honour and self-assurance./He who refuses does not repent. Asked again/he would still say no. But that no – the right no -/undermines him all his life.


*For, as the immortal Terry Pratchett would say, a given definition of “easy” 😉.

**One of the ways Dermot achieved his prompt entrance was to start his line whilst he was still in the wings, which is very effective provided you come on within two or three words, as the audience assumes you have been on stage the whole time. I dub this the ‘Clive James’ effect, after the distinguished writer who pointed out that tennis players are disadvantaged in a match against another player who grunts, as the grunt arrives on the other side of the net first and the opponent will often be fooled into trying to hit the grunt rather than the ball.

***Get me 😁

****I’ve written on this topic before here

Christmas Intermission: Duvet Know It’s Christmas?


Every Christmas Day I publish a little blog specifically about Christmas and subjects connected with it (in my mind, at least). Today’s is about a Twitter thread which has, over the last few years, become a perennial joy: #DuvetknowitsChristmas. This is curated each Christmas Eve on Twitter by Rhodri Marsden (@rhodri), and the premise is beautifully simple: people share pictures of their Christmas sleeping arrangements, the crapper the better*.

It’s an absolute joy as families all over the country gather, often with spouses and children, in houses which are far, far too small. There are the perennial favourites: couples who have been married for years in twin beds, adults in childhood rooms in single beds under Jasmine and Batman duvet covers, blow-up beds in studies and box rooms. There are the frequent appearances of spooky dolls, puppets, masks, mannequins and random soft toys. And there are sleeping arrangements which are frankly weird: beds in unheated conservatories, in the attic, in camper vans on the driveway, under the piano…. Take a look, and be amazed and uplifted.

Uplifted? Yep, indeedy, uplifted. And, of course, highly amused – pretty much every submission achieves a wry humour whether the subject is contemplating a bed in a hat showroom, on a leaky airbed next to a desk, shared with a toddler who doesn’t like the travel cot, in the living room where Nan is watching the late movie or in the bottom bunk underneath a five year old nephew. But it’s the pictures which are the real delight, for here is the real world. Not the carefully arranged Insta-ready perfection that most people generally post as a window on their lives, but the backroom, shabby, IRL storage space of the hopes and dreams of ordinary people everywhere.

Here is the reassurance that in our own strange quirky weird little way we are just like everyone else. Everyone else has decorating projects which have stalled for years, hobbies the only evidence of which is the dusty equipment at the back of the boxroom, appalling objects we can’t throw out for sentimental reasons, ancient computers which haven’t been turned on since 2015, mountains of cack stacked up in corners because it’s easier to do that than to make the mental effort of deciding what to do with it (plastic bag full of washed Gourmet cat food trays, anyone)? It’s massively comforting.

And it’s also massively touching. Here is the real Christmas story of love and togetherness writ large by all the people who travel hundreds of miles by planes, trains and automobiles to sleep in kitchens on sofa cushions because they want to be with the people who are occupying every last corner of the house in question. And here too are the sweet and touching and funny gestures made by hosts who have run out of pillows never mind beds, but still want to make their loved ones welcome even if they are sleeping in a cupboard – the clean towels on top of the broken camp bed, the bags of Aero on the appalling seventies pillow cases, the Christmas stocking slung over a stepladder, the fairy lights around the uncurtained window. It’s a triumph of pragmatism, love and humour.

So I’m writing about it here because that’s what Christmas is all about. Being with the people you love and care about, however inconvenient. And that doesn’t just mean at Christmas, because love is for life, not just for Christmas. Maybe your family is too far away in space or time for you to be physically with them. Maybe your family is somewhere else, or you have a family scattered around the country or the globe, perhaps because they are a family you have chosen yourself rather than one you were born into. Perhaps you have yet to create your own family. No matter. Christmas is about love, and the message that love is for everyone, and that it is absolutely fine not to be perfect, because there is a place for everyone.

Wherever you are spending Christmas, however you are spending it, and whoever you are spending it with, I wish you a very happy and loving time, today and every day.

*Rhodri Marsden has asked for everyone who has enjoyed his Twitter feed this year to give a donation to Shelter.

Intermission 21: What I did on my Vacation


The two of them decided at this point to take a rest, largely to allow Jorgesen’s fingers to heal. Attempt after attempt to climb pitch 15, crimping onto tiny, razor-sharp flakes of rock, had left his finger-tips raw. They took two days out, during which something happened. A Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist on the New York Times named John Branch found out about the drama unfolding on El Capitan and wrote an article about it. Could Jorgesen make it across Pitch 15? The rest of the media read the story, and sensed a drama unfolding. Journalists, TV crews and photographers descended on the meadow below the Dawn Wall, focussing in on Caldwell and Jorgesen above them and calling them on their mobiles for interviews. They were suddenly headline news.

Kevin Jorgesen attempting Pitch 15, belayed by Tommy Caldwell

This spotlight was hardly helpful for Jorgesen. Nevertheless, after his two days of rest, he set himself to attempt the pitch again. His family were amongst those watching below. He set off, belayed and supported by Caldwell, and, as he traversed the pitch, he was climbing as well as he ever had. He said afterwards that he felt weightless, moving perfectly from hold to exacting hold. This continued until he was mere feet from the end of the pitch, almost near enough to reach out and grasp it. And then…… he fell.

The watchers in the meadow below groaned aloud. Like them, Jorgesen felt that he had failed in what had been his best chance to complete Pitch 15. He could try again, but the chances were that he would fail again. And meanwhile he was holding Caldwell back. He made a decision: he would give up the climb. He would stay on the wall, but to support Caldwell. His attempt to free climb to the top was over.

Caldwell, meanwhile, had his own problems with the pitch requiring a leap sideways, the Dyno. He had never done this successfully and he still couldn’t. Attempt after attempt ended with him bouncing off the rock like a human swingball. After numerous attempts he decided to try another way. He would climb down. Counter-intuitive as this was, he could see a potential route, the Loop, which required him to climb down from the start of the Dyno along a fault in the rock until he reached a place where he could cross over and climb up and back to his intended position the other side of the Dyno. The reason he hadn’t done this in the first place is that for big wall climbers, climbing down is abnormal and far more difficult. If you’ve ever done any climbing yourself, you’ll know this from experience. He made the attempt, climbing at night when the rock was colder and adhesion better. To me this seems nutso, as he had to contend with shadows getting in the way of him being able to see what he was doing, but he had obviously mapped the route and knew his job, because he was successful. He had passed the Dyno and could continue on up.

Which he did. Supported by Jorgesen, he conquered pitch after demanding pitch until he finally reached Wino Tower, a point about two thirds of the way up the route. This was significant for several reasons. Firstly, it marked the end of the really demanding pitches. From here the climbs were, not easy, but easier. Thus, reaching Wino Tower was pretty close to signifying that he would succeed. And secondly, it was the first place in the climb which afforded a ledge where a person could both stand and lie down. The joy and relief on his face as he hauls himself over the lip of that ledge, stands tall and howls over the valley and then lies down and stretches out – well, it’s something to see. He had done it – more or less. And yet……

More tomorrow.

Intermission 20: What I did on my Vacation


If you want to find out how Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen got from 2008, when Jorgensen was a rookie big wall climber, to 2015, about to attempt the first ever free solo of El Cap, can I suggest you watch the film “Dawn Wall”? It’s ostensibly about their attempt, but a lot of it is also about Caldwell’s life, and it’s where I got most of my information for this blog, with of course a large larding of “research” on the internet. It’s an extraordinary film to watch, beautiful and heart-wrenching and very, very tense. Because, of course, their climb did not go smoothly…

At the start, they were doing the climb somewhat under the radar, albeit with a cameraman accompanying them and watched by a climbing world which knew what was happening. Caldwell may be shy and retiring but he’s also a professional climber and he makes his living from this stuff, so lots and lots of his El Cap climbs had been filmed over the years, and clearly, he had a film in mind when he was making the attempt. When they set off there were a few fans in the meadow below and a professional photographer who wanted to be there to capture their attempts. So far, so froody. They set off and climbed without incident, more or less, to Pitch 15, where they set up camp.*

Publicity shot from the film “Dawn Wall”

Pitch 15, you will recall, is the pitch which had never been climbed, even by Caldwell. The way their free climb went was like this: one of them would attempt the pitch while the other belayed him. If the first climber fell before completing the pitch, he would go back to the beginning and the other one would attempt the pitch, and so it would go on until both of them had climbed it. They attempted pitch 15, and, relatively quickly, Caldwell climbed it. Whoo-hoo! And then Jorgensen tried. And fell. And tried again. And fell. And tried again…. and fell again…. and again…..

More tomorrow!

*”Camp” in these circumstances is not a tent; it’s a portaledge, an artificial ledge affixed to the rock face on which climbers rest and sleep and pooh and cook and pretty much everything else during a climb except climb. It’s a crazy concept to anyone not used to it, but for Caldwell and Jorgensen it was second nature – except when the winds got up and started lifting the ledges and banging them against the rock, which was definitely squeaky bum time. Did I mention they were doing this climb in the middle of winter? Not just because the wall was empty of other climbers then, and there would be fewer observers, but also because the cold meant the atmosphere would be dryer and therefore adhesion to the rock better. Despite the fierce cold they often climbed bare-chested or in just a tee shirt, which gives you an idea of just how much energy they were expending simply to stay on the rock.

Intermission 19: What I did on my Vacation


Tommy Caldwell’s story is one of those which you just wouldn’t believe if it were presented to you as a piece of fiction. As a child, he was small and shy. His father, a bodybuilder and expert climber, decided that the best way to deal with this was to toughen him up. In fiction this would be the cue for an abusive childhood over which Tommy would triumph in adulthood, but IRL Caldwell senior took his son out, threw him at various rock faces and helped him to stick. Now we need a montage to Tommy’s teens, by which time he was an experienced climber.

In 1995 when Tommy was 17 he and his father went to Snowbird in Utah to watch an outdoor sports contest, which included an invitation sport climbing contest, a sort of World Championship of climbing in which twelve of the world’s greatest sport climbers would compete. The day before the real competition there was an amateur event. Tommy and his father were there as fans, not competitors, but Tommy entered the amateur competition for fun and won it. The organisers invited him to take part in the real competition next day. He won that too, convincingly. (See what I mean about this being totally unbelievable? If anyone pitched this as fiction you’d laugh them out of the room.)

So there Tommy was, a shy and retiring young man, more at home on a rock wall than on the ground, suddenly catapulted to fame in the world he loved. He found the sudden exposure difficult but adapted, became a professional climber, and then the inevitable happened. He met a girl. He and she became a couple, climbing together. He was happier than he had ever believed he could be. In 2000 he and Beth accepted an invitation to climb in Krygyzstan with two other climbers. And guess what? All four were captured by anti-government rebels and held hostage. Nooo!! But yes. After various travails, in fear for their lives, they were marched into the mountains, where Caldwell had to take the difficult decision to push one of their captors off a cliff to his death. Despite the fact that this saved him and his friends and resulted in their freedom, it left him traumatised (hardly surprising, under the circumstances).

Nevertheless, he and Beth survived the experience and married. They set records climbing together. And then (what now?) Tommy managed to lose the top two joints of the first finger of his left hand whilst renovating the house they had bought in Colorado. In big wall climbing terms this is game over, because where you only have tiny edges in the rock to hang onto, you do so by “crimping”; grabbing onto the rock with fingers bent at the middle knuckle so that your finger tips are in contact with the rock, and wrapping your thumb over the index finger so that you can pull yourself up. The climbing world was agreed – without the first two joints of his index finger, there was no way Tommy would be able to carry out any more serious climbs.

Except, of course, this is nutso reality, not fiction, and so…. he taught himself to climb again, without a finger. Beth supported him the whole time. He became as good as he had ever been, climbing with Beth and living the dream. Until (of course) things went wrong again. His relationship with Beth had survived the kidnapping, their subsequent trauma, the loss of his finger, and his recovery, but sadly, it didn’t stand the test of time. In 2010, they divorced, and Caldwell lost not just his life partner but his climbing partner as well. As he put it, he felt as though the only thing left to him was…..dun dun DUNNNN! (dramatic pause) El Capitan.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 18: What I did on my Vacation


As Andy has pointed out, Pratchett’s Law has operated on El Capitan to the point where Alex Honnold’s latest example of extreme Darwinism was to basically run up El Capitan without any form of safety equipment at all. Bonkers. However, before we get to that particular feat, let’s look at an earlier climb. This took place with full safety equipment in place, but was nevertheless just as extraordinary. It’s Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen’s 2015 free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, which is, Wikipedia laconically notes, “one of the hardest climbs in the world”. Well, no shit, Sherlock.

To understand just how absolutely unbelievable this feat was, first you have to know what free climbing is. Free climbing is what most people think of as climbing; the sort of climbing you do on a climbing wall. It contrasts with “aid climbing” in which climbers use aids attached to the rock in various ways to pull themselves up and support themselves as they climb. In free climbing, climbers only use the natural features of the rock while climbing. Mechanical aids are used as anchors to attach safety ropes which catch you if you fall, but the only thing holding you onto the rock face as you climb is you.

In the climbing world, climbs are graded according to difficulty. On the sweetly named Yosemite Decimal System, climbs of around 3 are a serious scramble (‘falls could easily be fatal’ – Wikipedia again), climbs above 5 are graded ‘advanced’, and climbs graded above 5.13 mean ‘Don’t even think about it’. The Dawn Wall route that Caldwell and Jorgensen took has around 30 pitches from bottom to top (a pitch being the section of a route you can do in one go, basically the length of a piece of rope), and every pitch is 5.13 or above. The Dawn Wall had never been free climbed before, largely because it was impossible; there was no route where it was humanly possible to stay continuously on the rock face without some form of mechanical aid.

The Dawn Wall is thus romantically named because it’s the first place that the sun hits as it comes over the rim of Yosemite valley, and because it’s a wall. Literally. It’s smooth granite from bottom to top with remarkably few of the cracks, crevices, indentations, lumps and bumps that enable climbers to make progress. Anyone who had climbed it before had done it with the help of aids to hang onto over the bits which didn’t lend themselves to being climbed. Tommy Caldwell was the first climber to decide to free climb it, and he spent a total of seven years working out a potential route. I say ‘potential’ advisedly. It was potential in that it included one pitch, Pitch 15, which was theoretically possible to climb but which no-one, including Caldwell himself, had ever completed, and a further spot, known as The Dyno, which was unclimbable. The only way to get across this gap was to leap eight feet sideways along the rock and catch onto a “ledge”; that is, a slight downward sloping bulge in the rock about the width of a finger. Like Pitch 15, although it was “theoretically” possible, nobody had ever done it.

To free climb the Dawn Wall, Caldwell would need a partner. He himself was (and is) one of the world’s preeminent big wall free climbers, so of course as a partner he chose another of the climbing world’s most technically skilled big wall experts. Nope. Not least because none of them volunteered. His chosen partner was Kevin Jorgensen, who was famous for being brilliant at bouldering, a type of climbing which requires no safety equipment at all because you never get far enough off the ground to need it. Kevin had never done any big wall climbing, and Caldwell decided that the two of them would free climb one of the most difficult big wall routes in the world. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up, and if you did, people would tell you you were talking rubbish.

More tomorrow.

Intermission 17: What I did on my Vacation


El Capitan! The Captain, a climbers’ icon in the same way that the English Channel is a swimmer’s icon, and hung about with similar stories of incredible heroism and ridiculous achievement. For a start, it’s half a mile high – that’s half a mile straight up, taller than the world’s tallest building. It has dozens of routes criss-crossing it, with superb romantic names like the Dawn Wall, Iron Hawk, Zodiac, Sea of Dreams. Like the Channel, it’s only relatively recently that it’s been conquered*, and sportswomen and men are pushing back its boundaries all the time. And, like the Channel, it’s pleasingly conveniently situated in a spot where pretty well anyone can visit it, which definitely helps from a publicity angle.

Climbers’ lights on the face of El Capitan. Photo from Wikimedia.

*Possibly because prior to the 19th century the vast majority of people were too busy simply surviving to put themselves in jeopardy for no practical reason whatsoever. Possibly also because challenges such as El Capitan and the Channel started to become popular at the point when the vast majority of the globe had been pretty well mapped and therefore individuals who wanted to challenge themselves by doing something uniquely bonkers could no longer do so by seeking the source of the Amazon or the treasures of the Incas or the South Pole or whatever, and therefore had to find some other way to demonstrate extreme Darwinism.

El Capitan is also, and this doubtless also contributes to its popularity, a pretty good looking formation as formations go. It’s the Colin Firth of cliff faces, being not just technically excellent but also good looking and highly photogenic. Also like Colin Firth it has two profiles and a nose; between the Southwest and Southeast buttresses is a large chunk of rock which sticks out at the top of the cliff like the prow of a ship and up which is a climbing route called The Nose. The Nose was first climbed in 1958 by three climbers using “siege tactics”, which means they carried out an eighteen month project to climb El Capitan. As they climbed, they fixed manila ropes the whole length of the route, establishing camps along the way. The climb took forty seven days, over the eighteen months; each time they climbed they ascended a bit higher and fixed the ropes higher, until they finally climbed from the bottom right to the top in one session of nine days. Remember that number.

The second ascent of The Nose took place two years later when four climbers including Royal Robbins** climbed the route in a continuous climb over seven days. Remember that number too, and note that we are seeing here a fine example of Pratchett’s Law, which states that no matter how tough, daunting, and technically difficult any particular feat of human skill, fitness and endurance may be, once it’s been achieved for the first time, usually by one or more extremely fit young men operating at the limits of their abilities, it becomes progressively easier, and it’s then only a matter of time before it becomes a Sunday stroll for families complete with Grandma, kids in flip-flops and a baby in a buggy.

**Did you know that Royal Robbins was a climber before he was a clothing line? I didn’t.

Intermission 16: What I did on my Vacation


Right. SCENERY!!! And here, for your delectation, a picture, taken by me, of a lot of SCENERY!!! with a crazy bloke in front of it.

This is the view from Glacier Point, and of course there is a wall around it to dissuade people from self-selecting themselves out of the evolutionary process, but it’s a very small one. (Sadly, people do fall from viewpoints every year, whilst taking selfies and posing for pictures. What a waste.) In this case the young man was nobody I knew, but he was presumably somebody’s loved one, and I guess I shouldn’t have taken a picture at all, since it’s the ubiquitous camera phone and the publicity it affords that persuades people to pull this sort of stunt a lot more often than they used to. To be honest I only took a couple and then I had to stop looking, because seeing him there on the edge was giving me the willies. Fortunately he survived to twit another day.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about Glacier Point, except that it’s called Glacier Point because it was under glaciers during the last Ice Age, when Yosemite was formed, as we know from the fact that there are a lot of those errant boulders around. Wow, that was some deep ice. It would be nice if it were called Glacier Point because it’s near one of Yosemite’s two current glaciers, but it’s not. Why, yes, California does have glaciers, quite a lot of them, and two of them are in Yosemite. Bet you didn’t know that! But enough about them, because we didn’t see either Lyell Glacier or Maclure Glacier, who sound like the heroes of a Great American Novel (“Lyell Glacier wakes soaked, fetally entombed in the clammy blackness of dread, specifically dread of his uncle Maclure, whose tiny soft pink hands and creepy old-man pouchiness fill him with a vague and nameless disgust.” Ewwww).

What I am going to talk about now is El Capitan, because it’s entirely fascinating, to me, anyway. This is one of the things I love about going on holiday to places you’ve never been before – you come across things which you know very little about, like a mahoosive monolithic granite cliff face, say, to take an example entirely at random, and then, because for a few days they bulk very large in your life (literally so, in the case of El Capitan), you become a mini expert on them and on subjects related to them, and find yourself gripped by areas of relatively esoteric knowledge into which otherwise you would never have delved, in this instance, rock climbing. And at this point I need to make a confession to avoid contributing to the current avalanche of FAKE NEWS – we didn’t stop at El Capitan on that particular day. We stopped there the next day and the last morning when we were on our way home, and that was when we gazed at the rock face picking out climbers and took photographs. But I happen to fancy writing about El Capitan right now and that’s what I’m going to do, so there!

More (about El Capitan) tomorrow.