Yosemite: On Top of El Capitan

June 27th, 2006

SUNDAY JUNE 25, 2006 – YOSEMITE I had a “so there I was moment” last night. For those used to sleeping in the dirt this is probably not too much information but it consisted of me standing atop El Capitan looking west at the distant lights of California’s Central Valley, listening to the chirrup of crickets, smelling the smoke of a smoldering camp fire, and peeing onto the scrub manzanita in the warm darkness of the night. Everything simply came together in one moment of appreciation, a stillness and realization of just where I was and why. (schlepping part of the crane-to the top in the background)

Scattered around me were roughly 16 others: monkeys, a director, a director of photography, two camera assistants, a sound guy, two camera operators, and two celebrity climbers. By scattered I mean out of view on any level spot. My own bivy site was a 4 x 12 foot sandy trough on the gently rounding slab. To my left, no more than 100 feet away, was the 3000 foot drop off the nose of El Capitan. (Monkey Nicolai at dawn)

(Ammon at the edge) Everyone was there for the final segments of staging required for the storytelling in the film. The opening sequence? I’ve seen the video feed and it’s intense. It’s a dream Thomas Huber actually had; the camera tracks along the ground and you hear the desperate grunting of a climber at the point of failure. The edge appears revealing Alex trying to pull over a roof. With a shout he lunges for a hold. He falls, screaming into space, the full height of El Cap stretching out below him. In a shot done earlier in the week the camera tracks up a rope as it is whipped by a falling climber. As the camera reaches a nut you watch the protection rip out of the crack. In Thomas’s dream they are speed climbing and this is the only piece of protection holding the brothers to the face. In the film he wakes at this fatal realization to see Alex still sleeping beside him in a portaledge.

To get to the top of El Cap I started at six p.m. with the Hubers and the camera guys. The haul bag I was borrowing was stuffed full and at about 55 lbs it didn’t seem too heavy, but I didn’t really consider I had to go up 3000′ in a very short distance, jumaring four pitches of ropes and hiking unrelenting granite slabs still warm to the touch.

I was given last spot on the ropes and when, dripping with sweat, I reached the top I found Alexander waiting with a Budweiser in hand. He held it up and with his German accent said “You need some.”

(Wolfgang assembling the crane at dawn) Together we walked the last hour up the slabs, dusk turning to dark but not before I got to peek over the edge at the valley below. Alex had no problem standing six inches from the drop but I had to take off my pack to lean over. There we saw climbers two pitches below on Zodiac. They asked how the filming was going; every climber here seems to know about it.

From here Alex showed me the features, telling me that while there may be bigger more severe faces in the world, El Cap is the best; the quality of the rock, the light, the location make it his favorite.

(Pepo, Herr Director) We continued on as Alex spoke of his lifestyle, how slideshows make up the bulk of their income. For five months out of the year they tour, allowing them to climb the remaining seven. But that type of freedom comes with a cost; to get people to come to the shows they have to be in the magazines. They also have to be promoted by their sponsors in advertising and catalogs. Their success, both financially and in climbing, depends on their notoriety and how well the public perceives them.

(Ivo, Chief Rigger / Joe und Franz) Which brought him to the filming. What I did not know earlier is that last year they tried to do the same thing but his fall stopped that effort. I also did not know that after his 20 meter fall onto his feet he could not walk; he was crawling on his hands and knees for a week, ankles swollen like grapefruit. This year Thomas’s fall has stopped the speed attempt but not the filming. Which, Alex says, is a good thing. The filming requires staging, like the shot we’re heading up for, and that is too many people and too much pressure for the brothers to focus on the climbing. They hope to come back in September with a small film crew just for the speed attempt and nothing else. The two brothers have arranged their lives so they can do one thing, pursue climbing at their limits.

(before the fall) We arrived at camp to find a small fire and Gabe, the cook, offering us burritos. I set about the task of finding a bivy spot and rehydrating so I could relax with the whiskey I brought to share. That evening I found I had a place with the film crew; we had time to sit and simply share a moment together.

It was excellent. This opportunity allowed me to be in Yosemite working with a good writer and have a chance to meet some amazing, kind, and fun people. “You can’t go, you’re one of us now,” Suzanne said over the Crown Royal, to which Ammon agreed. Hearing that was rewarding.

So I have to thank my editor at Stern, Angelika Hala, for providing me with this opportunity even though I did what she told me not to: I hung my feet over empty space with a camera in one hand and a climbing rope in the other. Although Angelika just related to me that the film crew told the writer, Christine, not to worry about me, that “he is a professional.”


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