Suffering For Someone: Lurking Fear, 2017
Earlier this year, two climbers, Ryan and Roxanne, took a different approach to Big City Mountaineers’ Summit for Someone program. They decided they would challenge themselves to ‘Suffer for Someone’ by taking on the Lurking Fear route on the iconic El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. If you’re not familiar, Lurking Fear is 2000 vertical feet and broken into 19 pitches (or lengths of rope). Ryan and Roxanne were so kind to put together a trip report to share their experience with the Big City Mountaineers community. Interested in taking on a challenge like Ryan and Roxanne to help under-resourced youth get outdoors? Consider doing a custom Summit for Someone challenge.
Confession: I am a bad hiker. I struggle on big approaches, and when I struggle I am not always the nicest person to be around. I get mean. Ryan usually tries to mitigate this by carrying more of the gear. I used to think this was chivalry, but it’s really more like self-preservation. This year, I resolved to hike (read: suffer) better, and to improve my attitude while doing it. I didn’t complain once on the hike to the Diamond, and I was determined to repeat.
We always have heavier packs than the average hiker would ever want to carry, but this hike was an exception in that we had heaver packs than the average climber would ever want to carry. Seeking to avoid an early meltdown, Ryan crammed the food, one rope, bivy supplies and all 6 gallons of water into the haul bag and lashed the portaledge to the outside. I had a crag pack with another rope and our rack. The trail to the base of El Cap is short and relatively flat up to the first pitch of the Nose – a warm-up before you start the uphill slog up the left side of the formation. Ryan was lagging behind me (this never happens), and he was not talking (this also never happens). The ledge was pulling him so far off balance he could barely walk more than a few steps at a time, so when we got to the end of the easy terrain, I took the ledge and laid it horizontally across the top of my pack. I hiked the rest of the way to our route, turning sideways to move between narrow spaces, without complaining – almost. When we got to the 4th class section, I completely refused to ‘Batman’ up the fixed lines with the pack. We argued a little, then split out the gear and shuttled it in small loads to the top of the ledge, packed it back up and trudged the rest of the way to the base of our route. Crisis averted. Stashing our gear a day early was one of the better logistical decisions we made.
Compared to the previous day, it felt like we flew up the trail to the base of the route. Ryan even helped carry a load for another party starting up that morning. We passed another group with all their gear and arrived first at the base. Then another group popped out of the trees behind them. The first group we helped was now helping them shuttle their gear. Four parties at the base of Lurking Fear, and every single person was psyched, genial, and happy to help one another out.
I silently congratulated Ryan and myself for stashing our bags the night before as we racked up for the first pitch. We were going to be the first ones on the wall, which is a good place to be if you’re quick, but we now had an obligation not to hold anybody up. Ryan linked the 5.4 opening ramp into the second pitch bolt ladder and paused at the hooking moves (the first of the route, and of his climbing career). He set his hook on an edge and clipped an aider to it, his nose a few inches from the placement. He placed a foot in the aider, still staring at the hook, and stood halfway up. We both realized his mistake about half a second before the hook popped off the edge and shot straight back into his face. The last bolt was still at his chest, and he sat back into his harness, clutching the right side of his face. If he hit his eye, I figured we were done. When I got up to the belay I examined the cut on his face, just under his eye. “Don’t worry, chicks dig scars.”
After the hook hit me in the face I realized that I probably should have practiced hooking before Yosemite. For reference, this is a standard part of easy aid climbing. I made a silent decision to try as hard as possible to not use a hook the rest of the route. It was more of a challenge to myself than anything else.
From there, the climbing went smoothly and the hauling went slowly, but we did not hit any other snags the rest of the day. Unfortunately, as the sun went down we were only at Pitch 5. This was 3 pitches lower than I was expecting. Don and Sterling (our new friends on the pitch below us) seemed to share the same concern, but everyone was in good spirits and psych was high, so we set up our portaledge and enjoyed our first night on the wall.
We woke up before dawn on Day 2, our portaledge now tipping 25 degrees down, away from the wall. It felt unstable, and we tried not to move around too much until we were ready to pack up. Ryan made coffee and we each forced down a Larabar for breakfast. We had a problem. Neither of us could avoid this problem much longer, and it was time to face the music – time to learn how to poop on a big wall.
The most frequently asked question I got before this trip was “but how do you poop up there?”. On one of the most popular routes in the Valley, privacy is a fantasy. The best you can do is hunker down on one end of the portaledge and ask your partner to look the other way while you do unspeakable things to a Wag Bag. There is no trick to this. Just clip your leg loops out of the way and don’t miss the bag. The tightly sealed bag goes in the poop tube (a miniature haul bag attached below your actual haul bag), the only thing that actually gets heavier as you go up.
I knew this day was crucial; we had to move fast and efficiently if we wanted to make up for our lack of progress the day before.
Pitch 6 was the traverse pitch. Everyone handled themselves well on it and Roxanne learned why you need to lower out your haul bag instead of letting it rip to take an 80-foot swing across the wall. I am not going to lie, it was very enjoyable to watch. Over all, day two seemed to flow well. Everyone had figured out our systems and knew it would be a 4-day push in total, so we were all enjoying the ride.
By dusk, we were at the anchors of Pitch 11. Don and Sterling were at Pitch 10, and a third party was at Pitch 9. We hadn’t stopped all day, but aid climbing is a slow process. We evaluated our progress again, and the decision was made for each party to climb one last pitch in the dark before setting up the ledges for the night. The next day, we would wake up early and book it to Thanksgiving Ledge on Pitch 17. Ryan started up Pitch 12 by headlamp, which was not very long, but required some of the more tenuous aid techniques on the route. After pulling past a sketchy micro-nut, Ryan made it to the next set of anchors.
That move was actually one of the hardest spots on the wall for myself. As Don and Sterling pointed out later, it was a cam hook move. Due to my unfortunate experience on the first day, I did not have cam hooks with me and after looking at the move for 10 minutes I had to commit to some very insecure gear. I am still surprised it held my body weight.
We couldn’t wait to collapse onto the portaledge, but it collapsed on us first. The instability we had noticed the previous night was far worse, and we couldn’t seem to fit all the pieces snugly together. The spreader bar that crosses the middle of the ledge was warped, and would not sit flush against the long sides. It popped out. We forced it back. It popped out again. The webbing was tangled so we unwove it and threaded it back through the buckles. We reinforced all of the joints with climbing tape and carefully, synchronously, lowered ourselves onto the ledge. All told, we rebuilt the ledge 4 times. It was 12:30AM. Ryan set his alarm for 5:00.
Day 3 started with some of the best energy yet for being the night with the least amount of sleep. Even though the portaledge was in its worst shape, we had finally shifted into operating efficiently while on the wall. We also knew that we were on pace to get to Thanksgiving Ledge that night. This ledge is large enough to sleep 4 parties, which meant no more portaledge and we could take our harnesses off, which sounded great. This progress also solidified that, if we moved efficiently, we were on schedule to finish the route early the next day – so there was a lot of excitement in the air.
The morning started like any other, Wu-Tang Clan and coffee, the ultimate combination for a good day. I launched off with excitement, finally feeling in tune with the wall.
After a few pitches that took a little bit more work than anticipated we got to Pitch 15, and the top of El-Cap started to look attainable. Better yet, the next two pitches were straightforward and relatively easy, so it was cruise-control to the top.
From the first day I was aware that my rack was thin for an aid climb. I was constantly back-cleaning my gear, at times leaving large expanses of rock unprotected, though this was not really a problem because I strategically left a few pieces to avoid any death falls.
I set up the next pitch with confidence and speed — I was really looking forward to standing on flat ground. I moved through some easy cracks, back cleaning a lot of my gear in preparation for the upper seam. I free climbed over a small lip, leaving one piece behind me, while back-cleaning the two after that. I pulled the lip and placed another piece, high-stepped on my aiders and stuck a red C3 deep into a pin scar. Without hesitating, I clipped into it and cleaned my previous piece; I was going to need it again in 10 feet.
Standing up in my aider, I watched as the red C3 started to shift. I knew what was about to happen, and just as I thought “where was my last piece?”, the C3 ripped out. I dropped, hit the lip below me and flipped upside down, falling headfirst.
Panic was the first feeling I had when I fell, I genuinely had no idea where my last piece of gear was, and all my body had time to do was brace for impact.
After Roxanne caught my fall, I started assessing myself. My heels hurt. My shin hurt, but there was no blood. My body seemed in one piece and my helmet had a new dent in it. For the first time since we started up the wall, I did not want to climb anymore. I hung on the rope for 15 solid minutes, not wanting to climb. Don and Sterling offered to pass us and fix a line for me to ascend. I really wanted that. But I knew deep down that I just couldn’t do that, I needed to finish what I started. So I went upward.
The rest of that pitch and the next went slowly but uneventfully, and I soon found myself relaxing on Thanksgiving Ledge with Roxanne. I was very happy that I had packed whiskey.
After a wonderful night’s sleep with our friends Don and Sterling we awoke…lazily.
We made coffee, ate hot oatmeal, even had a shot of tequila…or 2.
We had 2 real pitches of easy climbing then 400’ of scrambling to the top; we would be down in time for happy hour.
We so grossly underestimated the logistical challenges of the last two pitches that it took all four of us the better part of the day to get ourselves, and all our gear, to the top. We snapped a couple of summit photos, dumped out any extra water weighing us down, and split out the gear for the descent hike. It was 3:30pm and we needed to hike across the top of El Cap to the far east side to reach the rappels. Ryan had done this descent once before after climbing the West Face in a day – it was no big deal.
It took us a couple of hours to reach the first fixed lines of the east rappels. When Ryan had done this descent, he and his partner had a tiny summit pack and barely a double rack. As I painfully readjusted two aid racks and a rope over my shoulders, it dawned on me that I had been sandbagged.
I wish I could say we had an easy and enjoyable time getting down, but El Cap is the gift that keeps on giving.
We finished the last rappels and switched on our headlamps. The trail to the ground seemed to go on forever, full of loose rocks and close trees. My legs were starting to fail, so I scooted down the steep sections on my butt, knowing that I couldn’t sit down to rest or I wouldn’t get back up. We caught up with Don – his headlamp went out, so he held his phone out in front of him as a flashlight. He had fallen into a ravine twice when his feet went out from under him. The trail seemed to be getting less steep, but I tried not to get my hopes up until suddenly we popped out of the trees into a parking lot.
Sterling was already reclining on a camp chair – his family was on vacation in the valley and had been waiting to meet him at the base. We dropped our bags on the ground and I lay flat on the pavement. A person I had never met before leaned over and offered me the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.
Outdoor experiences have impacted our lives in many ways, from work to recreation to friends. We would not be where we are today without the confidence, problem-solving skills and lessons we learned from exploring the natural world. There is so much you can learn when you take yourself outside of your comfort zone, and we believe that Big City Mountaineers gives kids that opportunity in a safe, open environment.
Through the contributions of friends, family and the climbing community we were able to raise over $2,000 for BCM. We feel that this money could not go to a better organization. We owe a huge thank-you to everyone who helped out by donating, loaning gear, and imparting knowledge. We also want to thank BCM for the work that they do, and for providing the inspiration and the motivation for this adventure.