Eat It Too (my cake that is)

14 Days in the Milktoast Chronicles

by Dingus Milktoast

Spring Break in Florida
Southern Man, Washington's Column, Yosemite, California
Ski decent of Mt. Tom in the Sierra Nevada

I'm lying on the beach, squishing sand between my toes and trying to keep the sun out of my eyes. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. Family circumstance has found me in Clearwater Florida with a day to burn, so to speak. My daughters Gabrielle and Kaitlin have eagerly pressed me to take them the beach and this is what we have done. Nancy is visiting with her sisters, so Papa and the girls are off on their own for the day.

Gabby and Katie are playing sand castle with some other kids so my attention wanders. Did I mention it's Spring Break? There was a time when the subject of Florida and Spring Break would get my heart pounding in anticipation. Scantily clad hard bodies strutting and sunning themselves in the hot sun, looking for nothing more than a good time and some attention. Now I'm just another invisible old man on the beach, with a belly both full and pale. I don't even feel like a pervert cause these breast-implanted girls are just that; girls. They all look like children to me and I'm just not that kind of guy. Damn, I'm old. Kind of crept up on me.

Still, sitting here on the sand in late March, enjoying the warm sun and water is pretty nice. I relax and close my eyes. Sure would be easy to fall asleep. Can't though, I have kids to keep track of. Every 5 minutes or so I raise my head to make sure the girls are still alive. After a couple of hours of such lazy fun we gather up our stuff and head back to the brother-in-law's place.

Don't tell anyone, but I really have no use for Florida. It's too flat. The people are too old. There are too many mobile homes. As Jimmy Buffet says; "They're ugly and square, they don't belong here, they look a lot better as beer cans." Amen to that Reverend Jimmy. I can't wait to get home to California. This sitting around all day, talking with relatives and little else, is killing me; literally. They don't understand of course. To them, we are the "Lost Relatives" who go for years and years without visiting. For them it's catch up time. For me? Torture, pure and simple. I'd rather climb a wall, smash my fingers with a hammer and cross a desert without water (all for the fun of it of course) than I would visit them. It's nothing personal. It's the same with my kinfolk as it is with my wife's. As Jim Bridwell says, my ideal vacation is their worst nightmare.

The trip home is more of the same; torture. To save money we take an America West red-eye, figuring the kids will sleep. The down side is we don't get home until 2 AM and we have to make a connection in Las Vegas. I travel a lot and have been forced to make this very connection many times in the past. The Las Vegas airport is a Hell Hole of the worst kind. The America West terminal is a Hell Hole's Hell Hole; the worst of the worst. We "deplane" up the jet way to be greeted by the din of slot machines and the specter of aimless, empty tourists roaming the halls of the broken down, Elvis-era airport, er Hell Hole, with garish red carpet stained black in places, pitiful displays of old airport memorabilia and stranded travelers lying around like San Francisco drug addicts. The only places open at this hour are Burger Death and Taco Smell and a pitiful excuse of a bar called Cheers, complete with dummies of Norm and that other guy. Idiot tourists have their pictures snapped sitting next to these 2 mannequins. I can't figure which of them is more stupid.

Finally we're home. Sound sleep, after such an ordeal, is nearly impossible. So, far too early in the same day I rise. My office answering machine is flashing so I hit the button as I sip the first Peet's Dark Roast I've had in a week. Just work shit, nothing important. Then Kevin's voice pipes up.

The week prior, as we prepared to depart on our emergency trip home, Kevin and I climbed the Arrowhead Arete. Sitting on the summit he mentioned that he and a friend were going to do Southern Man the next weekend. I told him I'd always wanted to do the route but couldn't talk any of my regular partners into doing it. He invited me. Alas, I'll be in Florida next weekend I replied in sorrow. Good way to get out of a wall, wouldn't you say?

Imagine my horror when the following message blurts out. "Dingus, it's Kevin. Don't know if you're back yet, but thought I'd leave a message. Southern Man fell through last weekend. I have the time this weekend if you're still interested. Or how about Yosemite Point Buttress? I'd like to do that with you too. Give me a call dude." Hey Zeus Crime in Italy, what have I done? Southern Man or an ugly Grade IV with a horror chimney and a long walk off? I instantly recall the water running down to the Pedestal, surely blown there every afternoon from Yosemite Falls, soaking the top of the YPB. I mean, I took the time to point out where the route wentÖ"just left of that huge wet streakÖ" I instantly rule out the possibility. Not enough daylight this time of year for a fat old man to blast up 14 pitches of sturdy climbing, to be followed by a 5+ mile descent in the dark, with the strong likelihood of the last 4 pitches being soaking wet; the crux pitches at that. Nope, I'll do it with him, but not until early May.

I don't respond at all on Tuesday as the jet lag and the hang over of Las Vegas (no alcohol, just the cheesy glitter of a Hell Hole kind of flashback haunting my every dream) catches up to me. So Kevin tracks me down, relentless on flat ground as he is on the vertical, early Wednesday. I tell him I'm not interested in the YPB this early in the season. He seems suspicious as I cite my reasons. "I was up there over the weekend Dingus. Didn't look wet to me." I assure him that it is in fact getting wet every afternoon and refuse to consider the option. I can tell he strongly suspects the wimp factor as being the primary ingredient for my reluctance. "Besides Kevin, I'm an old man and not in very good shape. I don't think there is enough daylight for me to get up the thing right now. I'll do it with you, but let's wait a month." He accepts this bit of Dingus wisdom for what it isÖ a cop out. He then pops the inevitable next question.

"So what about Southern Man?" Before I can give myself time to craft another ingenious excuse I blurt out,

"You know, I've been thinking hard about that. I need to check with Mrs. Milktoast, see if I can get the time, but yeah, for some strange reason, I want to do it."

"COOL! When will you know for sure?" This is moving WAY TOO FAST for me, but I swallow the rising lump in my throat as I tell him I'll know for sure in the morning. For the rest of the day I fret over tactics, logistics and how I can manage this thing after being home for only 4 days from lying in the sand on Clearwater Beach. Mrs. Milktoast is very understanding, as usual. In fact, she encourages me to go, citing the stress I've been under. I suspect it's her stress she's trying to alleviate, by getting rid of me, at least for the weekend if not permanently, but I keep that sentiment to myself. The phone rings all too early on Thursday morning.

"So are we doing it?" I search rapid fire for some excuse, however pitiful, that will release me from this self-imposed obligation. Always wanted to do the route? I ask myself in mock arrogance. You pussy. You're scared, admit it. OK, I admit it. Walls scare me. But somehow I convince myself that the commitment of Southern Man is pretty low, that I'll be climbing with a very strong partner, that it will be fun. Fun? Yeah, whatever dude!

"I guess so Kevin. Let's do it."

"All right!" Thus ensues a few minutes discussion about the mundane details; schedule, gear, where to meet, etc. The plan is as simple as it is dumb (where have I heard that before?). We'll meet in Groveland on Saturday morning; 7 AM at the park. We'll climb as far as we can on Saturday, hopefully fixing to the top of pitch 6, then fire for the top on Sunday and go home. Kevin will bring all of the gear; all of it. I need bring only my personal wall gear. I quiz him relentlessly on just what it is he intends to bring, but he's done his homework, as usual. 200' lead rope; check. Static haul line; check. Metolious haul bag; check. Rack? Yup; assorted hooks, emergency pins, double set of cams, mucho small gear; what more do you want for a Grade V? I ask about a # 5 cam. He says there are bat holes to bypass the wide stuff. "As long as you're leading that pitch, what do I care" I mutter under my breath.

"What? What did you say Dingus?"

"Nothing. Just have a sore throat."

"I heard something."

"Nope. Nothing." Fact is, I do have a sore throat. My tonsils are swollen like big grapes in my throat. I picked up some tourist bug in that Hell Hole and have been feeling steadily worse all week. But I foolishly refuse to give in or even admit that it would be best to wait a week for the cold to clear. I just can't bear the thought of waiting another week with an impending wall over my head. I'd rather climb sick! I do a DejaNews search for any beta on Southern Man I can lay my hands on and email it all to Kevin. You can never have too much beta in my humble opinion. Kevin takes it in good stride but also starts calling me Beta Man. The punk. Thanks in particular to Eric Coomer and Bill Folk for their very useful trip reports. Invaluable beta and we used every bit of it.

I've known Kevin for a few years. I remember when I first met him, about the time Dave Boger opened Stonehenge in Modesto. Kevin had taken a one-day climbing course in Yosemite and was fired up. I took to him and his enthusiasm right away. We climbed together at the Grotto a few times. Our first multi-pitch climb, was coincidentally the Arrowhead Arete. Kevin had been climbing for less than 6 months. The weekend prior he led a total beginner up Commissioner's Buttress, an obscure and difficult 5.9 to the right of the Manure Pile. Our first climb on the Arrowhead was interesting. He got off route leading the 3rd pitch and we ended up simul-climbing the infamous (to us at least) Lichen Covered Bullshit variation (the LCB) to bypass the Great White Flake, at solid, runnout 5.9 R. I realized that day Kevin at 6 months in the business was already a better climber than I would ever be; natural born if ever there was one.

He climbed Half Dome, shouldering the burden of planning and leading all the hard pitches, during his first year in the sport. He was climbing 5.12 sport, hard 10 and 11 trad lines like the Rostrum in his second year, and since had explored a full spectrum of the sport, from difficult aid, solos, ice and hard sport climbs. He has even been tempered by a butt-breaking fall on the Zodiac. Kevin is a true athlete and a gifted all around climber. And 15 years my junior to boot. It would be easy to dislike Kevin, to be jealous or even resentful, were he not such a nice guy on top of all that. Never boastful, never arrogant, Kevin and I always had similar mind sets and similar aspirations. He is just the better climber, I knew it then and I know it now. We fell out of contact for a few years as I moved to Sacramento and he roamed the Bay Area in search of a home. But this spring we have started climbing together again, the Grotto, then the Arrowhead a couple of weeks ago and nowÖ Southern Man. Jeez. Things move fast when Kevin's in town!

I get all my gear together Thursday night so I don't have to go through the inevitable last minute bullshit on Friday. It works. After taking some cold medicine, I sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that I'm ready to go. 4 AM comes around all too soon though. Groggy from the drugs, I rise, brew up, kiss my sleeping daughters goodbye and hit the road by 5, the sun warming the distant horizon of the Sierra like the warm glow of a virgin maiden after receiving her first real kiss. I blast through Yosemite Junction right on schedule, then past Chinese Camp down that long straight away. I come up fast on a car; an old Celica. It starts weaving slightly and I'm pretty sure Kevin and I have just made contact. To be sure I drive right up on his bumper, stock car style, less than a foot of separation. I hope it's him, or I'm scaring the living Hell out of some late drunk. Yup, it's Kevin all right. Probably stayed with relatives in Oakdale last night.

We stop at the park in Groveland as agreed and transfer the stuff from his car to mine. Kevin decides to park at his Dad's place in Pine Mountain Village and I follow him through the gate. His Dad is up and about, making pancakes. So we wolf down a fresh warm pancake a piece and look at the old car his Dad has just begun rebuilding in the garage. It seems weird to be engaging in polite car talk knowing in a couple of hours we'll be on a wall. All too soon we're on the way.

Kevin notices my snuffles and coughing right away. "Dingus, are you sick?" Yup. "Shit man, shades of the Nose." He's referring to our climb several years earlier when I had a similar ailment. In the Stovelegs I was blowing snot streams out of my nose and they were slathering climbers clear over to the Zodiac. I'm not at the top of my game, but I'm not weak either. With more confidence than I feel I assure him all will be well. "Besides Kevin, it's April 1st today." He looks at me in amusement, then replies, "I'm surprised you showed up at all."

"What do you mean Kevin, I AM the April Fool. I had to show up."

The general goal is to be on Dinner Ledge by noon. We get to the Ahwahnee parking lot by 9. Kevin manages the final packing of the pig. I take a break and go enjoy a final, luxurious dump in the hotel bathroom. And just because I can, I sneak up stairs for a cup of their fine brew, even though I'm already too wired by the Peet's I drank earlier. We're ready to go now. I offer to carry the haul bag up to the base of the route if he'll carry it down the gully. He readily agrees. We plan on going over the top and hauling the bag. We both know about the S. Face rap option, but neither of us likes to rappel very much. We're not particularly enamoured with walking down the NDG with wall gear either, but hey, we decide to decide later. No matter what the pig has to get as far as Dinner Ledge.

The first 3 pitches are quite easy. Kevin leads the free pitches as I wisely left my rock shoes in the car. I lead the middle pitch, to which I've never before had the honor. It's easy A1, but kind of awkward in a way. Rather than pull out the aid rack, I'm using Kevin's free climbing rig and a light rack. It goes quickly despite the fact this is my first aid lead in 2 years. I back clean like an MF so I have enough gear at the top. That will be the recurring theme for every lead I do on the route.

We arrive at Dinner Ledge at 12:30, a mere 30 minutes off our schedule. Not bad for having left Sacramento that same morning, I allow with no small measure of conceit. There is some dude wandering the ledge. The inevitable territorial, "What are you guys doing" elicits a surprising response. "Southern Man, how about you?" "Uh, Southern ManÖ" Kevin and I had pondered how crowded the ledge might end up being. It's perfect weather, not a cloud in the sky and none expected for the coming week. Absolutely perfect. I halfway expected to see parties crawling over one another on the South Face but we also hoped no one would be lined up on our route. Instead, there is a party of 3 on Southern Man and no one at all on the South Face. Go figure!

Their 3rd guy is just hanging out while his partners battle the 5th pitch above. He has a hurt finger and is only along for the ride. Personable fellow. We quietly discuss strategy. He's an experienced wall rat, though both of his partners are doing their first walls. They are all experienced and strong free climbers and will in all likelihood transfer to the South Face tomorrow. We wait and watch and worry for a few long minutes. We decide to eat lunch and then start up, figuring if they don't transfer to the South Face, we may in order to save time. Been there, done that and no real desire to do it again, I don't like the idea but what are you going to do?

Lunch is a great big burrito I scored last night. Kevin haughtily scoffs at my unlikely lunch until I give him a bite. Then he wants more. "Dingus, I don't know if it's because of where we are, but that's the best fucking burrito I've ever tasted!"

"Mfff mfff mff" is all I can manage by way of reply. As we eat a rumbling noise catches our attention. A big rock fall is rolling down a gully from the west face of Half Dome. I snap a few pictures of the carnage. Nothing like the Glacier Point rock falls, but cool nonetheless. Kevin racks up for his first aid lead as I settle in for an afternoon of belaying. I'm beginning to doubt we'll reach the top of 6 today. These and other doubts begin to bubble through my psyche. The slow, gnawing stress of the unknown now settles on me like a dark cloud as I watch Kevin clip the first couple of bolts. I have been able to delude myself thus far, climbing on familiar ground and moving fast. But now the real aid begins. And so does the worry.

There are 5 solid aid pitches betwixt us and the top. Every one of them has some A2 on it. I know, A2 is gumbie work for real aid climbers. Well, I'm a gumbie. I've done other A2 routes before, lines like the Prow, the South Face, the West Face of Leaning Tower. On those routes the harder sections are inevitably fixed, rendering them easy A1. Scary climbing on fixed heads and the like, but easy too. We don't expect much in the way of fixed gear on this route. We're also going to try to do it clean as well. So I begin the relentless worrying and wondering if I'm up to the tasks ahead.

Kevin climbs smoothly as always. Just a couple of weeks earlier at the Grotto, Angus remarked after having watched Kevin lead a straight in 5.11 crack,

"The thing about Kevin is, you can't tell if he's climbing 5.6 or 5.10." Angus' way of a compliment. And it's true, you can't. You won't see that Kevin is actually struggling until he's airborne. A natural climber, just like I said. After a few bolts and the first hook move of the climb, Kevin quietly announces he's at the serious stuff. He plinks away as the afternoon passes. I belay and worry, chatting with my talkative, bent fingered friend. His buddies do cross to the South Face and descend to the ledge. They announce they are going to finish on the South Face instead of Southern Man. I don't know whether to be grateful or to cry, so I simply mutter, "Cool." They're free climbing nuts and decide to give the Kor Roof a free attempt. And get thisÖ one of them actually boulders out the moves! I'm amazed as I watch. He doesn't send it, but he comes awfully close. Hard 5.13 he announces. Not today, but maybe he'll come back some day and give it a serious go. I'm impressed!

Kevin finishes his lead at a double bolt belay about 50 feet below the traversing line of the South Face, where the 2 routes join for about 30 feet of climbing. There's only a couple hours or so of light left. The lead took him about 2 hours. He asks what I want to do. I decide I'll go up and lead as far as I can with the light we have left, so that's what I do. Up the jugs I go, cleaning, climbing and worrying. Now it's my turn. Kevin used some delicate gear on this lead, several very small wires in a row at one point. Hello Mr. A2!

I rack up and continue up the thin crack towards the South Face. More small stuff eventually gets me to the arch where I begin the left traverse to it's end. I'm moving steadily, not really being efficient but not being a klutz either. I get to about where I think the traverse back to Southern Man departs the South Face. The sun is about to dip below El Cap. After a brief consultation, we agree it's best if I down aid back to a point on the arch directly above Kevin. I'll fix a rope there and rap to Dinner Ledge. 200' rope required for this maneuver. Back on the ledge we settle in for the night.

Dinner is cold soup and tortillas. I don't sleep for shit, despite my cold medicine. In fact, I don't believe I sleep a wink all night, though it's hard to tell. I hate this shit. The anxiety of my coming lead in the morning is eating me up. I have to take a dump but don't want to in the dark. We have plenty of water, so I drink freely all night, but that just makes me want to piss. I'm afraid if I piss without squatting I'll soil my britches so I hold it in. By sleepless first light my gut aches and my head is spinning. So before the sun comes up, before our friends stir below, I find a somewhat secluded spot and begin a long battle to take a dump in a paper bag.

"Negotiating the Release of the Brown Hostages" Kevin later tells me. I laugh so hard I blow some snot out of my nose. Brown Hostages! I love it. In fact, I love it so much, I begin negotiations for a second round and sure enough, just after our friends jug their lines to their high point, down on Dinner Ledge proper, I finally get the last of the Burrito Band freed from their dark prison. We stuff the paper bombs into the shit tube. Lovely business, don't you agree?

Kevin goes up the line first to reestablish the belay and I follow, however reluctantly. From the top of the fixed line I re-aid across the gear I left in place last night and soon I'm back at my last piece, wondering what to do. It's confusing. Every trip report I've read discussed the confusion of where to traverse back to Southern Man. With Neil Young echoing in my mind, "Southern Man, better keep your head, don't forget what your, good book saidÖ" Good book? Middendorf's primer on aid climbing perhaps? Advanced Rockcraft by Robbins himself? And is he really an apostle? Of just another old fart like me?

I aid to the top of the South Face arch crack. It appears from where I stand it might be possible to go up to the South Face belay and then walk up a ledge to rejoin Southern Man. Our friends, who are now belaying their 5.13 buddy as he frees the aid line above, confirm that it's possible. "But you'll have to free climb up to here dude." I don't like the thought of free climbing in my Garmonts in front of these guys. I can see now that if I lower about 15 or 20 feet, I can probably tension traverse just like Bill Folk recommended in his TR; this to a very thin crack, very thin. I stand there and ponder life for about 10 minutes, not sure what to do. But finally, something clicks in my head. Goddamnit, I came up here to climb Southern Man, not wimp out on the South Face! "Kevin, I'm gonna lower some and penji over to that crack. Take me." "Right on!" I hear from below and out of sight below the arch. Boys and girls, it's A2 time at the OK corral!

Kevin lowers me as I begin the traverse across some down sloping ledges. The topo is backwards here, indicating a small roof instead of a ledge. Same for the traverse ledge I spied higher. That is shown as an overlap instead of a ledge. Oh well, the route is what it is, or what we make of it. I lower and traverse, lower and traverse, until finally, just as I'm about to barn door off and swing back into the arch, I'm able to reach the thin crack. This is exactly as Bill described it, even to the point of nearly falling off. I can't see the crack, just feel it at the limit of my reach. OK, now what? Fumbling, searching, I grab a cam hook and stick it in there. Hmmm. Seems solid, I guess. I've never placed one of these things in earnest before, so how the fuck can I tell? I daisy in, clip an aider and gently as possible I stick my foot in and give it a couple of test bounces. That hook doesn't even move, not a bit. So rather than think about it I commit to the aider totally and suddenly I'm standing on my first cam hook, staring up at an extremely thin crack. I look back at Kevin, now visible under the arch.

In my best Queen voice I let go with, "Very very frightening!" To which Kevin bellows in response, "Galileo! Galileo!" We both laugh. It does ease the tension of the moment. And truth be known, I have a piece 15 feet above my head, so even if the hook blows, nothing bad is gonna result. "At least I can't die," I say to Kevin. My bent-fingered buddy is jugging the rope up to the new belay on the South Face and he eagerly pipes up, "Don't be so sure of that!" Bastard, I think. "Oh Momma Mia, Momma Mia, Momma Mia let me go!"

Nothing to do but continue. Next piece is a #1 or #2 micro-nut. Then another cam hook. I back clean the nut. A good Alien followed by yet another cam hook. Back clean the Alien. I marvel at my calmness. I'm drawing near parallel with my last piece on the South Face. A fall now would not be trivial and yet I'm still back cleaning like some calm aid master. Calm Hell! My stomach is quaking like jelly as I move up yet again on to a blue 3-cam unit. Finally, I decide to leave this one in as I move on. I gain a wide section and get a really good 3.5 friend behind a flake. And just so, my first solid A2 section of the route goes by without incident.

This is a long pitch and it takes me more than 2 hours to finish it. Our friends on the South Face are now out of sight above as I haul the bag up to a good ledge. Kevin joins me, cleaning the pitch at light speed. He's been in the shade all morning, shivering under the arch. I'm now sweating in the sun. His next lead goes out left for a scary 5.7 move to gain a distant bolt, followed by a scary hook move, then into the wide section we fretted over earlier. We in fact left the #5 in the car, so I hope he can find the bat holes. It takes him a while, but he does eventually find them, one on the left side of the crack, one on the right. He steadily moves up as I pay out rope and sweat in the direct sunlight. This route would be an oven in the summer!

Kevin runs out of hand sized pro and ends up free climbing the little tower at the top of the pitch. Better him than me! This is the quickest aid lead of the route, uncharacteristically short. I join him on a sloping ledge atop the tower and quickly re-rack, barely taking a sip of water. I managed to eat a little while I belayed him below, but nearly puked in the process. More gut wrenching anxiety, another A2 lead to face, wondering and worrying if we'd move fast enough to get to the top by dark. I start my next lead at about 12:30, quarter to one.

This lead starts out with an awkward traverse to a rotten flake, then standing on the flake, a long reach to a fixed head. Only the 2nd fixed piece I've encountered. It's easy A1 for quite a ways, though the v-slot nature of the crack makes moving up the in the aiders difficult. The wind is now blowing hard too, so the slings are constantly whipping around, annoying me like the little insects that buzz around inside my brain. At the top of this crack is a rising traverse back to the right to gain another crack system. What ensues is the most difficult aid work I've done. Moderate by any real standards, hard and scary for me.

Truthfully, real aid would render me useless and comatose. I'm just not cut out for this work. It's just too friggin stressful. It isn't fun for me, not by any standard at all. Up here it's very easy to question my motives for doing this shit. I mean, who am I trying to kid? I'm a middle-aged parent and here I am trying to pretend I'm a carefree climber with no worries. If I get hurt and can't work, not only am I fucked, my whole family is fucked right along with me. This the height of irresponsibility! So why am I up here, battling my nerves and the wind and this rotten rock? What sort of imbecile or juvenile impulse leads me to think I belong on an aid route? Why can't I face the fact that I'm old and chicken and don't belong here and never did? I don't deserve to climb with the likes of Kevin Beneda. He's a climber, a real one. I'm just a chicken shit poser in over his head. This really sucks, but I have a lead to finish. What am I gonna do?

An awkward tension traverse leads to a rotten flake plastered to the cliff. I aid on rotten gear up it's left side, back cleaning every piece because none of them would hold a fall anyway. A long reach allows me to get a wire over a lousy bolt jutting out of the rock, mocking me with it's insecurity. The bolt won't hold jack shit either, I can tell. Now I reach over to another rotten crack and get an HB Offset in. Standing on that, I bounce test a green Alien and it pulls. I come down disturbingly hard on the nut and it moves. Nothing but that lousy bolt between me and the traverse point a long ways back left and well below me now. A fall would not be pretty. I suck it up and manage to place a LoweBall. Solid! In fact, it's so solid I finally breathe a sigh of relief. Another move higher and then I reach hard right yet again for a totally blind yellow 3-cam placement in the base of the crack I've been aiming for. No idea if it's any good, just go for it. As I swing over and get a better look at it, my heart hammers once again. It's nearly tipped out and ready to blow. Just 3 pieces between me and that ever receding traverse point. Neil Young chooses this time to start singing again.

"Southern change gonna come at last, now your crosses are burning fastÖ Southern Man!" As quickly as possible I get another piece in and get off that cam. Back clean again. I am not cut out for this! Finally the crack reverts to A1 and I steadily move up to the belay at a bolt next to the crack. Plenty of solid placements here to rig the necessary hanging belay. After an eternity I holler down to Kevin, "Off belay!"

"Yahoo!" Is his reply. The haul bag gets stuck under a little roof, but standing in his aid sling he's just able to reach the dangling shit tube and shake it free. Good thing. With the traverse it would have been a problem. He cleans the pitch really fast. No wonder, I barely left any gear behind. He congratulates me on a good lead, but I think he's just relieved to be moving again. It was another 2+ hour lead and the day is beginning to fade.

He starts up the final aid pitch as I shiver in the wind. Funny, I was sweating earlier. Now I'm cold. With my last aid leads out of the way you'd think my anxiety would have subsided, but no. The uncertainty of the final 2 pitches, the hauling work to come, and the specter of coming down the NDG in the dark are undermining whatever confidence I have injected into my worthless soul. Kevin carefully negotiates more A2 but finally gains some free climbing. I delude myself into thinking it's mostly over and then have to suffer another 45 minutes as he deciphers yet more aid out of sight above. Finally he's ready to haul. I can see that the bag is gonna get stuck for sure, so I speed clean as fast as I can to get above the bag, then down jug to it in fading light. The sun is going down and Half Dome is lit up in an orange glow, only the top of the face in direct light now.

Sure enough, the last bit of Kevin's lead was dirty, awkward aid leading to a broken ledge big enough to walk around on. There is a tree here. A simple rap over the other side would put us on the South Face, at the top of the chimney pitches. Rapping the Sough Face would be a very attractive option, but we both agree that a party would have to fix to the top of pitch 6 on the first day to have enough light for the raps. No option with a haul bag though. We're going over the top. I ask Kevin if he's willing to lead the last pitch as I'm mentally and physically drained and he says sure. I gratefully thank him as he makes a few simple free moves and disappears above. Soon enough he's hauling the last pitch of the climb.

He actually rejoins the South Face at it's final belay, hauling to an old rotten tree at the top of the route. I remember hauling here before and fully expect the bag to stick in the gully. Like before, I have to continually jug up beneath the haul bag and the stinking shit tube and free it. The angle of the rock here makes jugging impossible, so I free climb, slide up the jumars, climb some more, free the bag, and on and on. I'm not tied in and I'm not tied in short either. I purposely untied all knots from the rope so there'd be no chance of a loop getting stuck in the dark below me. It's a risk, but considering the terrain, a moderate one. Finally, all of us are assembled at the tree. As Kevin tidies up the haul stuff I scramble up the final slab and fix the lead rope so we can walk up carrying the lot without fear of pitching off in the dark. 20 minutes later we're on the very top of the Column. Southern Man is ours.

We quickly agree not to try the descent in the dark. I'm whipped. I really don't have the energy to do that descent in the dark; again. Been there twice before. Was so whipped both times I was worthless the next day anyway. We have water. We have some food left. Nice flat ground and someone even built a fireplace and stacked fire wood into a big pile. I get a fire going very quickly and we spend the next couple of hours eating, talking, watching the stars and relaxing in front of the roaring fire. I voice some of my somber doubts to Kevin. He says I'm being way too hard on myself. "We did it in a day and a half Dingus! Everything went well. No fuckups. No falls. Here we are. Lighten up dude." He's right, but it will take some time for it to sink in. Quite an end to an epic Grade V. Finally we retire. I sleep much better this night, though I still fret over the coming work in the gully.

We re-rack all the gear in the morning, then head down. It takes us 2 hours flat. Took me 4 hours last time I did in the dark, after doing the Prow with Burl Guido. We made the right call to spend the night on the Column. There are a couple of aid parties in the parking lot getting ready to head up. They ask us what we did. Neil Young pipes up again, "Southern Man!"

"How was the pinning?" Kevin proudly replies,

"Don't know. We did it clean."

"Right on dudes! How was it." I reply,

"Pretty stand up for A2!" Kevin and I choose to call it C2+ (the plus is for my ego, but I really don't care. The route is what it is, know what I mean?). I drop Kevin off at his Dad's place in Groveland and stop for a beer and a burger at the Iron Door Saloon. They make a damn good burger at the Iron Door. Seeing all those old timey photos of men and women much harder than I helped put some perspective on my trials. The beer put a warm glow on it too. I head out into the afternoon, a short 2 hour drive between me and my family.

"I heard screaming, and bullwhips cracking, how long, how long, how? Southern Man!"

The next week goes by in a blur. As Tuesday and then Wednesday roll around, some of the short term heartaches of the wall wear off. In their place is a deep sense of satisfaction. I DO realize I did OK on the Column. Despite all the anxiety, despite my low self-esteem, I allow that I did well on the lead. I didn't futz about, I went for the bull at every opportunity and the little mind killer, fear, was always well below the surface. Even facing potentially long falls I kept the lid securely on. Sure, the stress bothered me and the anxiety worked at me until near the end I was a bit frayed. But all in all, I did well for an old man.

Work however, has been an increasing nightmare. My company has been bought out and new management has been threatening a big shake up for months. The axe falls on Friday; my entire department, me included, is going to be laid off. Discussions of severance packages and half-hearted relocation offers are detailed. By 10 AM, worst fears and expectations confirmed, blood bath over and the cleaning up still to be done, I take off. Fuck this. I just get an earlier start to yet another prearranged adventure, this time on the east side. I'm to meet Bob Harrington in Rovanna first thing in the morning for some spring skiing on Mt. Tom, the east side giant looming above Bishop California.

I pack up but leave everything in the garage. REI starts their spring sale today and I need a new pair of tennis shoes. The sale is disappointing as usual. The only things on sale are either shit no one else wants or items REI bullied their vendors into providing at below cost. Don't need any of it and I'm proud to walk out of the store with no items purchased.

Back at the barn, I finish packing and head out. My plan is to ride over Carson Pass, head south as far as I can, do a roadside bivi, then get up early and meet Bob. Much less stressful than the previous weekend, but no gimmie either. We intend to climb and ski the infamous Elderberry Canyon. In the words of John Moynier, "This is simply the finest peak descent in the Sierra." Having been sandbagged before by Moynier descriptions I'm not sure what to expect. Bob assures me that the gully is mostly intermediate and a lot of fun. But with a trailhead around 6000' and the summit ridge at over 11,000' I know that if nothing else I face a full day of work.

I also learned that Mick Ryan would be coming as well. Cool! I've "talked" to these two guys over the internet for a long time but have never met either. While I'm sort of introverted and generally avoid people I don't know, these are 2 people I genuinely want to climb with. Bob is a well known Sierra climber with many, many difficult FA's under his belt. I can remember standing under one of his routes on the side of Fairview Dome, looking up in awe, knowing I would never have the courage or the skill to attempt to lead a repeat of something like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or Scavenger. Hell, little ole Lucky Streaks has scared the crap outta me more than once! That's about as difficult a line as I will ever likely attempt on Fairview.

And Mick Ryan, expatriate-Brit, guide book publisher and internet rabble rouser seems to be one of a kind. Over time I've gotten to know a little about how he thinks and a little more about his humor. The dude cracks me up. I just know that in person he'll be cool. So it's with much anticipation and not a little uncertainty that I drive south to meet my electronic friends in the flesh. Weird, like some sort of blind date. Insecurities come and goÖ will I be able to keep up? Are they going to shred me? Am I going to chicken out on the descent? Will they laugh at this big wart on the end of my nose? Will I measure up? Like I said, I'm an insecure introvert and these are the kinds of thoughts that plague me on long drives.

The trip over Carson Pass is as pleasant as any of the dozens of other times I've made it. A quick bouldering stop at my secret spot, work at least temporarily forgotten. Kirkwood is still in season, but one good look up at the mogul field below Wagon Wheel tells me all I need to know; done for the season. Me and moguls don't get along. I stop in Minden at this Mexican joint I know for a hot chalupa and a cold beer. Ummmmm, that's good. Still daylight as I head south on 395. I watch the sunset as I head over the Pine Nut Range. I take the cutoff to Yerington, around the eastern end of the Sweetwaters, to avoid the Walker River Canyon. I always go this way, though I regretted it once when I blew out the engine of my truck at the very top of Sweetwater Summit.

Through Bridgeport in fading light, the pale alpen glow of sunset highlighting the Sawtooth Ridge and the Hoover Wilderness. Man I love these mountains! My words pale against this backdrop. For the millionth time, I ponder how a man such as I could make a living and raise a family, living here where I love it so. Just ain't in the cards for this New Age Man, at least not yet. Still addicted to that paycheck, however insecure it may be at present.

I stop in Lee Vining just to stretch my legs. Then onward and southward, past June and Mammoth Lakes. I finally decide to pull over at the McGee Creek turnoff. I find a good spot in the Pleistocene age till of the ancient McGee terminal moraine, just above Crowley Lake. I'll sleep in the back of my Jeep. I don't like to sleep alone on the ground this close to a major highway. I feel much more secure behind locked doors. Out in the wilderness I can sleep out in the open with nary a worry, unafraid of remote man nor beast alike. But close to a highway like 395, frequented by wierdos and freaks from LA and places even scarier than that, I exercise a little caution. Besides, it's gonna get cold tonight and I only have a light weight sleeping bag and a blanket with me.

The crescent moon winks at me before dropping beneath the shoulder of Mt. McGee. This is one of the birth places of Sierra skiing, where Dave McCoy, owner of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, used to set up a rope tow just after the 2nd World War. The likes of David Brower, Snowshoe Thompson, and maybe the toughest of them all, Orland Bartholomew who first skied the John Muir Trail in the dead of winter in 1928, solo, have all preceded me! I can only lay here comfortably entombed in my modern car with all my modern gear and imagine the hardships that men like this must have taken in stride. It makes my puny adventures seem like nothing more than childish indulgence. I can only aspire to be that tough, that hard, that resourceful.

There are plenty of other Sierra ski pioneers and I don't measure up to any of them. But it doesn't really matter, I know this in my heart. I ski because I love it. And I ski in the back country because I love climbing, I love the scenery, and I love the challenge. No matter what the morning brings, I'm sure it will be fun. I fade into sleep dreaming of the time I fell most of the way down the Dana Couloir, using a combination of inadequate gear and a lack of skill to overcome perfect corn.

After brewing up in the morning and taking a big dump in the moraine, I head out. Descending the Volcanic Tablelands down to Round Valley, I turn right at the Pine Creek cut off. Another 2 cars immediately pull in behind me. It's 6 am for Christsake! Gotta be some skiers! I drive into Rovanna to find Bob's green pickup on the roadside, a few people milling about in the cool morning air. I love the name Rovanna. It always evokes Japanese monster flicks of my youth. There was Rodan, that bird like creature and it's twin sister Rovanna! Spewing fire and fucking up Godzilla just because they could. And those 2 miniature gisha girls in the bird cage that sang screeching songs to summon the giant caterpillar that spun all of them into cocoons. Such are my thoughts as I pull up behind Bob's truck.

Bob is a giant. He's gotta be 7 feet tall or something! No wonder he climbs so well, he just stands at the bottom and reaches to the top! We shake hands. And here comes Mick, looking like I might have imagined, complete with a real British accent. He's brought along, in Bob's words, some of his Brit buddies and along with Bob's son's, we make a fine team for an ascent of Elderberry Canyon.

We all drive up to the trailhead, Mick riding along with me. The road is rough and a little spooky in a couple of spots, but no problem for the jeep. We pass a few cars along the way, an old Ford station wagon down low and up higher, a couple of sleeping forms next to a truck. We're the first to the trailhead. Suddenly the desert quiet is broken by a swarm of climber/skiers assembling their gear. I'm at a disadvantage! Everyone is ready but me. They shoulder their packs and take off, leaving me in the dust. Bob graciously waits behind as I spend the 15 minutes I should have spent last night packing up and getting ready. As I finish my packing, the old Ford Fairlane station wagon comes bouncing up the trail. Hardcore! We cheer their ingenuity as the dust settles. How'd they get that battle wagon up that road???

Up the trail we go. From appearances this morning, we'll have to gain about 1000 feet before we reach the lower limit of the snow. We then face at least another 4000 feet of climbing to the top of the ridge and as much climbing after that as we can manage or stomach. I can barely keep up with Bob as we climb through the sage brush into the mouth of the canyon.

"Last year I was able to ski all the way to the car on avalanche debris," he informs me. Not to be this year, dry as a bone. I can see the Brit contingent on the trail ahead, already a good ways above us. It takes about an hour to reach the snow line. Mick and his buddies are waiting there. From this point we climb steadily on hard snow, most of us walking. We make pretty good time and enter the main bowl at about 9:30 or 10:00. Our general goal is to gain the summit ridge by noon, chill out for a little while, then ski back down as the good corn comes into shape. Bob says we're on schedule. I'm feeling pretty good at this point. I've been keeping up just fine, being neither the slowest nor the fastest in the party. Some robot-dude (named Data?) comes skinning past us on an AT rig, breathing through his nose and going like a bat out of Hell. Bastard. I suspect he's holding his breath too. We take an early lunch break, snap some photos and enjoy the scenery.

It's spectacular! In front of us is a great bowl, the Lambert mine buried beneath the snow at the base. The summit is directly above us, 3000 feet higher. Better skiers than I routinely ski these chutes shooting like rifles straight down from the top. Not me Bro. I've got kids to feed. Ridges spread out and down from the summit on either side. Below us the canyon descends into the valley. We're up high enough to get that weird East Side, "My Gawd Martha, would you look at all them tall mountains" effect. It's like we're in a space ship looking out a window at some strange dry world where only mountains and snow offer any relief at all. The Tablelands spread out below us, the Owens Gorge clearly visible from where we sit. The White Mountains own the horizon for as far as we can see, dominating the valley in their magnificent bulk. And Mt. Tom is no dwarf either. It is perhaps the biggest single mountain mass in California, aside from Mt. Shasta, which blows all of the competition away.

Our path will head up into the cirque, and then bear right following essentially the easiest line to gain the ridge. Cool, the easier the better. I'm not feeling much altitude effect, but I'm drinking plenty of water and eating in small doses all along. So far I'm holding up fine. We continue on after our break, 2 snow boarding Brits leading the way. I like these dudes; Paddy, Stephan and Ben. I like hearing their accents. They probably think I'm the one with the accent! Bob and his sons Carl and Josh follow along. By 11 the snow is soft enough to warrant skinning up and so we do. Now is the revenge of the telemarkers. Until now, Bob and I toted heavy skis and boots on our backs. The snowboarders easily outpaced us with their lighter loads. But now Grasshopper, we have the advantage. We leave them far behind climbing the final steep slope to gain the summit ridge, just past 12, right on schedule. The wind is howling up here. You actually have to be careful moving around or it will knock you over.

I thought the views earlier were impressive. Up here, the view itself is like a living thing. The summit ridge leading south to the top of Mt. Tom is impressive. Doesn't look that hard, just long and sinuous like the back of an ancient dragon. I'm gonna have to come back and climb it some day, I can see that now. The summit itself must be more than a mile away. We can actually see the tiny figure of the robot dude as he tops out, nearly 2000 feet higher than us. I watch as my new friends ascend the bowl beneath my feet, following our ski tracks as a way to break trail. On the other side of the deep canyon is the Scheelite Mine, probably 4000 feet below us. Beyond is the High Sierra in all it's glory. Bear Creek Spire holds my attention, with nearly all of the climbing routes visible from here.

Soon enough, all of us are gathered on the ridge, eating some, then battening down the hatches and getting ready for the fun. Let the games begin! The Brit snow boarders Ben and Paddy are first, zooming down the 25 degree slope easily. Stephan follows on his AT rig. Soon they are far below us. Bob, his son Josh and I are next, cutting turns in perfect corn snow after just a bit of frozen crap. Mick comes last, struggling with borrowed gear and boots that are a couple of sizes too small for his feet. I catch some really good snow and link a bunch of turns. This is GREAT! We stop frequently, at first just to wait, but later, for me at least, to catch my breath and let my thighs rest. I cross over to a good looking ridge only to find difficult snow. I take my first fall, BAM! Trying to go parallel without commitment. As I get back up I decide to avoid any cheesy looking snow and stick to the corn.

Lower down we wait a while as Mick negotiates the upper bowl. I get the itch and start down into the lower reaches of the canyon, zooming past Bob and his boys at mach speed. Just over a little rise I hit more of the cheesy stuff and catch the tip of a trailing ski going way too fast. The results are entirely predictable. The caught tip ends up behind me, taking the ski with it, twisting my leg around. Now I'm zooming along on one ski, twisted painfully to the side and headed for a terrible crash. I try to bring the ski around but the tip catches again and this time I'm airborne. I land in a great crash and actually bounce. I slide to a stop surprised I'm not hurt. I get up quickly so to see if someone was watching the carnage, but luckily for my pride I'm below the rise and out of view.

We spend the next 30 minutes happily linking turns in the softening snow. As long as I'm careful about the line I take, the snow remains good for nearly all of the descent. The last 300 feet are totally out for me though. Any time I weight a single ski I break through the slop. My tele technique is not up to the even weighting required by such snow, so I swallow my pride and do kick turns for the last bit. And here we are, back at the sage, waiting for the stragglers. What a ride!

Bob gleefully recounts this huge hole he found (my hole). "You bounced, didn't you Dingus?" We all laugh in the warm afternoon sunshine. Mick is trailing behind again, continuing his struggle with inappropriate gear. I wait for a while, but then elect to continue my hike on down. I've got to get home tonight and the 5 hour drive is hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles. At the trailhead I brew up some more joe, drink a beer to loosen my tired muscles, change clothes and head out. Bob and the Brits show up as I'm getting ready to leave. A last handshake and a "see you later," along with promises of some climbing this summer, and I'm outta there. These are some cool new friends. I'm sorry to leave so soon. It's been a great trip, but I've over extended my credit limits with Mrs. Milktoast and I need to get home tonight.

Driving down the trail I reflect on the past 14 days; Spring Break in Florida, a wall in Yosemite and a killer descent of one of the premier ski peaks in the Sierra. So what if I'll soon be unemployed! I'll find another job. I always do. But the memories of these adventures will be with me for a long time. Sun, wind, snow, and rock; life is an adventure for those willing to pursue them. And while my modest trials are nothing to brag about, they fuel my desire to return to the mountains again and again. These mountains are my cake. This time I got to eat it too. Not always so lucky. Some day I'll be an old man with nothing but memories to see me through the cold nights. I hope these choices I've made along the way will be sustaining. In the end it won't really matter of course. At least I had some fun along the way and could still look myself in the mirror come morning.

To Kevin, Bob, Mick, Paddy and Ben; Stephan, Carl and Joshua; to Eric Coomer and Bill Folk, to Stu Pollack who taught me the game, to Angus and Burl who put up with my bullshit, to my lovely daughters Gabrielle and Kaitlin, and to my parents Larry and Margret, but most of all to my wife Nancy, a Milktoast through and through; THANKS! It's been a helluva ride! I know how lucky I've been. To live here, in these times, to be able to take advantage of all these mountains have to offer. I'm a lucky man.

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