by Bruce Bindner
Banzai V 5.10 A3
Calaveras Dome, CA
"I don't like your F*CKing negative ATTITUDE!!! What we need here is
some POSitive re-in-FORCE-ment! Your negative attitude STINKS! Your f*cking
negative ATTITUDE is going to ruin this f*cking TRIP, godd*mnit!!!"
It was 1998, the year of El Niño, and apparently we were not the
only folks feeling the effects of months of incessant rain.
The angry voice from a neighboring campsite cut through the fog-shrouded,
rainy night like a razor blade through a black velvet dress. Em and I were
settling into "The Cave" in Mokelumne Campground, Calaveras County,
California after a long, wet drive from the Bay Area. Midnight. Things did
not look good. In spite of the forecast for a radical reversal of weather
patterns, we were still being assaulted with the same mind-numbing precipitation
that had nearly drowned us the previous weekend as we rapelled from Banzai
on Calaveras Dome under torrential waterfalls.
Back in Gold Country for another shot at the route, we hoped the clear weather
forecast would, for once in our lives, be accurate. If not, we would pull
the two ropes (fixed during brief breaks in last weekend's downpours) and
[Whisper from backstage: "Be careful what you wish for... you may
We drifted toward nirvanesque unconsciousness as the neighbor's argument
next door escalated, with eerie flickerings from their campfire (fueled
primarily by charcoal lighter) hissing in the deluge.
How did we get here? My dreams wandered back through the stormy spring...
El Capitan, May 1998
The storms were thrashing us. As snow and sleet piled in drifts on Lay Lady
Ledge, Tom McMillan, Tim Sell and I hunkered under a tarp, seven pitches
up New Dawn.
"Couldja pazz the beer man?"
"Ogay. Cobra or Calgary?"
As the drifts deepened, we shook the freezing water from where it was pooling
over our heads on the tarp, warmed stew and chili on the stove, heated Gatorade
for a hot drink, and discussed strategy. I had to be back at work in three
days. I offered to rap either New Dawn or the Nose route alone,
leaving Tom and Tim enough supplies to summit via our intended route, Tribal
Eventually, given the horrendous weather (One week later there was a major
rescue from New Dawn and an intensive search for a lost hiker behind
Half Dome) Tom and Tim decided to finish the lower portion of New Dawn
as far as El Cap Tower during a lull in the blizzards, then "git while
the gittin's good," and retreat with me.
El Cap Tower:
Late afternoon, our fourth (or is it the fifth?) day on the stone. Beneath
flawless azure skies, the deluge continued. What the h*ll was going on??
As we set up our huge blue tarp (a godsend for the ledge bivies) we looked
across the Southeast Face of El Capitan and solved the puzzle: far across,
we saw Horsetail falls blowing upward in the intense updrafts, to drift
across the top of the wall and pummel down our necks. Incredible. There
we were, bivied on the Nose, getting drenched by Horsetail Falls.
Beneath the tarp, we spent a last evening on the wall sipping margaritas,
stuffing ourselves with all manner of hot food (What we don't eat, what
fuel we don't burn, we have to carry down) as, in the waning light of
the dying day, another snow flurry briefly dusted the granite.
The usual. We spent the day tediously lowering ourselves and our loads of
gear down the rappels.
Ground at last, and waiting there, watching me ride the pig down the last
ropelength, was Em, who welcomed me to the flat earth with an endless hug
that made me purr.
That evening was spent (in more rain showers) at "Homeless Encampment
I" at the base of Mescalito, while Tom worked on rebolting Armageddon,
a 5.10d variation to the start of New Dawn.
Em and I spent the morning catching up on events since two weeks earlier,
when she had departed, with sprained left ankle taped and bandaged, to ski
the Sierra high route. We then headed down to the Valley for food, beer,
and showers, with gear carries scheduled for late afternoon.
Late Afternoon, El Cap Meadow
At "The Cave" we scratched puzzled heads upon viewing a mound
of my gear sitting aside the road, mute testimony to the activities of Tom
and Tim, who were nowhere to be found.
We headed up into the drizzle to do a last sweep of our campsite as the
darkness congealed around the shadows of a forest long-riddled with the
deadly shrapnel of El Capitan rockfall.
Homeless Encampment I
All the homeless had gone away, in search of drier climbs. Where once the
cheery polyglotal exclamations of newbies, wannabes, and friends echoed,
now was heard only the muffled questions of our heartbeats. Tom and Tim
had pulled all of our gear, leaving only a flat spot of dirt padded by oak
leaves. In the drizzle of the deepening evening, as I stood atop a rain-slicked,
lichened boulder, I reflected on this unadventurous, anticlimactic ending
to our dream, scanning the site for any last, forgotten items.
Finished with this "stupid check," I shifted my weight, preparing
for the descent.
Felt both feet greasing away beneath me out of control lost spinning into
the sudden jolt of impact....
Orientation returned as I heard the "SNAP!" of my left ankle.
Waves of pain washed over me, lessened only by intervening troughs of nausea.
I looked up at Em, saw her shocked, concerned awareness.
"I think I just broke my ankle."
Memorial Weekend, White Azalea Campground, Mokelumne River
Two cripples hobbled about in the downpour, the inky night interrupted by
headlamps and a lone butane lantern. On a green folding table beneath the
ubiquitous "Tarp," a sumptuous feast awaited. Several other able-bodied
climbers peered at topos, discussing their plans for the 'morrow. Em and
I, both still on the injury list with sprained ankles (mine from El Cap,
hers from a top-roping accident) decided to tape heavily and spend the next
morning limping along the base of Calaveras Dome, exploring the seldom-visited
wall that receives the first light of dawn; ancient sketched topos in hand.
We wandered as far as the base of Banzai, a seldom-traveled grade
V far off the beaten path where the last traces of trail on the east side
of the dome faded into thick brush and crazy-jumbled stream bed rubble.
Two weeks later we were back, cautiously exploring the flexibility of our
mending ankles on the steep approach, reaching the base of the route in
the early evening. Em tentatively moved off the deck on shallow cams behind
expanding flakes, clearing lichen from each placement.
"Uhh... these placements feel kinda dicey. Watch me. Testing...
Suddenly I saw the blur of motion as Em's top piece ripped out and she began
accelerating, me grabbing an armload of slack and crouching down, trying
to limit the length of her fall as best I could...
Em hit the end of the rope and stopped, three feet above the talus. The
screamer which held her fall was within 1/2 inch of completely blown. Shaken
but unhurt, she turned over the lead.
As I passed the TCU that held Em's fall, a slight tug dislodged it. I stuffed
it back in the crack, fiddled with her blue alien backup piece, and continued
up the thin, flared and bottomed seam that Em had been following. Darkness
soon put an end to my efforts, but we were hooked, seduced by the siren
call of seldom-travelled festering rock, its bright, putrescent green leperousness
the antithesis of clean Yosemite trade routes. We determined to finish the
wall come H*ll or high water. When all was said and done, it turned out
that we had both.... The high water came the very next day, as we were finishing
the first pitch.
Sudden, nightmarish sheets of rain quickly turned our sheltered overhang
into a waterfall, threatening to rip gear and clothing from our bodies,
soaking and chilling us as we struggled to rappel off the wall to the shelter
of the bivy cave don't look up or you'll drown.
The lichen, wet from the lingering rain, looked like large flakes of grey
flesh peeling off a corpse. I scraped it aside, kaukulators smearing the
stuff into a sloppy ooze, and engineered a lattice of protection to hold
the ropes away from razor-sharp flakes at the edge of the roof. Above, the
"A3" pitch slowly cruised by as if in a dream, seldom harder than
A1. So much for accurate topos.
Em cleaned the pitch, and as we contemplated Pitch 3 above us, The mists
closed in and the drizzle began anew. We had had enough. Anchors set, we
bailed from the wall. Soaked, wet rats, we stumbled through the poison oak
out to the car, packs wringing the sopping gear, and retreated to a Bay
Area under morbid, cold skies.
[Which brings us back to the Present Tense, another week later, The
Cave, Mokelumne Campground]
The alarm beeps us awake at 5:00 am. Drizzle still seeps out of the sour
skies. We roll over and snooze for another hour, until the chirping of birds
announce that the drizzle has abated The campground is quiet, our violent
neighbors having either killed each other or fought to exhaustion, and so
with the gurgle of the Mokelumne river in the background, we munch a breakfast,
and drive toward the Dome.
At the hanging belay, Em lounges in the first sunshine we have seen on this
stone. I look up at the next section of our route: A wide groove bright
green with moss, every placement will be an exercise in horticulture. I
call for Em to send up the lawnmower and weedwacker.
Tied off, stacked, sawed-off and desperate, I clip with relief the two ancient
chicken bolts mid-pitch. Finally pull into the belay, all of the rack and
most of the day gone, wasted and exhausted. Solid A2. Where do they get
Straightforward aid traversed straight left. If we hustled, we could reach
the tree at the end of the pitch with daylight to spare. After a quick changeover,
I headed out.. But I had a wet, blank stretch of rock above me before the
end of the pitch, rated by the underground topo at 5.8. Hmmmm. Sandbagged
"This topo SUUUUUCKS!!!"
Two ancient 1/4" bolts sprouted in the middle of the slime, a long
reach apart, evidence that our topo neglected to mention the aid here. Desperate
reaching snagged an expanding hook placement. Top stepping and underclinging
the hook, I fingertip clipped the first bolt. The same teetering maneuver
got me to the second bolt. Then, blankness. I studied the rock. Called for
the reading glasses.
No placements showed themselves. Abandoning glasses in favor of braille,
I examined the rock by feel.
Far out to the right, at the limit of my reach, my fingertips found a hook
placement. Well, not a real hook placement, mind you, more like the start
of a hook placement, say a hoo... Combing through the bag of tricks, I selected
an appropriate tool, trying to ignore the voice in my head which cautioned:
"wet rock up here has been soft... watch it..."
I clipped short to the bolt, and slowly weighted the hook... holding...
holding... holllllllding... PINGjanglejangle!!! Foot tangled in top
step of aider, I inverted and my helmet crashed into the rock. Ouch. Cr*p.
I shook my head to clear away the stars and tweeting birdies, righted myself,
and studied the rock again. No more hook placement.
The braille was my salvation yet again, as I felt a tiny inverse rugosity
which resembled the scar of 1mm of baby angle driven into the rock, like
a dimple on a baby's bottom. "You've got to be kidding." The
scar said nothing, inscrutable.
A diamond-cutter putting finishing touches on the Hope Diamond, I tapped
in the tip of a baby angle. pasted tie-off webbing ["texas necktie']
to the pin with bubble gum. slowly I leaked my weight onto the pin, afraid
to commit. holding... moved above my top step, one hand on the pin, toe
edging on the bolt. holding... eased full weight through the move until
my groping fingers found a hold keeping my pounds of flesh away from the
placement like it's a white hot branding iron crimping teasing a cam off
the rack, and suddenly I was through the move and into easy ground below
Note for topo: "Casual A1+."
As Em started cleaning the pitch, I looked around.
[While scoping the route from the ground, and while jugging the lines,
I had spotted a set of apparent rappel stations stretching from 4 to the
ground. With me were 3 of our 60m ropes, and a suspicion that I could reach
the ground in spite of the core shot 40' in on our static line, then jug
back up with the rest of our gear.]
At a potential 1-person bivy site, we did not have our full gear for committing
to the upper wall, our original intention to return to the base that evening.
A quick round trip to the base of the wall would put us in a good position
to finish the wall. Besides, There was no time for another pitch today.
I called down my plans, then started rappelling into the unknown, trusting
that line of stations I had seen earlier.
Two hours later I was back at the belay with memories of an exciting 350'
free rappel from the last station to the ground. The apparent rappel stations
had in actuality been belays on a new, serious and super-steep aid line.
At one point I had found myself dangling in space, staring across 40 feet
of air at the slings, and tying our static line (The one with the core-shot)
to the other 200' rope. Finally, far far below, I could see the last of
the rope coiling like a sleepy rattlesnake on the tilted ground.
Em greeted me, and we looked through the bag of goodies I had trailed up
from our base-camp cave, feeling like children on Christmas morning. I settled
in for the night, opened a can of Sapporo, and coached Em on the gymnastic
moves required to get into our single point hammock.
Things were looking up. We inventoried our remaining water. With 6 liters
remaining, and an estimated two days of climbing above, we would have 1.5
liters of water apiece each day. Shouldn't be a problem. On out previous
forays onto this wall, the water falling from the skies had been our biggest
concern. Yet, little nagging doubts pulled the hair at the back of my neck:
Doubts stirred by the difficult retreat, by the sweat that had trickeled
into my eyes jugging back up through the evening air to our bivy ledge.
Doubts which dredged up haunted memories of desperate times, during which
slow death by dehydration had been a very real possibility.
I shook off the doubts. The way our previous attempts had ended, we'd be
lucky if we didn't drown.
As the blazing sun erupted from the horizon, not a breath of wind stirred.
The wall began a slow temperature climb that would continue throughout the
day, its rock absorbing and re-radiating solar radiation like a furnace.
The change in weather pattern was abrupt and startling in its intensity.
The doubts and haunted memories returned, peering over my shoulder like
an unwanted shadow. Aware of the need for prompt progress, I led out right
from the bivouac, sweat already dripping into my stinging eyes, the skin
of my knuckles rupturing on the jagged crystals of a fractured crack. 15
minutes later I pulled onto a sloping belay ramp. The hauling of this traversing
pitch was more difficult and time-consuming than the leading of it. Eventually
Em lowered the bag, we eased it around the sharp, rope-eating flakes of
the wall, and landed it. While Em cleaned the pitch, I soloed up to the
end of the ramp, ferried the bag, and relocated the belay to prepare for
the next section.
Em arrived, thrashed, sweating and breathless. Quick walk up the ramp to
our new belay station, and I headed out across a scary, crimping, poorly
protected traverse to a crack our topo called A2.
Sawblade flakes pluck at the rope. The sun blasts down. No time for screwing
with aid placements and the constant gardening they would require. I take
a deep breath, will the shaking in my bones to subside, and determine to
free climb the pitch.
Sweat trickles down arms shaking from fear as I climb the serrated dikes
and free-crimp-lakeyshegged past the A2 grungy placements, pawing the edge
of the crack, point-toeing up the serrations in a teetering, balancey gibbet-
dance until I pull into a belay slab with flared grungy placements and set
up an elaborate redundant, equalized, and backed-up anchor system utilizing
three cordelettes and 8 pieces of protection.
I hoist the haul bag off Em's anchors, then, stressed for time with too
many tasks, feeling like a one legged-man in an *ss-kicking contest, belayed
Em across the sawtooth-flake traverse below.
I look across at the hauling anchors, to find that a piton and a cam have
ripped out of the crack, leaving a stopper in a flared horizontal placement,
a sawed-off piton, and a back-up to the other cordelettes holding the bag.
Em, having completed the traverse, starts jugging the fixed line and cleaning
the remainder of the pitch, as I quietly set an additional cam, pee my pants,
get out the bolt kit, and start to drill.
A Half-hour of nerve-wracking minutes later, Em, the haul bag, and I are
re-united at a newly-beefed belay, and I prepare for the crux pitch of the
day, a complex affair involving poorly protected face traversing, a chimney
to a roof, and deteriorating into lichenous, rotted A3.
Once again, an pitch unfolds in a puzzle of moss, traverses, expanding and
detached flakes, and decayed, flaring cracks.
Out of gear. Below, a house-of-cards half-pitch is festooned with equalized
and opposing placements, none worth writing home about. A greedy child,
I lower off a half-driven piton to back-clean the route, grabbing choice
toys that are needed above. jugging... pin pops and I am sent for a 20-foot
Water. Dry tongue brushes over cracked lips, swallowing inducing a gag
reflex as the sides of the throat stick together.
"Excellent Ledge" the topo states. Riiiiight. Perhaps an excellent
bivy ledge for a herd of giant iguanas with suction-cup-feet.
Waving our hammers and croaking expletives, we finally coax the last of
the huge lizards, hissing and spitting, up the wall, clearing space for
ourselves and the haul bag on this long, sloping shelf.
Water. Small surreptitious gulps wetting the throat in the darkness.
It's another big wall bivy, with the wild night stars like watchfires of
circling camps during a siege. Sleep finally dissolves my doubts like a
desolate Santa Ana wind plucking apart a desiccated sand castle. I dream
the dreams of someone fully exhausted from a day on the stone.
Em and I hold council. We will leave the haul bag here on the bivy ledge,
and blast for the top, and hoped-for streams on the descent, fixing ropes
as we go I reckon that we have about another five hours before we are too
dehydrated to move.
sucking the last drops of water from the bottles, sucking again, hoping
skin dry and angry red.
sweat glands have shut down.
chills dizzy spiralling downward into brain-melted stupor.
I jerk awake, somehow tangled in the belay ropes, Em below letting a guttural
exclamation as my weight shift drops a foot of slack into the line she is
drowse off, shift, miserable, right foot vised in the climbing shoe feeling
like dipped in molten wax then crushed, blistered. body lays sideways against
the anchor ropes. fluttering moth burning to death. need to get out of here.
try to say something to Em, don't recognize the coarse squawk that results.
dizzy. the sky an endless yellow desert fringed by a blue corona while far
below and unreal is the mirage of salt springs power plant and reservoir
that will today sluice over 100 million gallons of water downstream into
the Consumnes River.
the roar of the water spraying into the distant canyon is drowned by the
roaring in my head as i feel the anchor ropes cut into my cheek, I am a
turkey vulture floating far overhead, watching two tiny figures struggle
in the baking heat near the top of a sere granite dome, patiently waiting
back on the stone crusting eyes staring vacantly dry filthy cheek
burning against the white-hot rock I groggily stir, roused by Em appearing
around the corner, struggling to clean the traversing pitch on jumars. At
last we can communicate. Taking all the slack rope at the anchor, I tie
in to the end. and, trailing the line with no belay, solo up the last fifth
class of molten glass granite to the dry empty summit.
stagger to the dry, empty summit, a flea crawling onto a bleached skull,
vacant sockets of huecos staring at the sky, granite mocking me, cracks
in the rock gaping toothless mouths gossiping about the latest geological
events. Stagger to the dry, empty summit without a belay, dust-mouthed and
retching, and stare, not quite believing, at a solution pocket filled with
the sweet water from the endless weeks of torrential rains, suddenly knowing,
yet not quite believing, that at long last, we've made it.
Hope and life return in a flood as the cool liquid kisses my lips, I laying
belly down on the domed summit, face submerged, laughing, crying and spluttering
in the wonderful liquid.
It is two weeks since we staggered to the summit of Calaveras Dome. Em and
I are back, camped in the forest 200 feet from the summit of the dome, to
retrieve our haul bag and fixed ropes, left in our desperate retreat. Tunes
tinkle out of the radio into the cool air of the afternoon, as we sip a
sangria-like drink made of white zinfandel, crushed cherries, lime, and
strawberries. On the campfire are a chicken breast and a veggie burger.
The rain pockets are dry now, vaporized by the heat of the past two weeks,
but it matters not. Tomorrow we will shower in opulent, cool water we carried
on our backs to the summit, and descend toward the rest of the long-awaited
summer. The climbing season, at long last, has begun. For now, we lean back
against a pine log bleached white by the light of endless days, and watch
the huge orb of the setting sun melt into the western horizon.
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