Wrecked on a Sea of Granite
by Ammon McNeely
"Eagle's Way" (VI 5.8 A3)
Yosemite National Park, California
The early August sun beat on my back as I studied the route. I visualized
myself ascending it's cracks with great speed. For only being 9:00 in the
morning , I knew Yosemite Valley would see a scorching day. I looked at
my watch and chuckled out loud, shaking my head with dismay. What a slacker,
I thought. I overslept for three hours.
It's O.K., I quickly convinced myself. I need the extra sleep for what I'm
about to attempt. I looked over and saw a crumpled pile, bivied twenty feet
away from me. Chongo had hiked over from his camp, to give me moral support.
On my other side was one of his new recruits, he reminded me of myself,
three years prior when I had first met Chongo.
I showed up in the Valley having never climbed a bigwall. In fact, I had
only been climbing for two years and I wanted to solo El Capitan as my first
wall. Determination and some advice from Chongo helped me solo the North
America Wall, with only five pitons and a two point hammock. Memories flooded
in of my experiences since then. I've practically made Yosemite my home,
living on the wall as much as possible.
My thoughts turned back to where I was at. Even though I've climbed this
great monolith fourteen times, four of them solo. I couldn't help thinking
that I was taking a giant step toward the next level of climbing. My goal
was to onsight solo, El Capitan in a day, less than 24 hours.
It was a very lofty goal. Doubts, lingered, I'm pretty new to the speed
climbing arena and I've never speed soloed a wall. The route I chose is
Eagle's Way, nobody has ever soloed it in a day.
What makes you think you can, I asked myself? I tried to push the negative
energy out. I can do this. I feel I'm ready for this undertaking. Nothing
can stop me. I looked up the cliff and got a bad case of butterflies. It
didn't help the little argument that was going on inside my head.
Eagle's Way is a moderate aid line on the short side of the overhanging
southeast face of El Cap. It's route goes through some of the darkest black
diorite on the face. The temperature was rising and the black rock radiated
heat, beyond belief. I tried to stay focused while hydrating with extra
I smoked at the base with Chongo as he gave fatherly advice. Chongo doesn't
have a reputation for speed, but his wisdom is incomparable to most wall
climbers. Having soloed the route before, he gave me beta about some of
the route finding.
I racked my gear and gathered up the rations I intended to take. I put three
gallons of water, four Cliff bars, a headlamp, a fleece jacket and hat into
a small pack and started climbing. It was 9:45, a far cry from the 6:00
o'clock start, I intended on. I started off fast. Maybe, a little too fast.
I free climbed thirty feet before I started aiding. I hooked past piton
placements and back cleaned gear to save time. I came to a rivet, a third
of the way up the first pitch. I didn't think twice about it. I fetched
a wired hanger off my rack, stepped up and placed a hook. I jumped on the
hook, pinched my Gri-gri for slack and climbed my aider.
I suddenly felt slack on the rope! I looked down just in time to watch,
with horror, the wired hanger spiraling fifty feet down the rope. It smacked
into a huge rock at the base, where I had tied the other end, for an anchor.
I was on a hook, and that was all that separated me from crashing to the
ground, to certain death.
I got light headed. It was like looking the Grim Reaper straight in the
eyes. I took a few deep breaths and calmly selected the biggest hook on
my rack. I placed it on the flake, next to the existing hook and steadily
down climbed my aid ladders. I then placed a keyhole hanger accompanied
by a locking carabiner. I relaxed, making a mental note that I needed protection,
I continued without incident, arriving at the belay in less than thirty
minutes. I rappeled to the ground so worked up that I had to sit down and
smoke some more with Chongo. Cleaning the pitch, I reminded myself the dangers
of over-exerting my body. I made an effort to slow down and climb steadily.
The pitches fell quickly. I pulled out every trick in the book; loop belays,
crazy-aid-man style and even free soloing. I was soon covered in sweat.
I had no chalk and my hands didn't want to stay in the cracks. Fatigue soon
The sun was scorching. The temperatures were over a hundred and I felt light
headed and constantly thirsty. Drink, I kept reminding myself. Three gallons
of water should be enough for three days of climbing, I should have plenty.
I was a third of the way up the route and I felt like I was cruising it.
I opened one water bottle after another and dumped it down my throat, gasping
and unable to catch my breath as it went down. I convinced myself there
was no way of running out of water. So, rationing wasn't even an issue.
I climbed pitch, after pitch. Leading, fixing the line, rappeling down to
the low point, strapping on my pack and jumaring while cleaning to the high
point. Wow, I feel like a human yo-yo. How am I supposed to speed climb
with all this up and down business? Not having to haul was great, it saved
me lots of logistics that would have eaten time.
Nevertheless, the work involved was mind numbing. I started to feel like
I was floating in and out of some crazy dream. I was marooned on a sea of
granite and I was sinking fast. I kept paddling, fighting to stay above
Everything started to seem awfully scary. Bits and pieces of reality floated
in. The Black Pillar. What was next?... The Seagull. I felt like seagulls
were picking at my brain, leaving me unable to think. What was happening?
I dug out the torn and tattered topo to try and make sense of where I was
at. Let's see, I just climbed the Seagull. I'm at the tenth pitch. I looked
at my watch. Ten hours. Hey, not bad for a first time speed solo. I smiled
and congratulated myself for knocking out ten pitches in ten hours.
As I groped in my pack for some much deserved water, my smirk turned into
a jaw dropper. NO WAY!!! This isn't happening. I dug deeper. I frantically
checked around the belay. NOOO!!! I HAVE NO WATER!! None. It was gone. I
must have been so caught up in the moment, I drank it all, without realizing
I was on the last bottle. I tried to breathe evenly as my pulse quickened
and a thousand different things entered my mind, simultaneously.
WHAT NOW!!! I kept asking myself. Do I continue? I guess I could rappel,
even though I would have to down aid, put tons of directional's, and leave
most my gear for anchors. I thought of what most climbers would do in my
situation. They would descend. Right now. Without question. I couldn't let
this knowledge influence my decision. Besides, I'm not like most climbers.
I still hadn't made up my mind as I started the next pitch. All at once
everything seemed really dicey. I felt as though I could not make correct
decisions. I was collapsing in my slings.
I rappeled back to the belay and hung in my harness, drifting in and out
of consciousness. I couldn't see myself giving up and descending to the
ground. I also couldn't see myself getting rescued. I then realized there
was a fine balance in my situation. I, of course, don't want to die. I don't
want to be rescued. I don't want to bail. I guess the only thing left was
to survive this ordeal and continue the climb.
I came conscious sometime in the middle of the night. Half of my body had
no feeling and was not responding. I lifted my dead arm with the other.
It flopped back paralyzed from being smashed against the wall, all the blood,
gone. My leg couldn't move. My head was numb. I was afraid of being permanently
I drifted into darkness, out of consciousness. In the morning I awoke, the
sun splitting my head in two. My body still wasn't working. I couldn't move.
My leg loops on my harness had cut off circulation to my legs. I rubbed
my arms and legs for twenty minutes until blood started finally flowing.
As this happened excruciating pain entered my body. I screamed with pain
and gagged on air, being forced out of me. Adrenaline pumped through my
veins from the pain. This got me going enough to start climbing again. I
subconsciously looked at my watch. What am I doing? Who cares about the
time anymore? I just wanted to finish this climb, alive.
I quit thinking about the ground, or a rescue. I quit thinking of almost
everything. One thing I didn't quit thinking about was a water bottle, hanging
from a belay, somewhere above me. I was so certain of this, because I saw
it there while climbing Lost in America the previous week. The hope of water
was such a powerful motivator, it kept me going.
Climbing was increasingly slow. At times, I couldn't even straighten my
arms or legs. My entire body would cramp with dehydration and I just hung,
curled in a fetal position, dry heaving profusely. Other times, I would
find myself hanging from my daisy, apparently passing out on the gear I
was standing on and taking the dreaded daisy whip.
Massive explosions were going off in my head. Silence. Then reality would
find me again, stranded, on a sea of granite. I had nothing left to do but
struggle upward. I was climbing slower than any other time in my life.
I continued and soon found myself in an A3, overhanging, squeeze chimney.
Some beta floated into my head. Something about this being the crux of the
route. Awkward placements soon got me out of the squeeze fest. The crack
ran out and I was having trouble making up my mind whether to tension off
an old manky #1 head.
I couldn't negotiate the correct sequence. Finally, I decided I must do
something. I felt myself fading again and I didn't want to pass out, causing
a daisy whip on the old head. I crimped an edge with my right hand, leaving
my right foot in the aider. I smeared with my left foot and tried to place
a #00 tcu. POP!!!!
I slid down the granite like a missile, zippering three heads out of the
rock. I hung, passed out, after the 25 foot whipper. I came to with explosions
going off in "my reality". It felt like bombs were going off all
around me. Fuzzy blotches appeared in my vision. I imagined my brain cells,
popping like squashed grapes.
I hung there dry heaving, wondering how I got into such a perdicament. If
only I could find that water bottle. I know it's up there somewhere. My
fit of dry heaves subsided after fifteen minutes or so.
I continued. Three #2 heads, and then the same sequence with the crimp and
smear, to get the tcu to stick. This time the head stayed. I couldn't help
thinking that I should have "funked" the head in the first place,
replacing it with a new one. Oh well, I'm not accountable for my actions
It hurts to think.
I soon found myself on a small ledge at the fourteenth pitch. It was around
midnight and I'd only completed four pitches since daybreak. I was in "full
on" survival mode. I tried to urinate in my hand so that I could drink
it. I would drink a bottle of pee if I had it, I thought. I tried sucking
on the rock. Maybe, I can get some moisture out. Nothing happened.
My throat and tongue felt like a swollen piece of leather. I couldn't swallow.
When I tried, I would gag, causing me to dry heave. I kept praying the water
bottle I'd seen would materialize.
I collapsed on the small ledge, half my body on and half off. I became unconscious
for a few hours, time enough to dream about meeting my maker. I was almost
relieved, anything for this nightmare to be over.
I awoke with a new urgency not believing that I would even dream of giving
up. I climbed around the corner and got some amazing exposure. This lifted
my spirits. New energy entered my body.
I started up an amazing A1 crack that gobbled cam hooks. The pitch was really
beautiful but I couldn't enjoy it to the fullest.
I was a mess.
The simplest things like picking a 1/2 inch cam off my rack was confusing
and laborious. I would find myself out of breath constantly with a splitting
headache. I gave up hope of coming across the water bottle that I had seen.
It must have been on some other route (I found it 2 years later on PSD).
Oh well, two more pitches to the top. I stashed food and water at the summit
when I topped out last week. I continued to climb and soon came to a bolt
ladder. I paused in a small alcove for shade, at the belay.
One more pitch. Beta, again entered my head. Something about avoiding the
A2 to the summit. There should be some 5.9 variation, instead. I immediately
forced the thought of free climbing out of my mind. I was in no shape for
such a struggle. I finished the A2 crack and literally crawled over the
lip and toward a tree.
I made it.
I looked at my watch for the first time in a day and a half. I calculated
the time, 46 hours had gone by since I had started this adventure. I knew
the time was still ticking since I had not yet retrieved my gear.
I shrugged and half walked, half crawled, to the summit of Lost in America.
Thankfully, I had the cache of food and water. I pushed the thought of it
being pirated, out.
I was so confused that it took a while to find where it was hidden. The
first quart of water I drank, I immediately hurled right back out. It took
a while for me to hold anything down but I was soon drinking and showering
myself with all the water I could handle. I ate some food and slept for
a few hours.
I awoke feeling like a new man. The whole thing seemed like some bizarre
dream. I walked back to my fixed line and rappeled. I cleaned my gear and
was soon standing back on the summit with an official time of 51 hours and
Not exactly a speed climb, I thought. Definitely not the time I was going
for. Time didn't mater to me anymore (later I found I had made the solo
record). I gathered up my gear with a big smile of happiness. I felt more
alive than I'd ever felt in my entire life.
I was happy to be alive and grinned from ear to ear. I knew this would be
one adventure that I'd never forget. It rose above everything else I'd ever
I started down the East Ledges with a joyful skip in my stride.
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