Wrecked on a Sea of Granite

by Ammon McNeely

"Eagle's Way" (VI 5.8 A3)
El Capitan
Yosemite National Park, California
August 2000

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 water.

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, pronto.

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 overcame me.

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 water.

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 paralyzed.

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 anymore.

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 14 minutes.

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 done.

I started down the East Ledges with a joyful skip in my stride.

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